As I’ve mentioned here, Gerard Manley Hopkins was completely unknown to me, and reading his work was a challenge, but a very satisfying one. Here I talk about the poems that stuck with me the most. They might not be the happiest ones, but they were the most striking ones to me. “Spring and Fall” captured a moment in childhood that brought back memories, “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” is exploring desolation in an astonishing beautiful manner, while “I wake and feel” and “No worst” are the quintessence of how it feels to despair.
My favourite one is “Spring and Fall”, a poem to Margaret, a young girl grieving over the fall of leaves in autumn. This local phenomenon (of “Goldengrove unleaving”) expands into a wider devastation of the surroundings (“worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie”) over which she will no longer suffer so (“It will come to such sights colder / By and by, not spare a sigh”), as she will have grown older and become more conscious about the actual root of her grieving (“Sorrow’s springs are the same”), namely death and her own mortality (“It is Margaret you morn for”). What most impressed me about this poem is not the idea that we all go through this stage of understating mortality and loss, but how Hopkins caught this thought materializing in the mind of a child. The exact instance when she has become mature enough to be able to feel this sorrow and have an emotional albeit vague response to the decay represented by the falling leaves, but not enough to fully grasp the reason behind. Her grief is purely intuitive at this point and Hopkins took a great snapshot of it:
“Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you morn for.”
My second favourite poem is “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo”, a plea to not despair but believe in the power of God, and seek our reunion with Him in heaven. The first half “The Leaden Echo” is, to put it lightly, rather bleak:
“How to keep - […]
Back beauty […] from
No there’s none, there’s none, O no there’s none,
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair,
And wisdom is early to despair:
[…] since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age’s evils, [..]
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
Despair, despair, despair, despair. “
It describes the hopelessness and anguish into which the spirit falls, as our lives are spent away and our bodies decay, without us having the power to do anything to stop this or delay it. You really need to read this poem out loud to fully catch the repetitions and alliterations used by the author in conveying this sense of misery. The sound effect of the clattering words is just stunning (“bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch / or catch or key to keep”) and you can listen to this wonderful reading by Richard Burton.
However, there is hope beyond our human existence on earth (“Only not within seeing of the sun, / Not within the singeing of the strong sun”), by being reunited with God. So we shouldn’t despair, but take all the beauty within us, both physical and spiritual (“beauty-in-the-ghost”) and devote ourselves to God (“Give beauty back, […] to God, beauty’s / self and beauty’s giver.”), and at the resurrection we’ll see how much He cares about us (“See; not a hair is, not an eyelash not the least lash lost; every hair / Is, hair of the head, numbered.”) and we will wake again and our beauty will be “hundredfold”, because it has been carefully looked after (“is kept with fonder a care, / Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it,”). As I am not a religious person, this final appeal of having faith and believing in the power of God didn’t speak much to me, but I can appreciate the message of hope, that not everything is lost, and not everything is useless just because we’re all going to pass away someday.
Continuing in a similar note, Hopkins has a series of poems written while he suffered from depression, the so-called “Terrible Sonnets”. Out of these, two of them stood out to me: “I wake and feel” and “No worst”. The first one is an impressive description of a sleepless night, his mind being tormented by the feeling of abandonment that Hopkins was experiencing, believing his prayers were “dead letters”, left unanswered. Regardless of whether you relate or not to these religious struggles, the powerful language used here to convey the feeling of worrisome makes the reading of this poem an incredibly personal one, irrespective of the reason for your sleepless night.
“I wake and feel the fell of dark. […]
[…] O what black hours we have spent
This night! […]
[…] But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life.”
“No Worst” was by far the bleakest sonnet from my point of view. It takes the feeling, stares it right in the face, and depicts the deepest pits of depression in a raw and truly terrible way (“Pitched past pitch of grief”, “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed”). There is no true consolation (“Comforter, where, where is your comforting?”), and the only hope that Hopkins can give us is the relief of death (“all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep”).
Continuing in a slightly less miserable tone, PLBC – 02.3 – As kingfishers catch fire – Nature covers the second group of poems that impressed me.