NOT LONG TO STAY: HOUSMAN’S LENTEN LILY

If you read the earlier posting on Alfred Edward Housman’s poem Loveliest of Trees, you will notice a similarity of spirit with today’s poem, which is the 29th in his collection A Shropshire Lad. Also a “spring” poem, it is called The Lent Lily, or from the first line, “‘Tis spring; come out to ramble.”

“Lent Lily” is another name for the wild daffodil that grows in the British Isles and is, along with the leek, a plant symbol of Wales. It is the daffodil that Wordsworth wrote of in his “I wandered lonely as a cloud” poem. Its alternate name “Lent/Lenten Lily” comes from the belief, often fact, that the daffodil would go through its blooming between Ash Wednesday and Easter, by which time the flowers would have faded.

The Lent Lily


’Tis spring; come out to ramble
The hilly brakes around,
For under thorn and bramble
About the hollow ground
The primroses are found.

wildprimrose

The speaker gives an invitation: spring is here, so come out and ramble through the hilly brakes. A brake, as used here, means bushes and thickets. He tells us that the reason for rambling the brakes is that in them, under the thorns and brambles (both prickly plants) about the “hollow ground,” one can find wild primroses growing.  “Hollow ground” is an old term for a narrow dale or valley, though it can also mean a cemetery — “hallowed/hollow ground.”

And there’s the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there’s the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.

anemonenemorosa

In addition to wild primroses, one can also find the simple, pale-white windflower (Anemone nemorosa) on its delicate stalk that nods to and fro as the still chilly winds of spring blow; and there is the Lenten Lily — the daffodil — that traditionally fades and dies by Easter Sunday

And since till girls go maying
You find the primrose still,
And find the windflower playing
With every wind at will,
But not the daffodil,

In the countryside the girls used to “go maying,” to gather together to celebrate the arrival of May with garlands and with dancing and celebration. So the speaker tells us that up until as late as May, one may still find the primroses blooming, and still find the windflowers dancing in the wind — but one will no longer find the daffodils in bloom. Therefore, he advises,

Bring baskets now, and sally
Upon the spring’s array,
And bear from hill and valley
The daffodil away
That dies on Easter day.

“To sally” means to leap suddenly forth, to bound forth or dance,” but here the speaker means simply to go energetically out into Nature, to advance upon the wildflowers with which spring is arrayed (clothed, ornamented), and to pick the daffodils blooming in the hills and valleys before they are faded and gone.

This is a less strong version of the lines from Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees”:

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

It is the same sense of transience and the consequent underlying sadness of things that we find in Japanese hokku about cherry blossoms, which also call to mind the brevity of life and how quickly beauty passes.

Note the irony in the repetition that the daffodil “dies on Easter day.” Easter, of course, is the traditional Christian day of resurrection, of supposed new life; but for Housman, who was an agnostic, it is not that at all, but rather a day on which another beautiful thing dies.

David

THE LISTENERS: A PEBBLE TOSSED IN A WELL OF SILENCE

In the late 1800s and first third of the 1900s, it was common for students in elementary and secondary schools to do “recitations,” a dramatic reading of a poem before a group, with the intent to make it have a strong effect on the listeners.  Often these were recited as “show pieces” for school programs and other events.  Poems chosen for this purpose were generally narrative poems, that is, poems that tell a story.  So there were countless amateur performances of poems then popular among ordinary people, such as “The Wreck of the Hesperus,”  “The Highwayman,” and of course “Casabianca,” with its once well-known beginning:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though child-like form.

The flames rolled on–he would not go
Without his Father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

Now such poems are generally considered very dated and “old-fashioned” and, to use an expressive American term, rather “corny.”  You may even have heard the satire on the beginning of “Casabianca”:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Eating peanuts by the peck.
The deck grew hotter,
His feet got toasted;
But he kept on eating — 
He liked ’em roasted.

The “roasted” is of course referring to the peanuts the boy is eating.

All of this is just a lead-in to a narrative poem from 1912 that has held its interest over the years.  It is in most of the standard anthologies.  But it differs from other narrative poems in that it is a story not fully told, but only hinted at, and the effectiveness of the poem lies in its combination of the incomplete narrative with a very poetic use of words to create a mysterious atmosphere.  So it is the atmosphere thus created that keeps this poem popular and interesting.

English: Ruined house at Swinthorpe The chimne...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was written by the British poet Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), who composed many poems (like this one) that are works of romantic fantasy, intended to delight by evoking a mood.  Today’s poem, which I shall discuss in parts, is called

THE LISTENERS

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor.
And a bird flew up out of the turret, 
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.

The poem begins with a mystery.  We are shown a traveller,  but we do not know who he is, or where he is from, or why he has come.  This immediately raises a questioning in the  mind of the reader that continues throughout the poem; but, as we shall see, it is a question that is never answered.  The poet increases the sense of mystery by setting the event at night, in the moonlight.  The Traveller knocks on the door of a house (we are not told whose it is or where exactly it is) that seems abandoned.  The only response to his knock is a bird that flies up out of a turret on the house.  But there is no human response.  It is so quiet that we hear the Traveller’s horse chomping on the grass “of the forest’s ferny floor.”  That just adds to the mystery — a house in a forest?  Is the house beginning to be overgrown by weeds and trees?

But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.

Notice the importance given what is NOT there in the poem:
No one descends — comes downstairs — to the Traveller.
No one looks out over a window sill (the ledge at the bottom of a window), now overgrown by leaves, into the Traveller’s grey eyes.

The Traveller stands there in the silence, puzzled by the absence of a response.

But now we find what the poem is really about.  It is a ghost story:

But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call. 

There are beings in the silent, moonlit house, but they are not the living; they are phantoms — ghosts — spirits of the dead.  The poet tells us there is a “host,” a large number of them.  And they listen in the quiet shadows, pierced here and there by moonlight, to the Traveller’s “voice from the world of men,” that is, to a voice from the world of the living.  The dead hear the voice of the living Traveller, as they throng the dark stairway with faint moonbeams falling on it, the stairway that goes down to an empty hall.  They listen in the “air stirred and shaken” by the “lonely Traveller’s call.”  The noise of his knocking and the sound of his call disturb the deathly silence in the house.

And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even 
Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.

In the silence, in the absence of any answer to his loud knocking or to his call, the Traveller somehow senses there are beings inside the house, but that there is something strange and uncanny about them.  He can feel their presence, even though all is so still that the only motion and sound he notices is that of his horse still biting off and chewing the dark grasses.

The voice of the Traveller reverberates loudly in the stillness as he raises his head and calls out to whoever — whatever — is inside,  asks the strange residents to “Tell them I came,” to tell them “That I kept my word.”  Obviously there is a much larger unspoken story here, and the poet is giving us only a hint of it, which makes it all the more mysterious.

Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake 
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:

The listeners — the phantoms in the house, make not the slightest motion or response, even though every word the traveller speaks echoes his words through the shadows of the house, words from “the one man left awake.”  That means “the one man left alive.”  Left alive?  One left alive of many now dead?  What is the larger tale the poet is not telling us?  Why is the Traveller the only one left alive?  What is his connection to this house and those who once lived there? Why do ghosts — and so many of them — remain in the abandoned house?

All we have are these unanswered questions, the silence, the moonlight.

Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

The Traveller realizes there is nothing more he can do.  He had tried to fulfill some important, past promise, for some unexplained purpose, but the response is only silence.  Too much time has passed.  But the phantoms inside the shadowed house, are aware of everything.  They hear his foot touch the stirrup of the horse when he mounts it to leave.  They hear the sound of the iron horsehoes on stone cobbles as the horse turns to go with its rider.  And the phantoms hear

…how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

The alliteration — the repeated “s” sounds — are like a last whisper, replaced by the heavy silence that surges back like a wave to replace the temporary disturbance, when the last sound of the horse’s pounding hoofs (“plunging hoofs”) fades away.

The overall effect of the poem is to make us deeply feel a rather “spooky” but nonetheless strangely beautiful mystery in all this.  Who is the Traveller?  What promise had he made, and to whom, and why?  And what happened in the intervening years, leaving only ghosts within an abandoned and decaying house in a forest?  None of this is explained, and it leaves us wondering in the silent moonlight, which is exactly what the poet intended, and why the poem is so successful that it is still read today.

As you can see, there is not a great deal to this poem, nothing really profound or intellectual.  There is nothing difficult to understand.  It is just a mood, an atmosphere, a “poem of the imagination,” and the poet’s chief tool in creating that atmosphere is his lack of explanation, his refusal to tell us more.  It is a poem created out of shadows and moonbeams and spider webs, a word picture of deep silence and stillness troubled only momentarily by sound and movement, like a small pebble tossed into a quiet, dark well.

It is not surprising that Walter de la Mare, in addition to his poetry, wrote a few ghost stories, though nothing much remembered today.  But if you like an occasional movie with a shivers-up-the-spine feeling somewhat similar to this poem, you would probably enjoy the film “The Others,” which came out in 2001.

David

 

ERNEST DOWSON AND THE PERPETUAL CHILD: LA JEUNESSE N’A QU’UN TEMPS

In a previous posting we took a look at the poetry of Ernest Dowson, who sadly lost himself in drink and other excesses and died at age 32.  It puts us in mind of Dylan Thomas, who similarly was afflicted by alcoholism and died at 39.  That should be a warning to those who are sensitive souls to avoid alcohol completely.

We might also note that a strong theme in both Dowson and Dylan Thomas was a focus on youth as a golden time from which they did not really want to part.  Carl Jung, the Swiss psychotherapist, developed the theory of the Puer Aeternus, the “eternal child,” — we might also think of it as “perpetual child” — a man who cannot quite make the psychological transition from childhood to genuine adulthood, and consequently lives life in a reckless and often dangerous way, and frequently dies young as a consequence.  Such people behave as though they are invulnerable.

A classic example in literature, according to Jung’s student Marie-Louise von Franz, is the character of the Little Prince,  in the the popular story of the same name by  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — an author and adventurer who also drank too much and took too many risks, and again died rather young, at age 44.

I had my own experience of a Puer Aeternus in a young man I met many years ago. I recall how together we went to see Crater Lake, in Oregon, which is a very deep and  blue lake in the caldera of an ancient volcano.  There was a protective wall marking off the viewing area at the high edge of the crater, but this young fellow climbed over the wall and walked some distance down a slope of loose rubble just above a sheer drop of several hundred feet into the caldera.  When I saw him climbing over the wall onto that unstable and slippery edge, it made me extremely uncomfortable, and I urged him again and again to come back, but he refused; he had to go peek over, closer to the very edge.  Fortunately he survived that day, and managed to climb back to safety (but only after he had done as he wished) without falling to his death.  But this risky behavior, I gradually found as I got to know him better, manifested in other ways in his life as well, and within about three years he was dead.  I always think of him whenever I hear the term Puer Aeternus.

This poem by Ernest Dowson shows us a view of life through the eyes of such a person.  It is titled in French: La Jeunesse N’a Qu’un Temps.  It means literally, “Youth Has But One Time.”  In other words, youth only happens once, never to be repeated.  That is the constant refrain of this poem:

Swiftly passes youth away
Night is coming, fades the day,
All things turn to sombre grey

This reminds one of the beginning of the poem by Lorenzo de’ Medici:

How beautiful is youth
Which nonetheless is fleeting…

Notice how Dowson sees nothing between the time of youth and the time of death.  Youth quickly passes, only to be replaced by the end of day (the end of life) and death (All things turn to sombre grey).

Pass the cup and drink, friends, deep
Roses upon roses heap,
Soon it will be time to sleep.

This is precisely the attitude of the “Eternal Child”;  youth is short and already passing, so, as is said in the Bible in 1 Corinthians 15:32, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Soon it will be time to sleep).  And we know what this life of excess did for and to Dowson.

Man, poor man, is born to die,
Love and all things fair will fly;
Fill the cup and drain it dry.

This is the same “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die” sentiment, and it is repeated in the next two stanzas:

Make ye merry, while ye may;
Snatch the sweetness of the day,
Pluck life’s pleasures while they stay.

When our youth has taken flight,
When the day is lost in night,
There can be no more delight.

Then comes the last stanza, a rather black and bleak drinking toast:

Here’s a glass to memory
Here’s to death and vanity,
Here’s a glass to you and me.

The memory of youth and happiness, the anticipation of death, the realization that all of life seems pointless and vain, and that all of this applies “to you and me” — such hopelessness is the despairing attitude of the perpetual child, the Puer Aeternus, who like Peter Pan, refuses to grow up — but who, unlike Peter Pan, has to try to live in the real world, but cannot adjust.

It is a sad tale, and a caution that we should learn to recognize that there is life after youth.  If one does not learn this in good time, it is all too easy to fall into the hedonistic and fatalistic trap that caught Dowson and has similarly caught many other sensitive young people who have trouble making the transition from youth to adulthood.

procession3

David

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.

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 lightning, 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.

It is worth adding here that given Hopkins’ fondness for the old in language, by “timber” he might alternatively mean the resonance or distinctive tone of the song of the thrush.  Though seldom found, “timber” was sometimes used as an alternate spelling of “timbre,” which definitely has this “musical” meaning.  Hopkins may even have intended a double meaning of “timber.” — both trees and resonance.

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

HEAVEN-HAVEN: REFUGE FROM THE SEA OF TEARS

To better understand today’s poem we must first put ourselves into the mindset of Gerard Manley Hopkins in the year 1864, when the poem was written.    He was a sensitive fellow for whom life in the everyday world was difficult and trying.  He sought (but unfortunately did not find) in conversion to Roman Catholicism, in 1866, a refuge from those daily stresses.

It is also essential that we look at a segment of a much earlier poem by the English poet  (born in Wales) George Herbert (1593-1633), who ended his work The Size with these lines:

Then close again the seam
Which thou has open’d: do not spread thy robe
In hope of great things.  Call to minde thy dream,
And earthly globe,
On whose meridian was engraven,
These seas are tears, and heav’n the haven.

Herbert’s poem, in essence, advises the ordinary person not to expect material happiness in this world, but rather to accept lack of material things in this life so that there might be spiritual rewards in the next.  He says one should not expect joys both in this world and in heaven, because even God (incarnated as Jesus) “was hungrie (hungry) here” (during his lifetime in this world).

So from Herbert’s poem, we should take the notion that to enjoy the pleasures of heaven one must give up material pleasures and strong joys on this earth.  It is an old concept — “self-denial,” — and it is on that notion that Gerard Manley Hopkins based this, one of his best-known poems.  Hopkins even took the title of his poem from the last line of Herbert’s poem: Heaven-Haven.

Hopkins’ poem has as its preface the words “A nun takes the veil,” meaning a young woman commits herself to a lifetime as a nun, leaving the “world” and its pleasures behind in hope of joy in heaven, just as Herbert had advised.  This world, as written in The Size, is nothing but “seas of tears,” and a person on his or her voyage of life through those seas will only find a quiet haven in heaven.  That is the view common to both poems, that of Herbert and that of Hopkins, based on Herbert.

So now you understand Hopkins’ poem before you have even read it; but let’s take a look nonetheless:

Heaven—Haven 

A nun takes the veil

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be 
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

 We shall approach it part by part.  

The poem is spoken by the nun who is taking the veil, choosing to spend her life as a “bride of Christ.”  She tells us why she is doing it.  She has decided to “leave this world,” to go “where springs not fail,” which is Hopkinsese for “where springs do not fail.”  In the New Testament, water is a symbol of the spiritual and genuine life.  We understand why springs are mentioned by Hopkins (which were also mentioned earlier in Herbert’s poem) when we look at the words of Jesus to the “woman at the well” in the Gospel attributed to John (13-14):

“Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”

So in this material world, the springs from which we drink fail, and do not permanently satisfy.  It is only the “waters of life” — of spirituality — that  do “not fail,” and that is what the woman in Hopkins’ poem is seeking.

She wants to go to “fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,” to a place away from the harsh and painful storms of earthly life, where one is no longer subject to the unpleasant hazards and unhappinesses (hailstones are sometimes rounded, but also can be angular, pyramidal, flat, etc. — “sharp-sided,” or in Hopkinsese, “sharp and sided”).  Thinking of heaven as “fields” is a concept as old as the ancient Greeks, with their Elysian Fields.

And a few lilies blow.”

English: Lilium regale 'Album', Parc Floral de...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia

These words are often misunderstood simply because word usage comes into and goes out of fashion over time.  “Blow” is the critical word.  Here it is used in the old sense, meaning “to bloom.”  So the woman leaving the world is saying she wants fields where a few lilies bloom.  She is not saying she wants lilies blowing in the wind.  Lilies are old symbols of purity in Christianity, and the fact that the nun says “a few” is an indication of her modesty and “ascetic” expectations.  She does not expect whole fields of them — just a few, which we may think of as modest pleasures of purity and spirituality.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

In that stanza Hopkins directly addresses the statement of George Herbert:

“These seas are tears, and heav’n the haven.”

The nun speaking says (remember the hail?) that she has asked to be in a place “where no storms come.”  We should recall the old days of sailing ships, when to be caught in a storm at sea (here the “sea of life”) was dangerous and violent.  At such a time, a ship would seek a haven, a port out of the reach of the violence of the waves.  But our nun is not looking for “any old port in a storm.”  The haven she seeks is heaven, a place where “no storms come.”

It is a place where “the green swell,” meaning the rising and falling waves of the sea of life, are “in the havens dumb.”  “Dumb” here is used in its old sense of “silent,” and it modifies not “havens,” but rather “the green swell.”  Put into modern English it would be, “Where the green, swelling waves are quiet in the havens.”  In a haven, the great waves found on the sea become small and calm, because the haven is a port, like a bay, that offers a ship protection, a place “out of the swing of the sea,” out of the great motions and upheavals and risings and fallings of the waves on the open sea.

So in essence, “Heaven-Haven” is a brief poem about a nun who “takes the veil” permanently, joining convent life and leaving the temporary pleasures and many pains of the material life behind in hope of the simple and pure and protected joys of the spiritual life, ultimately of heaven.  One cannot, she believes (as Mary told Bernadette in the story of the apparitions at Lourdes), be happy both in this world and the next.  So our nun is giving up this life for her humble hopes of joy in the next life.

Well, that is the religiously romantic view of things, and it is the view Hopkins had as a convert to Catholicism.  He had a rather miserable life after conversion and becoming a Jesuit, and he must have often told himself, when in the depths of depression, that one should not expect to be happy in this world, only in the next.

The poem takes on a rather darker face when seen against the backdrop of Hopkins’ own unhappy religious life, but the poems we read are also affected by our own personal experiences in life.

For me, Heaven-Haven will always remind me of a sunny day in my college years, when I stopped at a Carmelite convent near the sea, just south of what was then a much quieter town, Carmel, in California.  There I interviewed a nun for a project I was doing.  I wanted to know her view of why one would spend one’s life in that way.  She was a calm and very pleasant person, and the location itself was quiet and peaceful.  A short distance to the west of the convent lay a pleasant little sandy bay “out of the swing of the sea,” and the air of the whole region was fragrant with the wild artemisia that scented the coastal lowlands and hills in those warm days.

Thinking of the nuns in that quiet place by the sea, I recall lines from another poem about the 6th-century Celtic saint Govan, who lived as a hermit by the sea in Wales:

St Govan still lies in his cell
But his soul, long since is free,
And one may wonder – and who can tell-
If good St Govan likes Heaven as well
As his cell by that sounding sea?

By the way, George Herbert’s poem The Size also contains an old English proverb that goes back before his time.  In telling people that they should not expect to be happy both in this world and the next, Herbert says,

Wouldst thou both eat thy cake, and have it?

If that phrase puzzles you, it means, “Do you want to both eat your cake and still keep it?”  One obviously cannot do both, and that is why our nun in Heaven-Haven gives up earth for heaven.

David

NOW SLEEPS THE CRIMSON PETAL: IDEALIZED ROMANCE IN TENNYSON

I often speak of poets in terms of schools of painting.  Some, for example, are like Impressionists in their use of words.  Others, like today’s poet, Alfred Tennyson, are more like Pre-Raphaelites, writers who look back to medieval times as being a very poetic and beautiful period.  Of course that is simply a very limited and illusory view of those times, and that is exactly what our poet intended — a romanticized view, with everything neither beautiful nor conventionally poetic removed from sight.

The result, of course, is not reality, but rather an idealized fantasy image.  And such an idealized image was very much in fashion in the mid to late 19th century and on into the very beginning of the 20th.

Today’s poem, Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, is actually a brief poem within a story within a narrative poem that is much longer than the extract given here.  The whole work is titled The Princess, and if you have a good deal of time and patience, you might wish to read it.  But this excerpt was written to function as a “separate” poem, even though it is only a small part of the whole work.

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal is not only an excellent example of romanticism in poetry, but it also demonstrates, as I have said before, what a consummate craftsman Tennyson was.  He reminds me of those Italian workmen who used to cover whole table tops in carefully shaped and polished semiprecious stones, each so carefully worked that it contributes its part to the picture all the pieces together form.  That is the precision and workmanship we find in Tennyson.

So here is Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal:

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The firefly wakens: waken thou with me.

Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

Let’s look at it part by part:

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The fire-fly wakens: wake thou with me.

The poet is creating a peaceful and beautiful picture of twilight.  That is the “now” of which he speaks, and in that “now” the flowers close, some with crimson petals, some with white.  Tennyson uses “petal” to mean not only the flower as a whole, but also all the other flowers like it in the garden.  Using a part of something to indicate the whole is a poetic technique called synechdoche (pronounced sin-EK-doh-kee).  The first line should not be read as a sequence, with the crimson petals sleeping first, followed by white petals sleeping, but rather both happen at the same time, in the same “now.”

To paraphrase it simply:
Now the crimson flowers and the white flowers close for the night.
But of course putting it that bluntly does not give the poetic effect Tennyson achieved in his phrasing.

The cypress tree is the first of two “nors,” the poet gives us, presenting the stillness and beauty of the evening in negatives:

Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:

That, paraphrased in ordinary English, would be:
The wind has gone still, no longer bending the cypress trees in the palace walk.
The goldfish in the porphyry stone basin have gone still and out of sight for the night.

Saying “the gold fin” is again synechdoche, and by saying that we no longer see the light of day flashing gold on the moving fish, Tennyson is giving us a picture both of daylight having gone and of rest and stillness.

So this first part of the poem is telling us this:

Not a breath of wind stirs the tall, slender cypress trees.  And not single shining glitter of light off a fin of the goldfish in the porphyry stone (a kind of purplish rock) basin/pool can be seen.  Everything is still and silent, and the afterglow of day is disappearing.

Did you notice that Tennyson repeatedly uses one thing to mean many? He says “the crimson petal,” “the white [petal],” “the cypress,” “the gold fin,” and “the firefly,” but he is really speaking of these in the plural. He only uses the singular for poetic effect.

The firefly wakens: waken thou with me.

The fireflies have begun to appear as points of light in the shadows.  The young man who speaks the poem calls on the young woman he loves to “waken” with him, meaning to walk through the beauty of the twilight garden with him — but also to “waken” to what he is telling her through the poem about his love for her.

Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Instead of using a peacock of the usual colors, Tennyson instead very cleverly offers a white peacock, which is in keeping with the loss of color that comes with the loss of light, when everything goes shades of white, grey, and black.  He tells us that the white peacock lowers its head and of course its long tail feathers, and this drooping is another indication of the rest and quiet of the evening.  And like a ghost whose apparition continues to appear in the gathering darkness, the white peacock continues to glimmer, reflecting the last of the vanishing afterglow of twilight.

Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

With those lines, Tennyson moves again from setting the atmosphere to the little “love story” within the poem.  “Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars” is an allusion to an ancient Greek myth.  Danaë was the lovely daughter of a king named Acrisius.  The king was worried by a prophecy given by the oracle of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, who said that said Danaë  would have a son who would kill Acrisius, so to prevent this, the fearful king locked her in a room made of bronze, where no man could reach her.  He did not, however, take into account the lusty ruler of the gods, Zeus, who supernaturally came through the ceiling of the bronze room and fell on  Danaë as a shower of gold.  So Tennyson is telling us that like Danaë, who was open and vulnerable to the shower of gold falling on her, the earth in evening is all open to the sky that is filled with a multitude of stars.  And then Tennyson returns to the “love story” of the poem:

And all thy heart lies open unto me.

As we can tell from the  Danaë allusion, this is a man talking to a woman.  He tells her that like the earth at evening is open and vulnerable to the starry sky, like Danaë open and vulnerable to her lover coming upon her as a shower of gold, even so this unnamed woman, in the still beauty of evening, is open and emotionally vulnerable to him.

Now Tennyson returns to his lovely “now” imagery:

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.

Now a silent shooting star crosses (“slides…on”) the evening sky, leaving a golden trail like the furrow made in the earth by a plow.  And just as the passing meteor leaves a shining trail, so in our young man, his thoughts of the young woman leave a shining trail in his mind.  This is a way of saying that even a thought of her is as beautiful and shining as the trail left by a shooting star.

Nénuphar blanc
(Photo credit: gelinh)

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

This is the last of the repeated “nows” of the poem.  Tennyson tells us that the water lily folds up “all her sweetness,” closes its beautiful petals, and slips “into the bosom of the lake,” meaning it slips below the surface of the water.  But notice how Tennyson cleverly uses the term “bosom,” meaning the breast/chest of a human, to signify the lake surface into which the waterlily sinks.  That enables him to move quickly on to his last line, the “point” of the whole poem, in which the young man invites the woman to similarly fold herself against his chest and be embraced by his arms and his love, and be “lost” in him.  He wants her to yield to his love as all things have yielded to the stillness and rest of the twilight.

This was walking a rather narrow line for Victorian England, particularly with the  Danaë simile, but Tennyson got away with it because in the end what the young man wants, at least in the poem, is for the young woman to be silently enfolded in his arms and submerged in his love.  He does not take it beyond that, and so Tennyson managed to give the Victorian period a romantic thrill while avoiding the social censors.

The most important quality of the poem is, of course, its carefully plotted imagery, with all things falling into beautiful rest and quiet; and Tennyson uses all of that to make his “love story” point, which of course is completely tinted with the same beautiful and quiet atmosphere of twilight and a gathering darkness filled with stars.

It is worth noting that everything in this poem is visual, emphasizing the sense of sight.  There is no mention at all of sound.  This absence deepens the sense of stillness and quiet.

Did you notice that the word “me,” preceded by a preposition, ends a line five times throughout the poem?

…with me.
…to me.
…unto me.
…in me.
…in me.

That repetition adds to the lulling effect of the whole, as does the repetition of the words “now” and “nor.”

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal is reminiscent of the much shorter old Japanese waka, which was a poetic form focused only on the beautiful and aesthetically elegant, and often expressed romantic love through lovely, if bittersweet, nature imagery.  The hokku, of course, is quite different in its elimination of romantic love and its more realistic approach that no longer tries to eliminate all that is not conventionally beautiful.  But of course Tennyson’s wish is precisely that — to eliminate all that is not beautiful, to use only the conventionally poetic in painting his word picture of a twilight romance in today’s poem, which was published, by the way, in 1847.  Queen Victoria had been on the British throne for some ten years.

It is also worth noting the traditional association of the color crimson with passion, and that of white with purity and fidelity and innocence.

David

THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US: HUMAN SEPARATION FROM NATURE

One of the old standards of English poetry is THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US, by the romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850).  The romantic movement tended to emphasize personal feelings, and often associated those feelings with Nature — mountains and waterfalls, lakes and woods, and all that is (or was) in them.  We see this emphasis in today’s poem.

As for the mechanics of the poem, we need only take a quick look at the pattern of rhyming to see how those rhymes influenced his phrases.  I will mark the rhymes here with numbers, each number corresponding to groups of rhyming words.  As you see, there are four rhymes made:

1.  soon, boon, moon, tune (yes, they are not precise rhymes, but close enough for Wordsworth)
2.  powers, ours, hours, flowers
3.  be, lea, sea
4.  outworn, forlorn, horn

The world is too much with us; late and soon (1)
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: (2)
Little we see in Nature that is ours; (2)
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! (1)
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; (1)
The winds that will be howling at all hours, (2)
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;(2)
For this, for everything, we are out of tune; (1)
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be (3)
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; (4)
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, (3)
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; (4)
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; (3)
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn. (4)

And now for the meaning:

The world, he tells us, is too much with us.  By “the world,” he means the human world of commerce and industry, of business, of running to and fro to make a living, to buy and sell (getting and spending) at all hours of the day (“late and soon”), of being too involved in such things.  Why?  Because in doing so, we lose and gradually destroy (“lay waste”) what Wordsworth considered to be the important “powers” in humans — the emotional and spiritual side of our nature as opposed to the completely material and rational and “practical.”  We can also think of “getting and spending” as meaning getting our vital energy from Nature, but wasting it in purely material pursuits rather than aesthetic or spiritual pursuits.

The result of this one-sided life is that we lose touch with Nature, we “see little in Nature that is ours,” little that we can relate to and feel as a part of us.  Now we might ask why Wordsworth felt this way, but we need only recall that he was born at just the right (or wrong) time to see the onset of the Industrial Revolution, which turned good parts of England from quiet fields and woods to “dark satanic mills,” as William Blake put it.

Wordsworth tells us “we have given our hearts away,” and he does not mean this in a good way.  We have given our hearts — or emotional being, our wishes and innermost desires — away in exchange for the getting and spending and industry of the human world, which is most evident in city life.  That, the poet remarks, is “a sordid boon,” — a gain (boon) that is felt to be immoral and depressing (sordid).

Wordsworth gives examples of what we have lost:

The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.

We are, he says, out of harmony — “out of tune” with Nature, with the sea rising and falling in the moonlight with its surface (bosom) bare to the moon, with the wind, whether it howls at times throughout the day and night (“at all hours”) or whether it is silent and still, like flowers that have closed their petals (“sleeping flowers”).  We are out of tune with all these and with the rest of nature — “It moves us not” — it has no emotional effect on us, on our spirits.  We have lost our connection with Nature.

moon and surf and a rocky shore
(Photo credit: R. S.)

The poet finds this separation of humans and Nature abnormal and intolerable.  He protests against it:

Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

“Great God!” he exclaims — just as we today might say “Good grief!” or something similar — “I’d rather be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn.”  He is thinking back to Greek and Roman antiquity.  He tells us he would rather have been born and nourished (“suckled”) and raised in pagan religion (creed).  He speaks of it as “a creed outworn” because the old Greco-Roman religion, seen as old and no longer adequate by Christians, was replaced by Christianity, which seldom encouraged love of Nature).

If he had been raised as a pagan, he tells us, then he could stand there on the pleasant lea (meadow, grassy area) and see things that would make him less forlorn — less depressed and unhappy:

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Three views of the Triton Fountain
Triton Fountain (Photo credit: Dog Company)

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Proteus was an ancient Greek sea god who could change his form.
Triton was also a sea god, the son of Poseidon, and his messenger.  By blowing his conch shell horn he could calm or raise the waves of the sea.

Wordsworth is telling us, then, that he is so weary of the human separation from Nature that he sees and feels around him that he would rather have been raised a pagan.  Then he would be able again to see the power and wonder in Nature, as manifested in the gods that were once felt to be a part of it; he might see the god Proteus rise up from the sea, or perhaps hear the sea god Triton blow on his horn to command the waves.  Nature would once more have force and power and significance, which Wordsworth felt it had largely lost in his day.

Imagine, then, how much worse things are now in our own time, when humans have polluted air and soil and water with toxic chemicals and radiation, and cities and growing populations are forever encroaching on farmlands and forests.

As for the rhyme, Wordsworth obviously stretched things a bit by his simile of winds

 up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

That is one of the pitfalls of rhyme in verse.  It leads all too often to such inadequate or unlikely comparisons, but Wordsworth felt he needed “flowers”; what else was he to rhyme with “powers,” “ours,” and “hours”?  When using rhyme, a poet must be very careful to remain its master rather than its servant.

Be sure, when you read the line

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn,

that you read “wreathed” as two syllables (wreath-ed) instead of the usual one, which is what Wordsworth intended here.  By “wreathed” horn he just means that the horn was ornamented by some kind of garland, in this case perhaps of seaweed.

David

THEY ARE NOT LONG, THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES: THE BRIEF LIFE OF ERNEST DOWSON

Today’s poem is by Ernest Dowson (1867-1900).  Merely discussing him is a sad matter, because, like Sebastian Flyte in Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, Dowson was both a student at Oxford for a time and a severe alcoholic whose life ended far too early.  We can extend the parallel further in that both were Roman Catholic, in Dowson’s case by conversion.

English: Portrait photo of English poet Ernest...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We should not be surprised that he titled his poem in Latin; this was in the days, after all, when a knowledge of Latin was considered indispensable to a good education.  So that is why students of English poetry find themselves faced with these Latin words at the head of the poem:

Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam

It means, essentially, that the brief (brevis) sum (summa) of life (vitae) forbids/prevents (vetat) us (nos) beginning (incohare) a long (longam) hope (spem).  But we can think of it  as meaning simply:

The Shortness of Life Forbids Us Long Hopes

The phrase comes from lines in Ode 1.4, by the Roman poet Horace (65-8 b.c.e.):

pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas       
regnumque turris. o beate Sesti,
vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam;

“Still pallid Death is knocking at the hovels of paupers
And the towers of kings.  O happy Sestius,
The short span of life forbids us undertaking long hopes.”

But now to the poem:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
   Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
   We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
    Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
   Within a dream.

Yesterday I discussed Wenlock Edge, by A. E. Housman, in which he tells us that the emotional gale of human life soon wears itself out from its own force and disappears.  Dowson is similarly speaking of the brevity of human emotions.  Weeping and laughter, love and desire and hate, he says, do not last long, and he thinks they end with death (“passing the gate”).

In like manner, he tells us, the days of pleasure and happiness, which he poetically terms “the days of wine and roses,” are not long either.  And as for our short life, it is like a path seen coming out of a mist, then disappearing into that same mist.

It is a variation on an old simile.  The Venerable Bede tells the story of the comment of an advisor to King Edwin of Northumberland:

Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thains and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.”

But Bede’s simile is more bleak and far less beautiful than Dowson’s “path out of mist” metaphor, which has more the flavor of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s lines:

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.             What is life?  A frenzy.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,           What is life?  An illusion,
una sombra, una ficción,                    A shadow, a fiction,
y el mayor bien es pequeño:             And its greatest good is small.
que toda la vida es sueño,                  For all of life is a dream,
y los sueños, sueños son.                    And dreams are dreams.

Dowson’s metaphor reminds me also of a hokku I once wrote from experience, with his poem not at all in mind, and without metaphor:

The river;
It flows out of and into
The fog.

Dowson’s poem is undeniably beautiful:

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Happiness is brief, life is short and vague and a mystery, but in reading those lines by Dowson we must say that, as R. H. Blyth once remarked, put that way, it doesn’t sound too bad.

Dowson did have a sense for the poetic phrase.  Many who have never read his poem know the words “the days of wine and roses,” which were used for the title of a movie about a descent into alcoholism.  And it is from another poem by Dowson (Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae) that the words come which gave the title to Margaret Mitchell’s novel and the famous film of the Civil War, Gone With the Wind:

I have forgot much, Cynara!  gone with the wind,
Flung rose, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind…

One writer calls Ernest Dowson “The incarnation of dissipation and decadence,” which combined with the sad beauty of today’s poem, brings to mind the rather indelicate expression that a rose may grow out of a manure pile — the “pile” in this case being Dowson’s decadent and deadly habits.  For him, the combination of an excessive lifestyle and alcoholism with his tuberculosis proved quickly fatal.  He died a few months beyond his 32nd year.

David

ON WENLOCK EDGE: THE GALE OF LIFE AND EMOTION

Today we turn again to one of my favorite poets, Alfred Edward Housman, and to his poem On Wenlock Edge.

English: Wenlock Edge
WENLOCK EDGE  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is not a difficult poem, but we shall need to make sure we understand Housman’s vocabulary in order to comprehend the poem easily.  As usual, I shall take it part by part:

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble; 

His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;

The gale, it plies the saplings double,

And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

We are in the county of Shropshire, England.  To the south is a large escarpment — a sudden, sharp upward slant of the land that rises to some height above us, and runs for some 16 miles across the countryside.  Its ancient limestone slope is covered in leafy forest.  This is Wenlock Edge.  In the distance, some five miles to the north of Wenlock Edge, is a forested hill, the Wrekin (pronounced REE-kin).

THE WREKIN (Photo source: https://schoolsprehistory.files.wordpress.com)
THE WREKIN
(Photo source: https://schoolsprehistory.files.wordpress.com)

The writer tells us the wood on Wenlock Edge is “in trouble”  meaning it is disturbed, agitated and stormy.  A great wind has come up.  If we look to the Wrekin, the forest on it is tossing in the same wind.  Housman terms the wood on the Wrekin “his [its] forest fleece,” because the wood covers the hill like the fleece on a sheep.  And it “heaves” — the countless branches bending in the wind seem, when seen from a distance, to rise and fall like waves on a green sea.  The gale — the very strong wind — bends (“plies”) the saplings — the slender, flexible young trees — double, bends them nearly to the ground.  And the countless leaves blown away by the awesome force of the gale fall like snow on the waters of the Severn River, which winds between the two heights.   Housman is giving us a scene filled with natural power and motion.

’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger

When Uricon the city stood:

’Tis the old wind in the old anger,

But then it threshed another wood.

The writer, having presented us with an event in the present, now expresses the thoughts it arouses in him.  He tells us the gale once blew like that through “holt and hanger” in a much earlier time.  “Holt” is an old Germanic word (and English, with its Anglo-Saxon ancestry, is a Germanic language) for a wood, a forested area.  “Hanger” also comes from an old Anglo-Saxon term; it means a wood on a slope, like the forest on Wenlock Edge.  The wind blew through those woods “when Uricon the city stood.”  He is taking us back to Roman Britain — Britain after the Romans had invaded and settled there.  His “Uricon” was the Roman city Viriconium/Viroconium, also called Uriconium, which lay where the present day town of Wroxeter lies, several miles west of the Wrekin.  It was the fourth largest Roman City in ancient Britain.

The writer muses that the same strong wind “in the old anger,” (meaning aroused and violent) that now blows on Wenlock Edge and the Wrekin, then blew on the earlier woods of the region when Uricon was a thriving city in Roman Britain.  He speaks of the wind in the old days having “threshed another wood.”  “Threshed” is an agricultural term used for beating ripe grain from stalks.  So, to repeat, Housman means that the same wind he sees blowing the forests of Shropshire also beat on the woods that grew there in Roman times.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman

At yonder heaving hill would stare:

The blood that warms an English yeoman,

The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

Just as the narrator now stares at the woods bending and waving in the strong wind, in ancient times a Roman would stand there watching the gale-blown woods of that earlier period.  And, the writer opines, the two men — the ancient Roman and the modern British yeoman (here it means a farmer who owns his own land) — are much the same, bodies warmed by human blood, minds troubled by the same human concerns and emotions.

The writer expands on this similarity of old Roman and modern Briton:

There, like the wind through woods in riot,

Through him the gale of life blew high;

The tree of man was never quiet:

Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

There — in early Britain — the “gale of life,” the powerful force of life and emotion, blew strongly (“high) through the Roman like a wind blowing through woods “in riot,” that is, with violence and great disturbance.  And now the same, overwhelming force blows through the writer himself.   Housman likens a man under the force of his own internal, powerful emotions and desires to a tree blown by a gale:

The tree of man was never quiet.

And again, the likening of ancient and modern:

Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The hopes, fears, sufferings and sorrows of humans are the same, whether in ancient times or today, whether in Roman Britain or modern Britain, or anywhere else on earth.

And now he brings us back to the present, to the blowing wind and the agitated trees, for his summation of the matter:

The gale, it plies the saplings double,

It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:

To-day the Roman and his trouble

Are ashes under Uricon. 

As early as the Chinese book the Dao De Jing, it was said that a violent wind does not last the morning.  Our writer tells us that the wind he watches is so violent it will soon be gone.  We must know that he is also speaking here of the strong wind of human life and emotion — it blows so strongly that it too will soon be gone.  We should keep in mind here that Housman is giving us an equation:  wind = the force of life.  We see this made clear in the final two lines:

Today the Roman and his trouble

Are ashes under Uricon.

And similarly, by extension, our narrator and his troubles will soon be ashes as well.  Nothing lasts, whether it be wind, or trees, or leaves, or sorrow, or joy, or human life.

If we were to express this poem very simply it would be this:

A violent wind is agitating the trees.

The same violent wind I see blowing the woods was seen by a Roman in early Roman Britain.

That Roman and I share the same human blood and human emotions.

Humans are like trees blown in the wind of emotion and desire.

Wind = the force of life and emotion in humans.

A violent wind will not last long.

Human life and emotions do not last long.

As the ancient Roman and his troubles are now nothing but ashes, so shall I and all my troubles be.

Of course Housman’s poetic way of saying it is far more pleasing to read than this kind of prosaic explanation.

As an aside, it might not occur to one immediately, but there is a connection between the name “Wrekin” and the name of the former nearby old Roman city, Viroconium.  Remember that in Latin, a “V” used to be pronounced as a “W.”  So think of “Wrekin” and “Wirocon [-ium].”  Of course the “W” in Wrekin is now silent.

Speaking of the “strong wind of human life and emotion” that is soon ended, we can think of the lines of George Gordon Byron from his poem We’ll Go No More A-Roving:

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast…

 
David

GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS: EXPRESSING SELF-NATURE

Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English poet, Roman ...
Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English poet, Roman Catholic convert, and priest (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I would like to return to Gerard Manley Hopkins, that impressionist in language whose poems are verbally fascinating even while difficult.

Today’s Hopkins poem, in spite of its seeming complexity, nonetheless has a very simple message, as we shall see upon unravelling its seeming tangles.  It is called:

AS KINGFISHERS CATCH FIRE, DRAGONFLIES DRAW FLAME

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
   As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
   Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
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. 

I feel like beginning with the old biblical phrase, “Which is, being interpreted….”  It often seems that is what one does with Hopkins, a translating from Hopkinsese into ordinary English.  Let’s begin, bit by bit:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

Just as kingfishers reflect the bright daylight (“catch fire”) by their irridescent blue feathers, dragonflies also catch and reflect the sunlight as the color red (“flame”).  Thus Hopkins begins with the sense of sight:  kingfishers reflect the light as irridescent blue; dragonflies (at least some of them) reflect the light as red.

Now Hopkins moves from sight to sound:

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells /Stones ring; 

If a stone or pebble is thrown or dropped or falls over the rim of a round well (from which people used to get their water), it will “ring,” meaning it will make a sound not only if it strikes other stones or bricks in the well lining as it falls, but it will also “ring” (Hopkins uses the term loosely” by striking the water with a resounding “Plop!”

So just as kingfishers reflect light as blue irridescence, and just as dragonflies reflect light as a flame-red color, in the same manner stones make a distinctive sound if dropped into a well.  And Hopkins continues by saying that also in the same manner,

 …like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s /Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Just as each “tucked” (in its seldom-used sense of “plucked,” “pulled”) string (such as a harp string) makes its sound (“tells”), each bell, hanging on its support, when swung back and forth in its bow-like arc, will create a sound (“find’s tongue,” too,  as a man’s tongue or language enables a man to speak) that it sends out near and far through the air — to “fling” the sound ” abroad.  Now Hopkins carries his “just as” illustrations even farther:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
   Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 

Each mortal thing — each thing that passes away and dies, of which the prime example here is mankind — does the very same one thing.  It “deals out that being indoors each one dwells.”  That rather difficult, telegraphic sentence is Hopkinsese for “Every living thing does the same thing as the kingfishers, the dragonflies, a dropped stone, a plucked string  and the bells:  It manifests its being — its particular character — in a specific way. It gives out (‘deals out’) that which is (‘dwells’) inside (‘being indoors’) of each person.  It reveals and bespeaks the nature of that person.”  It “selves” — expresses the self of that thing or person — which we can think of as a verb here.

A kingfisher “selves” (expresses its nature) by reflecting an irridescent blue light; a dragonfly “selves” by reflecting a red color; a stone dropped in a well “selves” by the sound it makes  And every mortal thing — every human in particular, also “selves” (expresses its individual nature) — it “goes itself.”  A bell goes “bongggggg,” and a human also goes….well, we shall see what Hopkins has to say about that.

But for now, each mortal, living thing expresses its self-nature.  “Myself it speaks and spells.”  In its individual expression, it says and spells out clearly, “This is myself; this is what I am.”

And now Hopkins begins bringing us to his real point, the point of the poem as a whole.  First we were told that each individual thing bespeaks or expresses its own nature in one way or another.   Now Hopkins goes even farther:

I say more:  the just man justices;

Let’s put this in very simple terms.  Existence, really, should be understood not as a noun, but as a verb.  Nothing can “be” without also manifesting in some way, and that manifesting is an action, it is a verb.  So a cow “cows,” a leaf “leafs,” rain “rains.”  So in the same way, it is the nature of a just man to “justice,” to express his just nature, his uprightness, his honesty, through his very being.  He gives off justice — “justness” just as a kingfisher gives off irridescence or a dragonfly a red color or a stone its “plop” into water or a bell its “bong.”

Furthermore, a just man “keeps grace,” he manifests grace, which means not only attractiveness and charm, but also has religious overtones here, because we know Hopkins became a Jesuit.  So grace here means also “The divine influence which operates in men to regenerate and sanctify,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it.

Hopkins is telling us that the just man “justices,” he manifests his inward justness, his inward honesty, and that keeps all of his “goings” — his activities and being — graceful — grace-full — in both the sense of attractiveness in his being and manner, but also manifesting the influence of the divine.

Hopkins tells us that such a man “Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — Christ.”  This is the Christian notion that when a man is filled with divine influence, he manifests the divine, which for Hopkins is Christ.  He is “Christly” — Christ-like in his being and activities.  He “puts on Christ,” as is said in the New Testament.

Hopkins expands on that thought:

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. 

Wherever a man is just and honest and manifests the influence of the divine,  Hopkins says, Christ is in that man, Christ acts in that man.  That is how Christ can “play in ten thousand places,” can act in ten thousand (just a number to indicate a great many) men who manifest him.  And so in such men Christ is seen “lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”  Such a Christ-manifesting man becomes lovely in his appearance and motions, so that when one looks in his eyes, one sees “Christ” though the eyes are the eyes of each individual man.  And that, Hopkins says, is “lovely to the Father”  meaning lovely to God — who sees it through the features of men’s faces.  Christ appears to other men and to God through the features and actions of Christ-like, “just” men.

The Quakers would say that such a just man is showing the “Inward Light” through his outer life and being.

One gets the point Hopkins wanted to make, though when one explains it in such detail it seems rather heavy-handed, which is why it sounds much better in poetry than in prose.

The essence of the poem is that each thing and each creature manifests its own distinctive self-nature.  The self-nature of a just man, Hopkins believed, was that of Christ, though it appears in the arms and legs and eyes of humans.

We may think that Hopkins stretched logic a bit, but nonetheless the basic truth is there — that each person will express the kind of person he or she is — whether good or bad or indifferent — through his or her actions and being.  Hopkins presents it to us in Christian terms, speaking of “Christ” and “God,” but it is still true without those terms and in a non-Christian context.

Put in that way, it seems rather self-evident.  That is why some may feel that there is more poetry in the words Hopkins uses in this poem than in the point made by those words.  Is it worth all the work necessary to decipher Hopkins’ odd phrasings and use of language?  That is up to the individual.

One additional note.  On reading the lines

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his…

one cannot help seeing a faint reflection of them in Thomas Merton’s poem to his brother dead in war, Sweet Brother, If I Do Not Sleep:

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:

David

DRUMMER HODGE: STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND

Boer War drummer boy writing his mum

Thomas Hardy — yes, the same man who wrote Jude the Obscure, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and those other famous novels of Britain — wrote a very meaningful poem about the Boer War (1899-1902).  In that war the British (and men from British possessions) fought against the people of Dutch ancestry in parts of what is now South Africa — against the people called the Boers (boer is Dutch for “farmer”).

Hardy had news of a drummer killed in that war, a young fellow — probably a boy, really — who was from Dorchester, in the region of south England that Hardy wrote about in his novels under its old name, Wessex (“West-Saxony”).  Drummers in that war might be as young as 13 or 14, getting into the military by lying about their age.

Here is the poem:

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
  Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
  That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
  Each night above his mound.

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew –
  Fresh from his Wessex home –
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
  The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
  Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
  His stars eternally.

It is a very sad and lonely poem, bringing to mind the useless suffering and futility of war.  Let’s look more closely, part by part:

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
  Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
  That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
  Each night above his mound.

It is, of course, a rough and hasty military burial — not even, we may say, respectful; just throwing the young body into a hole dug in the ground, with no coffin at all — the body just as it was found in the field.

His landmark — that is, the physical feature of the landscape by which one might roughly identify where the grave lies — is just a kopje-crest, meaning one of those hillocks, often consisting of or surmounted by large, bare rocks and stones, that rise here and there above the veldt, the level fields that stretch into the distance.  A kopje (pronounced “cop-yuh”) means literally a “little head,” but it is just one of those often stony, isolated hillocks one sees in movies of Africa, with a lion lounging atop one of its big boulders.  “That breaks the veldt around” means the the kopje rises up above and interrupts the flatness of the surrounding land.

We know already that this “Drummer Hodge” is, as we would say, still “just a kid,” likely no more than 17 and possibly not even that.  And we really do not know what his name was.  Yes, Hodge is a genuine family surname, but in the England of Hardy’s time it was also used as a nickname for any country boy or man — “that farm kid.”  When the newspapers asked “what Hodge was saying” on a particular matter, they meant the views of the average British man from the agricultural countryside.

So really Drummer Hodge is anonymous, just one of those farm boys who enlisted for the illusion of military glory.  It is paradoxical that in the film The History Boys,  an enthusiastic teacher — “Mr. Hector” — says of Hodge in this poem, “the important thing is that he has a name,” and he proceeds to tell his student how it was at this period of history that ordinary soldiers began to be remembered by name, commemorated on war monuments.  It is a poignant and effective scene in the film, but the part about Hodge having a name is an error, which writer Alan Bennet later recognized and acknowledged.  Hodge actually is, in this poem, an “unknown soldier,” though of course we know he was a Wessex country boy.

Hardy emphasizes, partly by his use of Afrikaans (South African Dutch dialect) terms such as kopje, veldt, and so on, the “foreignness” of the resting place of Drummer Hodge, how alien it all was to him.

Above the mound of his grave, “foreign” constellations west each night.  Here west is a verb meaning “to move toward the West, to set in the West.”  So Hardy is really saying that strange constellations (star patterns) unfamiliar to Hodge would move and set each night in the wide sky above the little mound where his grave lay in the vast veldt.

The next segment of the poem repeats and emphasizes some of the elements of the first part:

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew –
  Fresh from his Wessex home –
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
  The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
  Strange stars amid the gloam.

Hardy tells us that young “Hodge,” fresh from the Wessex countryside, never even had the time get to know and understand his alien surroundings in Africa — the Karoo (broad, dry plateau land), the Bush (the wild, uncultivated lands away from the towns) — and the dusty loam, the dry soil of southern Africa.  And Hodge never had the time, before he was killed, to learn why strange stars — stars he did not recognize — rose in the sky each night “amid the gloam,” meaning in the time after the sun had set, when the stars come out.

Now all of this is significant in Hardy’s transmission to the reader of just how alien his African surroundings were to this Wessex boy, who, being a farm lad, would have been well familiar with the soil, the trees, the hedgerows, and the constellations above southern England.  He was sent off to die in an alien land quite “foreign” to him, from soil to sky.

Paradoxically, Hardy tells us…

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
  His stars eternally.

Hodge, buried in the dry, alien soil of Africa, now becomes part of that soil.  His “homely” breast and brain will be absorbed by the roots of some strange African tree.  And “strange-eyed” constellations reign his stars eternally,” means that the unfamiliar (“strange-eyed”) stars overhead that dominate the sky in patterns unknown to Wessex will be those over Hodge’s grave forever.  He will never again see England, but will become part of the soil and growth of Africa, lost forever in that alien land.

There is something remarkably like this near the end of My Mother’s Castle, the autobiographical account of the French author Marcel Pagnol, who talks about the sad death of his young country friend Lili des Bellons, who knew every leaf and bird and trail of his home hills, yet who similarly was killed in land that was foreign to him, a dark northern forest in the First World War:

“In 1917, a bullet striking full on cut short his young life, and he fell in the rain upon tufts of cold plants whose names he did not know.”

Again, in the film The History Boys, the student discussing Hardy’s poem remarks that there is a parallel between

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree…

and “golden boy” Rupert Brooke’s poem The Soldier:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

Brooke (1887 – 1915) — who joined the British navy, died of the effects of a sequence of illnesses that ended with blood poisoning, and was buried on the island of Skyros, in Greece, not living to see his third decade of life.

In the previously-mentioned film, “Mr. Hector” replies perceptively to the student, saying of the two poems that “It is the same thought,” but adds that Hardy’s is the better, because it is “more down to earth…quite literally, down to earth.”  And it is, though both poems are very good.  In Brooke, the young man buried remains something alien in that foreign soil — “a richer dust concealed.” But Hardy is more the realist:

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree…

Drummer Hodge becomes absorbed into that alien environment, becomes as much a part of it as the kopje and the “Southern tree” that grows from his remains.  Quite literally, as Mr. Hector says, “down to earth.”

We should note the use of the word “homely” here.  It does not mean “plain and unattractive in appearance,” but it does mean unsophisticated and we may say, “as one would find him at his home.”  It is not negative, but just reflects his “country boy” nature — open and simple, direct and unpolished.

It really is a very striking poem, not filled with the reflected glory of Brooke, but with the acceptance of hard things as they are that we find in Hardy’s novels, which is one of the reasons why he is one of the few novelists I can read and take seriously, along with John Steinbeck.

The “aftereffect” of Drummer Hodge is somewhat like that of these lines from William Wordsworth’s A Slumber did my Spirit Seal:

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks and stones and trees.

But with “Hodge” they are alien rocks, alien trees, alien earth and sky — and he gradually becomes one with them, as the days, months, and years pass ceaselessly on.

There is a very telling comment about the Boer War in the film Dean Spanley.  An elderly British father of two sons, one of whom died in the conflict, asks the surviving son, “Did we win the Boer War?”  The reply is, “I believe we lost more slowly than the other side.


David

THE RECEDING TIDE: ARNOLD’S DOVER BEACH

Michael Schmidt calls Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach “the greatest single poem of the Victorian period.”  Greatness in poetry is a matter of personal taste, but one can say that probably no single poem so eloquently expresses the growing spiritual discomfort of the time. Arnold was born the day before Christmas in 1822; Dover Beach was likely written in 1851, after his marriage.  That means he wrote it when about 29 years old.

It would be easy to suppose that Dover Beach came in reaction to the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which shook the foundations of Christendom, but actually that book was not published until 1859, some eight years after the poem was written.   Yet Dover Beach — though written earlier, was not published until 1867, eight years after Darwin’s revolutionary book appeared, and by then the feelings of uncertainty and alienation expressed in Dover Beach had become even more widespread due to the immense public controversy over human evolution, which many felt to be in direct conflict with the biblical teaching of creation.  For some the loss of belief in creation as recorded in Genesis was the loss of belief in Christianity in general. That is why for readers at the time of the poem’s publication, Dover Beach bespoke the decay of faith that came with the ever -increasing proofs that the biblical account was simply wrong.  And if one could not trust the biblical account of creation, logical thought ran, who knew what, if any, of the remainder of its accounts were trustworthy, including the Resurrection?

One must keep in mind that even before Darwin, there was a growing gap in the public mind between the nature of the physical world as pictured in the Bible and the nature of the physical world as it was being revealed by the discoveries of science in the early to mid 19th century, particularly the revelations of the growing science of geology and the rising attention paid to fossils and their implications — including the first scientifically-described dinosaur — Megalosaurus — named in 1824 — astonishing creatures nowhere named or revealed in the books of the Bible.

We may say, then, that the crux of the matter is that previously, people had looked to the Bible to explain matters; but in the first half of the 19th century, they had begun to turn instead to science and to related inventions.  And the discoveries of science were often not easy to harmonize with the Bible.

This is, of course, a simplification.  Many still held to literalistic views of the Bible, others modified their views to fit new scientific discoveries while not losing their overall faith in Christianity.  But to others the writing on the wall was plain to read, and today, looking backward, we can see that in the first half of the 19th century, serious cracks were appearing in the edifice of Christian belief that would lead to its even more rapid crumbling in the latter half of the 2oth century.

So Dover Beach has great meaning even today, with the increasing abandonment of Christianity in Europe (and more gradually in America as well).

The meaning we today assign to Dover Beach, then, telescopes the changes of the 19th century into an overall loss of faith in the dictates of clergyman and Bible; and without that faith, many felt the ground slipping away from beneath their feet.  Many found science and invention an inadequate replacement.  Such people were left with that abandoned “we are entirely on our own now” feeling — that sense of being placed between the loss of the presumed certainties of Christianity and the disturbing revelations of science — that Dover Beach best expresses.

Now let’s take a look at the poem:

DOVER BEACH

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;–on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. 

Let’s look at the poem part by part:

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;–on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

We may assume that the poet is standing at an open window in the British seaport of Dover, which is situated just across the English Channel from France, which lies only about 21-22 miles across the Strait of Dover, that portion of the Channel that separates Dover in England from Calais in France.

We do not yet realize it, as the poem begins, but the poet is already speaking to another person.  We may assume, historically, that it is his wife; they spent their honeymoon in Dover.   Of course by extension, it is really the reader.

So Arnold begins by saying that the sea is calm tonight; the tide is full — meaning the sea is at its highest in the tidal cycle — high tide as opposed to low tide.  He tells us the moon lies fair upon the straits, meaning the moon is shining its light down and is reflected beautifully upon the waters in the Dover Strait.

Arnold sees a light gleam and then vanish in darkness off where he knows the French Coast lies — probably the appearing-vanishing light of a lighthouse on that far shore.  The cliffs of England — the famous White Cliffs of Dover — stand glimmering in the moonlight and rise vast and high at the edge of the water.  They are white chalk cliffs, composed largely of calcium carbonate formed from the fossil skeletons of countless one-celled sea creatures.  Arnold began by telling us “the sea is calm,” and now says the white cliffs stand “out in the tranquil bay.”  That repetition adds to the sense of peace.

And now Arnold issues his invitation to the unseen person with him:  “Come to the window; sweet is the night-air.”  And then comes a sudden change in the poem, with the word “only”:

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Having told us all is peace and beauty, now he adds an “except,” by beginning his next sentence with the word “Only….”

He points out this exception by drawing attention to the line of white spray where the waves of the ocean meet the shore, “where the sea meets the moon-blanched land.”  “Moon-blanch’d” means turned whitish in appearance by the moonlight.

 “Listen!” he urges:

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Arnold’s companion (and we, of course) now hear the sound made by the sea as the incoming waves roll and cast the pebbles landward atop other pebbles, and then the retreating wave pulls and rolls them out seaward again, countless pebbles grating together.  So we know this is not a sandy beach, but rather a “shingle” beach, one made of rocks and pebbles.  We hear the grating roar of pebbles grinding on pebbles all along that line where sea and land meet.  We hear it cease and begin again with each arriving wave as it rolls and casts its pebbles “up the high strand,” meaning up the higher beach.  This pushing and pulling of the waves upon the pebbles at the water line creates a “tremulous cadence” — meaning the rising and falling beat caused by the slow, repetitive sound of the sea and its pebbles, cast forward and pulled back.

These grating pebbles and waves with their repetitive cadence “bring the eternal note of sadness in.”  Arnold tells us that in spite of the beauty and tranquility of the night and the sea and the cliffs, the sound of the pebbles grating in the waves brings in that eternal feeling of sadness, which here manifests as sound –an eternal note that lies behind all the fleeting “sound” of happiness and peace.

Arnold’s next remarks add the depth of centuries, of time past, to what he has already said:

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,

Sophocles (496-406 B.C.  was an ancient Greek writer of tragedies.  Arnold tells us that the tragedian heard the same eternal note of sadness that he hears in the waves at Dover, only Sophocles heard it long before on the Aegean Sea, which lies between Greece and Turkey.  It brought to Socrates’ mind the turbid (dark, filled with sediment, in turmoil) ebb and flow (decrease and increase, like the waters receding and advancing again, in an endless cycle) of human misery.

If Arnold had something definite from the works of Sophocles in mind, it may have been these lines from a chorus in his work Antigone:

For others, once
the gods have rocked a house to its foundations
the ruin will never cease, cresting on and on
from one generation on throughout the race—
like a great mounting tide
driven on by savage northern gales,
surging over the dead black depths
roiling up from the bottom dark heaves of sand
and the headlands, taking the storm’s onslaught full-force,
roar, and the low moaning
echoes on and on
(Chorus 656-666, translated by Fagles)

We need not be too literal about that, however.  The important matter is that Arnold is saying that the same sadness he hears in the waves of the the Strait of Dover in the 19th century was heard many centuries before by the tragedian Sophocles in the waves of the Aegean Sea against its shore, and Arnold feels it gave Sophocles the impulse to thought in writing.

“We find also in the sound a thought,” Arnold says, meaning that it inspires a thought in him, as it did in Sophocles; and then he tells us what particular thought it inspires in him at Dover.

He makes an analogy:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Just as the tide is full tonight, he says, so the Sea of Faith was once full, meaning that life was once filled with religious faith (by which, of course, he means the Christian faith).  That Sea of Faith once encircled the world (Arnold means primarily the British/European world) like a shining belt (he uses the old term for a belt or sash, “girdle”). “Furl’d” (furled) here means “rolled up around” like a sash encircling the earth.

“But now,” he says, “I only hear its long, withdrawing roar.”  He perceives that the Sea of Faith is receding, pulling away from the world just as the water of high tide will gradually ebb away from the Dover shore.  He knows the tide at Dover will recede, and already he senses the Sea of Faith ebbing, its tide going out.  He “hears” it retreating, “to the breath of the night wind,” meaning that he sees faith fading away like the tide receding on the shore below him in the night, as the cool wind of night blows.  By combining this recession of faith with the coolness of the night wind (remember that the night air was previously “sweet?”) he makes the air of night, which formerly had seemed fresh and tranquil, into a kind of cold darkness stealing over the world with the loss of faith.  Faith is disappearing “down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world.”  By “shingles,” again Arnold means shingle beaches — beaches of rocks and pebbles rather than sand.  That gives us a picture of bleakness and harshness as faith pulls away from the world, its receding tide leaving behind only dreariness and emptiness and naked, rocky shoreline — the world as Arnold perceived it to be without religious faith.

And now Arnold gives us the emotion that comes to him as a result of this picture of the loss of faith in the world:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. 

He tells the person with him, “Let us at least be true and faithful to one another, because we have nothing else upon which to rely now.”  The world that seems to be a land of dreams, so varied and so new, is now really — Arnold feels — just an illusion.  Now that faith is gone, we see it as it is without that faith.  It has no joy, no love, no light, no certainty, no peace, no help for pain.  It is as though we find ourselves in the darkness on a plain (“darkling plain”) swept with the confused alarms (calls to arms, urgings to battle, warning sounds) of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies come together violently and clash in battle by night.

So in essence, Arnold is saying:

The night is beautiful and tranquil here on the Strait of Dover, with the moonlight shining on water and land, and a light appearing and  disappearing far off on the coast of France.  Come to the window, because the night air is sweet.

Except, look down there where the waves of the sea meet the land.  I hear the pebbles carried forward and pulled back by the waves; I hear the pebbles grating on one another, creating a dull roar.  Sophocles heard the same sound centuries ago on the shore of the Aegean sea, and the sound evokes an eternal sadness.  It makes me think of an analogy:

Just as the tide is full tonight, so the Sea of Faith was once full — people had a belief on which to base their lives and thoughts.  But now that belief is fading and disappearing.  I can sense it disappearing just as the tide turns, and as it recedes, the waves pull back from the shore below me, retreating into the darkness, leaving only harshness and bare “reality” behind.

Oh, my love, let us at least be true and faithful to each other, because there is no other refuge left to us in this world, which seems to offer so much but really offers only illusions; and we are left here alone in the darkness and conflict, just as if we were on a plain in the dark of night, filled with the noises and cries of battle while all around us ignorant armies clash.

Of course such a simple summary has none of the poetry of the poem itself!

I should add that there is an interpretation of the following lines that makes no sense to me:

But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Again and again you will see it stated on the Internet that the words “But now I only hear” really mean, “But now I alone hear.”  I do not think that is a defensible interpretation.  The clear sense of the phrasing means essentially, “Once the Sea of Faith was full, but now I hear only its withdrawal from the world, like the sea pulling away from the shore into the darkness.”  To state that Arnold means “I alone hear” would mean that he was the only one in the middle of the 19th century who perceived or felt that faith was beginning to disappear from the world, and historically we know that to be untrue; so I do not think that is a likely thing for Arnold to assert.  One should stick to the plain meaning of the language here, in my view, without needlessly confusing the matter.

As for the “ignorant armies” clashing by night, it is possible that Arnold borrowed this notion from an ancient historical account by Thucydides of the Battle of Epipolae, where Athenians and Syracusans fought one another in the confusing darkness.  Arnold, of course, applies it to human conflict and confusion in the darkness left by the retreat of the bright “Sea of Faith”– human dissension in general, in a world that seems to have lost its meaning.

I will not discuss the poetic techniques used by Arnold at present, because I offer his poem as a lead-in to a simpler work by Alfred Edward Housman for this Easter weekend.  That article will come soon.

David

TO SEE THE CHERRY HUNG WITH SNOW

I have always been very fond of the poetry of Alfred Edward Housman.  He is not a verbal fireworks poet like Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins.  He is more straightforward, with a sense of transience remarkably like that of the Japanese hokku writers.

Housman told the truth.  Unlike Mary Carolyn Davies, who tells us that “pain rusts to beauty,” Housman had a more realistic view of things.  He would not say that like iron, pain rusts to beauty.  He would say that as the blade of a knife is dulled by time and wear, so the sorrows of life may be dulled by the passage of  days and years.  In his poem The Rain it Streams on Stone and Hillock, he says to someone who has died,

Tomorrow I shall miss you less,
And ache of heart and heaviness
Are things that time should cure.

And he adds,

Oh soon enough will pine to nought
Remembrance and the faithful thought
That sits the grave beside.

But the dulling of sorrow by time does not lessen the pain of the human condition:

But oh, my man, the house is fallen
That none can build again;
My man, how full of joy and woe
Your mother bore you years ago
To-night to lie in the rain.

So Housman knows life; he knows the brevity of youth; he knows that what is will alter, whether it be joy or pain.  And that leads us to one of his best-known poems, Loveliest of Trees:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

 Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

First, let’s go though the poem part by part, so that we may be certain we understand the poet’s phrasing and vocabulary:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Housman tells us the cherry is the loveliest of trees; the cherry trees stand all along the woodland road, and they are covered in (“wearing”) white (white blossoms) for Eastertide.  White, for those who have lost touch with religious custom, was associated with Easter.  “Eastertide” means here Easter time — the time of year when Easter happens. “Tide” is an old word meaning “time.”

Many Americans misunderstand “woodland ride” as meaning that Housman must have been astride a horse or sitting in a carriage, but in British usage, a woodland ride was just a rural road, a reasonably wide and worn pathway through a wood.  It comes from the days before cars, when a path broad enough for horse riding was called a “ride.”  But riding is not actually intended by the term.  So we may assume that the poet is walking leisurely and thoughtfully along a woodland road where many lovely cherry trees are in bloom at Easter time.

Next, Housman does something surprising in poetry: he talks mathematics, and his mathematics are based on what to “church folk” in those days was common knowledge gleaned from the Bible, from Psalm 90:10:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

So Housman reckons,

Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

Housman (or rather the young man speaking through Housman) tells us that out of his life, out of his threescore (a score is twenty, so threescore is sixty) years plus ten years, meaning out of the seventy years allotted to him for his lifespan, twenty will not come again.  So we know he is a young man in his twentieth year, a young man of twenty.  For him, those twenty years are “past” — at least almost — and will never come again.  Subtract those twenty (a score) years from the seventy years of a man’s lifespan, and that leaves our fresh young man only fifty years of life.  He tells, us, with bittersweet good humor,

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Realizing that he only has fifty more years in which to live, our young man, who obviously loves things of beauty, knows nonetheless that they are transient, impermanent, as he himself is.  So he tells us that the fifty springs he has ahead of him are little enough time (“little room”) in which to look at such lovely things as the blossoms of spring; therefore he is going to take the time to walk through the woodlands while the cherries are covered in white bloom, to “see the cherry hung with snow” (the “snow,” of course, is the white blossoms).

There is a rather odd misunderstanding of the last line of the poem flitting about on the Internet, asserting that by “to see the cherry hung with snow,” Housman meant he would not only go in spring to see the blossoms, but also in winter to see snow on the cherry trees.  It should be obvious, however, that he was simply using a descriptive metaphor:  snow = white blossoms.  How do we know this?  First from the poem itself:

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

The first line tells us: “And since to look at things in bloom….”  Winter snow is not “things in bloom,” and that is obviously the subject.  We may add that a cherry tree in winter does not hold snow on its bare limbs luxuriantly, as an evergreen tree does.  So a cherry in winter is not a stunning sight like a cherry covered with spring bloom.

We also know this from Housman’s use of the snow = white blossoms equation in the first verse of his poem #XXXIX from A Shropshire Lad:

‘Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
Should charge the land with snow.

We may also turn to other English poets for similar usage — first to  Robert Bridges for the snow = white blossoms equation, in his poem Spring Goeth All in White:

Spring goeth all in white,
   Crowned with milk-white may:
In fleecy flocks of light
   O’er heaven the white clouds stray:

White butterflies in the air:
   White daisies prank the ground:
The cherry and hoary pear
   Scatter their snow around.

“Milk-white may” in the first line means white hawthorn blossoms.  “Prank” in the sixth line means “adorn,” “decorate,” “ornament.”

We may also take a quick look at the first lines of Springtime in Cookham Dean, by Cecil Roberts:

How marvellous and fair a thing
It is to see an English Spring,
He cannot know who has not seen
The cherry trees at Cookham Dean,
who has not seen the blossom lie
Like snowdrifts ‘gainst a cloudless sky
And found the beauty of the way
Through woodlands odorous with may…. 

Again, “may” in the last line means hawthorn blossoms, not the month.

But back to Housman.  There is, as I said, a kind of bittersweet humor in this verse.  One might call the poem a young man’s “apology for his use of time,” his response to someone accusing him of “slacking.”  But Housman knew that what would really be wasted was the all-too-brief beauty of the cherry trees in blossom along the woodland road (the woodland ride), and so knowing that life is brief, he gives us this little argument for appreciating things of beauty, for seizing the day, complete with the mathematics to back it up.

Housman was a classicist, a scholar of Greek and particularly a professor of Latin.  One might therefore think him dry as dust, all endless conjugations and grammar and “Mr. Arbuthnot, please translate line three on page 37,” but obviously he had poetry in his soul and he understood the brevity of life and the sweetness of spring.

There is an odd kinship between this poem and Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.  But we have the feeling that the latter is a mature man’s poem, while Loveliest of Trees is a young man’s poem.

David


DECIPHERING HOPKINS: THE WINDHOVER

A friend recently remarked, “I don’t like poems that you have to figure out.”  That friend is not alone.  Most people do not like puzzle-poems that are difficult to understand, that must be deciphered or interpreted, and such poems are a great frustration to many students of English literature.

I recently mentioned two such “difficult” poets:  Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins — the first Welsh, but writing in English, the second having spent some time in Wales and in learning Welsh, but also writing in English.  Both teeter on the edge of indecipherability, but unlike many “noted” poets of the latter half of the 20th century, neither topples over.  It was these later poets — after Thomas and Hopkins — with their seemingly meaningless strings of verbiage that put the public off poetry, so that today poetry — Aside from the works of more straightforward writers like Billy Collins — still is really alive for the general public only in the lyrics of songs for the most part, and few enough of those are worthwhile.

Today I want to talk about Gerard Manley Hopkins, that sad figure with his hidden glories, a man who, I think, lost himself in converting to Roman Catholicism and becoming a Jesuit; it seems to have made his life ever more miserable.  He was one of those remarkably sensitive souls who fall into astounding depths of depression, and his dull, uncreative life as a Jesuit did not help matters.

It is Hopkins who gives us one of the most affecting statements on the abyssal depths of depression and the feeling of hopelessness:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.  Hold them cheap
May who never hung there.  Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep.  Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

He is telling us that the mind has dark abysses that terrify the sensitive soul, that those who have not experienced these depths of depression really have no idea what it is like.  He tells us our small “durance,” the small period in which we last and live, or we can say our “endurance,” cannot cope with such depths of dismalness.  A wretched being so afflicted is served only by a kind of cold comfort amid a whirlwind of negativity, and that poor comfort is that life ends in death, and each day ends in sleep.  Not a great encouragement, and Hopkins, who suffered from terrible depression, obviously found little cheer in it.

When is the last time you heard someone use the word “durance”?  Perhaps never, and Hopkins has a predilection for such out-of-fashion and archaic words, which add to the difficulties of much of his poetry.  We find such obscure terms in one of his most famous poems, one which he thought perhaps his best.  It involves the poet at morning, watching a falcon hovering and swooping high in the sky.  The falcon hovers against a headwind while searching for prey, and when it finds a victim, it may plummet with incredible speed.  Because of its hovering against the wind, it is called a “windhover.”  Here is the poem:

THE WINDHOVER  (To Christ our Lord):

I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

“Good grief!” you may be saying.  How is one supposed to understand a poem featuring terms like “minion,” “dauphin,” and “chevalier,” and all of these assembled in odd grammatical phrasing?  Well, perhaps it is not quite so hopeless as it seems at first glance, but one must admit that Hopkins did not write for the masses.  He seems to have been very inward-turned in his notion of an audience for his verse, very ingrown.  But let’s see what we can make of it:

The Windhover

We know what that is now:  a kind of falcon that hovers against the wind, that swings in circles, swoops and dives through the air.

To Christ our Lord

Why the dedication?  Well, obviously Hopkins had become a Jesuit — a “religious” — but there is perhaps more to his dedication than appears at first glance.  We shall examine that possibility later in the poem.  Let’s look at it now, part by part:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a
bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Hopkins is telling us that he saw (“caught”) a windhover in the dappled light of dawn.  He calls him “kingdom of daylight’s dauphin.”  Dauphin is a French term that meant the eldest son of the King of France; here we need regard it only as a title of nobility — like the lord of a domain.  So the windhover, we may say, is “lord of the morning”

He saw the falcon “in his riding of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding high there.”  The falcon was riding the gusts of steady air, high in the sky.

Hopkins remarks, “how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing in his ecstasy!”   His use of the term “rung” is one with which most people are not familiar, because it is not “rung” as in a bell, but rather “rung” as a term used in falconry, which refers to the bird rising through the air in spirals — circling upward.

Hopkins says the bird “rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing,”  meaning that in his upward circling, he was held in the gyre by the folding — the bending — of his wing, but “wimple” also has the meaning of “meander, turn” — so we can add this layer of meaning to it as well if we wish — that the bird was held in the spiral by turning with his wings.  We often find such uncertainty of interpretation and multiple possibilities of meaning in the rather archaic language Hopkins employs — but we see the overall significance, and that is enough, because Hopkins is not clearly defining what he means, not presenting his images sharply outlined, but rather is using some of the impressionism we found in Dylan Thomas.  That is one reason why his use of grammar is often rather odd, though rhythm also plays a part in that.  He is more concerned about the sound of words and the images they create than in telling us plainly and clearly what he means.  That is the key to understanding Hopkins.

Hopkins tells us that the bird did this upward spiralling “in its ecstasy,” but it is obvious that it is Hopkins, not the falcon, who feels this ecstasy.  He is projecting his admiration, his emotion, onto the windhover.

Then, he says, the bird was “off forth on swing, as a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding rebuffed the big wind.”  The bird leaves the upward spiral and hurls himself off in another direction and makes yet another sharp swing in the air, as though the strength of the wind meant nothing at all to him.

The bird throws itself forward into a swing, like the “heel” of a skate sweeps smoothly in a turn — a “bow-bend” on the ice.  Hopkins tells us that the “hurl” — the forward impetus — and the gliding of the bird “rebuffed the big wind,” meaning the falcon showed by skill that it was master, not the wind.

Hopkins is lost in admiration as he secretly watches: “My heart in hiding stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”  He is overwhelmed — his heart is stirred — by witnessing the achievement of the falcon, its mastery of the air and wind.

Hopkins sees so many elements impressively combining in the flying falcon: “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here buckle!

In “buckle,” Hopkins uses a term so various in its meanings that he makes the sentence difficult, but he wants another “b” word to go with “brute” and “beauty,” so “buckle” it is.  Different interpreters have different opinions, but I like to think that he is using it in a manner derived from the French boucler, which means “to bulge” “to curl,” “to loop.”  Seen thus, the sentence means  that “brute beauty and valour and  the act of swift turning, the air /wind, the “pride,” of the bird (his natural great ability) and “plume” (his feathers) here buckle!” — meaning that the physical characteristics, strength and skill of the bird combine with the air and wind in his impressive curving turn. We can add to this a secondary level of meaning from the old use of the term “buckle” to indicate things that come together and join, as two groups of men who “buckle” in battle.  So all of these characteristics of bird and air join in the marvelous sweep and turn of the windhover.  We should not be surprised that Hopkins makes us excavate meanings out of his archaic terms — it is one of his peculiarities, and inward-turning people do have their peculiarities.

Now we come to the most difficult part of the poem:

AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Did you notice that Hopkins has been talking of the windhover throughout the poem in the third person, like an “it” or a “he”?  Why, then, does he suddenly shift to speaking of a “thee?”  This is where the odd dedication “To Christ our Lord” comes in.  It seems that in this shift to “thee,” Hopkins shifts his attention from the bird to Christ, whom he addresses directly, calling him “my chevalier.”  That is another term borrowed from French; a chevalier is a knight, one who rides on a cheval — a horse.  We have seen that the windhover rides on the wind.  Now our attention is turned to Christ, who is the “knight” to Hopkins — or better, the “noble rider.”  But whereas the skill — the “glory” of the windhover lies in mastering wing and wind, the skill, the glory of Christ lies revealed in his mastery of Nature (in Hopkins’ religious view) and its acts and changes.  Hopkins has seen it in the remarkable spiralling and turning and swooping of the windhover, and having seen it, he tells Christ,

AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

By “fire” he means “glory,” an old term which means not only fame and laud but also great light, like the “glory hole” of a glass blower’s furnace, through which the intense blazing fire is seen.  He sees the glory of Christ in the glory of Nature and its creatures — specifically here in the windhover.  He sees the fire, the “glory” of Christ in the windhover, and he is more than impressed, knowing that the totality of the glory of Christ is astoundingly more multiplied and impressive, “a billion times told lovelier,” and he feels it so overwhelming as to be dangerous.  There is often a sense of danger associated with something felt to be incredibly holy and powerful.

Hopkins goes on to say that nonetheless, there is nothing remarkable in that — in seeing “glory”  — Christ’s glory — or to put it in wider terms, the glory of God — in the natural world — in the flight of the windhover.  It is not to be wondered at, because something as ordinary as a farmer plodding behind his hand-held, horse-pulled plough down a furrow in the field (a “sillion”) makes the dull metal of the plough shine with light (“fire,” “glory”) as the turning soil polishes it.  And Hopkins adds that even the dark-appearing, blue-bleak coals of a fire in the hearth, when they fall and and gall (abrade, scrape) themselves and break open (gash themselves), reveal an intense gold-vermilion light inside, their “glory”: just as there is a glory hidden in such ordinary things as a plough in the furrow and in apparently dark coals in a fireplace, so the glory of Christ hidden in such a thing as the windhover may reveal itself if one pays attention.

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

What are we to do with a poet who sprinkles his verse with archaic words and odd terms like “sillion,” leaving us to divine and dig for his meaning?  “Sillion” seems to be a word Hopkins created himself, probably inspired by the French word sillon, which means simply “furrow.”  And actually Hopkins is using it to mean precisely that — a furrow in a field.  For some reason, a few writers after him seem to have misinterpreted it to mean the soil turned by the plow, but when Hopkins says “plow down sillion,” he is simply talking of the passage of the plow down the furrow; and it is clearly the plow that shines in the poem, according to Hopkins, not the turned soil, as some would incorrectly have it.

So Hopkins is deliberately archaic and oddly vague.  He could have just written “plow down furrow,” but obviously that would not have rhymed with “vermilion,” so he employs his peculiar yet somehow effective (if one ignores its obscurity) construction “sillion” instead.

Surprisingly, even if one does not take the time necessary to decipher Hopkins, one may still derive a great deal of pleasure from his use of repetition of sounds, and from such vivid images as dark coals that “gash gold-vermilion.”  But I hope what I have said here will be of some use to those readers who want to go a bit deeper.

Hopkins’ use of “gall” also has some ambiguity when he speaks of  “blue-bleak embers” that “fall, gall, and gash themselves gold-vermilion.”  “Gall” means to swell, but it also can mean “to damage or break the surface,” and in fact Hopkins uses it in this latter sense in his poem St. Alphonsus Rodriguez:

And those strokes that once gashed flesh or galled shield…

Obviously it is this latter meaning that Hopkins intends in St. Alphonsus, and he likely  intends it in The Windhover as well, meaning that the falling coals “gall themselves and gash gold-vermilion,” with those terms indicating the abrading (scraping) and gashing open of the falling hot coals, revealing the “gold-vermilion” bright heat inside as they do so.

It is this ambiguous use of often archaic terms that makes Hopkins somewhat bothersome in interpretation, if not in overall effect.  In fact some interpreters take “buckle” in the poem to indicate the passion of Jesus, “in the V-shaped collapse of his out-pinned arms, when his body buckled under its own weight” (Paul L. Mariani, A Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins).  To me such an interpretation is a bit excessive and goes beyond what we actually find in the poem (and it also makes a very strained analogy with the swooping bird), but who is to say that Hopkins might not have had such a thing in mind, with the coals that “fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion” indicating the bleeding wounds of Jesus?  Well, it still seems excessive to me, and not indicated in the poem, but we cannot deny that Hopkins adds obscurity rather than clarity to his writing by his use of archaic and imprecise terminology.

We may speculate on what Hopkins might have produced had he not become a Roman Catholic and a Jesuit, if he had not burned his poems when he changed his life, if he had not been subjected to years of depressing, unchallenging work that no doubt added to the weight and physical effects of his depression, but that is pointless.  He has left us a number of poems of varying effectiveness and varying opacity, and we can take pleasure in turning them over in our minds like stones from a quarry, seeing here and there in them the sudden, strange, opalescent shine of gemstone in the matrix, the glory of his mind and creativity.

Hopkins died in 1889, saying on his deathbed that he was happy. His poems were not published until 1918, so Hopkins, like the artist Vincent Van Gogh, died without ever knowing of his fame.  The late date of publication, combined with the remarkably experimental and original nature of his poems, makes people think of Hopkins not as a poet of the 19th century, but rather as one of the “moderns” of the 20th — a century he did not live to see.

David