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August 26, 2013

The Dappled Poet

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It’s a good idea to know the definition of dapple (cloudy and rounded spots or patches of a color or shade different from their background) before you read Gerard Manley Hopkins because it’s a word he uses a lot and nobody else does. Not ever. I have a dappled relationship with him. Music, painting, and spirituality suffuse his sensibilities but he has religious spots that don’t appeal to me.

He was influenced by the Oxford movement which emphasized a dogmatic side of Christianity and by John Henry Newman whose writing I found unimaginative. He became a Jesuit priest at which point he burned all the poems he had thus far written. In his work as what the British call a God Botherer, his aesthetic interests and his poetic genius fought with his sense of religious duty. I could have written the next sentence in the Norton bio: he became depressed. He struggled with his faith, his art, and his depression all his life.

Completely unlike anything else written during the Victorian period, Hopkins’ poetry is unusual for any literary age. It didn’t catch on immediately even when it was first published twenty years after his death. I read all the poems in the Norton Anthology and because I felt pulled in, I went looking for more. Two things that I learned from my excursion: Hopkins’ writing is transcendent of the Christian language he uses, and the poems must be read aloud.

In this line from “Binsey Poplars” the words themselves recreate the activity the poem describes. I didn’t notice this until I heard the poem read aloud. Here are the trees being cut down:

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled.

And here is the winding waterway where the trees grew:

Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank

In these lines from “The Wreck of the Deutschland,”the “Ws” make the wind:

Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;
Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding, unfathering deeps.

At the second line of “God’s Grandeur” and the words “flame out,” I want to throw my arms up and on the word “shook foil,” make jazz hands. By the time I have heard
“have trod, have trod, have trod” and “seared,” “bleared,” and “smeared,” I feel generations of humanity using and abusing the earth.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

“Flame out” and “shook foil” are examples of what Hopkins called “sprung rhythm:” words that operate like a hemiola in music. They temporarily take you out of the meter, and then throw you back in again. The sprung rhythms, the alliterations and the juxtaposition of vivid nouns and adjectives minus a lot of little words that usually link a sentence together make the poems a great read-aloud experience, even when meaning eludes someone like me who has just entered the Hopkins novitiate.

Hopkins’ religious spots bothered me less as I got used to the “inscape,” the “thisness” (Hopkins’ words) of his language and rhythms and melodies. The “inscape” opens to the transcendence. When Hopkins says the Holy Ghost broods over the world, he is using the language of his religion to refer to something ineffable, yet available to everyone, no matter what word they use. Near the end of a poem called “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” is the line,

Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

The idea that Christ plays in ten thousand places suggests that Christ is himself a symbol of something that can’t be contained in the language of any religion or in language at all. Like Teilhard de Chardin’s “Christ Consciousness.” Teilhard was a Jesuit priest as well. You gotta watch those Jesuits.

“The Wreck of the Deutschland” made me a little nauseated. Its subtitle is “To the happy memory of five Franciscan nuns, exiles by the Falk Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of Dec 7, 1875.” The beginning seems to be the expression of what went on in the mind of one of the nuns as she was drowning and I found it hard to read. But one early line kept coming back: “Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.”

If I may be so reductive and if I may mix up all the metaphors and horrify Hopkins scholars, here is the Thisness that resonates with me:

The Christ Mind plays in ten thousand places.

Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

Love over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

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