At a time when one is still shaken by the death of Derek Walcott – the thought which diminishes us that he will never again decipher the beauty of the world for us – let us celebrate poetry – “the bread that lasts when systems have decayed.” And today I do so by recalling a poet whom Walcott loved – I remember talking with Walcott about him when Walcott visited Guyana a few years ago.
The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins – glancing and incandescent – is among the most extraordinary to be found in English. The poetry is all the more striking because it comes from a Victorian priest who spent his short life in virtual retirement from the world.
Hopkins was born at Stratford in England in 1844, went to Oxford in 1863 where he starred academically, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1866, and entered the Society of Jesus in1868. At this time he burnt all the poetry he had so far written and “resolved to write no more,” a resolution he faithfully kept for seven years. In December 1875, he broke his self-imposed silence and wrote the amazing poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland”. After this he continued to write until the time of his death, though he only shared his poems with friends and never published. On the surface he lived an utterly uneventful life as a teacher and parish priest until he caught typhoid and died in 1889. His last words were, “I am so happy, so happy.”
The English Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, with whom Hopkins corresponded, thought Hopkins’ poetry had “bad faults” and was too obscure for the ordinary reader. Any poetry which demands “a conscious effort of interpretation” must necessarily be bad, Bridges absurdly wrote. Nevertheless, Bridges must have had a nagging conscience about the genius and originality he sensed in the “obscure” poetry because eventually he edited and published a collection of Hopkins’ poems in 1918. At once it became clear that this long dead and unknown poet was a far greater writer than his distinguished sponsor, the Poet Laureate.
It is useless to try and describe the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Just read him. Poems like “The Windhover” and the sequence of “Terrible Sonnets” which he wrote towards the end of his life are among the enduring wonders of the English language. Nobody can read him without acquiring a higher standard of poetic beauty, a sharper vision of the world, and a deeper sense of its underlying spiritual reality. In his poems he caught hold of beauty in an absolutely unique way and expressed all he saw and thought with a faith that went unfathomably deep. Here are the last lines of his remarkable poem “That Nature is A Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”:
Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal
Is immortal diamond.
Hopkins was a passionate observer. The passion was so great, indeed, that he feared it was a temptation sent to test him. As a result he sometimes imposed on himself as a penance a “custody of the eyes” when he would go about with his eyes cast down so that he might see as little as possible of the glory of the material world around him. Here he is describing in his journal an ordinary day in July:
“Very hot, though the wind, which was south, dappled very sweetly on
one’s face and when I came out I seemed to put it on like a gown as
a man puts on the shadow he walks into and hoods and hats himself
with the shelter of a roof, a penthouse or a copse of trees, I mean it
rippled and fluttered like light linen, one could feel the folds and braids
of it – and indeed a floating flag is like wind visible and what weeds are in
a current; it gives it thew and fires it and bloods it in.”
In Hopkins’ poetry you catch the gleam of eternity in every glint of sunlight, the immortality that invests and shines in each ordinary human being. The poem “Felix Randal” was written about one of his parishioners when Hopkins was acting as a parish priest.
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?
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!
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;
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 gray drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!
I was 16 years old when I read that poem for the first time. I remember the experience vividly. Tears came into my eyes and I did not know why they came. The sadness of a world in which strength and health and happiness soon enough end in sickness and death was brought home powerfully even to a boy in the full flush of joyful youth. But it was the truth and beauty of how the poetry said it that really brought the tears. I found Walcott knew the poem well.