Category Archives: Poetry

On Living in a Bone House

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.

GMH

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.

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The Lotus

lotus

First blooming in the Western Paradise,
The lotus has delighted us for ages.
Its white petals are covered with dew,
its jade green leaves spread out over the pond,
And its pure fragrance perfumes the wind.
Cool and majestic, it raises from the murky water.
The sun sets behind the mountains
But I remain in the darkness, too captivated to leave.

Ryokan

… ravens of unresting thought

A wonderful poem by one of my favourite Irish poets William Butler Yeats.

This poem was accessed at: http://www.csun.edu/~hceng029/yeats/yeatspoems/TheTwoTrees

THE TWO TREES

BELOVED, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Joves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the winged sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For ill things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

On living in a bone house

And now for something completely different!!

Yesterday evening I re-read a poem I last glanced at the night before ‘A’ level English Lit in 1975; 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.

HopkinsG-129x163

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. That’s nothing new  — been there and done that! 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 to boot (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 odd wee effeminate 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 wee repressed Victorian who hated Ireland and the Irish so much, he became physically sick amongst us. 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. (Spring)

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 yourself.

Blogger who’s not blogging

Woa! Just realised how fast time goes by. I haven’t blogged for more than a year. Shame on me.

Let me start by posting this wonderful poem. I like the work but also I think of someone I know in Kampala who has two magnificent African Grey parrots caged:

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

(Maya Angelou)
The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.