When I read a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem to a group, I generally start by saying, “Don’t worry about getting it all on first hearing. Just let the words flow over you and see how you feel.” That’s how I started on him, though tremendously helped by a book in the Augsburg Fortress 40 Day Journey with… series. Listening to the flow and breaking it down into small chunks helped me hear things I hadn’t before.
Hopkins is both deceptively complex and deceptively simple. The 19th century poet and Jesuit priest, who was never published in his lifetime, was capable of mind-bending grammatical and lexical innovations that defy quick comprehension. This concluding stanza from ‘My Own Heart’ is a mild example:
“At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.”
On the other hand, his central observation, that runs throughout his poems, is plain—the unavoidable presence of the divine in the midst of the mundane. Our favorite Hopkins’ phrases all echo this theme:
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
“For Christ plays in ten thousand places.”
“What is all this juice and all this joy?”
But there’s a poem for every season in Hopkins, as you see when you pick up a book like the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets edition of his work. There is soaring joy, his painful intellect, his admiration of nature, and his deep despair. The words of his laments are particularly sticky, coming back to me in my own hard times:
“Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.”
“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.”
Hopkins rewards the dedicated reader who can rummage beneath the obscurities of his poems to find enduring gems. You never realized that you needed this description of a fish until Hopkins gives God thanks “For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.” Well, yes. That’s it exactly, even if you might be at a loss to say exactly what it means.
But you don’t even have to rummage. You can just listen to the music of a master of form who popularized and named sprung rhythm, a way of describing lines that capture the rhythm of everyday speech. There’s as much being said in the sound as in the meaning. Just listen to the opening of “The Starlight Night” and see if you don’t hear the enchantment:
“Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! Airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!—
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.”
It’s got more exclamation points than your most exuberant aunt’s text and it’s driving my auto-correct crazy just typing it in, but you gotta admit…he’s right, right?