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.




Life, as we all know, has its ups and downs.  Normally the ups are slight, the downs are slight, but we all go through phases, whether days, months, or even years, when things just do not seem to go right at all.  That can be very wearing on the human spirit.

Bread line - Dayton (LOC)
(Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

In such circumstances we begin to notice all that is bad or amiss, not only in the people around us but in ourselves.  It all begins to seem a bit overwhelming.  Our faith in humanity is shaken, as is our faith in ourselves.  Walt Whitman went through such times, and wrote this poem expressing concerns with self (O me!) and with existence in general (O life!) — thus its title, O Me!  O Life!

I will discuss it in parts:

O ME! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Whitman not only ponders but deeply feels the questions associated with one’s being and with the life of which one is a part, the great questions that keep recurring.  He thinks of the masses of people around him, the “endless trains of the faithless,” meaning the long lines of people who betray our hopes and expectations of them.  He thinks of the cities full of foolish people (they existed then, they exist now), and he considers how he is constantly reproaching himself for not living up to his own notions of what he should be and how he should act in the world.  He sees all the other foolish, faithless, fallible human beings, and he considers himself no better, no less foolish and faithless than they.

Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me; 
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;

He thinks of how our eyes — both physical and spiritual — crave “vainly” (in vain) for light that will brighten our darkened lives and enable us to somehow see some meaning in it all, some redeeming significance.  He thinks of the “objects mean,” which we may take not only as the craving of humans for things that do not last and do not satisfy, but also as the unworthy objects (objectives) of our striving, goals that do not seem ultimately worth our toil to achieve them.

He considers the “struggle ever renewed,”  of our constant efforts and labors to gain this or that thing, this or that position in the world, or merely to survive, to have food on the table and a roof over our heads.  And he ponders the “poor results of all,” how things just do not seem to turn out the way we would like, how even the most valued of prizes seem to lose their glitter once they are achieved.  And he thinks of the “plodding and sordid” crowds he sees all around him — the people caught in the rat-race of life, the people who have made it by standing on the backs of others, the many more who have failed in one way or another or feel they have failed, those who have not made it and have given in to numbness of spirit or dismal despair.

He thinks of the “empty and useless years” people spend in their often vain pursuit of this or that goal, of their frustration in not achieving it; of the wasted years of lives seemingly without achievement or purpose or point.  And he counts himself among them, feels a part of them,  “with the rest me intertwined.”

All of this brings up the great recurring questions.  What is it all about?  What is my place?  Do I have one?

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

The question comes to us over and over again:  in the midst of all the striving and disappointments and sordidness and meanness of life, what good is there in it all, of what use is it for the poet himself to exist, what point is there?


Whitman gives us and himself a simple answer:


That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

He tells us that existence itself is the reason for being — that life exists is in itself enough, and that in this life we have identity — we are who we are.  Among all these masses there is one named Walt Whitman, and he is an actor in the great play that is life, that vast, ongoing poem that is life; and each human, like Whitman, will contribute a verse to it.  Every individual life, in whatever direction it goes, whether viewed as success or failure by others or by one’s self, is a verse in that poem of multitudes.  That we all play our parts and contribute our lines, Whitman tells us, is enough.

I always remember a ’60s cartoon in which a supposed sage is asked, “What is the answer to the secret of the universe?”  And the reply is, “The answer to the secret of the universe is not to ask stupid questions.”



Thomas Hardy, by Walter William Ouless (died 1...
The poet and novelist Thomas Hardy

Yesterday I happened upon an obituary for the younger brother of someone I knew many years ago.  It had a photo.  When I last saw him, he was a good-looking boy of about 13 years.  It was a shock to see what time (and I suspect smoking) had done to him.

Thomas Hardy wrote a sad poem about aging.  It is not like the TV commercials that tell older people their golden years have come, that life is just going to get better and better.   Instead it is a very realistic look at aging and a lonely life.  Let’s examine it part by part:

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

One may think of this as spoken by a man or a woman, but given that it was written by a man, that is the course we shall follow.

Hardy says he looks “into my glass,” meaning his “looking glass,” an old term for a mirror.  And when he looks into the mirror, he sees what all old people see — his “wasting skin.”  “Wasting” here means just what happens to the skin as one ages — it dries and wrinkles and discolors, it loses its fresh appearance, and it is obvious that it has lost its strength and youth.  Its former smoothness and tautness is gone.   The term reminds us of a “wasting disease,” one that gradually consumes the body and its tissues.  So Hardy looks in a mirror and sees in his aging skin and features that he is subject, as  Buddhism would say, to sickness, to old age,  and to death.

By “Would God it came to pass,” he means “I really wish it had happened that….”  People once used expressions like this, and sometimes still do, such as “I wish to God I had studied for that exam!”  But why does he wish his heart had shrunk too?

When Hardy speaks of his heart, he is actually talking about his emotions — about his ability to love and to be hurt.  It was once thought (and we still speak of it that way) that the heart was where the human emotions were centered in the body.  That is why we hear people say, “She was heartbroken when her boyfriend left her.”  So Hardy is saying that he wishes his emotions — his capacity to love and be hurt — had shrunk as thin as his skin — had weakened and lost strength like the skin of his face and neck in the mirror.  But why?  He tells us:

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

He wishes his emotions had weakened so that he, “undistrest,” meaning without distress — without mental suffering — could “lonely wait” his endless rest.  By this he means that he could wait alone for death (“endless rest”) to come, without being hurt so much by the people who formerly seemed to like or love him, but who now ignore him, “by hearts grown cold to me.”  If his ability to “feel” had shrunk like his skin, the coldness of other people would not hurt him as it obviously does.

This is a common complaint of the old.  Not only are their friends and relatives dying, but also the living people around them — often younger — find old people no longer interesting, so they begin to ignore them, to make excuses for why they have not visited or called.  Loneliness is one of the most difficult parts of aging.  And sometimes that is as true for people who have children as for those who do not.

In keeping with this, I recently heard a few clever words that are often all too true.  A man said,

When I was in my teens, I used to worry constantly about what other people were thinking of me.  Then when I got past 40, I began not to worry so much what other people thought of me.  Now that I am in my 60s, I realize that nobody thinks of me at all.”   There is an old song with the line, “Nobody loves you when you’re old and grey.”  Gay people have their own version: “Nobody loves you when you’re old and gay.”

Both mean the same thing.  When youth and good looks or beauty pass — when you are no longer a possibility for romance, which depends so much on youth and appearance — others lose interest.  As people get older, they gradually become first insignificant and then increasingly invisible to the young.  They often simply do not matter any more.

Hardy was obviously very hurt by all of this, and that is why he wrote:

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

He continues:

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

Time, of course, is what ages us and steals our youth.  Hardy sees time as a negative force — a force that to make him miserable,  “part steals, part lets abide.”  The part it steals is of course the freshness and youthfulness of his face and body, which is now looking shrunken and wrinkled; and the part it “lets abide” — allows to remain — is Hardy’s ability to feel strong emotion and to be deeply hurt by the indifference and coldness of other people toward him.

It is precisely this continuing ability to be hurt and made very unhappy by others that “shakes this fragile frame” (meaning his weakening, aging body) “at eve, with throbbings of noontide.”

Hardy is using “eve” (evening) in a dual sense; he means by it both the “evening” of life — old age — which comes before the “night” of death” — and he means, I think, the evening of the day, when one is often alone with one’s thoughts and emotions.  It is at this time — in the evening of life and in the evening of each day — that Hardy’s fragile, aging body shakes with sorrow and weeping, with the “throbbings of noontide,” meaning the emotions of the height of one’s life that do not weaken and shrink as one grows older; so while the skin wrinkles and loses its vigor, the emotions, Hardy says, unfortunately and definitely do not.  That is why he is left hurt and shaking with weeping and alone in the evening of his life, in the evening of the day.

It is a simple poem, but very powerful and representative of the feelings of countless lonely, elderly people.  It is definitely what I call an “old man’s poem,” or an “old woman’s poem.”  And it is brutally honest.

It is hard for young people to grasp the reality of such a poem, because inherently — like Dylan Thomas in Fern Hill — young people feel the world is theirs, that they will live forever.  Intellectually they know that is not true, but they do not yet realize and fully grasp the fact.  That is why aging is such a shock to many people.  And in a culture in which youth and beauty are so glorified, we have the sad picture of people trying to stave off or deny the inevitable — plastic surgeries, hair dyes, and endless other processes or products intended to mask the realities of life and time.

The problem for the young in understanding this poem, then, is not so much in understanding it intellectually, which can be easily aided by explanations such as I have given here.  The problem lies, rather, in their difficulty in feeling how deeply true it is, because it expresses one of the fundamental realities of life — that everything is transient, that ultimately there is nothing to hold onto, neither person nor object, that there is no material,  unchanging island in a sea of change.  A young person who realizes that is mature beyond his or her years.  But generally it is something the young do not wish to think about.



One of my early verses:

When, in the hidden days,
The whirlpools silver-swirled within the water,
Michael walked and climbed among the creeping ivy
Green beside the river deep;
He smiled and softly whispered in the shadow-sunny —
The water snails were black, and strange as sleep.
Great leaves grew red upon his crayon paper,
And wet-dry stones came home to live with him;
Then all the world was light, and all things living,
Through the days before the sun grew dim.

I suppose that is my equivalent of Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality, and the Fern Hill of Dylan Thomas.




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.



Not long ago I wrote this:

“I began teaching hokku on the Internet in about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern ‘haiku’ — had distorted and perverted its aesthetics and standards.  I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.”

How one comes to hokku will very often determine one’s attitude toward it.  Unfortunately the majority of people first experience it through books or sites about haiku — meaning that they get a very distorted picture of it.

As most readers here know by now, modern haiku is actually a new verse form created when Westerners, seeing the hokku for the first time, misunderstood and misperceived it in terms of what they already knew — the practice of poetry and ideas about poets current in the West in the 20th century.  Though some Westerners attempted (always unsucessfully) to imitate the hokku in the late 19th century, for all practical purposes we can say that modern haiku in America and Britain had its real beginning in the middle of the 20th century.

As already mentioned, Western haiku thus began as the unfortunate consequence of a misunderstanding.  People sometimes wonder how that was possible.  It is very simple to explain.

Here, for example, is the hokku most everyone has read in one translation or another, Bashō’s famous “Old Pond” verse:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

To a Westerner reading that verse for the first time, it seems merely a pleasant little three-line poem.  And essentially that is what Western haiku writers mistook the hokku to be — just a little three-line poem that one could write however one wished.  That is, for all practical purposes, the most practical and applicable definition of a modern haiku today.  But that is not at all what the hokku was.

First of all, the Western reader would not know that Bashō’s verse was set in a definite season — springtime.  That is indicated by the presence of a frog.  So Western readers completely missed that hokku was SEASONAL verse — each hokku being set in a particular time of the year, with all of its associations.

Because of that oversight, most Western haiku began as non-seasonal verse.  One often had no idea at all when the haiku event depicted in the verse took place.

Second, most Americans, in the middle of the 20th century were accustomed to the notion that to be “modern,” poems had to use unconventional or minimal punctuation — or even no punctuation at all, and perhaps even no capital letters.  That is because some Western poets in the first half of the 20th century had experimented with such things.  For some peculiar reason, Western haiku writers thought that was the way the haiku should be written too, in order to appear “modern.”  Thus arose the bizarre notion that punctuation was “old fashioned,” when in reality punctuation had long been used in English for clarity and for shades of emphasis — exactly the kind of thing needed if one wanted to write hokku in English.

Then too, many Western writers of haiku did not realize that the old hokku deliberately had a “cut” that divided a verse into a long part and a short part.  Those who did sense that a cut was appropriate often used no punctuation at all to indicate where it was to be in the haiku, while others simply used a perfunctory hyphen, completely missing the purpose of punctuation as we use it in the English-language hokku.

Another element often overlooked by Western writers of haiku was that the old hokku had as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Consequently, Western writers and teachers of haiku began writing and promoting verses that had nothing of Nature in them — verses about such things as freeways and television sets and elevators.  That is completely contrary to the practice and spirit of the old hokku, but of course once Western haiku teachers began re-making the hokku as they thought it should be, they decided they could do virtually anything they wished.  That is why modern haiku is today such a garbled mess of different and often quite contradictory practices.  Anyone could teach haiku as virtually anything one decided it should be.

One of the most damaging aspects of this re-invention of the hokku as “modern haiku” was that many people thought the haiku should be a “personal expression,” which of course is another mistaken notion picked up from Western poetry and misapplied to the hokku.  Consequently people began writing haiku about love affairs, emotional entanglements, sex, war, and various manifestations of violence.

Old hokku, by contrast, deliberately avoided topics such as violence, romance, and sex.  That is because the hokku was not intended to take us deeper into emotional and psychological attachments and desires.  Of course those who read hokku, not knowing this, simply began writing about whatever they wished.

These are only a few of the serious errors that arose when Westerners misinterpreted the hokku and began to create the modern haiku according to their own whims and desires.  So almost everyone who comes to the hokku through “haiku” books and “haiku” sites is going to end up with a very distorted notion of the hokku, and will carry a heavy load of haiku nonsense baggage that prevents the understanding and appreciation of hokku as it really should be at its best.

And of course I should not finish this brief discussion without stating the obvious — that when people talk about the “haiku” of Bashō, or of Buson, or of Issa, they are speaking both anachronistically and incorrectly.  None of these writers, nor any of the other writers of the old hokku, called what he or she wrote “haiku.”  They all called such a verse a hokku, within the wider practice of haikai.  The notion that Bashō and all the rest wrote “haiku” is simply a mistake perpetuated by Western writers of haiku who appropriated a term popularized in 20th-century Japan when the country was undergoing massive influence from the West.

Haiku today, in English and in other European languages, is a garbled, confused disaster.  One can easily see the reasons for that in how it began.  And that accounts for why there are so many different opinions about how the haiku should or can be written, and so much animosity in the modern haiku community over disagreements about form and content.

It is quite unfortunate that Westerners did not take the trouble to see what the hokku was really all about before they decided to re-invent it to fit their misconceptions.  Had they begun by knowing the principles and practice and aesthetics of the hokku, it is likely that there would have been far less enthusiasm for the degenerate mutations foisted off on the public as “modern haiku,” both in the 20th century and now in the 21st.



Here is a repeat of something I wrote some four years ago:

As readers have noticed, I like to teach using old hokku as examples — good old hokku for the most part, unless I am pointing out how not to write.

It is fortunate that hokku translate well; so well, in fact, that often the English translations are better as verses than the Japanese originals.  There are commonly poems so wedded to the original language that when translated they lose all energy and go flat.  Hokku are not like that.  The reason, no doubt, is that the effect of hokku is in the presentation of a strong sensory experience.  The emphasis is on substance over form, and hokku do not rely on such things as rhyme or even a stable rhythm, though of course in the original language of old hokku there tends to be a standard pattern of 5-7-5 phonetic units, the result being a rhythm like that of the following lines, used purely to demonstrate that rhythm:

Would you like to go?
If I wanted I could go —
But I cannot now.

In other words, it has beats like this:


Of course such inherent rhythm is lost when hokku change language:

This road —
No one is on it;
The autumn evening.

That gives us this pattern of beats:


So it is a fact that in English we give little importance to retaining the 5/7/5 rhythm of the originals, because it would severely limit transmitting the verbal meaning in translation and it would have severe creative limits in composing original verses in English.  But we can say that once that original 5/7/5 rhythm standard is dropped, hokku generally transmit easily from language to language.

This ease with which hokku move from one language to another has, however, a drawback.  It is the same problem found in unstructured poetry in general, no matter how many lines may comprise it.  While the experience of reading a particular hokku may be memorable, the actual words are not.  It is in fact such “superfluities” of poetry as rhyme, rhythm, meter, alliteration and assonance that make a poem easy to remember.  This one drawback of hokku, if we may call it a drawback, may in fact be a major reason why hokku have so far not been taken very seriously in the English language, aside from their brevity and the unfortunate mediocrity that forms the bulk of what has come to be known as “haiku” in the English-speaking world.

Harold Henderson, in his An Introduction to Haiku (Doubleday & Company, 1958), actually translated old hokku as rhymed verse.  We can see in his translations the benefits and hazards of trying to do so:

How cool the breeze:
The sky is filled with voices —
Pine and cedar trees.

That is easy to remember because of the rhyme — much easier in fact than a more literal rendering:

A cool breeze;
The sky is filled with
The sound of pines.*

As Henderson’s translations show, rhyming hokku generally requires a certain distortion of the original.  Commonly words must be added that go beyond the original meaning.  And Henderson found he could not translate all hokku — even his favorites — into rhyme, as is evidenced by the numerous examples of unrhymed hokku in his book for which no suitable rhyme was found.  That is no doubt one reason why, in later writing on the subject, Henderson abandoned rhyme, which was, after all, originally merely an attempt to make hokku look more like traditional English-language poetry.

But hokku, as I have often said, is not really poetry as we commonly think of it.  And specifically, it is not a poetry of the mouth or the ear.  It is, rather, a verse of the eye.  Hokku are best read silently, whereas poetry may with benefit be read aloud.

Poetry is the verse of the tongue and the ear, Cerdd Davod as it is called in that most mouth-and-ear-oriented language of poetry, Welsh — the art of the tongue, or as Twm Morys so well puts it, “tongue-craft.”

Strange to say, verse of the mouth and ear can have an effect that transcends its content, and ease of remembrance is just one aspect of that effect in which even the mediocre is remembered, and perhaps even transfigured.

That was the experience of the Welsh-language poet Twm Morys when he deliberately set out to write an example poem in English of the Welsh cywydd form.  The result was My First Love was a Plover, which Morys readily admits was simply “nonsense” written to exemplify the outer requirements of the Welsh verse form.  The form was his goal, not substance.

The result, however, was quite unanticipated.  Morys writes of it,

Now as I was the author of it, I happened to know at the time that this cywydd, though absolutely correct according to the rules of strict meter, was also a load of nonsense.  But it had an immediate, sometimes very emotional, effect on audiences.  I now realize that it is the most profound poem I have ever written.

See for yourself.  you may read My First Love was a Plover at:

Go to page 114.

After reading this verse we can easily see why the power of sound is linked with magic in old stories.  We feel the effect of spoken words transcending their literal meanings.

Where does all this leave us with hokku?  Right back with the statement that hokku is not poetry as we conventionally understand it.  Hokku is not tongue-craft but rather the recording and transmission of a sensory experience.

Is it any wonder, then, that English-language poets have paid hokku little attention,  and that what attention it has received  has been as the mutated haiku — a Western hybrid mixed with Western notions of poetry?  In hokku the substance is more important than the form, and that is why the form itself — that is the actual words — are so quickly forgotten.  In poetry the form — the words — may rise higher than the substance and the sounds of the words have an effect transcending what may be the utter simplicity of their meaning.

I know who owns these woods, but his house is in the village.  He won’t see me stopping here to watch snow fill his woods.”

That is substance over form.  It may be “poetic” in a sense, but more often it is not, and that is one reason why there are so many very mediocre “haiku” and even mediocre attempts at hokku.

But here is substance transfigured by form, though the form is simple:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

That is of course Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

All of this simply shows us once more that hokku is not poetry as we usually think of it.  What must be repeated and remembered is that in hokku, the poetry is not in the words but in the sensory experience conveyed by the words.  And like the raft abandoned when the other shore is reached, we quickly forget the words of a hokku, though not the experience.  Poetry allows us to retain the words, which may even transcend and transfigure the experience, if experience there was in fact to begin with.  Is one “better” than the other?  Better for what?

Hokku does what it is intended to do, and it does it well.  It is our problem if we persist in confusing it with poetry.  And poetry does what it is intended to do.  Poetic methods can make the mediocre memorable even when its techniques are flawed:

Wash it once,
It lasts for months,
With Duro plastic starch.

Or it can work its sound magic on the depths of human experience, as in Hopkins’ lines:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?

To like hokku does not mean that we must not like poetry.  But we must be able to recognize and understand the differences between hokku and poetry or else we shall be in the same position as those multitudes in the English-language haiku establishment who long ago misinterpreted hokku as being like conventional poetry, and who then, through combining the outer form of hokku with the substance of Western poetry, erroneously created what generally passes for the English-language “haiku.”  That is an error we must not make in writing original hokku in English.


* The Japanese word koe, approximating “voice” in English, is often used in hokku where English would use “sound” or even another word such as “cry” or “chirp,” as in the koe of a cricket” or the koe of pines in the wind.