HOW TO READ HOPKINS: TO WHAT SERVES MORTAL BEAUTY

Certain of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins require a considerable amount of unscrambling. To some they are often just hopelessly obscure at first or even second reading, and I would counsel those people not to give up. Often several readings of a Hopkins poem, sometimes more intent readings, sometimes more relaxed readings, will allow the meaning to come through, just as a developing bath in an old photography studio will gradually bring a sensible picture out of the surface of what seems at first merely blank paper.

There are certain helpful keys to reading Hopkins:

1. Remember that he often arranges words in unusual order, and when you rearrange them in the “right” order, a line will frequently make more sense.
2. Remember that he likes to use old words, and also likes to use familiar words with more old-fashioned or unusual definitions, sometimes not the primary definition one finds in a dictionary. For this, checking with the Oxford English dictionary and reading all of the definitions and examples for a word is frequently helpful.
3. Remember that Hopkins will often say something very simple in what seems a complicated way; he does this for poetic reasons, and because he is so fascinated with the sounds of words and their ranges of meaning.
4. Hopkins tends to repeat a thought in different ways from poem to poem, so the more of his poetry you read, the easier it becomes to understand a given poem.

Today’s poem is one of those requiring patience, but before one can understand it, it helps to know certain things.

1. Hopkins was very fond of the music of the baroque English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). He even wrote a poem in Purcell’s honor.
2. In this poem he expresses his view of the purpose of physical beauty, of “good looks” in humans, and he bases his conclusions largely on an event in the history of the English Church that used to be known to every English schoolboy — the encounter of pope-to-be Gregory with young English slaves in Rome.
3. Hopkins had a love of Nature, but being very “religious,” he thought that seeing beauty in Nature was seeing God manifesting in Nature. He repeats this concept in various poems, and we find it in today’s poem.

So before we even read it, we know that it gives Hopkins’ opinion of the purpose of physical beauty. For Hopkins, who was a lover of beauty but still very religious and also homosexual, it was a matter of concern. We can say that this poem is Hopkins attempting to reconcile his love of beauty with his religious beliefs.

Let’s take a look:

TO WHAT SERVES MORTAL BEAUTY

To what serves mortal beauty | dangerous; does set danc-
ing blood the O-seal-that-so | feature, flung prouder form
Than Purcell tune lets tread to? | See: it does this: keeps warm
Men’s wits to the things that are; | what good means–where a glance
Master more may than gaze, | gaze out of countenance.
Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh | windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

To man, that needs would worship | block or barren stone,
Our law says: Love what are | love’s worthiest, were all known;
World’s loveliest–men’s selves. Self | flashes off frame and face.
What do then? how meet beauty? | Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; | then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, | God’s better beauty, grace.

To make things a bit easier, let’s look at the beginning this way, rearranging the lines:

To what serves mortal beauty — dangerous —
does set dancing blood — the O-seal-that-so | feature —
flung prouder form Than Purcell tune lets tread to?

First Hopkins gives his question:
What use is the dangerous beauty of mortals? What end does it serve?
Hopkins knows that physical beauty can, on the one hand, be dangerous, because it “sets the blood dancing” — it can excite and attract.
And what is it that does the exciting, that sets the blood dancing?

It is the “O, seal that so” feature, the face that makes us wish it to be “sealed” like a letter and kept “so,” kept as it is; the beauty that has been flung into “prouder form” [put into more magnificent form] than “Purcell tune lets tread to.” By that Hopkins means that the visible form of physical beauty has greater magnificence than the stately steps (tread) of a dance composed by Henry Purcell.

Now Hopkins begins his defense of physical beauty, his justification for it:

See: it does this: keeps warm
Men’s wits to the things that are; | what good means–where a glance
Master more may than gaze, | gaze out of countenance.
Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh | windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

“See,” Hopkins tells us, “Physical beauty does this: it keeps man’s consciousness attentive to “things that are” — to the material world, not just to intellectual abstractions. Remember that for Hopkins, we can see God in and through the beauty of the material world.

“What good means,” Hopkins tells us, meaning “What good means” to an end physical beauty is. Why? Because beauty is so striking that “a glance may master [may affect one] more than a long gaze. By this Hopkins means that a mere glance at physical beauty can have a stronger effect than a long but unaffected gaze at something not strikingly beautiful.

Hopkins now gives us the historical example upon which his conclusions are based, his “proof” that a striking glance at physical beauty can have effects far beyond the ordinary:

Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh | windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

Hopkins expects his readers to know what he is referring to here, and any Englishman educated in history would have known. He is referring to an incident from the history of the English church as recorded by the Venerable Bede, an incident in the slave markets of Rome. Gregory, who was to become Pope (“father”) of the Catholic Church, happened to be passing through the slave markets when he saw some very striking youths with blondish hair and pale skin. Having never seen such people before, he asked what they were. He was told they were Angles — “English.” When Gregory, who was much given to punning, heard the reply “Angli” (“Angles,” i. e. “English”) in Latin, he responded, Non Angli sed angeli — “Not Angles but angels,” …if they were Christians.

That chance encounter, that attraction of Gregory’s glance by the young slaves, was said to have led to Gregory’s efforts as Pope toward the conversion of England to Christianity. “Windfalls” here means something knocked down by the winds of war, as farmers speak of “windfall apples” that fall from trees to the ground in a strong wind, and may then be picked up. So then, Hopkins tells us, if it were not for Gregory being struck by the physical beauty of the “Anglish” lads, how else could he have “gleaned” them — that is, how could he have selected them to become Christians, marked them out from all the rest of the swarms of humanity in Rome?

How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarmed Rome?

Here is a rather idealized image of Gregory seeing the young Angles. The real slave market would have been considerably rougher and far less clean and tidy than we see here, I suspect.

nonangli

So, when the glance of Gregory happened to fall on the “Anglish” lads, and he was struck by their looks, in that chance meeting — “that day’s dear chance” — their beauty was what ultimately resulted in the conversion of the English nation to Christianity —

But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

To man, that needs would worship | block or barren stone,
Our law says: Love what are | love’s worthiest, were all known;
World’s loveliest–men’s selves. Self | flashes off frame and face.
What do then? how meet beauty? | Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; | then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, | God’s better beauty, grace.

Man, Hopkins opines, is by nature so moved to worship that he would worship a block of wood or an uncarved stone. But “our law,” that is, the law of human nature, tells man to love instead what is worthiest of love, if all were known, and what is worthiest of love is “men’s selves,” humans themselves. “Self,” Hopkins adds, flashes off frame and face.” Now we know from our reading of another Hopkins poem that expressing “self-nature” was important to him, and in this “self” of humans, Hopkins sees a manifestation of God, because according to the Bible, man was made “in the image of God.” And the greatest “self” to Hopkins was that in which God and his grace are most clearly seen. Remember these lines from his poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his going graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

So humans naturally love beauty in the appearance of other humans, in the face and “frame,” (body) because, Hopkins feels, they sense God behind it.

But here naturally arises the problem of what to do with such beauty. Hopkins certainly does not take the course of hedonism and physical desire. Instead he sees human beauty as useful in the Platonic sense that it leads us gradually beyond itself to the divine:

What do then? how meet beauty? | Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; | then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, | God’s better beauty, grace.

How, then, should we react when we encounter beauty in human form and face? Hopkins tells us to “merely meet it,” that is, just see it, recognize and appreciate it, “home at heart” (untroubled by it, secure in ourselves) as the sweet gift of heaven, BUT, and this is “Hopkins’ big but,” as PeeWee Herman would say, once one has seen and appreciated physical beauty in a human through just looking at it, then one should “LEAVE, LET THAT ALONE.” In other words, see it, enjoy its beauty, then let it go and do not become attached to it — “Look, don’t touch.” Why? Because beyond it is something more to be wished for, the “better beauty” than the physical, the grace which comes from God — the “unmerited favor of God,” as Christians would put it.

So that is Hopkins’ notion of physical beauty in humans; it is naturally attractive to us and we can see God manifesting in it, but we should not become attached to the physical form or we shall miss that which is even more beautiful in it and through it, the grace of God.

It is a sentiment much like that found in William Blake’s poem:

Eternity

He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

It is not a surprising view for a sensitive soul who became a Jesuit. What is surprising is that, like Blake, Hopkins makes poetry of it.

David

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