NOTHING IS SO BEAUTIFUL AS SPRING (OR SO CONFUSING, IN THIS CASE)

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.

SPRING

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

Whorled Solomon's Seal / Polygonum verticillatumPicture by Andrea Moro / Dipartimento di Scienze della Vita, Università di Trieste

“Weeds, in wheels” –Whorled Solomon’s Seal / Polygonum verticillatum
Picture by Andrea Moro / Dipartimento di Scienze della Vita, Università di Trieste

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 Polygonum verticillatum.

Song Thrush Nest 10.04.09

Thrush nest (Photo credit: nottsexminer)

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 lightening, 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
With richness:

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).

David

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