Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Jesuit Gerald Manley Hopkins. I have always had a great love for his poetry, so much that the paperback I owned (and often loaned) fell apart. But Lady Luck was smiling on me, and I found an early edition hardback in a second-hand bookshop in Namibia last year — one footnote actually replicates his signature from letters to Robert Bridges!). For those interested in his correspondence, four new letters were discovered in 1993 (https://www.gerardmanleyhopkins.org/studies/letters.html), one of which gives a very human account of his vow ceremony, while another is to Cardinal Newman lamenting the state of University College Dublin.
The following was first posted in 2013.
Yesterday evening I re-read a poem I last glanced at the night before ‘A’ level English Lit many moons ago; the poem was ‘The Caged Skylark’ by Gerald Manley Hopkins. Wowee! What a powerful piece of writing, powerful, but seriously depressing and gloomy at the same time. I myself have been trying to follow all the latest advice to be at peace with my body, to live in the now, not to be worried, to be good and to be kind. And here’s himself, that unhappy Victorian Jesuit describing our bodies as dull cages” as a “bone house” in which we are “day-labouring out life’s age”. I do realise that many, many people of the time did, in fact, struggle simply to get through each day of hard work with the hope of heavenly reward at the end of it all — much in the same way that way too many people in Uganda still do today.
But despite our being in prison, GMH admits that both the wild skylark and ourselves (the caged ones) can sometimes sing the sweetest songs, although we can still be overcome with rage and fear. Our embodiment, our flesh-bound existence is an endurance for all us mortals. But, says GMH (with a fair bit of restraint), we will not be at all distressed with, at the end of it all, our “bones risen”. I should think not.
This is the poem (accessed at http://www.bartleby.com/122/15.html).
AS a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells—
That bird beyond the remembering his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.
Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage,
Both sing sometímes the sweetest, sweetest spells,
Yet both droop deadly sómetimes in their cells
Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.
Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl, needs no rest—
Why, hear him, hear him babble and drop down to his nest,
But his own nest, wild nest, no prison.
Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound when found at best,
But uncumbered: meadow-down is not distressed
For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bónes rísen.
While Platonic dualism is very much a part of Hopkins’s worldview, he was also a bit of an oddity himself in terms of the things of the body. He tried some pretty weird ascetic stuff as a kid at school — like not drinking anything for a week! Later, at Oxford, he gradually became more reclusive; and it is generally thought that rather than confront his homoerotic tendencies, he chose to reign them in by becoming not only a catholic, not only a priest, but a Jesuit also (ordained in 1877)!
The last years of his life teaching classics at University College Dublin were apparently a terrible burden on the poor man. Many of his gloom and doom sonnets come from this time and they make for harrowing reading. Probably today he would be diagnosed as seriously depressive and given a few happy pills to keep him going. But can you imagine the reception given to this poetic Englishman trying to teach Latin and Greek to some of the lads from Dublin or beyont? The poor man must have suffered in class. He also suffered with his bowels, and finally they got the better of him. He died with typhoid fever in 1889, and his hard-worked bones lie in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin awaiting to be “bones risen”. At a dinner I once attended at Newman House in the late 80s, and feeling the urge to empty my bladder to make room for more of the great wine served there, I was directed to a washroom for ladies on the ground floor. When remarking on the lovely coving on the ceiling, someone later told me they had been the rooms of our very own GMH when he had lived in Dublin. I still don’t know what to make of that.
But for all his eccentricities, oddness, strange ideas, and out-dated theology, I love the work of this Victorian Jesuit who did not like Ireland or the Irish; sadly, he became physically sick amongst us. And yet, his way with words is simply breathtaking. Read these few lines from ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’:
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 …
And this from Duns Scotus’ Oxford:
TOWERY city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and poisèd powers …
And what I love most about Hopkins is his ability to describe nature. While he doesn’t hold out a lot of hope for humans, nature remains fresh, deep, mysterious, and enriching as these lines from ‘Spring’ tell us:
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.
And despite the heavy footprint we humans leave on the earth: it will remain fresh.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. (‘God’s Grandeur’)
Sweet, sweet words so well put together!
I could continue, but I’ll stop it there. Go over to the Bartleby site and have a read for yourself.