Sunday, February 23, 2014

Humbled by Hopkins

Every day I read an extract from the diary of my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I invariably find that his diary entries are more linguistically sophisticated and more beautifully phrased than most writers' polished prose. I have been a professional writer for thirty-five years and have written millions of words, hundreds of thousands of sentences in several different forms and genres. Sometimes I allow myself to think that I am a pretty good writer, and that I possess a broad and deep knowledge of the English language. And then I read Hopkins' diaries -- not even his poetry -- and I am humbled. Let me quote here a passage I read this morning, from March 12, 1870:

The next morning a heavy fall of snow. It tufted and toed the firs and yews and went on to load them till they were taxed beyond their spring. The limes, elms, and Turkey-oaks it crisped beautifully as with young leaf. Looking at the elms from underneath you saw every wave in every twig (become by this the wire-like stem to a finger of snow) and to the hangers and flying sprays it restored, to the eye, the inscapes they had lost. They were beautifully brought out against the sky, which was on one side dead blue, on the other washed with gold.

Now, I submit that if any other writer had managed that after three or four drafts, he would be proud. But Hopkins does it almost unconsciously, instinctually, on every page of his diary. This is a vision of Nature that no longer exists; it is an idiom of insight that has been lost. Hopkins saw everything in Nature in spontaneous poetic terms, and the reservoir of language upon which he drew was bottomless. His work has shown me possibilities of English that no other writer, including Shakespeare, has done, both in his poetry and in his prose. I always read his musings on poetics with awe -- I think he knew more about the structure and movement of poetry than anyone who ever wrote in English. 

Hopkins collected words from everyday speech in the rural parishes to which he, a Jesuit priest, was assigned. He records them, savors them, delights in them, and then he uses them in his poems, which gives a variety and liveliness and freshness and curiousness to his verse that few others achieve. His poetry, to my mind, is all about rhythm, sound and meaning, and, above all, intensity of language. And these, I think, are the qualities that mark great poetry. His verse tumbles like freshets and rings like stones in wells and lilts and lofts like hawks on thermals. Take these lines from one of his poems:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same...

Now this poem, with which I struggled for many years, I finally concluded was one of the best arguments for the existence of God I had ever found. Brilliant, sonorous, beautiful and utterly persuasive. But it is the intensity of the language that makes it unique and marks it as Hopkins. Also, of course, the sentiment. Hopkins, being a convert to Catholicism and a Jesuit, felt a stranger to his own family, his birth religion, and, since he was often stationed far from home, to his native soil. Desperately he sought solace, and answers to his most pressing queries: Where is God, Who is God, How is God manifest, How may I know Him? Always he found the answers in an outpouring of his soul into Nature. He was a poetic naturalist in very much the same way that Darwin was a material naturalist, each looking for the truth in and of the world.

That he often despaired of finding it is painfully apparent in some of his sonnets. Consider this:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep….

Again it is not only the depth of the emotion and intellectual torment that is striking, but also the breathless intensity of the language and the outre quality of the images. Hopkins sees cliffs inside the mind, dizzying, deadly, that those who never hung at their lips might dismiss, but not those, who, like him, lived at that dreadful edge.

But that he did find comfort and consolation is unmistakable in the later works, and, characteristically, he found it in Nature. In the poem “My own heart more have pity on,” he bemoans the lack of spiritual peace and the impossibility of achieving it:

I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in a world of wet.

But then he takes pity on himself, urges his “poor Jackself” to “call off thoughts awhile/Elsewhere…” and finds consolation in the imminence of God in Nature

…whose smile
‘s not wrung, see you, unforeseen times rather – as skies
Betweenpie mountains – lights a lovely mile.

Only Hopkins would have split the word “smile’s” between two lines, and made of a single word his oft-used invocation of the piebald quality of sunlight on the aspects of the Earth. For me, this is one of Hopkins’ most beautiful and reassuring images: The clouds part and sunlight (God’s smile) dapples down the valley illuminating the traveler’s next mile.

Hopkins did find peace, in Nature and the poetic harmony of his soul with Nature, expressed in a language so intricate yet so moving that, like the gears and springs and levers of a fine watch, the product of the movement is an awareness of the abstract but urgent truth of time.