Anthriscus sylvestris

In previous postings we have seen the ups and downs of the “religious” life of Gerard Manley Hopkins displayed in his verse.  You will recall that he was a convert to Catholicism who became a Jesuit, then spent a good part of his life suffering from depression.  We see his “ups” in poems such as Pied Beauty and The Windhover, and the “downs” in others like the dark I Wake to Feel the Fell of Night and in the one we look at today, which is titled Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord, If I Contend.

It takes its title from the first verse of the biblical book of Jeremiah, chapter 12, as recorded in the Latin Vulgate:

Iustus quidem tu es Domine, si disputem tecum: verumtamen iusta loquar ad te: quare via impiorum prosperatur; bene est omnibus qui praevaricantur et inique agunt?

In the Douai-Rheims translation used by Catholics in Hopkins’ day, that would be:

Thou indeed, O Lord, art just, if I plead with thee, but yet I will speak what is just to thee: Why doth the way of the wicked prosper: why is it well with all them that transgress, and do wickedly?

Where the Douai has “plead,” Hopkins prefers “contend”:

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end? 

Hopkins, dissatisfied and unhappy, is complaining to his god.  “Contend” means here to argue one’s case against another, to struggle against another.  In this case Hopkins is arguing with his deity.  He tells him, “Yes, you are just, but what I argue is just too.”  He asks why “sinners” — those who do evil — seem to prosper and do well in the world, while everything Hopkins himself tries to do (“all I endeavor”) or accomplish ends in disappointment.

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? 

Hopkins speaks bluntly, even though he does it in Elizabethan English, using “wert” (were), “wouldst” (would) and “dost” (do) and “thou” (you):  “If you were my enemy,” he tells his god,  “I think you could hardly treat me any worse than you are treating me now as my friend.”

Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause.

Hopkins complains that the “sots” (the foolish, with undertones of one addicted to something such as alcohol) and thralls (servants) of lust (the strong desire for material objects and pleasures) gain more and get more out of their actions in a few “spare” (here he means random and casual) hours than Hopkins does in devoting his whole life to the service of God. There is an interesting contrast here between the words “spare,” (which can also mean “to save”) and “spend.”

Then Hopkins turns his eye to Nature, calling his god to look at it and see the contrast between its life and growth and the barren life Hopkins is suffering:

See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes

The banks (raised areas, as along waterways and elsewhere) and brakes (thickets here; it can also mean drifts of bracken fern) have leafed out thickly (as in spring), and are again “laced” with fretty chervil.  The chervil spoken of here is likely Anthriscus sylvestris, a common wild plant in Britain that blooms in spring with lacy, open umbels of small, white flowers.  It is also called Cow Parsley.

There is a little reminiscence of Shakespeare in the words:

 …and fresh wind shakes

Shakespeare wrote,

“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May…” (Sonnet 18)

Back to Hopkins:

birds build — but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain. 

So, it is spring.  Hopkins sees the green plants growing, the trees leafing out, and birds building nests.  But he notes the he does not build, he does not contribute to newness and freshness, to new life and growth; instead he toils and strains like a laboring eunuch (servant unable to breed) to time (the passage of time).  He gives birth to nothing, and feels his life is slipping away uselessly.  He is, of course, a celibate Jesuit, but he means more than simple celibacy (Hopkins was in fact homosexual).  He just feels that he is not accomplishing anything, not succeeding in anything, not flourishing at all  — always failing.  He breeds (gives birth to, creates) not a single thing that “wakes,” meaning nothing that survives and succeeds and grows and has life to it.  He feels his existence is empty and useless, that he is unable to create anything significant or important.

He ends his argument — his complaint — with what is essentially a prayer:

Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain. 

He speaks to his god as his lord (“mine”), as the lord of life, and asks him “send my roots rain.”  In modern English he might say, “Look, God, I’m dying out here.  I desperately need some help.”  He compares himself to a plant suffering in drought, on the verge of perishing, which is why he asks God to send rain — to give him some help — some spiritual nourishment —  that might allow him to refresh himself and finally be able to flourish and grow and begin to actually live.  We see from this that Hopkins did not consider his unhappy existence real living.  One might also understand the “Mine” at the beginning of this line as referring to “my roots,” in which case it would mean, “As for mine — my roots, O thou lord of life, send mine rain too” — which has the same point.

It is not a cheerful or a particularly hopeful poem, but Hopkins, as we have seen in earlier postings, had periods of deep and agonizing depression.  No wonder he felt that his god was giving him the “short end of the stick.”


English: Susuki (Miscanthus sinensis) in Japan

Issa wrote:

Withered pampas grass;
“Now once there was
an old witch….”

That verse does not come off quite the same in English, because of the term “pampas grass” that we must use for what Issa knew as susuki — a kind of wild, grassy plant with a whitish-silver tall plume that is found on the uncultivated fields and hills of Japan.  It is Miscanthus sinensis, whereas what we know as pampas grass in the West and use as a tall ornamental is Cortaderia selloana.  And also, the word “pampas” tends to remind us of Argentina, which leads us astray.  The plumes at the top of susuki are thinner than those of the pampas grass we know, and they give a picturesque look to pathways through the Japanese hills, particularly in the late autumn.

As a late autumn verse, this hokku fits very well with our Halloween.  The withered grasses set the stage with a certain atmosphere, and then we hear the voice of the old granny (well, it has to be an old granny, doesn’t it?)  begin a scary story.

The point of the verse for English speakers is the feeling it creates in us — the late autumn feeling combined with that slightly “spooky” feeling of the beginning of a scary story.

It is unfortunate that we must know all about susuki in order to “see” this verse correctly.  There is really no way to transfer it to English without transferring the setting to something “Western,” and that inevitably changes the verse.

We could say,

Withered cornfields;
“Now once there was
An old witch….”

That does not, however, have the “wild” implications that susuki has, where we see it growing along a pathway in the hills, perhaps with a rising moon in the background.

We could also say,

Withered grasses;
“Now once there was
An old witch….”

That is getting there, but still does not have quite the same effect.

We could try,

Withered fields;
“Now once there was
An old witch….”

There are lots of possibilities, but none convey the original just right.  So this one I will just leave with “pampas grass” and the necessary explanation.

I cannot resist throwing in an image of the Russian witch, Baba Yaga, as visualized by Ivan Bilibin.


Dear readers,

Halloween is near, and with it comes the end of autumn by the old calendar.  I happened to be going through a chapter from a book I wrote several years ago that seemed appropriate for this coming holiday, which used to be considered the time of year when the veil between life and death grew thin.  So here it is — a little segment from the now out of print book A Time of Ghosts, which I co-wrote with my long-time physician and friend, Dr. Hok-Pang Tang, now deceased.  The book presented his life in China before and during the horrible days of the so-called “Great Cultural Revolution.”  It is not fiction.  In this chapter he, a young “political” outcast, finds himself adrift in Beijing, without shelter.  I hope you find it of interest.


            It was near midnight.  Everything in Beijing was strange to me.  I had no idea where to go.

           There were many armed police along the roads, though officially there was no curfew.  I had to watch out for them.  I recalled the advice someone had once given me:  “You must put yourself in the policeman’s position and see how he would look at you.”  I did that, and realized I was certain to draw attention.  As a wanderer in the middle of the night with a backpack and a southern accent, I would look very suspicious. I needed to find shelter quickly to avoid being arrested.

            The working-class dormitory area did not seem to offer any hope, so I caught a bus for another area of the city.  I tried to look out the windows, but it was so dark outside that even with an occasional street light I could see nothing.

            Suddenly a bright glare ahead of the bus caught my eye.  Something was burning at the side of the road.  As the bus passed, it was as though time slowed down.  I could see Red Guards looting a family home in the eerie light of a bonfire.  There was an old man kneeling on the ground with a black board around his neck.  Red Guards were loading furniture and belongings into two trucks parked outside the house.  One held a whip.  Another threw books into the fire.

            As the horrible scene receded into the black night, an idea came to me.  I could find a looted home that had been sealed up, and take shelter there.  Most plundered homes were occupied as soon as the inhabitants had been expelled, but there were certain ones that people avoided – those with a reputation for being dangerous — risky – unfortunate; houses in which someone had committed suicide or had been murdered by Red Guards.  People were superstitious and wanted nothing to do with such places.  They felt that the spirits of those whose lives were cut short might remain in the house with unfinished business, and would trouble anyone who moved in.

            Those who did dare to occupy them were generally involved in something illegal or immoral, so they had a guilty conscience that magnified any supposed oddity.  Then too, people exiled from a house might return secretly in the night to retrieve hidden valuables, and might fight or kill anyone found standing in their way.  Such a mysterious death would never be solved, and people would say that a ghost had returned for revenge. 

            Thus in every city there were sealed and abandoned homes where no one would stay.  If I could find such a house, it would be safe and secure, as long as no one saw me enter.  I decided to try.

            I got off the bus.  The street was almost empty.  I walked a few blocks, and eventually came upon a very old house with its door sealed with crossed strips of paper forming a large X.  It took up a lot of land.  The original owners must have been quite wealthy.  Unlike most traditional houses, this one had a slight Western influence in the presence of a second story.  The front of the house was pasted over with old newspapers on which revolutionary slogans had been hurriedly written, along with the criminal history of the expelled residents.  Papers covered the windows as well.

            On the front door was a notice marked with the seal of a Red Guard station.  On it was written, “PROHIBITED TO ENTER; VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.”

            The notice did not intimidate me, but I wanted a less obvious entry, so I walked about the house looking for another way to get in.  I saw that on the second floor there was an open window, and a pottery pipe some sixteen feet in height drained the roof.  It was very easy to climb up the pipe to the second story.  When I got there, I walked across the clay-tiled roof to the open window.  I then removed some tiles from the gable, and used the spaces thus opened as handholds, as I kicked the window wide open and swung myself in through it.

            I was in a large room — apparently the master bedroom.  Sheets and clothes lay on the floor.  A table and chair were overturned.  It looked like the aftermath of a robbery.  There was a bad smell of something decaying, and spider webs were everywhere, so that with each step they clung to my face and arms and legs.

            I had my flashlight in my pack — but worried that it might be noticed from outside, I covered it with a handkerchief to make the light weaker.  Even so, it was little help, and all the junk on the floor tripped me up as I walked, and I nearly fell in the darkness.

            The wooden floor was strewn with rat droppings, and torn up here and there where Red Guards had searched for hidden valuables.  There was one piece of furniture, a wooden dresser that had proved too heavy to move, so they had beaten it to ruin.

            I wanted to go through the entire house to make sure no one was there, but it was so difficult to walk about through all the debris in the darkness that I gave up.  I just cleared out a corner where I could recline and rest.

            I had become like a rabbit or a deer, always alert for a hunter, so I dared not lie down completely.  I put my backpack against the wall, and sitting down and reclining against it, I closed my eyes to rest a while.  I kept telling myself not to go to sleep completely.  I wondered if I had done right in coming here, but recalled that in Russian spy fiction stories, the most dangerous place often proved to be the most secure.

            I relaxed my muscles and moved slightly to make myself more comfortable.  At once I heard a strange sound, a very regular “dop — dop — dop.”  It seemed to be someone taking footsteps with the intention of being heard.  I was immediately alert; it might be Red Guards coming in to get me.  Perhaps I had been seen entering.

            I remembered my military instructor saying that if you don’t move in the dark, the enemy will not discover you.  So I lay down on my stomach, held my breath, and watched the door to the stairs, holding a broken chair leg in my hand as a weapon and waiting for the guy to come up.

            No one appeared.  A few minutes passed, and the house returned to silence.  I still dared not stand up.  I crawled to the window and looked out, pondering whether I could survive a quick jump from the window in case of danger.  Then I thought again of the footsteps.           

            I recalled the ghosts I had seen as a child, but I had seen none since.  I thought of the old house in the countryside where people had hanged themselves and drank pesticide.  It had a strange atmosphere and odd things happened there, but I had been trained in Western medicine and had grown skeptical.

            And then I remembered my mother telling me what to do if I were to encounter a ghost.  “An honest, sincere gentleman does not fear ghosts,” she said.  “They will leave you alone if you concentrate all your energy in your eyes and look at the ghost.  Don’t be afraid and don’t run away, no matter how terrible or frightening it may seem.  You must stand there and use all your energy and stare at it directly.  If you do that, it will gradually disappear.  Then you will find that only your heart and mind have created the terrible thing — just your own mistake.”  My mother’s advice seemed a little contradictory to me, however, because though at times she appeared skeptical, at other times she would say things like, “The Yang world is much more powerful.  The Yin world is hidden and weak, and only manifests in the dark of night.  It will disappear with the dawn.  Moreover, even among ghosts there are some good, some bad.  The good may help you out, but even an evil ghost, if you keep your energy concentrated on him and are not afraid, will retreat.”

            I do not know where my mother got her theories.  My old granny, however, had been a firm believer in mysterious things.  When I was a child, she always had me wear one very expensive piece of jade.  It was very green and shining, and according to Granny it had a spirit.  If the owner of such a stone were lucky and healthy, the jade would become a very deep and brilliant green.  But if the master were ill, or dogged by ill fortune, the beautiful color would decay and disappear, and the jade would become dark and dull.  But the oddest thing was that if the master met with some unexpected accident or illness, that jade would counteract the bad influence, and as a result it would crack and lose all its green color, and the master would then escape the disaster.

            Such a thing actually happened to my nephew.  He fell from the third floor, which might have killed him, but he was not harmed at all.  Instead his jade was broken.  Such a remarkable “spirit stone” was very costly, and it might take $10,000 to obtain one.  The Chinese wear them for protection, just as Christians wear a cross or crucifix.  But such a stone of quality should have a very advanced Buddhist monk pronounce a blessing on it.  After that consecration it can protect from the hauntings of spirits and demons. 

            I enjoyed such tales, but thought that the chief value of such a stone was psychological.  I had not had mine since the Red Guards took it from me when our house was looted.

            Pondering all these things, I began to feel fear rising in me.  Who knows what bad fortune the people who lived here might have had?  Perhaps they, too, were exiled to some remote labor camp, or perhaps they committed suicide or died here. 

            Dim moonlight came through the open window and cast shadows of broken furniture on the floor.  I thought of the odd “dop — dop” sound that I had interpreted as footsteps.  There must be something to have caused it.  I hoped it was only a cat or a mouse. 

            Given the choice of being arrested for walking the streets outside, or of encountering a ghost, I preferred the ghost.  A ghost seemed easier to escape.

            I listened carefully as the minutes passed.  I heard a crunching sound like someone stepping on dry leaves.  Then the house was silent again.

            I told myself it was just nerves.  I was in a very old, very dark, empty house.  It was natural to be uneasy.  In spite of the odd sounds, no one came and nothing happened.  Eventually I became very sleepy, and seemed to doze off and wake again.

            All at once everything changed.  The whole room transformed.  All the damaged furniture and the mess on the floor disappeared, and in its place was a lovely, tidy bedroom with a young lady sitting on the edge of the bed.  I could see tears running silently down her cheeks.  She was feeding a small child.

            Abruptly came the sound of steps downstairs again, and the lady and her bedroom vanished, and I was back with the broken furniture in the darkness.  I must have been dreaming.  But the noise downstairs was not my imagination.

            Unable to control my curiosity, I very carefully and quietly crept to the stairs, and slowly descended into the lower room.  There, in the dim moonlight, I saw a young teenage boy totally absorbed in trying to crack nuts.  He was so intently concentrated on the matter that he did not notice me as I slipped quietly up to him.

            Suddenly he looked up, saw me, and shrank back quickly in fear, drawing a knife from his waist and holding it toward me threateningly.  We looked at each other in the silent, ghostly moonlight, neither moving.

            He was perhaps fifteen, and very thin.  His hair was tangled and filthy, his face smeared with dirt, his clothes stained and torn.  He was definitely not a Red Guard, just a homeless kid.  Even with the knife in his hand I felt no threat at all.

            I opened my backpack and took out a small bar of chocolate and held it toward him.  He reacted like a timid animal, desiring it, but fearing to take it.  So I tossed it to him.  He caught it, but continued to watch me cautiously.  I looked about the room and saw he was alone, so I sat down and relaxed my guard.

            That calmed him.  He lowered his knife, then shoved it back in his waistband, and ripped the paper off the chocolate, consuming the bar in what seemed only a moment.  He must have been very hungry.  Then he tried to pass me a handful of broken walnut shells and meat mixed together.  From that simple gesture I could tell that he was really a good guy who understood politeness and sharing.  Even in moonlight I could see that his hand was filthy, but I did not want to refuse his gesture of friendliness, so I took what was in it.

            I asked, like an adult to a child, “Why aren’t you home in bed?  Why did you come here in the middle of the night?”

            I could tell that my question made him uncomfortable, and regretted asking.  It was stupid of me.  Obviously he had no home.  I tried to open the conversation anew.  Instead of criticizing, I began praising him as a brave young man.  I deliberately did not call him a kid.  “You are so brave, staying here by yourself in this big house alone.  Aren’t you afraid of ghosts?  I feel a little afraid.  It scared me when I heard you down here.”

            Then he opened up.

            “Even if you are afraid, there’s nowhere else to go.  After a while you get used to it, and then you aren’t afraid any more.  There are some things a guy’s forced to do.”

            His words seemed mature beyond his years, and there was sadness in them.

            “Where is your family?” I asked.

            “They were all exiled.”

            “Oh.  Well, we are in the same boat.  My family was exiled to the countryside too.  But why didn’t you follow them?”

            “Before the exile my family had nothing to eat, so I started going all over the city begging for food.  One day I begged some money and bought some sweet potatoes and brought them home for my family.  But when I got there, they were gone.  I don’t know where they were taken.  I lost track of them.  So I just became homeless and lived where I could.”

            “How long have you been staying here?”

            “A few weeks now.”

            “Is there anybody else who comes here?”

            “Yah, but they are always afraid.  They just stayed a couple of days and left.”

            “Why did they leave?”

            “‘Cause they were afraid.”

            “What of?”

            They said they had seen a ghost here.  But I never saw it.”

            “What kind of ghost?”

            “According to some homeless guys, this house’s owner was the head of a small paper-making shop that made paper for Chinese paintings.  It was a family business.  But they had to hire workers, so they were considered “factory owners.”  In the Great Cultural Revolution the man was criticized because his shop provided materials to artists who made anti-Communist pictures.  Because he sold the paper, they said he was a criminal.  Their three-generation family business, the shop, all the equipment, everything was destroyed.  Without the shop they lost all their money and had nothing to live on.

            “When the Red Guards were tearing up the shop, the son, who was an adult, risked his life to fight them.  They beat him to death with a wooden staff.  The old man and his wife watched them kill their son.  Then they hanged themselves.  Finally, only the daughter-in-law and one grandchild were left in this house.  She took some sort of chemical used to make paper and poisoned herself and her child.

            “Since then a lot of people have stayed here, but they either get sick or injured or have bad nightmares.  They always see the young woman and her child in their dreams, but I never saw them.  I never saw anything unusual happen here, except sometimes when I fall asleep, it seems like somebody is putting a blanket on me.  But if I wake up, nobody is there.  Mostly I just sleep all night, though, and don’t wake up until morning.”

            I thought that whatever spirit remained there, it must be kind and gentle to take care of this boy.  It did not surprise me that he saw nothing while others did.  People who can see ghosts are either born with a “Yin” eye, or they have a poor fate, or they are ill or close to death.

            We talked on quietly about this and that, and soon, because of our common woes, we were like old friends.  Eventually he began yawning, and we stopped.  He soon lay back and closed his eyes.  I looked at him sleeping there in the moonlight.  He was just an innocent little kid.  I wished I could help him, but I could not even help myself. 

            I began to feel sleepy.  The moment my eyes closed, I saw again a young woman in white garments printed with tiny flowers.  Beside her was a lovely little child.  They stood at the top of the stairs looking down at me, motionless and silent.  I felt suddenly overwhelmed by sadness, and did not want to see them more.  I struggled to stand up, but my body felt heavy and would not move, and I felt as weary and drained as if I had been exercising all day.

            At that moment I remembered my old granny, and the Herb Doctor who cured my childhood illness.  During the Japanese air bombardment of Canton, my grandma always repeated the words, “Save from suffering, save from disaster, Bodhisattva Kuan Yin.”  In suffering or danger, Buddhists always called on the Compassionate Bodhisattva.  And the Herb Doctor taught me another mantra to repeat for help in time of great need, but that was a long time ago, and I had forgotten it.  In school the Communists taught me that such things were just superstition.  But my granny’s words were deep in my mind and unforgettable, so now I blurted out, “Save from suffering, save from disaster, Bodhisattva Kuan Yin!  Save from suffering, save from disaster, Bodhisattva Kuan Yin!” 

            No sooner had I done so than the woman picked up the child and slowly began to float away from the stairs and grow faint, like smoke blown on the wind.

            I felt a sudden pang of guilt.  I did not want to hurt her or her child, so I stopped repeating the prayer.  I felt so sorry for them.  My family was broken, yet we survived.  Her family was broken, and all were dead.

            The moment I fell silent, the young woman and her child came drifting back to the stairs in a wavering motion, like a butterfly in flight.  She looked directly at me with inexpressible sorrow, as though begging, imploring.  I remembered my mother saying that to stare strongly at a ghost would make it disappear, so I fixed my gaze on her and concentrated.  Suddenly she tossed a small, white rectangle toward me.

            I awoke abruptly, and had no wish to sleep again.  Though still very tired, I got no rest in that unfortunate house.  Usually when I could not sleep, I would read.  But there would be no books in that place.  No doubt all had been burned or taken away.  But even as I thought that, the faint light before dawn entered the window and fell on a small white book right beside me on the floor.  I picked it up and was disappointed.  It was just a collection of Mao’s writings.  Everybody hated it, because it had to be carried on one’s person all the time to avoid criticism.  No matter that there was a paper shortage and kids had no paper for homework, and people had no toilet paper — all resources had to be put into printing endless copies of this book.  Nonetheless, I grabbed it and opened it.  As I did so, a couple of slips of paper dropped out onto the floor.  I picked them up, and saw that they were a letter, which read:


            “Dear Papa and Mama,

            I do not know if this letter will ever reach you.  But if you see this paper, it means I have already left this world.  People say that only after you raise your own children and watch them grow up do you become sensitive, and feel how your parents worked hard to raise you.  And then you appreciate what they did for you.

            I left you to come here and study, marry, and have a daughter to build up my own family.  But I completely forgot to care about you, and did not fulfill the duties of a daughter to return gratitude for your raising and supporting me.  So I always felt guilty.  But I did not want to make you sad.

            Don’t feel sorry for me, because I can meet my husband in the other world, and we will be together again.  I don’t wish for our child to live in this very cruel and feelingless world.  She would only suffer more.  She won’t grow up.  Hard luck destroyed her life too early.

            I chose to marry Ga Kei.  He was the owner of a manufactory.  I knew when I married him that our future would be dim, but I ignorantly and childishly thought that pure and sincere love could overcome everything.  I underestimated how cruel and heartless human beings could be.

            So I don’t miss anything in this world.  I am only sorry that I did not accept my responsibility to take care of you both.  Please forgive me.  Don’t be sorry.  I’ll be in another world where there is no suffering, no blood and tears, no hatred, no cruel political struggles.

            Originally I wanted to send my girl to both of you to take care of, but unfortunately she had such great fear when her grandma, grandpa, and father died, that she has had a mental breakdown.  That would just add to your burden.  If she could grow up, she would just have the burden of her mother committing suicide and using her life to protest the Communist Party.  So at the last moment I decided that I brought her into this unfortunate, cruel world, and I will take her out of it.”


            The letter broke off suddenly, and appeared to have been written in hesitating segments.  It had no end, and there had been no chance to send it.

            It was so sad.  Perhaps her parents did not even know she was no longer in this world.

            Just then the morning sun broke into the room.  The boy was still asleep.  I went to open a window on the main floor so I could slip out of the house.  I had one leg outside and was halfway through, but my backpack strap got stuck on something on the inside sill.  I tried to loosen it, but nothing seemed to work.  Worried that someone might see me, I jumped back inside the house to release the strap from whatever had caught it.  I was surprised to find that it had stuck on just one small nail.  But when I tried to release the strap, the nail just went in deeper and snagged it tighter.  Finally I ran out of patience and gave a big tug that shook the wall as well — and suddenly out from behind a framed picture a paper fell.  I was surprised to see the picture still hanging until I noticed it was Chairman Mao.  Someone must have hidden the paper behind it in a hurry, thinking it a good place because of the veneration in which the image was generally held.

            I picked the paper up and got a great shock.  It was an empty envelope addressed to Canton — to my home town.  It was all very strange.  I took the two sheets of the unfinished letter I had found, and put them in the addressed envelope and sealed it.  Then I went to jump out the window again, but suddenly the front door banged open.  Perhaps it was only a breeze from the window, or perhaps the lonely spirits were now free to leave, the last task accomplished.

            I hurried out through the front door and left that sad and lonely house.  I gladly inhaled the fresh morning air of the street.  A few bicycles were on the road — people pedaling off to work.  Early buses were already moving.

            I held the letter in my hand and looked for a post office or mailbox.  Then a very peculiar thing happened, as strange as all that had come before.  I raised my eyes, and there, walking directly toward me, was a mailman in uniform.  I stopped him and asked if he would send the letter for me.  He took it, and we parted.

            It seemed then that something was finished — that I had done the one thing set for me to do there.


(Copyright David Coomler and Ruby Tang)


Gyōdai wrote one of the simplest and best early winter hokku:

Ochiba ochikasanarite ame ame wo utsu

Falling-leaves fall-pile up rain rain wo beats

Leaves fall
And pile up;
Rain beats on rain.

R. H. Blyth translated it in a particularly appealing way, because of the consonance (repetition) of the letter “l”:

Leaves falling,
Lie on one another;
The rain beats on the rain.

In such a verse there is no writer apparent to obstruct the reader’s experience of the falling leaves and the cold beating of the rain.  It really gives us a clear feeling of the season, a strong visual and auditory sensation, and that is characteristic of good hokku.

It reminds one a bit of the lines from A. E. Housman:

The rain, it streams on stone and hillock,
The boot clings to the clay.

There is, in both, a sense of ending and finality — in one the autumn ending, in the other a life ended.


English: The Wind in the Willows. A breezy sum...

As all regular readers here know, a hokku is a sensory event set in the context of a particular season.  That is basic knowledge.  But did you ever ask yourself why?  What, after all, is the point of recording sensory, season-related events as hokku?

This matter is very significant in getting to the root of what hokku is all about, yet it is very simple.  Hokku have to do with the creation of very subtle states of mind in the reader.  The operative word here is subtle.  That is why hokku are not “war” verses, not “romance” verses, not “protest” verses, not “social commentary” verses.  And it is also why hokku has a deep connection with a meditative life, such as one finds in (traditional) Zen or Ch’an Buddhism, as well as with the kind of attitude toward life found in Transcendentalism, as in the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

Now what do we mean by “subtle states of mind”?  You already know.  You have just perhaps never heard it put that way before.

Here is an example.  When you read the words in this title of the old classic children’s book, they automatically create a “subtle state of mind” that you may not have consciously noticed, but were aware of nonetheless — subtly aware:

The Wind in the Willows

Just those words, with nothing added, arouse a certain nearly-indefinable sensation in us.  We see the willows, we see the wind blowing through the branches, and we may even feel the wind against our arms or faces.  But beyond that, there is a distinct, definite feeling created in our minds — a “subtle state of mind” that is aroused by the willows and the wind in them.

We can modulate that effect — change it — by putting it in the context of a season.  Look how different the “subtle sensations” are that doing so creates:

Spring — the wind in the willows

Summer — the wind in the willows.

Autumn — the wind in the willows.

Winter — the wind in the willows.

What a contrast between the fresh wind of spring through the young leaves, and the cold, biting wind of winter through the bare branches!

To appreciate such verse, one must be able to appreciate simple, understated things.  There is nothing grand here.  Hokku does not strive to be beautiful or conventionally poetic.  It merely records a sensory event in the context of a season, and that creates its own “poetry” in the mind of the reader.

In modern hokku we do not write the actual season name into every verse.  But we do label every verse with the season, so we know its context, and that enables us to experience it.

Of course in the “wind in the willows” examples, I have not put them in the form of a hokku, but we can see the relationship between those examples and real hokku if we look, for example, at this verse by Ryūshi:

The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves.

In old Japan that would have been a “winter” verse;  but it could also be an autumn verse,  depending on how we label it, and there would be a difference in feeling between the two, as we see if we add the season “label” to each:


The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves


The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves.

Just by changing the season, we make it a different hokku, a different verse.  Yes, the words are still precisely the same, but the seasonal context makes a significant change in the subtle state of mind evoked.  It is not that one is “better” than the other, but rather that each has its own effect.

That is what hokku does.  It creates subtle states of mind in the reader by recording a sensory (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) event in its seasonal context.  And that is the “poetry” of hokku — not in the words, but as it appears in the mind of the reader.  For that to happen, however, and to have its full effect, the reader must be the kind of person who is open and appreciative of such subtle states of mind.

That is one reason why, as I often say, hokku is not for everyone because everyone is not for hokku.



As long-time readers here know, hokku is seasonal verse.  Every verse is an event set in the context of a particular season.

Photograph of a Green Frog en ( Rana clamitans...

In old hokku (which was Japanese), this became too systematized, so that if one wrote about frogs, it was automatically assumed that such a verse was a “spring” verse.  But in modern hokku, a frog verse can be for any season in which a frog appears.  For us in the temperate zone, that would be in spring, summer, or early autumn.

Ordinarily we do not write or read hokku that are out of season, but an exception is made for general instruction, and that is why today, on a very chilly and wet day in autumn, I am going to briefly discuss a couple of “frog” hokku.

The kind of language used in writing Japanese hokku was telegraphic, which means a translation of such a verse is often likely to come out longer in English.  Here is an example by Wakyu:

Hitotsu tobu   oto ni mina tobu   kawazu kana

That literally reads, “One jumps sound at, all jump; frogs….

Put into ordinary English, we would say,

At the sound of one jumping, they all jump; frogs.

But of course in English that is not as clear as we would like it, because English tends to be more definite than Japanese.  We would want it to say,

At the sound of one frog jumping in, they all jump in; frogs.” That way it is clear that they are not jumping on land, but jumping into water.

R. H. Blyth translated the verse very much like that, only he took the very last word — “frogs” — and moved it into the main body of the verse, like this:

At the sound of one jumping in,
All the frogs
Jumped in.

That comes out top-heavy and a bit awkward visually, though it makes sense and is clear. That kind of out-of balance verse often results from trying to translate everything in an original into English.  But we could achieve essentially the same thing and gain the brevity so helpful in hokku by leaving out the word oto — “sound,” like this:

The frogs;
When one jumps in,
They all jump. 

That is better balanced, and it is very close to the sense of the original without being overly long.

We could do the same for another “frog” hokku (by Ryōto) that Blyth places right after that one in his anthology.  In the original, it is:

Hashi wateru hito ni shizumaru kawazu kana

Bridge cross person at quieten frogs kana

Blyth again makes it too top-heavy in his translation.  That is acceptable when one is trying to  convey the meaning of the original, which was what Blyth was doing and doing well, but it is not good in writing hokku in Engish.  Blyth has:

Someone passed over the bridge,
And all the frogs
Were quiet.

An additional problem is that the translation reads a little to much like a single run-on sentence. We could achieve the same effect by putting it into better form:

Crossing the bridge;
All the frogs
Go silent.

There are multiple ways of translating the same verse, and multiple ways of writing such hokku in English.  The trick is not to go too far, not to try to put too much into a verse.  Keep it simple and direct.  Did you notice in that last verse that even though the first line looks considerably longer than the other two, it is still only three words, just like the second line?

Just an additional remark, and that will be it for now.  You probably saw the untranslated word kana at the end of each Japanese hokku.  The Japanese used it as a kind of meditative pause at the end, but they also, quite honestly, often used it just to pad out the required seventeen phonetic units standard in Japanese hokku.  In English, punctuation does the trick when a sense of pause is needed, but actually in many cases it does not need to be reflected in the translation at all, given that in so many cases it is just “filler.”



Today I would like to discuss one of the “fantasy” poems by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats — Sailing to Byzantium.

To grasp the meaning of this poem one must know two things: first, the speaker is a man who has grown old; second, he is dealing with the inner conflict that old people often have.  Their minds — their sense of self — feel to them no different than when they were young, but when they look in the mirror, the body of course is very different.  So in this poem the poet thinks, “Why not give this mind a body that does not age, an artificial body?”  Of course it is a concept that has occurred to many science fiction writers, but Yeats approaches the problem in a way that is not quite so modern in its technology, as we shall see.  I will take the poem part by part, as usual.

As it begins, the poet has already made a sea voyage.  He has sailed from Ireland (which we can here take in a wider sense as the world of youth and sensuality) and he has arrived in Byzantium (Constantinople), the great city (now Istanbul) that was the capitol of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire, which fell to the invading Islamic Turks on May 29, 1453.  For Yeats, vanished Byzantium with its skilled arts was an ideal city of the mind, of the intellectual.

English: The Deesis mosaic in the Hagia Sophia...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now we know from these facts that the poem is a fantasy, because Byzantium as city or as empire has not existed for centuries.  But in this poem we are meant to concentrate on the contrast of body versus “soul,” which is used here as a synonym for the mind, the intellect.  And this poem itself is largely a poem of the intellect, a fantasy that takes place in the mind:

Let’s begin:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

The poet says “that is no country for old men.”  He is speaking of the place he has already left, which as said earlier, is first Ireland, but also in a wider sense the sensual world of the young, which is a world of impermanence; it does not last.  It is a country of “the young in one another’s arms,” that is, of romantic lovers, which of course leads to procreation, the giving of birth, the continual being born, growing old, and dying that characterizes our sensual world.  It is a land of birds singing in trees, but those, the poet tells us, are only “dying generations,” their singing lives are short, their death soon.  He points us to the “salmon-falls,” the salmon jumping the falls to return to upstream pools to spawn and die; he gives us the image of “mackerel-crowded seas” in which we see only more reproduction and quick death in multitudes.

The poet summarizes this part of the poem dealing with continuous birth, reproduction and death by saying,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

So he tells us that whether it is fish (salmon, mackerel), flesh (young lovers in one another’s arms) or fowl (the birds in the trees), all summer long all creatures “commend” having sex, which leads to birth, which leads to death — the whole round of endless birth and death in our world.  “Commend” is used here to mean that they draw our attention to and urge one to follow their pattern, as in the Oxford English Dictionary definition:  “To present as worthy of favourable acceptance, regard, consideration, attention, or notice; to direct attention to, as worthy of notice or regard; to recommend.”

So all of this sensual world of creatures being created through sex, being born, aging, and dying is frustrating to our aging speaker.  He tells us,

Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Everyone and every creature is so wrapped up in sex and romance and reproduction (“that sensual music”), in being born and dying — all things of the flesh, of the body — that they neglect the mind, they have no use for the minds of old men whose bodies are no longer sensual or interesting, no matter how fine those minds may be.  We may also think of such “monuments of unageing intellect” as being what is created by such minds.

Given this profound sense of alienation that the old poet feels in this world of sex, romance, sensuality, birth and death, he tells us:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,

He feels not only alienated but completely unappreciated in his old age.  “An old man,” he tells us, is only a “paltry” (insignificant, contemptible) thing, like a worn out old coat (the body) hanging on a stick (the skeletal frame),

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress…

That, the poet tells us, is the only thing that saves an old man from being insignificant — if his soul, his intellect, claps its hands and sings, by which he means unless it creates, as a writer writes novels, as a poet composes poems, as an artist paints or sculpts — that is the singing of the intellect (not the brief singing of sensual, mortal birds) — the creation of “monuments of unageing intellect.”  And the more the body — the “mortal dress” — ages (tatters), the more the mind should sing (be emphasized, be creative).

But where does an old man learn to do this?  He tells us:

Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

The soul learns to sing, that is, learns to create, by studying the products of other such minds, “monuments of its [the mind’s] own magnificence,” that is, monuments by and to the creative mind.

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

For that reason, the poet tells us, he has left the sensual world and has sailed away to what here is used as a symbol of the ideal environment of the mind and intellect — “the holy city of Byzantium.”  Of course, as already noted, this voyage is only a fantasy of the mind — but that is what this poem is — a fantasy of the mind.

Now in Byzantium, the poet calls on the wise men of Byzantium, the “sages.”

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.

He calls on these sages, whom he views as standing in the holy fire of God (the direct influence of supreme Intellect) like saints standing amid the golden color of Byzantine mosaics on a wall.  He tells them to come to him from that fire of the mind, to “perne (turn) in a gyre (circle),” that is, to surround him in a turning, spiralling circle, and become the “singing masters” that will teach the aging poet’s “soul” (his mind/intellect) to sing, that is, to create works of the mind.  To Yeats, the spiralling motion of a gyre was representative of the soul (see the excerpts at the end of this article).

But the poet wants even more; he wants to get rid of all traces of his aging body, all traces of the sensual world he has left:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

He wants the sages of Byzantium to “consume” (cause to disappear) his heart (his emotions) away, because it is sick with desire (with the desires of the sensual world that an old man can no longer enjoy or fulfill), and “fastened to a dying animal,” that is, his emotions are tied to his aging, tattered, mortal body that is (like all created things) subject to death.  He wants to be “gathered into the artifice of eternity,” that is, made immortal by being given an artificial body that will house his mind forever.

Then he foresees what that new life will be like:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,

Once he is free of the emotions and free of his aging body, he will not take his new body from any “natural” thing, that is, not from any flesh and blood creature of the sensual world subject to the same emotions, aging and death;

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Once free of emotions and the aging, dying body, the poet will have his intellect, his mind, placed in an artificial body, one such as the Greek goldsmiths formed in Byzantium out of hammered gold and enamel (melted, colored glass used as surface ornament) to amuse a drowsy emperor.  This part of the poem, Yeats himself once explained, came from his reading:

I have read somewhere that in the Emperor’s palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang

So the poet wants his mortal body and emotions removed, and he wants his mind housed in an artificial body, like a shining golden, artificial bird in the palace of an emperor at Byzantium, a bird that sings on and on (creates perpetually), never aging, never dying; a bird that sings

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

That is, it sings of the past, the present, and the future — eternity.

So that is the poem.  Again, it is just a fantasy created by an old man (Yeats wrote it at age 63, which in his day was considered older than we think it to be now) who can no longer participate in the sensual romance of youth, and so turns to a fantasy of his mind taken from his aging body and put into an artificial body, so that it can go on creating works of the intellect forever, untroubled by human sensuality and emotion.

The flaw in his poetic plan, of course, is that in reality rather than fantasy, even artificial birds wear out.  We learned that as children by reading Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Nightingale.  There is no such escape of the mind from the senses, from aging, from death, not through any material body, though authors of science fiction keep working on the notion.

We should take this poem for what it is, the expression of an old man’s conflict between an aging body and a mind that still seems young and potentially creative, even though the old tend to become gradually more and more insignificant and invisible to the young, and consequently often feel they would like to get away to some refuge where they are again respected and considered significant and useful. Old people really do begin to feel that our world is the world of the young, and that it is “no country for old men.”  That is perhaps even more true today, with the magazine and television cultural emphasis on youth, beauty, and vitality, than it was in Yeat’s time.

This poem always reminds me of an aging college professor walking through a university campus, seeing the young people sitting and nuzzling one another or playing their guitars and laughing, going about the usual pursuits of the young.  I used to call my local university “the land of perpetual youth,” because its inhabitants were always young and never grew old (of course because they were replaced by new young students every year). But the same, of course, was not true of their instructors remaining year after aging year, many of whom could have written a poem such as this, had they the skill.  Many of them no doubt sailed to their own Byzantiums by devoting their old age to study and writing, locked away in their studies or a quiet corner of the university library, trying to enter into the “artifice of eternity” through their publications.

By the way, if you noticed that I write “aging” while Yeats writes “unageing,” it is the difference between American (aging) and British (ageing) spellings.

That will give you what you need to understand this poem, so you may stop here.  But if you would like a bit more background on the fascination Byzantium had for Yeats, he wrote in his book A Vision:

I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia [537 c.e.] and closed the Academy of Plato [529 c.e.]. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even, for the pride of his delicate skill would make what was an instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body.

I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers — though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract — spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books. were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people. They could copy out of old Gospel books those pictures that seemed as sacred as the text, and yet weave all into a vast design, the work of many that seemed the work of one, that made building, picture, patterns, metal-work of rail and lamp, seem but a single image, and this vision, this proclamation of their invisible master, had the Greek nobility, Satan always the still half divine Serpent, never the horned scarecrow of the didactic Middle Ages.”

In the same work, Yeats wrote on the nature of the “gyre” and excerpts enable us to see that he considered the gyre representative of the soul, which is no doubt why, in the poem, he tells the sages of Byzantium to perne (turn) in a gyre (circular, spiral motion):

Swedenborg wrote occasionally of gyrations, especially in his “Spiritual Diary,” and in “The Principia” where the physical universe is described as built up by the spiral movement of points, and by vortexes which were combinations of these; but very obscurely except where describing the physical universe. perhaps because he was compelled as he thought to keep silent upon all that concerned Fate.  I remember that certain Irish countrymen whom I questioned some twenty years ago had seen Spirits departing from them in an ascending gyre….

Line and plane are combined in a gyre, and as one tendency or the other must be always the stronger, the gyre is always expandng or contracting.  For simplicity the representation of a gyre is drawn as a cone.  Sometimes this cone represents the individual soul, and that soul’s history — these things are inseparable — sometimes general life.  When general life, we give to its narrow end, to its unexpanded gyre, the name of Anima Hominis [the Soul/Spirit of Man] and to its broad end, or its expanded gyre, Anima Mundi [the Soul/Spirit of the World].



There is no quick reading of some poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Slow going and thought are essential to picking out his meaning from his often odd phrasing, uncommon word choices, and lack of complete clarity.

The Pleiades on Ektachrome 100 film in 1986

Such a poem is The Starlight Night.

In it, as in some of his other poems such as The Windhover, Hopkins mixes Nature with aspects of his adopted religion, Roman Catholicism.  He often uses the former (Nature) as an introduction to the latter (religion).

Without careful reading, this poem would quickly dissolve into incoherency after its simple beginning.  And even with care, as we shall see, there are some ambiguities in interpretation.  But let’s give it a try nonetheless.

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!

Hopkins urges the reader to look up at the stars in the night sky.  He compares the stars to living beings of fire, to “fire-folk” sitting in the air.   And he likens the groupings and clusters of stars to “bright boroughs,” that is, to star towns, and to “circle-citadels,” to fortresses within the circle of the night sky, like the fortress refuge within or above an old town in medieval and renaissance times.  We might also understand “circle-citadels” to refer to the circular dots of light in the sky that are stars.

Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!

There are two possible interpretations of that. The first is to understand it as referring to the sky, seeing it as having dim woods (dark areas)  and “grey lawns” (the “Milky Way”).  The second interpretation, which perhaps makes more sense, is to understand it as viewing the stars from different locations — from within a dim wood where the trees are bare, so the stars may be seen among the dark night branches as “diamond delves,” (diamond caves or hollows, from an old meaning of “delve”) and as “elves’-eyes” (bright, sparkling eyes of supernatural creatures).  Also as stars viewed from grey (all colors turn grey or black at night) lawns where “quickgold” lies, meaning that golden stars (a likeness here to “quicksilver”) lie upon (above) the night lawn like shining, fluid gold.  Neither interpretation comes off perfectly, and we may see this as a flaw in Hopkins’ communication of meaning.

Wind-beat whitebeam!  airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!  

Hopkins gives us more metaphors for stars:  he tells us they are “wind-beat whitebeam!”  A whitebeam is a tree that has clusters of little white blossoms in the spring, so a “wind-beat” whitebeam is one that scatters its white blossoms (i.e. stars) in the wind.  He also likens them to another English tree, to white poplars (“abeles”) “set on flare,” that is, with branches set alight with burning stars like torches.  He further likens the stars to “flake-doves,” that is, to flakes of scattered light like bright, white doves that scatter into the air when startled in a farmyard.

Ah, well!  it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

The starry skies described in the poem are “a purchase” — something to be bought — as well as “a prize”  something won as an achievement, something to be highly valued.

The first part of the poem is designed to draw the attention of the reader to the stars and their glittering, sparkling beauty.  Hopkins is like a man selling his wares in a marketplace; he first shouts out to catch your attention and fix it on what he is selling (stars, in this case), and then he urges you to buy and tells you the price:

Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, alms, vows.

With that line we realize that the long beginning of the poem was just an introduction, a sales pitch for selling his religious notions.  This will be elaborated as we continue.  Having shown us the wonders of the stars in the night sky, Hopkins tells us we should then “buy,” should “bid,” meaning to offer a price for the stars.  And what is the price?

It is prayer; it is patience; it is alms (money or goods given to the poor); it is vows (promises to perform this or that religious and/or moral act).  In short, it is a religious life that will enable one to purchase the starry sky.  That is the price.

Now this is an odd notion.  Why would one want to purchase the stars in the night sky?  Before he tells us, Hopkins returns to his colorful sales pitch, directing our attention back to the stars:

Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
  Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!

By “mess” here, Hopkins means a quantity, a large number (of stars), like white blossoms on the boughs of fruit trees in an orchard in May.  Then he likens the starry sky to sallows (willow trees) in early March that “bloom” with their catkins that release a golden dust like yellow flour (meal) — a comparison to the stars dusted like willow pollen across the sky.

Now we come to the point of the whole thing, and are told at last what Hopkins is selling:

These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks.  This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
  Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

All of the bright stars in the sky, which Hopkins has compared to fire-folk, to bright boroughs, to circle citadels, to diamond caves and elves eyes, to quickgold, to blossoming or fiery trees, to doves, to willow pollen, all of these comprise, to Hopkins, a structure, a building.  Hopkins likens it to a barn, and inside the doors of that barn (“withindoors”) are housed the shocks, meaning here the bundles of cut grain.  This is an old Christian symbol for human souls, who are to be harvested into heaven as in the old Protestant hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves.”  So we see that Hopkins views the starry sky as the great heavenly barn in which redeemed souls are housed, and not only souls.  He goes on to tell us,

This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
  Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

Hopkins takes his likening of the starry sky to a heavenly barn one more step; he compares it to a “piece-bright paling,” a barrier (like a fence or palisade), a wall of bright stars pieced together (each star a “piece”) that “shuts” (encloses) Christ in his home, that is, in heaven —  the great barn of heaven; and with him are his mother Mary (very important in Catholic teaching as an intercessor for humans) and “all his hallows,” meaning all of the saints of Christ.  “Hallows” (“holy ones”) is an old term for saints, which is why we have All Hallows Eve, the evening before the day on which all saints are celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church — the origin of our modern festival name “Halloween.”

Christ himself is the “spouse,” which is a notion derived from the New Testament, in which the Church and those in it are the “bride of Christ.”  It is also a term significant in monasticism, because nuns are considered to be married to Christ as their spouse.

The appeal of this poem lies in its colorful imagery and alliteration — “fire folk,” “diamond delves,” etc., rather than in its overall meaning, which takes a great deal of effort to extract.  That difficulty and its spotty ambiguity make this one of Hopkins’ less successful efforts as a whole, which is why people tend to remember the clear and bright parts of the poem — like the first two lines — and forget the rest.

I have compared this poem to a sales pitch for Hopkins’ adopted Roman Catholic religious views (he was a convert), but given his introversion and persistent state of depression after his conversion, one is left with the feeling that the person Hopkins was really trying to sell on these religious views was himself.