Sunday, September 25, 2016

Poems I Journey With 13

A young GM Hopkins at University
Gerard Manley Hopkins was only one month short of his 45th birthday when he died from typhoid fever in Dublin, Ireland in 1889.  He had been employed as a lecturer in classics in the Catholic University of Ireland (the forerunner of University College Dublin) founded by the great Victorian John Henry Cardinal Newman in 1854.  The world-renowned literary critic Sir Christopher Bruce Ricks, an expert on the Victorian period deems Hopkins to be "the most original poet" of that time. Such is Hopkins's originality and genius that he may clearly considered as influential as T.S. Eliot in the starting of the modernist movement in poetry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is also quite obvious to poetry readers that G.M. Hopkins's experiments with elliptical phrasing and double meanings, and even quirky conversational rhythms liberated the likes of W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas to give free rein to their freer and peculiarly personal rhythms. Here I'd like to share one of my favourite Hopkins poems with the reader.

God's Grandeur (1877, written when the poet was 33)

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.

Rev Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ
I don't want to mar the appreciation of this sonnet by superfluous or simplistic comment. However, some thoughts and reflections are demanded by this beautifully sublime text.  On the surface we will notice that it is written in the form of the Italian or Petrarchan Sonnet - that is a poem in fourteen lines that consists of an octave (eight lines) with the rhyming scheme abbaabba and a sestet (six lines) that has the possibility of either being written in one of two rhyme schemes - either cdecde or cdcdcd. The sestet above is the latter of these two schemes. However, Hopkins does more, much more, that is, he experiments with many interesting sounds within that external superficial scheme.  We note that the metre here is not that of "sprung rhythm" for which Hopkins is so famous, but he does vary greatly the iambic pentameter lines of the conventional sonnet. In that context, we notice the run-on lines between the end word "oil" of the third and the beginning word of the next line that is very dramatic and startling, namely "Crushed."  And the next nine monosyllabic words in that very line after the disyllabic, namely Why do men then now not reck his rod? are nothing short of wonderfully unique and sonorous in sound and tone.  They are all stressed syllables, one after another and highlight the urgency of Hopkins question represented in those words. I relish reading them aloud as all readers of poetry should. Like many of my teachers over the years in the area of poetry, I firmly believe the poems are written more for the ear than for the eye. In like manner, the next line contains the heavy falling rhythm of the repeated words "have trod" that come after the quick lilt of the polysyllabic "generations."  This technique recreates the sound of plodding steps in a striking onomatopoeia.
God's sustaining power over the universe is alive with an electric power that passes constantly like a live current through its many natural manifestations. The reader can trace this potent image of God's on-going support of nature through the poem in his own time.  The image of the olive press is also magnificently and startlingly potent.  This reader especially loves the lines:

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell

because they capture for me the smelliness and dirtiness of our daily toil and thereby portray our struggle with our animality, fragility and mortality all imaged forth so powerfully in simple and direct everyday words. I also delight in Hopkins's portrayal of humankind's alienation from its spiritual and natural roots in the soil from which indeed he himself has sprung.  The very leather of his shoes or boots cuts him off from his oneness or unity with the very clay or soil of that earth :

nor can foot feel, being shod. 

In short, this poem reflects Gerard Manley Hopkins's conviction that the physical world  around us is like a book written by God, in which any attentive reader can detect the signs of a benevolent and caring God who protects and sustains that world like a great guardian angel:

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

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