HOW TO READ HOPKINS: TO WHAT SERVES MORTAL BEAUTY

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

There are certain helpful keys to reading Hopkins:

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

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

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

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

Let’s take a look:

TO WHAT SERVES MORTAL BEAUTY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nonangli

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

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

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

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

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eternity

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

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

David

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