Put very simply, today’s poem by the homosexual poet and Catholic priest Gerard Manley Hopkins is a word painting of a small waterfall on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, in Scotland. He visited it in autumn of 1881, on a somewhat dark and gloomy day.
The poem is in the usual rather difficult Hopkinsese — his peculiar poetic language that mixes archaic and regional and made-up words — which can be both pleasing and, at times, mystifying. With Hopkins one sometimes has the feeling of reading a foreign language. But fear not; all shall be explained here. Keep in mind that some Hopkins terminology is open to differences of opinion. I shall discuss the poem stanza by stanza.
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
First let’s discuss vocabulary:
“Darksome” means simply dark.
A “burn” is a stream. The word comes from Anglo-Saxon (Old English), it appears in later English as “bourne,” but has largely fallen out of use except in the Scots language, which is why Hopkins uses it here for a stream in Scotland.
“Rollrock highroad” is Hopkins’ way of describing high, rocky course of the stream, with its tumbled boulders. A highroad is a main road — and it is used here to describe the stream out of which the waterfall plunges. And “rollrock” makes us feel the tumbled rocky nature of the stream and the basin into which it falls — so the “rollrock highroad” here is the high rocky stream from which the waterfall plunges down among tumbled boulders.
“Coop” is an old term for a basket. This describes the rocky depressions in the course of the stream.
“Comb” indicates the rocks through which the water flows, like hair through a comb, or like fleece being combed. “Comb” also is an old word for a valley or large depression, but Hopkins likely intends the first meaning here.
“Fleece” is the wooly hair of a sheep or goat. Hopkins uses it here to describe the white foam on the water.
“Flutes” is a verb here, from the noun “flute” in the sense of a channel or groove, as in an architectural column. It describes the water dividing into narrow strands as it becomes a waterfall, plunging down among the rocks of the lower stream.
Now that we know all that, what Hopkins is saying is simply this:
The dark stream, brown as the back of a horse, comes roaring down among tumbled boulders. Flowing through depressions (“coop”) and divided by rocks in its path (“comb”), the fleece-like foamy water finally “flutes” — that is, divides into strands as it falls over the rocks and into the plunge basin, and flows on down to where, lower, the water finally empties into the lake — that is, into Loch Lomond.
Now why would the water be so brown? Well, first we must keep in mind that this is autumn, in which the Loch Lomond area gets roughly 17 to 20 days of rain per month, which tends to muddy the streams. But also it is an area of peat bogs, which can turn water a brown color. There is something similar in my state — Root Beer Falls on the Williamson River in Klamath County, Oregon. I saw it once, and the water really is brown as root beer, from the tinge the Williamson River picks up from the Klamath Marsh.
A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Hopkins begins by describing the foam on the water as a “windpuff bonnet.” I believe this is often misunderstood. One commentator, for example, opines that Hopkins mean the foam was like a bonnet puffed up by the wind. But actually Hopkins, in his typical fashion, meant something even more odd here. A “windpuff” is a kind of bubble-like swelling that sometimes appears on the fetlock of horses. The fetlock is that last wide part near the bottom of the leg, after which it narrows and joins the hoof. So Hopkins is likening the foam on the water to a bonnet (a “covering” that is, like a bonnet covers the head) of windpuffs — of bubble swellings.
“Fawn-froth” describes the brown and white coloring of the foam — the “froth” on the water.
“Twindles” is a Hopkins-made word that seems to combine “twirls” and the old word “windle,” meaning “to turn round and round” — describing the whirlpool swirling of the brownish-white foam on the water.
“Pitchblack” refers to the blackness of a pitch made by distilling, a process that makes it very black or dark brown and sticky; it is not the natural amber-colored pitch one sees on the bark of coniferous trees.
“Fell” means evil or cruel, but it also means a high and barren mountainous region — so “fell-frowning” means both to frown in an evil manner and gloomy as the barren hills — like the rocks that brood over the falls.
So, given all that, here is what the stanza means:
A covering of bubbles like the swellings on the fetlocks of horses, dappled like the skin of a fawn, turns and twirls over the water of a pool so pitch black and gloomy-evil-looking that it swirls round and round like a kind of hopeless despair, finally “drowning” — that is, sucking the water down in the center, like water swirling down a drain.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
“Degged” is an old Northern English dialect word meaning “sprinkled”
“Groins” as used here is an architectural term, meaning here the curving of the rocks through which the water flows.
A “brae” is a bank or shore (of a stream) — the word is again Scots.
“Heathpacks” here are clumps of the heather — the heath plant — so common in Scotland.
“Flitches” is rather obscure here. Hopkins seems to be likening the fronds of ferns growing on the banks to thin slices — i. e. “fronds of fern.”
The “bead-bonny ash” is the rowan tree with its clusters of orange-red berries that look like beads, that is, the mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) not the common ash (Fraxinus excelsior) tree found in Britain. “Bonny” is Scots for “beautiful.”
We can translate all that as:
The curved, rocky banks that the brook flows through are sprinkled and dappled with dew on wiry clumps of heather, fronds of ferns, and the beautiful berries of the mountain ash that hangs over the stream.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
There is nothing difficult in this last stanza. Hopkins simply states that the world would not be the same without the wetness and wildness of places like Inversnaid, with its rocky stream and waterfall. He pleads that such places should be left as they are, and ends with the hope “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
It is the same sentiment we find in his poem Binsey Poplars, which similarly pleas for leaving nature alone:
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
It is perhaps most clearly and succinctly stated, however, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, as expressed in his essay “Walking”:
“The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World.“