Thursday, July 9, 2009

Christ At All Hazards

Gerard Manley Hopkins was converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult, and soon committed himself to the strict life of a Jesuit monk. Along with his renunciation of the world, he renounced poetry, though he secretly longed to be reunited with it, until such a time as his superiors would give it back to him. In fact he burned most of his earlier poetry (what a loss to the world!).

In reality, there was nothing in the vows that forbade poetry. He was free to pursue a literary life and be a devout Jesuit. It seems that he turned his back on poetry in some sort of extrapolation of a vow of silence. He makes a couple of veiled references to a similar idea.

But while he longed to return to poetry (and continued to work out his poetical ideas in his notebook) he steadfastly refused to request permission to write. To Hopkins, that would have been cheating. (He was much like my father in that respect.)

For nine years he wrote no poetry, except minor verses as they were specifically requested by his superiors. Then, in 1875, his superior asked him to write some verses commemorating the loss of a great ship, the Deutchland. The poem he wrote so overwhelmed all who saw it that he was henceforth invited to write freely.

The result is some of the most remarkable poetry that has ever done honor either to God or the English language.

Some of it is rather obscure and takes a deal of work to decipher. Whatever work it takes is always worthwhile--it repays the reader one hundredfold for the trouble. The following piece is among his simplest, though it shows well his heart.


Although the letter said
On thistles that men look not grapes to gather,
I read the story rather
How soldiers platting thorns around CHRIST'S Head
Grapes grew and drops of wine were shed.

Though when the sower sowed,
The winged fowls took part, part fell in thorn
And never turned to corn,
Part found no root upon the flinty road,--
CHRIST at all hazards fruit hath shewed.

From wastes of rock He brings
Food for five thousand: on the thorns He shed
Grains from His drooping Head;
And would not have that legion of winged things
Bear Him to heaven on easeful wings.


1 comment:

John W. May said...

That was absolutely, absolutely awesome. I liked Hopkins as soon as I read (back to back) ‘I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark’ and ‘Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord’.

I agree: What a loss to the world, these early poems he destroyed. Strange to think that that devout ‘act’ robbed the world of something beautiful (of course, Hopkins could have hardly known).