R. H. Blyth, to whom I often refer, called the following verse by Shiki “Shiki at his best” (Shiki would have called it a “haiku,” in keeping with his odd ideas of reform, even though it is a hokku in form and substance).
It is, of course, a spring verse. In the original (romanized) it is:
Shimajima ni hi wo tomoshi-keri haru no umi
Island-island on / lights wo lit have-been / spring ‘s sea
Translated very literally, it would be:
On every island, Lights have been lit; The spring sea.
Blyth, in his translation, actually improved the verse by changing “every island” to “islands far and near,” thereby adding visual depth, even though Shiki says nothing about “far and near.” Blyth’s version:
The lights are lit On the islands far and near: The spring sea.
Blyth also permits a bit of ambiguity between completed action and progressive action. Does Blyth’s The lights are lit mean “The lights have been lit and are burning?” Or does it mean “The lights are being lit”?
I suspect Blyth’s answer would have been “Yes.” He would include both meanings, leaving it to the reader to choose.
The original, however, indicates a completed action, so without taking liberties, I would probably translate it as
On every island Lights have been lit; The spring sea.
I would not say the effect, even though closer to the original, is better than Blyth’s rendering, however. If I wanted to put it into English with Blyth’s improvement, I would make it
Lights being lit On islands far and near; The spring sea.
That gives us a progression similar to what we experience in Blyth’s version, letting us see all the scattered islands, and tiny lights appearing and multiplying in the dusk throughout the whole vista.
I often say that Shiki really did little to hokku except to forbid it being used as the beginning of a linked sequence, and to advocate a more superficial style; yet even in his aesthetics in practice, one can find traces of what preceded his “reforms.” In this verse we can see that the action does fit spring, even though Shiki may not himself have consciously realized the implications of what he was writing, as he tried so publicly to leave old traditions behind.
In any case, seen as hokku, the verse would indicate the growing Yang energies of spring, because even though the verse takes place at dusk, which is a Yin time of day, we see the appearance and gradual spread and multiplication of dots of light (increasing Yang) on each island in the growing darkness. So the appearing and spreading points of light are in harmony with the gradual increase of Yang energies in spring.
The setting of the verse also shows us the importance of season on the effect of a hokku. Shiki made it:
Haru no umi — The spring sea.
The verse would have quite a different effect if set in other seasons.
It is astonishing how much damage humans have done to America in some 400 years. Vast forests have vanished, and concrete creeps over everything. Too many people, too much greed and heedlessness. And it is only getting worse. Now not only have we lost much of the natural environment, but the climate is also going.
One cannot help pondering that when reading the poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman
(1821-1873), particularly his And Change with Hurried Hand. He is not as “poetic” a writer as those generally found in the standard anthologies, and I would be surprised if most of you have even heard his name. He has that “Victorian” sound in his verse, but with a touch of wildness to it. I will discuss it in parts, but we may begin by saying that Tuckerman looks at the landscape surrounding him and realizes how greatly it has changed. Imagine how astounded he would be to see what has become of this country in our much later time!
And change with hurried hand has swept these scenes: The woods have fallen, across the meadow-lot The hunter’s trail and trap-path is forgot, And fire has drunk the swamps of evergreens;
He tells us that change has all too quickly altered the landscape. The trees — the forest — that once was there is gone; there is no more hunter’s trail, no animal path along which to lay traps, and the evergreen-filled swamps that once were there are gone, dried up as their trees were lost to fire; whether by “burning over,” or whether the trees were cut for fireplaces, he does not tell us. But we know that many swamps –like the Limberlost in Indiana (once covering some 13,000 acres) were lost because their trees were cut for lumber, and others were deliberately burned over and drained. It has taken many generations for humans to begin to appreciate the need for natural wetlands.
Yet for a moment let my fancy plant These autumn hills again: the wild dove’s haunt, The wild deer’s walk. In golden umbrage shut, The Indian river runs, Quonectacut!
He tries to imagine the place as it once was: the hills golden and red and brown with vast autumn forests; wild doves in the trees, wild deer stepping along their trails. And through banks shaded by trees golden with autumn runs the river as it was — an Indian (Native American) river with an Indian name — Quonectacut. This is the Connecticut river that rises near the Canadian border, and flows south through New England and through Tuckerman’s own Massachusetts, emptying eventually into Long Island Sound. But to the original inhabitants it was Quonectacut — “The Long River.”
Tuckerman continues imagining the landscape as it was:
Here, but a lifetime back, where falls tonight Behind the curtained pane a sheltered light On buds of rose or vase of violet Aloft upon the marble mantel set, Here in the f0rest-heart, hung blackening The wolfbait on the bush beside the spring.
“But a lifetime back” — Only a human lifetime before, there was no house with its marble-mantled fireplace. its “Victorian” furnishings and its curtained windows letting in a few rays of light to shine upon rose buds or violets set in vase atop the mantle. Instead of the house, there was only the deep, shadowed heart of the ancient forest, and among the trees a spring beside which stood a bush holding bait (meat) to catch or poison wolves — an odd and unpleasant, but effective, way of conveying in words the wildness of the land at that time.
The speed of change that once seemed rapid to Tuckerman has now gained a dizzying pace, requiring constant adjustment on the part of humans who once saw little change in centuries.
I sometimes think what an amazing place North America must have been when Europeans first happened upon it. Seemingly endless woodlands and grasslands, great herds of bison, flights of birds that would darken the sky in passing.
The Salinas Valley, about which John Steinbeck wrote so eloquently in the beginning of his novel East of Eden, holds some of the finest agricultural land in the West. Now, however, its water table has been polluted with artificial fertilizer nitrates, and each year more and more of the valley is covered in housing developments and shopping malls.
It is appalling to read what humans are doing to the earth for money. Radioactive pollution of water, air and soil from nuclear energy, and now fracking, which shatters subsurface rocks and disturbs and pollutes the water table to toxic levels. One could go on and on. But the really sad thing is that humans continue to behave as though consumerism is not an ever-increasing self-destructive spiral, and they continue to treat the natural world, in our oil and gas addicted society, as if it is merely something to be utilized and turned into cash by any means possible, and not the very source of our existence and our only means of survival.
In a previous posting we took a look at the poetry of Ernest Dowson, who sadly lost himself in drink and other excesses and died at age 32. It puts us in mind of Dylan Thomas, who similarly was afflicted by alcoholism and died at 39. That should be a warning to those who are sensitive souls to avoid alcohol completely.
We might also note that a strong theme in both Dowson and Dylan Thomas was a focus on youth as a golden time from which they did not really want to part. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychotherapist, developed the theory of the Puer Aeternus, the “eternal child,” — we might also think of it as “perpetual child” — a man who cannot quite make the psychological transition from childhood to genuine adulthood, and consequently lives life in a reckless and often dangerous way, and frequently dies young as a consequence. Such people behave as though they are invulnerable.
A classic example in literature, according to Jung’s student Marie-Louise von Franz, is the character of the Little Prince, in the the popular story of the same name by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — an author and adventurer who also drank too much and took too many risks, and again died rather young, at age 44.
I had my own experience of a Puer Aeternus in a young man I met many years ago. I recall how together we went to see Crater Lake, in Oregon, which is a very deep and blue lake in the caldera of an ancient volcano. There was a protective wall marking off the viewing area at the high edge of the crater, but this young fellow climbed over the wall and walked some distance down a slope of loose rubble just above a sheer drop of several hundred feet into the caldera. When I saw him climbing over the wall onto that unstable and slippery edge, it made me extremely uncomfortable, and I urged him again and again to come back, but he refused; he had to go peek over, closer to the very edge. Fortunately he survived that day, and managed to climb back to safety (but only after he had done as he wished) without falling to his death. But this risky behavior, I gradually found as I got to know him better, manifested in other ways in his life as well, and within about three years he was dead. I always think of him whenever I hear the term Puer Aeternus.
This poem by Ernest Dowson shows us a view of life through the eyes of such a person. It is titled in French: La Jeunesse N’a Qu’un Temps. It means literally, “Youth Has But One Time.” In other words, youth only happens once, never to be repeated. That is the constant refrain of this poem:
Swiftly passes youth away Night is coming, fades the day, All things turn to sombre grey
This reminds one of the beginning of the poem by Lorenzo de’ Medici:
How beautiful is youth Which nonetheless is fleeting…
Notice how Dowson sees nothing between the time of youth and the time of death. Youth quickly passes, only to be replaced by the end of day (the end of life) and death (All things turn to sombre grey).
Pass the cup and drink, friends, deep Roses upon roses heap, Soon it will be time to sleep.
This is precisely the attitude of the “Eternal Child”; youth is short and already passing, so, as is said in the Bible in 1 Corinthians 15:32, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Soon it will be time to sleep). And we know what this life of excess did for and to Dowson.
Man, poor man, is born to die, Love and all things fair will fly; Fill the cup and drain it dry.
This is the same “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die” sentiment, and it is repeated in the next two stanzas:
Make ye merry, while ye may; Snatch the sweetness of the day, Pluck life’s pleasures while they stay.
When our youth has taken flight, When the day is lost in night, There can be no more delight.
Then comes the last stanza, a rather black and bleak drinking toast:
Here’s a glass to memory Here’s to death and vanity, Here’s a glass to you and me.
The memory of youth and happiness, the anticipation of death, the realization that all of life seems pointless and vain, and that all of this applies “to you and me” — such hopelessness is the despairing attitude of the perpetual child, the Puer Aeternus, who like Peter Pan, refuses to grow up — but who, unlike Peter Pan, has to try to live in the real world, but cannot adjust.
It is a sad tale, and a caution that we should learn to recognize that there is life after youth. If one does not learn this in good time, it is all too easy to fall into the hedonistic and fatalistic trap that caught Dowson and has similarly caught many other sensitive young people who have trouble making the transition from youth to adulthood.
A noteworthy difference between hokku as it was practiced in old Japan and hokku as it is practiced today in English is the method of dealing with season.
The seasons are essential to hokku, one of its defining characteristics. Every hokku is set in a particular season, whether it is an old Japanese hokku or a new English-language hokku.
The difference in method between old and new is this:
In old Japanese hokku, season was indicated by a “season word” that automatically indicated a particular seasonal setting. Unfortunately, this system, over time, became very artificial and cumbersome, requiring elaborately long lists of words and the seasons they indicate, as well as years of study on the part of writers and educated readers, in order to use and understand those words correctly.
In modern English-language hokku, we keep the all-important connection of a hokku with a particular season, but we no longer use long lists of often artificial-seeming season words. Instead, each hokku is marked with the season in which it is written. Then when it is shared with others or published, that seasonal categorization goes along with it.
What that means, in practical use, is that instead of the whole book of season words and their meanings required for old hokku, the writer and reader of modern hokku now only has to know the standard four seasons: spring, summer, autumn/fall, and winter. It takes away the artificiality and the cumbersomeness and the years of study necessary for writing and reading old hokku, and makes it all very free and practical, yet it is still completely in keeping with the spirit of old hokku that requires it be connected to a season.
Perhaps you have noticed that generally, when I discuss old hokku here, I mention the seasons to which they belong. And perhaps you have noticed that I usually discuss spring hokku in the springtime, summer hokku in summer, autumn hokku in autumn, and winter hokku in winter. That too is a part of the old hokku tradition. So hokku are to be both written and read in their appropriate seasons. The only common exception is when out-of-season hokku are used for educational purposes. The rest of the time we read and write a hokku within its correct season. The aesthetic principle behind that practice is that it keeps us in harmony with what is happening in Nature. It also prevents the awkwardness and inappropriateness an aesthetically-educated hokku enthusiast senses on reading an out-of-season verse, the same kind of awkwardness one feels when one sees Christmas lights up in July, or Halloween decorations in the spring.
Our modern practice also, I may add, is often an aid in translating old hokku without awkwardness. For example, here is a spring hokku by Shōha:
Asa kochi ni tako uru mise wo hiraki keri Morning east-wind at/ kite sell shop wo /open has
If we try to put that in English, we find a problem. A ko-chi is literally an “east wind.” But kochi — “east wind” — is also a season word indicating spring. So under the “old” system we would have to include all of the following as the setting of the hokku in translation:
A morning spring wind
R. H. Blyth, in his translation of Shōha, includes all of that in this order:
A spring breeze this morning:
That makes the first line of the hokku awkwardly long, even though Blyth accurately conveyed the overall meaning (avoiding the literalness of “east wind,” which Western readers would not recognize as a spring season word).
In modern English-language hokku, however, our categorization of each hokku avoids that problem, because Shōha’s verse would appear under its seasonal heading, like this:
The morning breeze; A shop selling kites Has opened.
The seasonal indication, which must be included within the old hokku, is instead present as the seasonal categorization preceding the hokku in the new system.
A sequence of several spring hokku by the same or various authors would have the seasonal categorization at the beginning of the sequence, so that readers would know automatically that all the hokku in the sequence are set in spring.
As for the significance of Shōha’s “Morning breeze” hokku, it indicates a unity between Nature and human activity. It is somewhat the opposite of the “If you build it, they will come” used in the movie Field of Dreams. In this case, it is, “If the spring wind blows, a kite shop will open.” It is like “When the weather warms in spring, flowers will bloom.” The combination of the breeze and the shop opening gives us a feeling of the activity of spring — of the Yang (active) aspect of Nature increasing, as yin (passive) decreases.
One of the most difficult things for the beginning student of hokku to grasp is the difference in what we might call “levels” of hokku. It is common for someone unfamiliar with the principles of hokku to read hundreds of old verses from the time of Bashō and Onitsura in the 17th century up to the time of Shiki and his “haiku” revolt near the turn of the last century, without ever having noticed the differences in “level.”
What do I mean by “level” in hokku? Put very simply, some verses, however pleasant they may be, are little more than illustrations, “pictures” in words. In others, however, one has the feeling that there is more going on in the verse than is stated in words. There is a feeling of hidden “depth.”
Hokku with “depth” were appreciated through most of the history of hokku. But near the end of the 19th century, with the “reforms” of Shiki, verses became more and more like “pictures,” without depth. Everything was on the surface, so we speak of such verses as “superficial,” even though they may still be pleasing.
Shiki was a great admirer of the earlier writer Buson, who was a painter as well as a composer of hokku. But even Buson came up with verses with “depth,” while those of Shiki himself tend to be superficial, to be little more than pleasant illustrations. I often compare hokku of this kind to those attractive Japanese woodblock prints one finds by Hasui and Yoshida. It does not mean they are bad, it just means that they lack depth.
Here, for example, is a “spring” verse by Shiki:
Spring rain; Holding an umbrella, Looking at picture books in a shop.
You have to picture a man standing just inside one of those old-fashioned, Japanese open-fronted book shops, looking at the books laid out flat on tables as he holds the kind of paper-and-bamboo umbrella that used to be typical of that time and place. This verse is a “picture,” with not much more in it than that.
If we look at another spring verse of approximately the same late period, we find that even though it is written by someone else, in this case Otsuji, we still get a kind of illustration:
Seen between the trees —
A path to the sea.
It is pleasant and quiet and undemanding, and though we may think at first that it too is only an illustration, notice that we at least feel behind it the vastness and power of the (hidden) sea. So while it is still largely a “picture,” it is less superficial than the verse by Shiki.
Now we can turn to the person Shiki so admired — Buson — who lived in the 18th instead of the 19th-20th century:
Bags of seeds Becoming soaked; The spring rain.
To the novice, that might seem to be little different from the other two verses, but really it is worlds apart. Like them, it is an event in spring, but in this case we sense the power inherent in the bags of seeds, and we know that the spring rain is going to affect them if they are left in it for long; they are going to begin to swell and sprout with abundant new life. So even without it being said, we feel a kind of hidden power in this verse, something “big” going on that is not even mentioned in the words of the verse. That unspoken part of a hokku, which is really all the better for being left unspoken, is what gives depth. In Buson’s verse we really feel the nature and character of spring, which we do not in the other two.
Of course not all hokku are quite that obvious. In general we can say, however, that older hokku tend to have more depth than verses written after Shiki’s propaganda urged writers to make “sketches from life.” And of course Shiki liked to call those “new” verses by a different name — “haiku,” even though they were still essentially hokku in form and often in content.
It is useful, then for the student of hokku to look through lots of old hokku, comparing them to see which have a sense of depth, and which are just “pictures” in words, with little beyond that. The key to determining depth is to look for something unspoken in the hokku, for something beyond what is actually written. If it is not there, the hokku — like the first example by Shiki, is superficial, no matter how pleasant it may be otherwise.
Today’s poem is a bit tricky, because it begins (with one possible exception) as one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ simpler poems, yet turns, at the very end, into one of his most difficult.
Nothing is so beautiful as spring— When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy, Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning, Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy, Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
As usual, I shall deal with it part by part:
Nothing is so beautiful as spring— When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
First, Hopkins tell us that nothing is as beautiful as spring. It is the time when green weeds shoot up long and lovely and thickly through old wheels — at least that is the simple, straightforward explanation. Why wheels? Because Hopkins still lived in the time of the wooden-spoked wheels common on wagons and carriages, and in the countryside around farmyards, it was common to see a large old wheel leaning against an outbuilding or lying on the ground.
An alternative explanation one often reads (found in Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, by Paul L. Mariani) opines that by “weeds, in wheels,” Hopkins meant the stalks of the plant known as Solomon’s Seal, the flowers of which “hang down at intervals of several inches, bending the stem into an arc so that they ‘look so much like the spokes of a wheel.’” I have to say that I find this alternative explanation completely unconvincing, because the ordinary Solomon’s Seal, with which gardeners are familiar, looks nothing at all like a wheel, even when bent in its natural arc.
However, I would propose, as a more likely alternative, the rather esoteric possibility that Hopkins could indeed have been referring to the Solomon’s Seal, but not at all the kind (Polygonum multiflorum) interpreters assume, which grows in a sideways arc. Instead, I would suggest a particular and lesser-known variety of Solomon’s Seal that grows wild in parts of Wales (Hopkins spent considerable time there). It is Polygonum verticillatum, or “Whorled Solomon’s Seal.” It is an
unusual kind of Solomon’s Seal that does not grow in an arc, but rather grows upright on a long, straight stalk. The notable thing about it is that, somewhat like the horsetail rush, the upright stalk has whorls of thin green leaves spaced at intervals along its height, so that it would fit precisely the notion of “weeds, in wheels, that shoot long and lovely and lush,” if one uses the term “weeds” with a bit of poetic license to mean the wild Whorled Solomon’s Seal. The green whorls would be the “wheels.” Now obviously, it would be extremely unlikely for anyone reading the poem to make that jump of association, unless he or she were familiar with the wild flora of Wales; there is certainly nothing else in the poem to indicate it. So one may opt for the more natural-seeming “old wooden wheels” explanation, if one wishes, even though the possibility remains that Hopkins may have really intended a reference to Polygonumverticillatum.
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
A thrush is a small bird. Its eggs, which one sees in its spring nest in low bushes or in trees, are a bright, turquoise blue (with a few small black speckles); that is why they look like “little low heavens,” that is, they look like the blue sky come down to earth. The song of the thrush, heard echoing through the forest trees (timber), is so sweet and pure that it seems to cleanse the ears. Hopkins uses laundry words — “rinse” and wring” to indicate this, but he just means that hearing it has a “clean” and pure effect on the ear. Because of that, it’s song seems to strike the ear like lightning, with the surprise of freshness and suddenness. Note the emphasis on cleanness and purity, which is a major theme of the poem, and a characteristic, in it, of spring.
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
By “glassy,” Hopkins means “shiny and glossy.” the new leaves and the blossoms of the pear tree seem to brush the blue spring sky that forms their background, “the descending blue.”
“All in a rush with richness” — now that winter has passed; suddenly, “all in a rush” the sky becomes a rich, deep blue.
… the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
The spring lambs leaping and playing also have “fair their fling,” their own beautiful time to exult in spring by their gamboling, their playful leaping about.
What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden.
What is all this freshness, the new sap in tree and leaf, the life-giving rush of similar “juice” in grasses and weeds, all the joy and gladness that spring brings to humans and other creatures? It is a “strain,” a kind of related descendant, of “earth’s sweet being in the beginning in Eden garden.” It is all that is left of the purity and sweetness of the “Garden of Eden,” of the earth at the Creation (in traditional Christian teaching), before the Fall of Man (again in Christian teaching) destroyed all that purity and joy. So Hopkins presents us with Nature in spring as an example of divine purity, But as we shall see, he worries that it is all to be spoiled.
And now we come to the most difficult part of the poem, difficult because Hopkins’ language here is so garbled and obscure in syntax. We should not blame the reader for this — it is just that Hopkins’ liking for odd phrasings got so out of hand in these last lines that the result is confused obscurity. As responsible readers, we should not pretend that they are perfectly clear when they obviously are not; nor should we suppose that there is any virtue in such a lack of clarity, which cannot be defended here as a poetic effect, as it can be in other poems by Hopkins. It is simply a flaw in the poem. Hopkins was not infallible.
For what it is worth, here is how I untangle it:
—Have, get, before it cloy, Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning, Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy, Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
If one understands these lines as the poet first speaking to ordinary people, and in the last line speaking to Jesus (Christ), then one would understand it to mean this:
Spring, in all its freshness and life and beauty, offers humans a last trace and remainder of the pure earth before the fall, and consequently it is an aspect of the heavenly, of Christ. Therefore, Hopkins urges people to have that pure “Christ” essence found in spring, to get it while it is fresh and new, before it changes and loses its appeal. Get it before it clouds and obscures Christ (lord), before the human tendency to sin sours the innocent minds of girls and boys, and therefore sours Mayday (not only the literal day, but also that pure experience of spring). And most of all, people should get it before its “fall” from that initial freshness and purity affects their choosing of Christ over sinning (and here Hopkins addresses Jesus — “before it sours THY choice” — before it ruins people’s ability to choose Christ and heaven, — the only choice (in Hopkins’ view) that is “worthy of” (worth) winning.
So I would loosely paraphrase the last lines like this:
Have, get it, before our sinning makes it go bad,
Before wrong actions and thoughts sour and darken the innocent minds and Mayday for boys and girls —
Above all, Son of the Virgin (maid) Mary, before its souring prevents them from choosing you, the only choice worth making, the prize worth winning.
That is very much in keeping with Hopkins’ Roman Catholic view of sin and its effects, and May was particularly meaningful to him as the month in which Catholics honor Mary. But is that interpretation what Hopkins intended? I think it is close, but in these last lines he has stated his view so confusedly that his precise meaning is likely forever obscured.
There is a slightly different, alternative explanation found in some sources, which treats the last four lines as all being in the “vocative” in relation to Christ, that is, understanding them to be addressing Christ only. If one follows that interpretation, then it would go like this, in paraphrase:
—O Christ, O lord, have and get this period of freshness and innocence in humans before it goes bad,
Before sinning clouds both the innocent minds of girls and boys and May Day (both the day and the time of youth);
And most of all, O son of the virgin Mary, get them before sin clouds/affects your choice of them (as your followers), because they are worth your winning them (as Christians).
That latter interpretation seems unlikely and rather forced to me, but I present it here as one found in various sources.
In any case, the obscurity of phrasing that leads to such variations in interpretation should be a good lesson to poets not to let their poetic license get so far out of hand that it makes their writing near incoherent. The result, in this case, is that the simpler bulk of the poem (excepting the “weeds in wheels” uncertainty) tends to be spoiled by its nearly indecipherable ending.
Hopkins was often good in composition, but not always great, and sometimes made bad choices (in life, as well as in poetry).
To better understand today’s poem we must first put ourselves into the mindset of Gerard Manley Hopkins in the year 1864, when the poem was written. He was a sensitive fellow for whom life in the everyday world was difficult and trying. He sought (but unfortunately did not find) in conversion to Roman Catholicism, in 1866, a refuge from those daily stresses.
It is also essential that we look at a segment of a much earlier poem by the English poet (born in Wales) George Herbert (1593-1633), who ended his work The Size with these lines:
Then close again the seam Which thou has open’d: do not spread thy robe In hope of great things. Call to minde thy dream, And earthly globe, On whose meridian was engraven, These seas are tears, and heav’n the haven.
Herbert’s poem, in essence, advises the ordinary person not to expect material happiness in this world, but rather to accept lack of material things in this life so that there might be spiritual rewards in the next. He says one should not expect joys both in this world and in heaven, because even God (incarnated as Jesus) “was hungrie (hungry) here” (during his lifetime in this world).
So from Herbert’s poem, we should take the notion that to enjoy the pleasures of heaven one must give up material pleasures and strong joys on this earth. It is an old concept — “self-denial,” — and it is on that notion that Gerard Manley Hopkins based this, one of his best-known poems. Hopkins even took the title of his poem from the last line of Herbert’s poem: Heaven-Haven.
Hopkins’ poem has as its preface the words “A nun takes the veil,” meaning a young woman commits herself to a lifetime as a nun, leaving the “world” and its pleasures behind in hope of joy in heaven, just as Herbert had advised. This world, as written in The Size, is nothing but “seas of tears,” and a person on his or her voyage of life through those seas will only find a quiet haven in heaven. That is the view common to both poems, that of Herbert and that of Hopkins, based on Herbert.
So now you understand Hopkins’ poem before you have even read it; but let’s take a look nonetheless:
A nun takes the veil
I have desired to go Where springs not fail, To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail And a few lilies blow.
And I have asked to be Where no storms come, Where the green swell is in the havens dumb, And out of the swing of the sea.
We shall approach it part by part.
The poem is spoken by the nun who is taking the veil, choosing to spend her life as a “bride of Christ.” She tells us why she is doing it. She has decided to “leave this world,” to go “where springs not fail,” which is Hopkinsese for “where springs do not fail.” In the New Testament, water is a symbol of the spiritual and genuine life. We understand why springs are mentioned by Hopkins (which were also mentioned earlier in Herbert’s poem) when we look at the words of Jesus to the “woman at the well” in the Gospel attributed to John (13-14):
“Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”
So in this material world, the springs from which we drink fail, and do not permanently satisfy. It is only the “waters of life” — of spirituality — that do “not fail,” and that is what the woman in Hopkins’ poem is seeking.
She wants to go to “fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,” to a place away from the harsh and painful storms of earthly life, where one is no longer subject to the unpleasant hazards and unhappinesses (hailstones are sometimes rounded, but also can be angular, pyramidal, flat, etc. — “sharp-sided,” or in Hopkinsese, “sharp and sided”). Thinking of heaven as “fields” is a concept as old as the ancient Greeks, with their Elysian Fields.
“And a few lilies blow.”
These words are often misunderstood simply because word usage comes into and goes out of fashion over time. “Blow” is the critical word. Here it is used in the old sense, meaning “to bloom.” So the woman leaving the world is saying she wants fields where a few lilies bloom. She is not saying she wants lilies blowing in the wind. Lilies are old symbols of purity in Christianity, and the fact that the nun says “a few” is an indication of her modesty and “ascetic” expectations. She does not expect whole fields of them — just a few, which we may think of as modest pleasures of purity and spirituality.
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.
In that stanza Hopkins directly addresses the statement of George Herbert:
“These seas are tears, and heav’n the haven.”
The nun speaking says (remember the hail?) that she has asked to be in a place “where no storms come.” We should recall the old days of sailing ships, when to be caught in a storm at sea (here the “sea of life”) was dangerous and violent. At such a time, a ship would seek a haven, a port out of the reach of the violence of the waves. But our nun is not looking for “any old port in a storm.” The haven she seeks is heaven, a place where “no storms come.”
It is a place where “the green swell,” meaning the rising and falling waves of the sea of life, are “in the havens dumb.” “Dumb” here is used in its old sense of “silent,” and it modifies not “havens,” but rather “the green swell.” Put into modern English it would be, “Where the green, swelling waves are quiet in the havens.” In a haven, the great waves found on the sea become small and calm, because the haven is a port, like a bay, that offers a ship protection, a place “out of the swing of the sea,” out of the great motions and upheavals and risings and fallings of the waves on the open sea.
So in essence, “Heaven-Haven” is a brief poem about a nun who “takes the veil” permanently, joining convent life and leaving the temporary pleasures and many pains of the material life behind in hope of the simple and pure and protected joys of the spiritual life, ultimately of heaven. One cannot, she believes (as Mary told Bernadette in the story of the apparitions at Lourdes), be happy both in this world and the next. So our nun is giving up this life for her humble hopes of joy in the next life.
Well, that is the religiously romantic view of things, and it is the view Hopkins had as a convert to Catholicism. He had a rather miserable life after conversion and becoming a Jesuit, and he must have often told himself, when in the depths of depression, that one should not expect to be happy in this world, only in the next.
The poem takes on a rather darker face when seen against the backdrop of Hopkins’ own unhappy religious life, but the poems we read are also affected by our own personal experiences in life.
For me, Heaven-Haven will always remind me of a sunny day in my college years, when I stopped at a Carmelite convent near the sea, just south of what was then a much quieter town, Carmel, in California. There I interviewed a nun for a project I was doing. I wanted to know her view of why one would spend one’s life in that way. She was a calm and very pleasant person, and the location itself was quiet and peaceful. A short distance to the west of the convent lay a pleasant little sandy bay “out of the swing of the sea,” and the air of the whole region was fragrant with the wild artemisia that scented the coastal lowlands and hills in those warm days.
Thinking of the nuns in that quiet place by the sea, I recall lines from another poem about the 6th-century Celtic saint Govan, who lived as a hermit by the sea in Wales:
St Govan still lies in his cell But his soul, long since is free, And one may wonder – and who can tell- If good St Govan likes Heaven as well As his cell by that sounding sea?
By the way, George Herbert’s poem The Size also contains an old English proverb that goes back before his time. In telling people that they should not expect to be happy both in this world and the next, Herbert says,
Wouldst thou both eat thy cake, and have it?
If that phrase puzzles you, it means, “Do you want to both eat your cake and still keep it?” One obviously cannot do both, and that is why our nun in Heaven-Haven gives up earth for heaven.