Today we shall “translate” another of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ oddly but interestingly-worded poems into easily-understandable English. It is his very overtly religious poem,


Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

The title requires some explanation. “Habit” here does not mean a repeated behavior like a “smoking habit”; it means “habit” as in a religious garment like that worn by a Roman Catholic monk or nun. So this poem is about metaphorically “putting on the garment of perfection.”

An “elected” silence is a chosen silence, a silence not forced on someone, but chosen by them. Hopkins addresses that chosen silence as if it were a person, saying “Chosen silence, sing to me.” He asks Silence to “beat upon my whorled ear,” meaning to let him hear not sounds, but silence. By “whorled,” which he accents to be pronounced as “WHOR-led,” he is simply describing the curved shape we see in everyone’s ears.

He asks this personified Silence to “Pipe me to pastures still.” He is speaking of silence as though it were actually sound, asking it to Pipe him to quiet “fields.” “Pipe” here means to play a blown musical instrument, like the flute the Pied Piper of Hameln used in the old story to lead children into a mountain, or like the bagpipes a scottish piper plays to formally lead people into a dinner or ceremony. So Hopkins calls on Silence to lead him into quiet and restful peace, to be the soundless “music that I care to hear,” the sound of silence.

Now Hopkins begins to talk to his own body:

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

By “shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb,” he means, “Lips, do not form words, do not speak, be beautifully silent (dumb). And he says it is the closing of the mouth, its silence, that makes it truly eloquent. Truly beautiful speech, he thinks, is silence. This shutting of the lips he calls a curfew. A curfew is a signal sent to people that they must be off the streets and indoors. To hopkins it means leaving the outer world of the senses and going inside one’s self. This curfew of silence is sent “from there where all surrenders come,” which is the willingness of the person to give himself over, in Hopkins’ view, to the impulses sent from God.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

To be shelled (again, Hopkins wants us to pronounce it in two syllables as “SHEL-led” here means to be covered. It is likening the eyelids to two shells that cover the eyes when closed. That is why he says that closing the eyes will cover them “with double dark,” meaning not only the darkness behind each of the two eyelids, but the darkness in both eyes.

This “ruck and reel” — the outer crowd of things and movement that the eyes ordinarily — “remark” (notice) and pay attention to, “coils keeps and teases” simple sight. It captures it, like a vine coiling about a plant, it keeps (holds) it, it teases (distracts) it. Hopkins simply means that to enter silence one should shut the eyes to the events and movements of the outer world, because they hold back and confuse true sight, the simple “primary” sight that is the inner vision of the divine not seen by physical eyes.

Now he moves on to addressing the inside of the mouth:

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

He tells the palate, which he calls the cage (hutch) of the desire (lust) for pleasant tastes, not to desire to be “rinsed with wine,” not to desire to drink wine. That is because, he imagines, the can (here it means a cup or cup-like container) must be so sweet, and the crust (bread) so fresh when one is abstaining from food in a religious fast. Hopkins is saying that abstaining from the physical pleasures of food and drink brings spiritual pleasures of “divine” food that are far sweeter and more fresh than material food. So we see that in this poem he speaks paradoxically of silence as the “true” sound, looking inward as the “true” sight, and fasting (abstaining from food) as the “true” food.

Now he turns to addressing the nose:

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

He tells the nostrils that waste their breath on the arousing and maintaining of pride (like someone with his “nose in the air”), that there is something far better for them if one turns inward — then what “relish” (great enjoyment) shall the censers (incense burners) send along the sides of the sanctuary (within the church) — what a spiritual fragrance one will breathe during the celebration of the mass.

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street

And you unhouse and house the Lord.

By his elaborate “feel-of-primrose” hands, Hopkins is addressing simply the sense of touch in the hands that can feel a primrose plant; and he speaks of the same sense of touch in the feet that want the sensation of soft grass (“plushy sward”) beneath them.  “Want” here may also be understood as the lack (feet are denied) the feel of soft grass after one has become a monk.  One may read it with either or both meanings.  Instead of these sensory perceptions, Hopkins says the feet will “walk the golden street,” that is, they will walk in Heaven, and the hands will “unhouse and house the Lord.” In Roman Catholicism, the round and flat “host,” the bread used in the mass, is traditionally believed to become the body of Jesus when it is consecrated. It is kept in small cabinet (the “tabernacle”) with a door on it, and when the priest takes the bread out of the tabernacle or puts it back in, he is “unhousing” and “housing” the Lord, in the Catholic view.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

When someone becomes a Catholic monk, he takes a vow of poverty. So Hopkins pictures this becoming a monk as a marriage ceremony in which the monk marries poverty. And in that symbolic marriage celebration, Hopkins asks Poverty (St. Francis used to speak of her as “Lady Poverty”) to provide “lily-colored” clothes for her husband, clothes “not laboured-at nor spun.” So he means he wants to be clothed in spiritual clothing, not clothes that have been made from cloth spun and woven on a loom. This is actually a biblical reference to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:28, which in the Douai-Rheims version reads:

And for raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these.

So what is this poem all about? It is about a person choosing a monastic and priestly life, turning away from the pleasures of the senses to the (in Hopkins’ view) superior pleasures of spiritual things, which are just the opposite: Instead of speech, there is silence; instead of pleasant sights, the is the inward “uncreated light” of God; instead of the taste of food and drink, there is the “taste” of not eating for religious reasons — of fasting; instead of the breath perpetuating arrogance, the nostrils will smell divine fragrance; instead of earthly objects pleasant to touch with the fingers or feet, there will be the streets of heaven (metaphorical and literal) and using the hands to place the “host” in the tabernacle; and finally, instead of material clothing, there is the “spiritual clothing” of the monk in poverty.

It is not a perfect poem.  Hopkins stretches things a bit too far at points, such as in his association of the nostrils and arrogance, and the odd preference of walking on golden streets (even if metaphorical) to walking on soft grass, but nonetheless he makes his point that in the religious life, the spiritual is to be preferred to the material.  It seems like the kind of poem a young person would write in a religious enthusiasm, and without the actual experience.  The Habit of Perfection was written in the middle of January, 1866, when the young Hopkins already had becoming a monk on his mind.  Hopkins was only 22 years old, and shortly after the middle of October of that same year, he officially converted to Catholicism.  In September of 1870 he entered the Jesuit order, and the unhappy reality of the rest of his life as a Jesuit did not live up to the youthful and  romanticized idealism of this early religious poem.




It is very possible that if Robert Bridges had not developed an appreciation for the poems of his friend Gerard Manley Hopkins (they met while at Oxford), we might not have the body of Hopkins poems we have today.

Paradoxically, Hopkins is now much more widely known than Bridges. Bridges (October 23, 1844 – April 21 1930) had money and became a physician, so he was not at all the “starving poet” of the romantic imagination. Better known in his day than ours, he is still quite worth reading for such poems as the one discussed here, one of the best “snow” poems in the English language, though it is set in an urban rather than a rural scene.

At least in this poem, Bridges seems to fall halfway between traditional English verse and more modern verse, and this is perhaps due in part to the influence of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But Bridges uses a vocabulary much more ordinary than the often archaic and stretched meanings we find so frequently in Hopkins. Bridges is less adventurous with words, but also considerably easier to understand.

In fact, this poem is for the most part very straightforward and descriptive. It consequently requires little in explanation, but nonetheless I shall add a bit to it.

(Written 1890)


When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.

It is worth noting that this poem is written in several long, extended sentences. The first segment describes how snow fell in London during the night, while all were asleep. It fell slowly, softly and continuously (“lazily and incessantly”) muffling all sounds. The snow hushed (made quiet) the “latest traffic,” that is, the last movement of vehicles during the night; and in 1890 those would have been horse-drawn vehicles, wagons, and carts. This was in the days before the automobile. It sifts down (as one would think of flour or sugar falling through a sifter in those days), covering (“veiling”) roads, roofs, and railings.  One of the best phrases is the simple description of how the snow falls high and low, “Hiding difference, making unevenness even,” which is precisely what snow does.  It fills in gaps and evens horizontal outlines.

All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled — marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.

The snow fell all through the night, and when it had reached a depth of seven inches, the sky cleared, and at dawn the bright light reflected by the snow made everyone wake earlier than usual. People marvelled at how white everything was, and noticed how still the snow had made the city. One could not hear the customary rumbling of wheels on the streets nor the feet of passers-by, and even the sounds of human voices were fewer and seemed quieter than usual.

Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder,
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’

The poet suddenly heard schoolboys on their way to school, crying out to one another, picking up the “crystal manna” — that is, the snow — in their hands, chilling their tongues as they tasted it, chilling their hands as they made snowballs to throw at one another, or jumping into deep drifts of snow up to their knees; or they looked up from beneath the trees into the “white-mossed” — that is, the snow-covered branches, in wonder, crying, “O look at the trees!” Some suggest that in the repeated “O look at the trees” line, Bridges was influenced by these lines in The Starlight Night poem by Hopkins:

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!

The metaphor “manna” for snow is a biblical reference. In the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt with Moses, manna was a miraculous white food substance that appeared every morning, and had to be gathered and eaten before the sun melted it.

With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.

More people appear. Early on a few carts from the countryside creak by with difficulty, carrying lesser loads than usual to market because going through snow is more difficult. They pass along the “white deserted way,” that is, along the largely empty snow-covered street, and disperse and disappear long before the sun rises high enough to stand by the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, spreading its light and awaking more human activity.

For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.

With the sun now higher in the clear sky, doors of houses and shops open, and people begin trying to clear away (“war is waged”) the snow as lines of innumerable men head off to work, making long brown paths in the whiteness. Yet even they, on seeing the world made new and different by the snow, find their thoughts taken away for a while from their ordinary worries about life and work, and they are unusually quiet. Why? Not only because of the unaccustomed beauty of the snowy morning, but also because they sense that by walking through it to work and disturbing — “spoiling” — the snow, they are breaking a beautiful spell.



In March of 1879 Gerard Manley Hopkins was working as a parish priest’s assistant in Oxford, England. It was familiar territory for him, having studied Greek and Latin at Oxford from 1862-1867. In wandering north of the city he came to the little village of Binsey, with which he had long been familiar. There he found to his horror that the long line of tall trees he was accustomed to seeing along the River Thames was gone; all had been cut down. He was so moved by this that he wrote the following poem:


felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

Hopkins, in speaking of the vanished trees, says Their “airy cages,” meaning their intertwined leaf-covered branches, sometimes made the bright sunlight more subdued (“quelled”), sometimes blocked the light entirely. By “leaping sun” he may mean the illusion caused by the moving of branches and fluttering of leaves, which makes the light seen through them seem to leap from place to place; or he may mean simply the sun rising in the East and passing over the line of trees (they were oriented in a northwesterly direction) to sink again in the West.

Not one of the “fresh and following folded rank” of trees was spared, he tells us.  By “following folded rank” he means simply the line of trees with their individual heights and gaps between them making a vertical “fold”; Not one was spared, not one that “dandled [“dangled”] a sandalled shadow.” He seems to liken the trees to a person dangling a sandalled foot lightly against the water, he may mean simply the “footprint” of the shadow on shore and water, or he even may, as some say (though it seems rather unlikely), be referring to the interlacing shadows of branches, likened to the lacings on a sandal. He says the shadow “swam or sank on meadow and river…and bank,” meaning the shadow appeared both on the surface and beneath the surface of the water, as well as rising or falling with the little swells and depressions in the land.

When he calls the bank “wind-wandering” and “weed-winding,” we may wonder if he intends “wind-” in the first case to have a short “i,” meaning “breeze,” or if he intends it with a long “i” (meaning “meandering”) as used in “weed-winding.” I think he means “wind” as in “breeze,” — signifiying not only that the wind wanders along the bank but also that the bank wanders like the wind. And when he says “weed-winding bank,” he seems to again use a double meaning, signifying the weeds winding (tangling) on the bank, as well as the bank wandering like a weed (the Thames curves at Binsey). We should not be surprised at the vagueness of Hopkins, who seems to often leave us with multiple and intertwining possibilities of meaning.

Then Hopkins laments,

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:

“Oh,” he says, if we only knew what we do when we delve (“dig) or hew (“cut”) Nature, when we “hack and rack the growing green.” Hopkins uses the word “rack” here in an unusual sense that is based more on its meaning as a noun (“destruction, ruin”) than on its usual meaning as a verb.

The rural countryside is so tender that to touch “her,” given that she/it is so “slender” (meaning “delicate, sensitive” here) is as risky as pricking the smooth ball of the human eye, which can destroy it. So even if we mean to mend (“repair”) Nature, we often instead merely do harm when we dig or excavate. There are abundant examples of the results of interfering with Nature, some of them well intended, some not — in the history of human interaction with the natural environment, and we see them still in the daily news.

And then, having altered Nature with hacking and digging,

After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Those who come after cannot guess how beautiful the countryside had been before humans got at it. Only ten or twelve strokes of havoc (“destruction, disorder”), ten or twelve strokes of an axe, can “unselve” (un-self, “take away the character of, ruin”) the sweet especial (“special, pre-eminent”) rural country scene. And Hopkins emphasizes his recollection of the beauty that had been at Binsey but was no more by repeating,

“Sweet especial rural scene.”

“Binsey Poplars” is one of those Hopkins poems that is rather simple in subject but complicated by his unusual use of language. Nonetheless, in spite of his occasional vagueness and implied multiple meanings, the overall sense of the poem is quite clear, and we can easily relate to his feelings on the matter.

Nonetheless, we should be aware that though Hopkins knew poplars well poetically, he did not know them well botanically. European poplars (Populus tremula) decline and decay within a period of about 100-150 years, requiring replacement by replanting if one wants to maintain an avenue of them. In fact not long after Hopkins passed through the apparent devastation of the felled Binsey poplars, they were replanted. By 2004 the poplars at Binsey had again begun to decline, and so replanting was begun again. So in this case, the “sweet especial rural scene” was more resilient than Hopkins knew.

That does not, however, obviate the point of his poem, which is that humans should be more sensitive to Nature, to natural beauty, and to what is done to it. We can see what happens when humans abuse Nature in countless cases of destruction and disaster that are immeasurably more difficult to mend than the cutting of the poplars at Binsey.


In the spring of 1880 Gerard Manley Hopkins was working as a Catholic priest in a slum district of Liverpool, a district which, at that time, was a very unpleasant place with an appallingly high disease and death rate.

This was in the days before the car, a time when dray horses — “work” horses — hauled goods in wooden wagons with iron-rimmed wheels. Work horses are strikingly unlike ordinary horses; they are high and massive, standing some six feet high at the shoulder — and very strong.

Today’s poem is an odd combination; on the one hand it is quite businesslike, dealing matter-of-factly with the rites and services a Catholic priest was expected, as his duty, to provide to the seriously ill, but behind that it seems to be a tender and rather loving meditation on the death of one particular man.

That man was Felix Spencer, a sturdily-built young farrier. A farrier was one who could do the blacksmith’s work of making horseshoes, fitting and nailing them to the horse’s hooves, as well as undertaking the skilled trimming and tending of the hooves. It was a very “masculine” profession in feeling and required a good deal of strength as well as practical anatomical knowledge of horses.

Felix Spencer, in spite of his imposing physical build, came down with tuberculosis, which in those days and the damp British climate often proved fatal — at the young age of 31 he died. In this poem Hopkins changes the surname Spencer to “Randal.”

Let’s look at the poem part by part:


Felix Randal the farrier, O he is dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Hopkins ponders the death of Felix Randal, and he puts it in the form of two questions:
1. “O is he dead then?”

2. “Is my duty as priest to him ended…?” But he does not stop there; he recalls “his mould (“kind,” “form”) of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome,” he sees in memory the sturdy body of Felix, handsome in a hardy, well-built and imposing way. But he sees also the changes wrought by illness — that sturdy body “pining, pining,” meaning declining and weakening. And finally he sees the time when about four ultimately fatal physical disorders (what we call today “complications”) manifested in his body (“fleshed there”). These disorders all struggled with one another and ultimately killed the poor man, so ill near the end that his mind had become confused (“reason rambled in it”). Though it may seem peculiar to us, Hopkins puts the question mark not after “my duty all ended,” but all the way at the end of the long description of the body and its fading.

Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

The illness, as we can easily imagine, was just too much for the young man as his body broke down. He lost his calm and cursed and swore, but became more resigned to death (“but mended”) after “being anointed and all,” that is, after having received the Catholic rite of extreme unction during which a person in danger of death was marked with blessed oil on his forehead. Hopkins believed Felix had actually begun to become more spiritual (“a heavenly heart began”) some months earlier when Hopkins had given him (“tendered to him”) the Eucharist, the bread Catholics believe to be changed into the body of Jesus, which Hopkins calls “our sweet reprieve and ransom.”

Hopkins finishes the verse with an exclamation:
“Ah, well, God rest him all road ever he offended!” Hopkins is using “rest” here with a double meaning. First he means “God keep him,” using “rest” with the meaning it has in the old Christmas carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”; second he means “God give him rest,” as is sung in the mass for the dead:

Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine…
“Rest eternal give them, Lord…”

And Hopkins’ wish is that God may keep Felix and give him rest “all road ever he offended.” Here Hopkins uses a regional northern English usage, ” all road,” meaning “all ways.” So the meaning is, “May God give him peace and rest no matter all the ways in which he may have offended in life.”

Hopkins continues his pondering:

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

Hopkins remarks on his visits to Felix in a general way, saying “This seeing the sick endears them to us” — we develop an affection for the ill when we visit them and see their suffering, yet it also “endears” us — not only endearing us to the ill, but we tend to become better, more compassionate ourselves. Hopkins had comforted Felix with soothing words (“My tongue had taught thee comfort”), had laid his hand upon him fondly (touch had quenched thy tears,” and the tears Felix shed also touched Hopkins deeply, as we see in the lamenting, simple words, “child, Felix, poor Felix Randal.” Hopkins had developed a real affection for the man, and I suspect that he is underplaying it here because he does not want to admit its depth to himself or to others — remember that Hopkins was homosexual. He seems to have been struck by how different a man Felix was in form and function from the quiet, physically undeveloped and bookish nature of Hopkins himself.

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Hopkins ponders how far Felix was, in the weak and broken condition of his last days, from the boisterous years of his previous life when he stood working at the “random grim forge.” “Random” here is used in its old meaning of “with great force or violence,” and “grim” in its old sense of “fierce.” Hopkins deliberately blurs the application of the adjectives so that they apply not only to the fiery forge but also to the hammering of the horseshoe on the anvil and to Felix himself. Hopkins sees Felix standing, powerful and grim, before the fierce fire of the forge, violently beating the white-hot metal of the horseshoes with great force behind the blows of the hammer.

There he stood in those happier, earlier days, “powerful amidst peers,” that is, he stood strong amid the strength of fire and iron and massive horses, as well as being strong among other sturdy men of his kind. He could have had no forethought in those days of strength of his future illness and final fatal weakness. So blissfully unaware of what lay in store for him, he fettled ( using “fettle in its sense of “to make ready”) a horseshoe for the great, gray drayhorse (a horse that pulls a dray, a large wagon for transporting goods). Hopkins calls the horseshoe “his (the horse’s) bright and battering sandle,” because horseshoes not only become bright when they are forged white-hot, but also become bright when polished by wear. The horseshoe is “battering” not only because the farrier batters it with a hammer when making it, but also because the iron shoe batters against the cobblestones of the streets as the horse pulls the wagon.

I suspect that Hopkins is merely using “sandle” here because it is a word he likes (he uses it elsewhere), and because it makes a pleasant contrast when combined with the word “battering”; but some think he is also referring to a particular type of 19th century horseshoe that was once literally called a “sandal.”

Well, that is the poem. I do not think it is one of his best, and that, I suspect, is because Hopkins held back a bit, being of two minds, either consciously or unconsciously, about revealing to himself and to others too much about his feelings concerning the once “hardy-handsome” Felix Spencer — “Felix Randal” in the poem. But of course we must be careful not to read too much into this.

As he often does, Hopkins makes things more difficult than need be by his liking for old meanings of words and unusual expressions, but without that he would not be Hopkins, would he?



To understand this poem, first remember that Gerard Manley Hopkins (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889) lived in Britain before the invention of the flashlight (or “torch” as it is called in British English). Those going about outdoors at night then used lanterns, commonly a lit candle enclosed in a framework of metal and glass, with a handle at the top by which it might be held without burning the fingers. It was a weak light, but it did the job.

Hopkins muses on seeing the passing light of a lantern in the darkness:hhcat


Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

At times one sees a lantern moving outside in the darkness, and it attracts the poet’s curiousity, “interests our eyes.” And the question arises in the mind, “Who goes there?” Who is passing in the black of night? Where did the person come from, and where is he going out there with his light, though the vast blackness, “all down darkness wide”? We might think “wading” a misprint for “waving,” but it is not. It is used here in an old and rather obscure sense meaning “to penetrate, to proceed through.” So the lantern light both penetrates and proceeds through the darkness. Hopkins is saying, “Where is the holder of the lantern from, I wonder, and where is he bound, with his light penetrating all down the wide darkness?”

Hopkins then comments on such an experience, using it as an analogy for life:

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Hopkins encounters men who pass through his life in the same manner. They come into and out of his life either with handsome physical form (“beauty bright in mould”) or with beauty of mind, of intellect, or with some other exceptional or unusual quality (“what not else makes rare”) that causes them to stand out in our dark lives like the light of a lantern in the night.

Such people cast their light (“they rain…rich beams”) on the gloom and boredom of stale, daily life (“against our much thick and marsh air.” Until they pass out of our lives either by dying or by leaving, moving on to some far other place (“till death or distance buys them quite”). “Buys” here means, “takes possession of.”

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.

Life is short; so one way or another, by death or departure, people leave us, the lantern-light they cast on our lives through their physical appearance or their mental qualities and character soon is gone (“Death or distance soon consumes them”)

And, Hopkins laments, no matter how closely he may follow their movements with his eyes (“Wind what most I may eye after”) — like watching a passing lantern outside in the dark of night, he cannot be there after the light passes to see where they go, what becomes of them (“be in at the end I cannot”). Hopkins uses “wind” (with a long “i” here to rhyme with “mind” two lines later) to mean the movement of the eye as it follows the passing lantern.

He adds the old saying, “Out of sight is out of mind.” Once they are gone, there is no more connection. He cannot go after them to see what their destination, their ultimate fate might be, he cannot be there to help or to guide or advise; they are apparently on their own on their journey.

Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
There, éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd,
Their ránsom, théir rescue, ánd first, fást, last friénd.

But, Hopkins the Roman Catholic convert tells us, they are not alone. He cannot go with them himself, but another does. That other is Christ. While those who pass through are lives are “out of sight” and “out of mind” once they are gone, Christ minds where they are going, Christ is interested in them. He knows what to try to accept (“avow”) in them and what needs change (“amend”). He watches them (“eyes them”), his heart longs for them (“heart wants”), his feet follow them lovingly on their journey (“foot follows kind”). He is their rescuer, their redeemer (“ransom”), and their first (both chronologically and in importance), firm (“fast”) friend in life, and also their last friend at its end and beyond.

It is a rather simple little poem about Hopkins’ personal religious view that Christ accompanies people on the journey of life far better and more surely than other humans can or will, and also that he is their truest friend. So this poem is a kind of little sermon in words, but Hopkins says it so nicely (though with some cart-before-the-horse phrasing) that it does not grate on the ear as religious sermons tend to do. One always has the underlying feeling, however, that Hopkins half believes what he says in such religious verses, half tries to convince himself that what he says is true. He obviously feels that life tends to be a dark, dank, murky, uncomfortable affair, (“much thick and marsh air”), and his odd little analogy likening a stranger passing with a lantern in the outer darkness with the passage of other people through our lives is a rather pleasant one because of the simple contrast of darkness and light.


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 | 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.


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:


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.




One more Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, and then I will move on to something else.  It seems odd to be discussing a poem about autumn, given that it is spring now, but here it is nonetheless.

In this poem, we note something Hopkins frequently does; he talks about Nature, but applies his (Catholic) religion to it, believing that God is revealed in Nature.  William Wordsworth had as his theory of poetry that one should use the words of everyday language, “and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of the imagination.” Hopkins, with his often strange and creative vocabulary, cannot be accused of using only “everyday language,” but he is certainly guilty of throwing  a “coloring of the imagination” (his Catholic religion) over his subject matter (Nature).  I tend to think of it as “smearing God all over Nature.”  It is quite the opposite of the aesthetics of hokku, in which Nature is preferred without any “coloring of the imagination” (you will note that Wordsworth uses the British spelling “colouring,” while I use the American “coloring.”).

But on to the poem, which I shall discuss part by part — Hurrahing in Harvest.  A “hurrah” is a shout, an exclamation of joy and approval, so we could say this means “Rejoicing in the Harvest.”

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise

Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour

Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier

Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

The poet stands looking over the golden fields.  It is the end of summer.  He sees the stooks standing all over the now-harvested fields of grain.  Stooks are sheaves of grain placed upright together in a shape like a teepee.  Hopkins finds them beautiful in a barbarous (“unsophisticated, rough, wild”) way.

Then he looks up to the sky above, and comments,

what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour

Of silk-sack clouds!

The “wind-walks” are the sky itself, the open sky, the various routes through which the moving clouds pass as well as the gaps between them.  Hopkins likens the white clouds to smooth and shiny sacks made of silk, remarking on the the beauty of their changes as they drift across the sky.

…has wilder, wilful-wavier

Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

He asks himself, has there ever been anything so wild and wilful and wavy as this “meal-drift” that  moulds itself, then melts across the skies?  He is speaking of the shapes and transformations in shape of the clouds.  He likens them to “meal-drift,” that is, to the white dust that drifts in the air and gathers here and there in an old-fashioned mill when grain is being ground into flour.  He likens the clouds to this fine, white powder, and describes it as moulding (American spelling “molding”) itself together into one cloud form, then melting, changing shape, into another form.  Again, he is speaking of the visual transformations of the clouds as they pass across the sky.

But now Hopkins brings in religion and begins smearing it over all he sees:

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes, 

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;

And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a

Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

Hopkins walks along, and as he walks he raises his eyes to the clouds and the sky, and simultaneously, he says, he lifts up his heart — his emotions.

This phrase “lift up heart,” would have come easily to Hopkins, because he would have heard it often in the Roman Catholic mass, when, in a preface to the consecration of the host (bread), the old Latin mass ran like this:

Priest: Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you).

People: Et cum spiritu tuo (And with your spirit).

Priest: Sursum corda (Lift up [your] hearts).

People: Habemus ad Dominum (We lift them up to the Lord).

So Hopkins lifts up his eyes and his heart to the skies, and looks

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;

And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a

Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

So he is doing just what the Catholic mass says:  he is lifting up his heart to the Lord (Jesus), whom he finds in the clouds and sky.  He looks at the gloriously beautiful scene of passing clouds in the blue sky in order to “glean our Savior,” that is, to see Jesus in their beauty.  “To glean” is an old term from grain harvesting.  It meant originally to gather stalks of grain accidentally or even intentionally left behind by the reapers, a practice of benefit to the poor, as in chapter two of the biblical story of Ruth; here Hopkins uses it to mean “gather.”  Like a gleaner, he looks at the beauty of the skies at summer’s end to “gather” Jesus, to see him there.  And he fancies that he also sees a response from Jesus in the clouds:

And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a

Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

He asks his eyes and his heart what looks (of a person) and what lips (of a person) ever before gave him a rapturous greeting of love in “realer, rounder replies” — in replies more “real” and more “round” (both roundish in shape and round as meaning “full, complete.”  In other words, he sees the clouds in the sky as the replies, the unspoken but real and visible “words” of Jesus to Hopkins, as he gazes up at them.  So Hopkins is not only fantasizing that he is seeing Jesus in the sky and clouds, but he also imagines that he sees Jesus expressing love back to him and speaking to him in the changing shapes of the roundish clouds.

But Hopkins does not stop his imaginings there:

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder

Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—

Now Hopkins looks to the low hills, blue in the distance, calling them “azurous hung hills” — hills hung with blue (azure).  He wrote this poem on the 1st of September in the year 1877, on his way home from fishing in the Elwy River in the Vale of Clwyd (pronounced “Clooid”) in Wales, so we may easily picture hills in the distance.  And these bluish hills, Hopkins imagines, are the shoulder of Jesus, who carries the world.  Hopkins sees them thus as majestic, both strong as a stallion (male horse), but also “sweet” — gentle and pleasant — as violets. We may also think of “azurous hung hills” as meaning the distant hills with the blue (azurous) sky above them and forming their background.

One cannot help thinking that Hopkins seeing Jesus in the clouds of the sky as someone giving a “rapturous love’s greeting,” and seeing him in the hills as “strong as a stallion” yet sweet and mild, expresses a thinly-veiled homosexuality, and after all, Hopkins was homosexual by nature.

Hopkins says of the sky, the clouds, the hills,

These things, these things were here and but the beholder

Wanting; which two when they once meet,

The heart rears wings bold and bolder

And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

That is, the beauty of the sky with its passing clouds and the blue hills were things already there before Hopkins paused to notice them.  But before he was there, a beholder was wanting — was lacking.  But when these two things — the scene and its beholder — meet, then the heart suddenly “leaps up” as Wordsworth would say, as though it has wings carrying it upward with wild, beating emotion, and it

...hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

Or, as we would say today, the beauty of the scene nearly knocks him off his feet.



We have seen in earlier postings how the 19th century British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins suffered from terrible episodes of depression, the worst aspects of which were depicted in his poem I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark.BonnatJac.

We may see today’s poem as a mate to that other work, because it deals with the same topic, but in a slightly different way. It has the odd title Carrion Comfort.

We should first make sure we know what is meant by carrion. Put very simply, it means dead and decaying flesh. It has a strong undertone of something very unpleasant, as when we speak of vultures feeding on carrion — on dead animals. Many humans, too, eat dead animals, but tend to avoid any signs of decay in what they eat. That did not stop me from now and then remarking to meal mates, when I was younger, “I see you are eating another slice of dead cow.”

But back to the poem.

Let’s take it, as usual, part by part. I will divide the first stanza into two parts for convenience:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

Hopkins, regarding his fits of depression, decides not to give in to them. He calls his deep depression by the capitalized name “Despair,” and he speaks to it. He describes Despair as “carrion comfort,” saying he will not let his mind concentrate on despair, which would be like trying to nourish his soul/mind on foul and decaying flesh. That, he does not feel, would be a true and lasting comfort — only the inferior comfort of surrender.

Further, Hopkins says, he will not untwist the slack last threads of man in himself. By that he means he will not take away the last few strands of manly strength he has in him, even though the thread made from those few strands that remain is “slack,” is loose and seems weak. So Hopkins is saying he will not give up what little strength he has left, he will not give in to despair. His comparison of strength to frayed thread is based upon the making of thread and yarn and rope by twisting many strands of fiber together to make the thread or rope strong. But Hopkins says he has only a few strands left in his frayed thread, and he will not let those untwist and give up what strength is left to him.

He adds,

ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

Not only will Hopkins not give up his last strands of strength, but he also refuses, when most wearied, most exhausted by depression, to just give up and cry “I can no more” — I am unable to struggle further. On the contrary, he says, “I can.” He can do something: he can hope, he can wish to the day to come, not only the literal day, but also day used as a metaphor for the light of peace and release as opposed to the dark night of his anguished depression. And, very importantly, Hopkins has the option of NOT choosing “not to be.” He is saying he is still free and strong enough to say he will not choose suicide.

In what follows, we shall see that Hopkins tends to combine his notion of Despair with his notion of God. This is a view of his deity similar to that in parts of the “Old Testament,” the Hebrew Scriptures, in which, as in the Book of Job, God can not only help humans, but can also afflict them terribly with suffering and pain:

But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

He speaks to Despair/God, whom he visualizes as a terrible, huge lion-beast. Hopkins asks why God would rudely place and push his world-shaking (“wring-world”) right foot upon him, like the huge, heavy, clawed paw of a lion. And why would God/Despair look at Hopkins’ bruised body (“bones”) with “darksome devouring eyes,” as though he would eat him up? And why would he “fan” (blow against) Hopkins mental pains like windy storms (“turns of tempest”), while Hopkins lies (heaped) there, frantic to avoid those mental pains, and wishing to flee, to escape them?

There are subtle biblical hints in the background here. The “Lion” image calls to mind Jesus, one of whose titles is “Lion of Judah.” And Hopkins probably had, in the back of his mind, a reference to Psalm 22 as it is in the Catholic Douai version of the Bible, in particular lines 14 and 15:

“They have opened their mouths against me, as a lion ravening and roaring.
I am poured out like water; and all my bones are scattered. My heart is become like wax melting in the midst of my bowels.”

Christians traditionally considered that a prophecy of the suffering of Jesus, and Hopkins likely had it in mind in regard to his own sufferings. But paradoxically, I suspect that also in the background of Hopkins’ “lion” metaphor is this biblical phrase from I Peter 5:8:

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:

Given his pain, we should not be surprised if Hopkins was feeling both good and evil oppressing him. And in fact in the Old Testament, God was generally considered one who ultimately brought both good and evil to humans, as in the book of Job, when God and Satan play a cruel little game to see just how much suffering God’s servant Job could take without cursing God.

Now Hopkins tries to religiously justify his anguish, his own deep depression, to himself. Why does God make him suffer the pains of depression?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.

I cannot help feeling there is something psychologically unhealthy, something masochistic, about Hopkin’s justification of his own sufferings here. He tells himself he suffers

That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.

He is saying that God makes him suffer so that he may be cleaned and purified, just as one beats the chaff (seed coverings, etc.) away from stalks of grain after it is harvested, so that the grain might be “sheer and clear.” Hopkins is using “sheer” here in its sense of “pure, unadulterated.” He says God is whipping him with the pains of depression just as grain is beaten in threshing, to clean and purify it.

And what effect does that justification of his own despair have on Hopkins? He says,

Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.

Put into everyday English, it means:

“No, in all that toil, in all that ‘coil’ [meaning here ‘disturbance/worry/trouble], it seems that since I ‘kissed the rod,’ or rather the hand holding that rod, see, my heart [mind] has drunk strength [like an animal lapping liquid], has ‘stolen’ [here he means ‘cleverly taken’] joy, and would laugh and cheer.

Hopkins is referring to an old expression, to “kiss the hand that holds the rod,” in other words, to be grateful for the punishment that is used to correct one’s behavior. It comes from the days when children would be beaten with a wooden rod, like a willow switch or a stick, when they had “been bad.” “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is another old expression from the time when children were physically whipped (a time which is not past in some places).

Hopkins is saying, then, that he has changed his attitude toward his depression, that instead of raging against it or giving up entirely to despair and killing himself, he has since decided to regard his depression as a purifying punishment from God, a suffering that is actually beneficial to him because it cleanses him, and so he metaphorically kisses the hand of God that punishes him (“holds the rod.”) — he is grateful for his own suffering.

Quite honestly, I doubt that Hopkins really was grateful for his deep sufferings, but he had converted to Catholicism and was a Jesuit, and no doubt felt he had no choice but to either accept his pain as the good will of God, or else to give up and end his life. So this is Hopkins trying to talk himself into believing that his suffering is ultimately good for him, and a sign of God’s love.

Hopkins tells us that with his attitude changed, he now “would cheer.” And so he asks whom he would cheer (or who he would cheer, for those of you who prefer getting rid of the old “whom” form):

Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

Who does he cheer then? Does he cheer the “hero” (meaning God) whose divine actions (“heaven-handling) threw Hopkins down into despair — God, whose foot metaphorically stepped upon, trampled Hopkins? Or does Hopkins cheer himself, the “me” that fought against Despair/God? Which one is it? Is it each, both of them? He implies by the last line that he cheers everything together — God, who gave him suffering, Hopkins himself, who refuses to give in to his deep despair, and everything that happened on that night, or rather that year of his anguish that is now over (now done darkness), that night when Hopkins (“I wretch”) lay on his bed metaphorically wrestling with despair, with his God.

You will note that Hopkins uses repetition for effect, speaking of the time when he, in his wretchedness, lay

wrestling with (my God!) my God.

The “my God!” in parentheses is to be taken as an exclamation of wonder and awe over the fact that in fighting against the suffering of his depression, Hopkins has come to the realization, “My God! I have been wrestling with my God!” So the meaning of the first “My God!” is like saying “Good grief!” or “Wow!” — “Wow! I was wrestling with God!”

This notion of wrestling with God comes from the story of the patriarch Jacob in Genesis, chapter 32. In that story, a man comes to Jacob by night and wrestles with him. When morning comes, the man asks to be released, but Jacob will not release him until the man blesses him. Jacob realizes that the man is actually God. Knowing that, we see that it is upon this biblical story of a wrestling match with God by night that Hopkins has based his poem. He is saying that “Just as Jacob wrestled with God by night and endured until day, and was blessed, so in my dark struggle with despair I will not give in, because I have really been wrestling with God, and he will bless me.”

Of course Hopkins is just being poetic here, and it is difficult to say to what extent this “kissing the hand that holds the rod” maneuver really brought any comfort to him. But no doubt in his fits of depression he was willing to grasp at anything.



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.


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).



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:


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.


NO WORST, THERE IS NONE: World-anguish in Gerard Manley Hopkins

In an earlier posting, I briefly discussed the “cliffs of fall” part of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and have felt ever since the incompleteness of not having included the first part of the poem as well.  So with this posting I hope to fill that gap.

The poem is generally known by its first line, No Worst, There is None.  It is one of the “dark night of the soul” poems written by Hopkins in his fits of depression.

I will discuss it part by part:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?

There is nothing worse than this, Hopkins laments.

This pain is “pitched past pitch of grief,” meaning it is considerably beyond the point of grief.  To “pitch” means to fix or place something on a scale of degree, like the “pitch” of a note in music.  It also means to “throw” so we have an undertone in this of an emotional scale that casts one into a painful intensity far beyond that of ordinary grief.

Further, the waves of emotional pain, having been “schooled at forepangs,” that is, seemingly having learned from lesser pains that preceded them, will consequently be even more painful, will “wilder wring.”  “Wring” here has the sense of a tight, painful squeezing or twisting, in the old sense of “wringing” someone’s neck, like wringing water from a wet cloth.  So in this beginning Hopkins is complaining that the anguish of his mental pain is far beyond that of ordinary grief, that each new wave of pain is worse than what preceded it, and it has reached the point of mental anguish where it could not be worse.

He cries out in the terms of his adopted Catholic religion.  “Comforter,” he asks, using an old term for the Holy Spirit,” “where is your comforting?”  And to Mary, a significant figure in Catholicism to whom much prayer was made, he says, “Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?”  He bemoans the fact that the Comforter does not comfort, that Mary gives no relief.  His prayers for easing of his sorrow seem to achieve nothing, because the pain just continues even worse than before.

My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.’

His cries of pain heave, meaning they rise up like waves on  the sea, and they do so “herds-long,” that is, like a multitude of cries that stretch out far in time, as though the cries were in “herds” like countless cattle.  But they “huddle in a main, a chief woe,” that is, they focus in one main pain, one major sorrow.  What is it?

Hopkins tells us that the chief focus of his anguish is “world-sorrow,” the same pain that is called in German Weltschmerz, that is, “the pain of the world,” the sorrow of simply existing in a world of suffering and transience.  If you read the earlier posting here on his poem Spring and Fall (“Margaret, are you grieving…”), then you will know that to Hopkins this “world-sorrow” is inherent in the human condition, that we live in a universe where nothing lasts, and no joy is secure or permanent.

He tells us that his cries of sorrow

…on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.’

That is, his laments come from the anguish of being “on an age-old anvil,” of being hammered repeatedly like iron on an anvil, and that anvil is, again, the human condition and its accompanying sorrows of birth, illness, death, and impermanence, as old as humanity itself.  Hammered by these blows of life, Hopkins jerks back from the repeated pains, crying out — wincing and “singing,” though we must not take this singing as anything pleasant, more a crying out like the ring of iron struck by a hammer on an anvil in a blacksmith’s shop.

Hopkins adds that this pain nonetheless will “Lull, then leave off.”  it will reach its peak of pain, then it will quiet, will stop (“leave off”), at least for a time.  It is as though in its fury, the pain cannot hesitate, (“no lingering,”) but must be “fell” (piercing and intensely painful), because “force” (short for “perforce” here, meaning “of necessity”) it must be brief.  So we see that these fits of depression, as intensely painful as they are, come and go.  But when they come, Hopkins is indeed in abyssal anguish over them, lamenting and crying out for relief.

Then he tells us that this pain comes, in reality, from within the individual, from within the human mind:

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 — the “lull” of which he speaks — 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.



Anthriscus sylvestris

In previous postings we have seen the ups and downs of the “religious” life of Gerard Manley Hopkins displayed in his verse.  You will recall that he was a convert to Catholicism who became a Jesuit, then spent a good part of his life suffering from depression.  We see his “ups” in poems such as Pied Beauty and The Windhover, and the “downs” in others like the dark I Wake to Feel the Fell of Night and in the one we look at today, which is titled Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord, If I Contend.

It takes its title from the first verse of the biblical book of Jeremiah, chapter 12, as recorded in the Latin Vulgate:

Iustus quidem tu es Domine, si disputem tecum: verumtamen iusta loquar ad te: quare via impiorum prosperatur; bene est omnibus qui praevaricantur et inique agunt?

In the Douai-Rheims translation used by Catholics in Hopkins’ day, that would be:

Thou indeed, O Lord, art just, if I plead with thee, but yet I will speak what is just to thee: Why doth the way of the wicked prosper: why is it well with all them that transgress, and do wickedly?

Where the Douai has “plead,” Hopkins prefers “contend”:

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end? 

Hopkins, dissatisfied and unhappy, is complaining to his god.  “Contend” means here to argue one’s case against another, to struggle against another.  In this case Hopkins is arguing with his deity.  He tells him, “Yes, you are just, but what I argue is just too.”  He asks why “sinners” — those who do evil — seem to prosper and do well in the world, while everything Hopkins himself tries to do (“all I endeavor”) or accomplish ends in disappointment.

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? 

Hopkins speaks bluntly, even though he does it in Elizabethan English, using “wert” (were), “wouldst” (would) and “dost” (do) and “thou” (you):  “If you were my enemy,” he tells his god,  “I think you could hardly treat me any worse than you are treating me now as my friend.”

Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause.

Hopkins complains that the “sots” (the foolish, with undertones of one addicted to something such as alcohol) and thralls (servants) of lust (the strong desire for material objects and pleasures) gain more and get more out of their actions in a few “spare” (here he means random and casual) hours than Hopkins does in devoting his whole life to the service of God. There is an interesting contrast here between the words “spare,” (which can also mean “to save”) and “spend.”

Then Hopkins turns his eye to Nature, calling his god to look at it and see the contrast between its life and growth and the barren life Hopkins is suffering:

See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes

The banks (raised areas, as along waterways and elsewhere) and brakes (thickets here; it can also mean drifts of bracken fern) have leafed out thickly (as in spring), and are again “laced” with fretty chervil.  The chervil spoken of here is likely Anthriscus sylvestris, a common wild plant in Britain that blooms in spring with lacy, open umbels of small, white flowers.  It is also called Cow Parsley.

There is a little reminiscence of Shakespeare in the words:

 …and fresh wind shakes

Shakespeare wrote,

“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May…” (Sonnet 18)

Back to Hopkins:

birds build — but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain. 

So, it is spring.  Hopkins sees the green plants growing, the trees leafing out, and birds building nests.  But he notes the he does not build, he does not contribute to newness and freshness, to new life and growth; instead he toils and strains like a laboring eunuch (servant unable to breed) to time (the passage of time).  He gives birth to nothing, and feels his life is slipping away uselessly.  He is, of course, a celibate Jesuit, but he means more than simple celibacy (Hopkins was in fact homosexual).  He just feels that he is not accomplishing anything, not succeeding in anything, not flourishing at all  — always failing.  He breeds (gives birth to, creates) not a single thing that “wakes,” meaning nothing that survives and succeeds and grows and has life to it.  He feels his existence is empty and useless, that he is unable to create anything significant or important.

He ends his argument — his complaint — with what is essentially a prayer:

Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain. 

He speaks to his god as his lord (“mine”), as the lord of life, and asks him “send my roots rain.”  In modern English he might say, “Look, God, I’m dying out here.  I desperately need some help.”  He compares himself to a plant suffering in drought, on the verge of perishing, which is why he asks God to send rain — to give him some help — some spiritual nourishment —  that might allow him to refresh himself and finally be able to flourish and grow and begin to actually live.  We see from this that Hopkins did not consider his unhappy existence real living.  One might also understand the “Mine” at the beginning of this line as referring to “my roots,” in which case it would mean, “As for mine — my roots, O thou lord of life, send mine rain too” — which has the same point.

It is not a cheerful or a particularly hopeful poem, but Hopkins, as we have seen in earlier postings, had periods of deep and agonizing depression.  No wonder he felt that his god was giving him the “short end of the stick.”


There is no quick reading of some poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Slow going and thought are essential to picking out his meaning from his often odd phrasing, uncommon word choices, and lack of complete clarity.

The Pleiades on Ektachrome 100 film in 1986

Such a poem is The Starlight Night.

In it, as in some of his other poems such as The Windhover, Hopkins mixes Nature with aspects of his adopted religion, Roman Catholicism.  He often uses the former (Nature) as an introduction to the latter (religion).

Without careful reading, this poem would quickly dissolve into incoherency after its simple beginning.  And even with care, as we shall see, there are some ambiguities in interpretation.  But let’s give it a try nonetheless.

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!

Hopkins urges the reader to look up at the stars in the night sky.  He compares the stars to living beings of fire, to “fire-folk” sitting in the air.   And he likens the groupings and clusters of stars to “bright boroughs,” that is, to star towns, and to “circle-citadels,” to fortresses within the circle of the night sky, like the fortress refuge within or above an old town in medieval and renaissance times.  We might also understand “circle-citadels” to refer to the circular dots of light in the sky that are stars.

Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!

There are two possible interpretations of that. The first is to understand it as referring to the sky, seeing it as having dim woods (dark areas)  and “grey lawns” (the “Milky Way”).  The second interpretation, which perhaps makes more sense, is to understand it as viewing the stars from different locations — from within a dim wood where the trees are bare, so the stars may be seen among the dark night branches as “diamond delves,” (diamond caves or hollows, from an old meaning of “delve”) and as “elves’-eyes” (bright, sparkling eyes of supernatural creatures).  Also as stars viewed from grey (all colors turn grey or black at night) lawns where “quickgold” lies, meaning that golden stars (a likeness here to “quicksilver”) lie upon (above) the night lawn like shining, fluid gold.  Neither interpretation comes off perfectly, and we may see this as a flaw in Hopkins’ communication of meaning.

Wind-beat whitebeam!  airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!  

Hopkins gives us more metaphors for stars:  he tells us they are “wind-beat whitebeam!”  A whitebeam is a tree that has clusters of little white blossoms in the spring, so a “wind-beat” whitebeam is one that scatters its white blossoms (i.e. stars) in the wind.  He also likens them to another English tree, to white poplars (“abeles”) “set on flare,” that is, with branches set alight with burning stars like torches.  He further likens the stars to “flake-doves,” that is, to flakes of scattered light like bright, white doves that scatter into the air when startled in a farmyard.

Ah, well!  it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

The starry skies described in the poem are “a purchase” — something to be bought — as well as “a prize”  something won as an achievement, something to be highly valued.

The first part of the poem is designed to draw the attention of the reader to the stars and their glittering, sparkling beauty.  Hopkins is like a man selling his wares in a marketplace; he first shouts out to catch your attention and fix it on what he is selling (stars, in this case), and then he urges you to buy and tells you the price:

Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, alms, vows.

With that line we realize that the long beginning of the poem was just an introduction, a sales pitch for selling his religious notions.  This will be elaborated as we continue.  Having shown us the wonders of the stars in the night sky, Hopkins tells us we should then “buy,” should “bid,” meaning to offer a price for the stars.  And what is the price?

It is prayer; it is patience; it is alms (money or goods given to the poor); it is vows (promises to perform this or that religious and/or moral act).  In short, it is a religious life that will enable one to purchase the starry sky.  That is the price.

Now this is an odd notion.  Why would one want to purchase the stars in the night sky?  Before he tells us, Hopkins returns to his colorful sales pitch, directing our attention back to the stars:

Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
  Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!

By “mess” here, Hopkins means a quantity, a large number (of stars), like white blossoms on the boughs of fruit trees in an orchard in May.  Then he likens the starry sky to sallows (willow trees) in early March that “bloom” with their catkins that release a golden dust like yellow flour (meal) — a comparison to the stars dusted like willow pollen across the sky.

Now we come to the point of the whole thing, and are told at last what Hopkins is selling:

These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks.  This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
  Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

All of the bright stars in the sky, which Hopkins has compared to fire-folk, to bright boroughs, to circle citadels, to diamond caves and elves eyes, to quickgold, to blossoming or fiery trees, to doves, to willow pollen, all of these comprise, to Hopkins, a structure, a building.  Hopkins likens it to a barn, and inside the doors of that barn (“withindoors”) are housed the shocks, meaning here the bundles of cut grain.  This is an old Christian symbol for human souls, who are to be harvested into heaven as in the old Protestant hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves.”  So we see that Hopkins views the starry sky as the great heavenly barn in which redeemed souls are housed, and not only souls.  He goes on to tell us,

This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
  Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

Hopkins takes his likening of the starry sky to a heavenly barn one more step; he compares it to a “piece-bright paling,” a barrier (like a fence or palisade), a wall of bright stars pieced together (each star a “piece”) that “shuts” (encloses) Christ in his home, that is, in heaven —  the great barn of heaven; and with him are his mother Mary (very important in Catholic teaching as an intercessor for humans) and “all his hallows,” meaning all of the saints of Christ.  “Hallows” (“holy ones”) is an old term for saints, which is why we have All Hallows Eve, the evening before the day on which all saints are celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church — the origin of our modern festival name “Halloween.”

Christ himself is the “spouse,” which is a notion derived from the New Testament, in which the Church and those in it are the “bride of Christ.”  It is also a term significant in monasticism, because nuns are considered to be married to Christ as their spouse.

The appeal of this poem lies in its colorful imagery and alliteration — “fire folk,” “diamond delves,” etc., rather than in its overall meaning, which takes a great deal of effort to extract.  That difficulty and its spotty ambiguity make this one of Hopkins’ less successful efforts as a whole, which is why people tend to remember the clear and bright parts of the poem — like the first two lines — and forget the rest.

I have compared this poem to a sales pitch for Hopkins’ adopted Roman Catholic religious views (he was a convert), but given his introversion and persistent state of depression after his conversion, one is left with the feeling that the person Hopkins was really trying to sell on these religious views was himself.



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 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:



It is doubtful if anyone short of Pope John XXIII did as much for the public image of the Catholic Church in the latter half of the 20th century as did the convert writer Thomas Merton.

Looking back on that period, one realizes that Merton had his own public image as a major literary ascetic and “mystic” after he had become a Trappist monk.  But the then-private reality was that as a monk, he had problems with alcohol, problems with romance, problems with his ecclesiastical “superiors,” and, paradoxically, some rather major problems with basic Catholic doctrine.  In his first and most popular (and somewhat bowdlerized) major work, The Seven Story Mountain, he seems to cheerfully ignore or leap over Catholic doctrine in his enthusiasm for the ascetic, contemplative life in monasticism, which paradoxically he never actually lived.  In this and in his ideal “mysticism,” Merton, Like the pseudo-Zen writer Alan Watts, was great at presenting a public image that was all facade, image without substance.

 Suffice it to say that the Thomas Merton one saw in the writings of the 20th century is not the Thomas Merton of the revealing biographies of the 21st.

All of this is just a lead-in to the subject of “religious” poetry.  It is a category that, for appreciation, requires one to put one’s own belief system, or absence of belief system, on hold.  

What is probably Merton’s finest composition is an overtly religious poem on the death of his brother in war.  To appreciate it requires that we put on, for the moment, the odd notion that the intentional privations and self-denials of the living can benefit the dead.

Merton begins in excellent form:

Sweet brother, if I do not sleep
My eyes are flowers for your tomb;
And if I cannot eat my bread,
My fasts shall live like willows where you died.
If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,
My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.

All very good so far, both rhythmic and effective in simple imagery.

Where, in what desolate and smokey country,
Lies your poor body, lost and dead?
And in what landscape of disaster
Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?

Also good — no straying from the theme of concern.

Come, in my labor find a resting place
And in my sorrows lay your head,
Or rather take my life and blood
And buy yourself a better bed–
Or take my breath and take my death
And buy yourself a better rest.

With that, Merton introduces an awkward note, and the segment is not quite up to what preceded it.

When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us.

With that, unfortunately, Merton has lost the grace of his beginning completely, and simplicity becomes simplisticism in the rhythm and message of those unpleasing sing-song lines.  One wishes the quatrain had been omitted before publication — but too late.

Fortunately, Merton does not continue on this downhill course, but returns once more to the grace of the beginning:

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:
The money of Whose tears shall fall
Into your weak and friendless hand,
And buy you back to your own land:
The silence of Whose tears shall fall
Like bells upon your alien tomb.
Hear them and come: they call you home.

With those lines we are again back to the smooth-flowing speech of the beginning, the theme of the dead benefitting from the sacrifices of others — a kind of Catholic version of the Buddhist “transfer of merits,” but through asceticism rather than active good deeds.

Of course non-Christians find all this talk of Christ a bit nonessential, which is why, to appreciate the poem, one must put one’s own beliefs aside  to understand the spirit behind the work — the desire to benefit the departed, to see our suffering and the suffering of others — the world’s suffering — in a larger context.  It is only by doing so that we can feel the beauty of these lines:

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

Wreckage and death, smoke and ruins — very effective in evoking the suffering of war.  Add these to the simple images of flowers, water, bread, willows, and tears, and one has a very good poem indeed — with the exception of that awkward quatrain, which seems foreign and inserted and out of place in the ascetic simplicity of the rest.

Merton is saying to his brother, “Through my asceticism and self-denial, I wish to buy you comfort and peace and rest.”  Thus the notion of “buying” in the verse, and the equation of tears and money.

Merton, in his writings, talked much about the “ascetic” life, but as we have seen, that was an idealized image for public consumption.  Suffice it to say that the impression given by the poem does not fit the reality of his condition.  We should, then, just go with the spirit of the moment and expression of sincere love for a lost brother that we find in the poem.  If we were to judge the worth of poems by the lives of the poets who wrote them, we would find precious little left in the history of literature to appreciate.

There is an unusual and rather remarkable book by Paul Hourihan titled The Death of Thomas Merton (Vedantic Shores press, 2003).  Presented as a novel, it is actually a detailed and thoughtful meditation on, and examination of, the failure of Merton to become the mystic-ascetic figure he presented himself as (and his readers thought he was) in his books.

The other great English-language “religious” poet of Catholicism — also a convert, and an even more unhappy one —  is of course Gerard Manley Hopkins, and we can only say of him that as a poet, a greater than Merton is here.  Still, we find some similarity in the imagery of the beginning of Merton’s verse when placed beside the simplicity of Hopkins’ Heaven Haven:

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.

The poem bears the superscription “A nun takes the veil”

One would like to think that Hopkins himself found the simple peace and satisfaction expressed in the verse, but his biography tells us otherwise.  Again we have the contrast between poetic idealism and harsh reality.


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.



A hokku is an experience of Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of a season. Everything else about hokku — the two parts, the punctuation and capitalization, the techniques — exist simply to convey that experience with clarity and simplicity and effectiveness.

Because it is an experience, hokku generally omits thoughts and commentaries about an experience, preferring the experience itself, with no frills or ornamentation.

Looked at this way, hokku is the most austere of verse forms.  It is like the best of Shaker furniture, designed for a purpose, with all that is extraneous omitted.

The job of the writer of hokku, then, is just to convey such an experience to the reader without “getting in the way” of the experience.  That means there is no room for preaching or moralizing, or for “souping up” or decorating a verse.  The best writer of hokku is one who is not noticed at all, leaving only the experience.

That is why I have always de-emphasized the notion of the writer of hokku as “poet,” which is a completely unnecessary and misleading title.  The writer of hokku is just someone who allows Nature to speak through him.  That is only possible when the writer gets out of the way, giving up all pretensions to being a “poet” or “poetic.’

That is why if you want to make a name for yourself in the literary world or on the Internet, you should write other kinds of verse.  Hokku is only for those who take up the path of humility.  It is a kind of contemplative verse, meaning it is verse that takes away thoughts and ego and leaves one only with the pure essence of a thing or experience.

Spring rain;
Between the trees is seen
A path to the sea

Otsuji’s verse shows the poverty and simplicity of hokku.  It is only when one is willing to become that simple that one can take up the practice of hokku.  If one has greater aspirations in verse, one should not even bother with the hokku.  Hokku is really a verse form fitting for hermits and monastics and ascetics, people who are done with all the nonsense of the world and who just want to get directly at

“That dearest freshness deep down things”

as Gerard Manley Hopkins so aptly put it.



In hokku it is essential to write in harmony with the season.  The most important quality of autumn is transience — the fact that everything changes, all is impermanent, nothing stays.  Autumn is transience.

In autumn hokku, we experience and express this transience through the subjects we choose.  We favor things withering and changing, things aging and weakening, things that do not stay.

We find this expressed in Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Márgaret, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts car for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child the name:
Sórrows spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

These are the same sentiments at heart as those expressed in the Hōjōki of Kamo no Chōmei, who lived in the second half of the 12 century and first few years of the 13th, and who lived his latter days as a Buddhist recluse in a tiny hut:

Though the flow of the river never ceases, the water passing moment to moment is never the same.  Where it eddies, bubbles rise to the surface, bursting and vanishing as others replace them, none lasting.  Thus are people and their dwellings in this world — always changing.

(My rendition)

Transience is characteristic of the universe; the universe is transience.  And yet in some things it is more apparent than in others; we see it more readily in the leaves of autumn than in the shapes of the hills.

Another significant quality of autumn is loneliness, but the loneliness of hokku is not the desire for human company.  It is more akin to the inner solitude that is the consequence of knowing that nothing stays, neither parents, nor friends, nor family.  Ultimately everything goes.  And the “loneliness” of hokku, what we call here the solitude of hokku — is the feeling we have in knowing, as we sit among the changing and falling leaves, that everything is temporary, from a single morning glory flower that lasts but a day to a star that perishes after aeons of time.

In the autumn all the abundance and vigor of summer is leaving, vanishing.  And suddenly we see the real nature of existence — that all is impermanent.  That leads us to the third important quality of autumn — poverty.  By poverty we do not mean simply lack of money or resources.  Instead we mean spiritual poverty, the knowledge that the gathering and amassing of wealth and possessions is meaningless, because none of it can be kept; one way or another, sooner or later, it will all leave us.  Knowing this puts the sigificance of possessions into perspective.  We realize what we need for living and what we do not need, what is important and what is not.  And in autumn we see the poverty of Nature, as the leaves fall from the trees, revealing their hidden forms, and plants wither and gradually return to the root for the long sleep of winter.

If our hokku reflect these things — transience, solitude, and poverty — they will be in harmony with the season.

The aesthetics of autumn hokku, then, are an appreciation of that which is aging — of cedar wood turned whitish-grey, of rocks worn by rain and wind, of  things with the weathered surface that time gives.

Have you ever noticed a newly-created landscaping job with large rocks brought in and set in the ground to give the garden a sense of being anchored to the earth?  All too often the knowledge of the landscaper in such things is only superficial.  He will bring in big boulders, but we see on them the fresh marks of being broken, and the light-colored grooves worn by the chains used to lift and move them.  That defeats the purpose, because the rocks look very new, and it will take much time before rain and wind, frost and heat, weather them to a mellow look of age.

In writing autumn hokku, we should avoid that appearance of newness because it is contrary to the feeling of the season.  And we should also avoid giving that sense of artificiality to our verse.

Of course the best way to understand what is in harmony with autumn is to go out into Nature often during the season, to walk, to sit, to watch and observe its characteristics — and then to write in keeping with those characteristics.

That keeps us in harmony with Nature in our writing, in harmony with the seasons, and the seasons are the life of hokku, which changes with them as does Nature.