HURRAHING IN HARVEST: HOPKINS SEES GOD IN NATURE

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One more Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, and then I will move on to something else.  It seems odd to be discussing a poem about autumn, given that it is spring now, but here it is nonetheless.

In this poem, we note something Hopkins frequently does; he talks about Nature, but applies his (Catholic) religion to it, believing that God is revealed in Nature.  William Wordsworth had as his theory of poetry that one should use the words of everyday language, “and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of the imagination.” Hopkins, with his often strange and creative vocabulary, cannot be accused of using only “everyday language,” but he is certainly guilty of throwing  a “coloring of the imagination” (his Catholic religion) over his subject matter (Nature).  I tend to think of it as “smearing God all over Nature.”  It is quite the opposite of the aesthetics of hokku, in which Nature is preferred without any “coloring of the imagination” (you will note that Wordsworth uses the British spelling “colouring,” while I use the American “coloring.”).

But on to the poem, which I shall discuss part by part — Hurrahing in Harvest.  A “hurrah” is a shout, an exclamation of joy and approval, so we could say this means “Rejoicing in the Harvest.”

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise

Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour

Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier

Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

The poet stands looking over the golden fields.  It is the end of summer.  He sees the stooks standing all over the now-harvested fields of grain.  Stooks are sheaves of grain placed upright together in a shape like a teepee.  Hopkins finds them beautiful in a barbarous (“unsophisticated, rough, wild”) way.

Then he looks up to the sky above, and comments,

what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour

Of silk-sack clouds!

The “wind-walks” are the sky itself, the open sky, the various routes through which the moving clouds pass as well as the gaps between them.  Hopkins likens the white clouds to smooth and shiny sacks made of silk, remarking on the the beauty of their changes as they drift across the sky.

…has wilder, wilful-wavier

Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

He asks himself, has there ever been anything so wild and wilful and wavy as this “meal-drift” that  moulds itself, then melts across the skies?  He is speaking of the shapes and transformations in shape of the clouds.  He likens them to “meal-drift,” that is, to the white dust that drifts in the air and gathers here and there in an old-fashioned mill when grain is being ground into flour.  He likens the clouds to this fine, white powder, and describes it as moulding (American spelling “molding”) itself together into one cloud form, then melting, changing shape, into another form.  Again, he is speaking of the visual transformations of the clouds as they pass across the sky.

But now Hopkins brings in religion and begins smearing it over all he sees:

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes, 

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;

And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a

Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

Hopkins walks along, and as he walks he raises his eyes to the clouds and the sky, and simultaneously, he says, he lifts up his heart — his emotions.

This phrase “lift up heart,” would have come easily to Hopkins, because he would have heard it often in the Roman Catholic mass, when, in a preface to the consecration of the host (bread), the old Latin mass ran like this:

Priest: Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you).

People: Et cum spiritu tuo (And with your spirit).

Priest: Sursum corda (Lift up [your] hearts).

People: Habemus ad Dominum (We lift them up to the Lord).

So Hopkins lifts up his eyes and his heart to the skies, and looks

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;

And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a

Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

So he is doing just what the Catholic mass says:  he is lifting up his heart to the Lord (Jesus), whom he finds in the clouds and sky.  He looks at the gloriously beautiful scene of passing clouds in the blue sky in order to “glean our Savior,” that is, to see Jesus in their beauty.  “To glean” is an old term from grain harvesting.  It meant originally to gather stalks of grain accidentally or even intentionally left behind by the reapers, a practice of benefit to the poor, as in chapter two of the biblical story of Ruth; here Hopkins uses it to mean “gather.”  Like a gleaner, he looks at the beauty of the skies at summer’s end to “gather” Jesus, to see him there.  And he fancies that he also sees a response from Jesus in the clouds:

And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a

Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

He asks his eyes and his heart what looks (of a person) and what lips (of a person) ever before gave him a rapturous greeting of love in “realer, rounder replies” — in replies more “real” and more “round” (both roundish in shape and round as meaning “full, complete.”  In other words, he sees the clouds in the sky as the replies, the unspoken but real and visible “words” of Jesus to Hopkins, as he gazes up at them.  So Hopkins is not only fantasizing that he is seeing Jesus in the sky and clouds, but he also imagines that he sees Jesus expressing love back to him and speaking to him in the changing shapes of the roundish clouds.

But Hopkins does not stop his imaginings there:

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder

Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—

Now Hopkins looks to the low hills, blue in the distance, calling them “azurous hung hills” — hills hung with blue (azure).  He wrote this poem on the 1st of September in the year 1877, on his way home from fishing in the Elwy River in the Vale of Clwyd (pronounced “Clooid”) in Wales, so we may easily picture hills in the distance.  And these bluish hills, Hopkins imagines, are the shoulder of Jesus, who carries the world.  Hopkins sees them thus as majestic, both strong as a stallion (male horse), but also “sweet” — gentle and pleasant — as violets. We may also think of “azurous hung hills” as meaning the distant hills with the blue (azurous) sky above them and forming their background.

One cannot help thinking that Hopkins seeing Jesus in the clouds of the sky as someone giving a “rapturous love’s greeting,” and seeing him in the hills as “strong as a stallion” yet sweet and mild, expresses a thinly-veiled homosexuality, and after all, Hopkins was homosexual by nature.

Hopkins says of the sky, the clouds, the hills,

These things, these things were here and but the beholder

Wanting; which two when they once meet,

The heart rears wings bold and bolder

And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

That is, the beauty of the sky with its passing clouds and the blue hills were things already there before Hopkins paused to notice them.  But before he was there, a beholder was wanting — was lacking.  But when these two things — the scene and its beholder — meet, then the heart suddenly “leaps up” as Wordsworth would say, as though it has wings carrying it upward with wild, beating emotion, and it

...hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

Or, as we would say today, the beauty of the scene nearly knocks him off his feet.

David

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