Gerard Manley Hopkins

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

Gerard Manley Hopkins
April 2011

Aaron, I’ve commented on a lot of contemporary poets and some what we might call classic poets on this show. I’m always interested in and impressed with the really fine poems being written today, but I think it would be a big mistake to ignore the great poetry of the past. I guess it’s a cliché to say that the old stuff has stood the test of time, but really, that’s true. Over the years, the weak and shallow work tends to drop out of view, and the work that keeps rewarding us and rewarding us every time we read it tends to hang on.

If I had to pick someone whose work never ceases to amaze and delight me, it would be the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. He lived way past a century ago. Against his parent’s fierce disapproval, he became a Roman Catholic, then a Jesuit priest.

He didn’t write many poems in his lifetime, and he burned most of those. He led an anguished life as a priest with a great deal of renunciation in it, and then he added to that by deciding that writing poems was frivolous and didn’t accord with his calling as a priest. But his friend Robert Bridges, who later became poet laureate of Great Britain, managed to get some of them in circulation.

“The Windhover” is the poem he thought was his best. I think so too. it’s the one that lives with me—I’m a terrible memorizer of poems, but I have a good number of the lines in my head. Here’s why I love this poem, and I guess why I love all of Hopkins’ poems. It is so dense with feeling, it’s so intense that you feel as if the speaker can hardly get the words out. It’s a formal poem, a sonnet, but it doesn’t read with the smoothness, say, of Shakespeare’s sonnets—for example, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…” The rhythm of Hopkins’ lines feels rough. The stresses don’t land where we’d expect in a nice ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum. You can feel an anguish in the lines.

It’s a risk, reading Hopkins on the radio to people who may be busy with their own lives and listening with one ear. Hopkins requires all our ears, plus our concentration. I’m taking that risk because I just can’t NOT introduce him to listeners who may not know him. Or remind the ones who do to read him again.

I want us to just listen. There are words we don’t know, maybe. The highly religious sensibility may not be our cup of tea, but a poem is a poem, whether or not we agree with it, or even whether we understand it completely. It will find us, in some deep place beyond our intellect.

I said just listen, but, yeah, you might want to know that the Windhover is a bird that can hover in the air, flying in place while it looks for its prey. Minion means darling, a dauphin is a crown prince. A chevalier is a knight. The speaker’s watching the bird in flight, which reminds him of a skater on ice. The beauty and mastery of the bird makes him think of the beauty and mastery of his Lord. In the last three lines, he says that sheer faithful plodding can raise all of us to that kind of beauty.

Now that I’ve given you that little scaffold, here’s the real thing.

The Windhover
To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

That’s a very hard poem to read aloud, you can see, the way the words bump against each other, falling and galling and gashing like the last line of the poem. I’d like to read it again.

The Windhover
To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

One more poem is probably all we can handle without having our minds explode. This one is called God’s Grandeur.” It’s like a little sonnet-sermon. It says that the world’s so beautiful, filled with the glory of God. So why don’t people pay any attention to what God expects from them? Why do they go their way, making money, toiling away, moving so far from God? Even so, the poem says, nature goes on. There’s a freshness at the center of things, and still, no matter what we’ve done, the Holy Ghost is brooding like a mother hen over her world. Again, that’s my prosaic summary, no match for the poem at all. Here’s the poem:

God’s Grandeur

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.

Did you catch those amazing images—grandeur flaming out as if someone were shaking aluminum foil in the sunlight. And gathering up in the same way oil is a gathering and crushing of what came before? And: the way we don’t feel things is like the way the shoe keeps the foot from feeling the earth.

Here’s the last stanza again:

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.

If that language, if the sheer sound of that language, I have to say, doesn’t wake up our senses, I don’t know what will. Gerard Manley Hopkins.