Today we shall “translate” another of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ oddly but interestingly-worded poems into easily-understandable English. It is his very overtly religious poem,
THE HABIT OF PERFECTION
Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
The title requires some explanation. “Habit” here does not mean a repeated behavior like a “smoking habit”; it means “habit” as in a religious garment like that worn by a Roman Catholic monk or nun. So this poem is about metaphorically “putting on the garment of perfection.”
An “elected” silence is a chosen silence, a silence not forced on someone, but chosen by them. Hopkins addresses that chosen silence as if it were a person, saying “Chosen silence, sing to me.” He asks Silence to “beat upon my whorled ear,” meaning to let him hear not sounds, but silence. By “whorled,” which he accents to be pronounced as “WHOR-led,” he is simply describing the curved shape we see in everyone’s ears.
He asks this personified Silence to “Pipe me to pastures still.” He is speaking of silence as though it were actually sound, asking it to Pipe him to quiet “fields.” “Pipe” here means to play a blown musical instrument, like the flute the Pied Piper of Hameln used in the old story to lead children into a mountain, or like the bagpipes a scottish piper plays to formally lead people into a dinner or ceremony. So Hopkins calls on Silence to lead him into quiet and restful peace, to be the soundless “music that I care to hear,” the sound of silence.
Now Hopkins begins to talk to his own body:
Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.
By “shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb,” he means, “Lips, do not form words, do not speak, be beautifully silent (dumb). And he says it is the closing of the mouth, its silence, that makes it truly eloquent. Truly beautiful speech, he thinks, is silence. This shutting of the lips he calls a curfew. A curfew is a signal sent to people that they must be off the streets and indoors. To hopkins it means leaving the outer world of the senses and going inside one’s self. This curfew of silence is sent “from there where all surrenders come,” which is the willingness of the person to give himself over, in Hopkins’ view, to the impulses sent from God.
Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.
To be shelled (again, Hopkins wants us to pronounce it in two syllables as “SHEL-led” here means to be covered. It is likening the eyelids to two shells that cover the eyes when closed. That is why he says that closing the eyes will cover them “with double dark,” meaning not only the darkness behind each of the two eyelids, but the darkness in both eyes.
This “ruck and reel” — the outer crowd of things and movement that the eyes ordinarily — “remark” (notice) and pay attention to, “coils keeps and teases” simple sight. It captures it, like a vine coiling about a plant, it keeps (holds) it, it teases (distracts) it. Hopkins simply means that to enter silence one should shut the eyes to the events and movements of the outer world, because they hold back and confuse true sight, the simple “primary” sight that is the inner vision of the divine not seen by physical eyes.
Now he moves on to addressing the inside of the mouth:
Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!
He tells the palate, which he calls the cage (hutch) of the desire (lust) for pleasant tastes, not to desire to be “rinsed with wine,” not to desire to drink wine. That is because, he imagines, the can (here it means a cup or cup-like container) must be so sweet, and the crust (bread) so fresh when one is abstaining from food in a religious fast. Hopkins is saying that abstaining from the physical pleasures of food and drink brings spiritual pleasures of “divine” food that are far sweeter and more fresh than material food. So we see that in this poem he speaks paradoxically of silence as the “true” sound, looking inward as the “true” sight, and fasting (abstaining from food) as the “true” food.
Now he turns to addressing the nose:
Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!
He tells the nostrils that waste their breath on the arousing and maintaining of pride (like someone with his “nose in the air”), that there is something far better for them if one turns inward — then what “relish” (great enjoyment) shall the censers (incense burners) send along the sides of the sanctuary (within the church) — what a spiritual fragrance one will breathe during the celebration of the mass.
O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.
By his elaborate “feel-of-primrose” hands, Hopkins is addressing simply the sense of touch in the hands that can feel a primrose plant; and he speaks of the same sense of touch in the feet that want the sensation of soft grass (“plushy sward”) beneath them. “Want” here may also be understood as the lack (feet are denied) the feel of soft grass after one has become a monk. One may read it with either or both meanings. Instead of these sensory perceptions, Hopkins says the feet will “walk the golden street,” that is, they will walk in Heaven, and the hands will “unhouse and house the Lord.” In Roman Catholicism, the round and flat “host,” the bread used in the mass, is traditionally believed to become the body of Jesus when it is consecrated. It is kept in small cabinet (the “tabernacle”) with a door on it, and when the priest takes the bread out of the tabernacle or puts it back in, he is “unhousing” and “housing” the Lord, in the Catholic view.
And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.
When someone becomes a Catholic monk, he takes a vow of poverty. So Hopkins pictures this becoming a monk as a marriage ceremony in which the monk marries poverty. And in that symbolic marriage celebration, Hopkins asks Poverty (St. Francis used to speak of her as “Lady Poverty”) to provide “lily-colored” clothes for her husband, clothes “not laboured-at nor spun.” So he means he wants to be clothed in spiritual clothing, not clothes that have been made from cloth spun and woven on a loom. This is actually a biblical reference to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:28, which in the Douai-Rheims version reads:
And for raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these.
So what is this poem all about? It is about a person choosing a monastic and priestly life, turning away from the pleasures of the senses to the (in Hopkins’ view) superior pleasures of spiritual things, which are just the opposite: Instead of speech, there is silence; instead of pleasant sights, the is the inward “uncreated light” of God; instead of the taste of food and drink, there is the “taste” of not eating for religious reasons — of fasting; instead of the breath perpetuating arrogance, the nostrils will smell divine fragrance; instead of earthly objects pleasant to touch with the fingers or feet, there will be the streets of heaven (metaphorical and literal) and using the hands to place the “host” in the tabernacle; and finally, instead of material clothing, there is the “spiritual clothing” of the monk in poverty.
It is not a perfect poem. Hopkins stretches things a bit too far at points, such as in his association of the nostrils and arrogance, and the odd preference of walking on golden streets (even if metaphorical) to walking on soft grass, but nonetheless he makes his point that in the religious life, the spiritual is to be preferred to the material. It seems like the kind of poem a young person would write in a religious enthusiasm, and without the actual experience. The Habit of Perfection was written in the middle of January, 1866, when the young Hopkins already had becoming a monk on his mind. Hopkins was only 22 years old, and shortly after the middle of October of that same year, he officially converted to Catholicism. In September of 1870 he entered the Jesuit order, and the unhappy reality of the rest of his life as a Jesuit did not live up to the youthful and romanticized idealism of this early religious poem.