Recently when asked on BBC’s ‘Desert island Discs‘ which book, apart from the Bible and Shakespeare, would he take if stranded on that imaginary desert island, the writer Robert Macfarlane chose the writing and poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Though virtually unknown in his life-time, today Hopkins has many admirers.
The Poetry of Hopkins
The sprung rhythm and unusual words of these poems ring properly when heard rather than read (as with all poetry). That’s why his nature poetry is so refreshing. It is arresting and charged with new meaning, as a heart full of wonder struggles to express itself in a song of praise. The words echo in our memory long after hearing them.
His was the joyous vision of a world in which all things are seen to be good. In the words of his other poem, the world is charged with ‘The Grandeur of God‘.
This field of wheat harvested in the traditional way for use as thatching material, stands with the sheaves in stooks to dry in a field in Dorset. Walking home through a recently harvested field like this, Hopkins was overwhelmed by the beauty of the scene as it reveals the glory of the presence of Christ. He sees Christ in the clouds and the distant hills, things hitherto unnoticed and the fresh discovery draws him into a rapturous response.
Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-waiver
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across the skies?
I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
And, eyes, heart, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?
And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder‘Hurrahing in Harvest’
Majestic – as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet! –
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.
The Bluebell and the Falcon
In his Journal Hopkins records another such occasion:
“One day when the bluebells were in bloom I wrote the following. ‘I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it. Its inscape is full of strength and grace'”.From Hopkins’ Journal – May 18th 1870
Moments like this no doubt inspired him to write his exquisite poems ‘Spring‘. and ‘May’s Magnificat‘.
But, perhaps it was the sight of a kestrel hovering in the wind (as in this beautiful photo above) that brought for Hopkins the clearest revelation of Christ. He always felt the poem ‘The Windhover‘ was his best. It brings out this most beautiful description of Christ as being ‘a billion times told lovelier, more dangerous. O my chevalier!‘
The Ultimate Harvest
‘Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty..’
The harvest may have been gathered in, but Hopkins himself never saw fulfillment. He never even hoped or expected it. His life was full of disappointment and a sense of failure. As a Jesuit Priest it was always a tussle between his calling as a priest, with its demanding life, and his urge to write poetry. Only 30 years after his death were any of his poems published. But what a unique legacy he has left us! A real harvest of ‘gleaning’ our Saviour and hurling earth for him in his poetry.
Worldly harvest of fame and success means little. It’s the legacy that we are leaving behind that matters. In an age full of cynicism and scientific self-confidence the child-like wonder in these poems lifts our spirits and makes us also delight in Christ in Creation and joyfully ‘hurrah in harvest’ for him.