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.



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.