Freshman year, I cut my hair after reading Hopkins. A girl had knocked on my door, interrupting my reading just as my eyes fell on the word “lovelocks,” and asked me if I would donate my hair to the cancer charity Locks of Love. My palms prickled. The poem was “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,” with its solace for the despair of a young girl afraid of losing her beauty: “Give beauty back,” it says, “back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” As for those lovelocks: the girl is supposed to “Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them”—too perfect! I signed my name on the clipboard, and later another girl cut off my waist-length hair in her dorm room. I left lightheaded and shaken and grateful.
When I was 15, and I opened the Poetry and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and my eyes fell on “shivelights and shadowtackle” and “down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash,” I thought I had never known such beauty. There was a place for me there—a small farmhouse, a kitchen garden and a kissing gate with sheep beyond, all in a green cup of land, and Welsh starlight hovering over. I can’t describe this phantom limb, this metaphorical place inside English, this Logres, this Lionesse. I am in awe.
It is often said that great poems feel inevitable, as if the words had been waiting to be in that order all along, and the poems of Hopkins give us this feeling more than most. There are so many chimes in them, so many sonic bonds—alliteration, assonance, pararhyme, and every other possible variant—that the words seem to be not composed but reassembled, like the fragments of a smashed meteorite recovered from across a continent, or those frescos of Giotto’s that were pulverized by an earthquake and then lovingly reassembled chip by chip:
We lash with the best or worst
Word last! How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe
Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,
Gush!—flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,
Brim, in a flash, full!
If sound is the body of language, then this poetry is a glorified body. And like the disciples after the Resurrection, we are able to touch it and glimpse it for only a short time before it is taken up and away—at least, I have found it so. When I read Surprised by Joy I knew instantly what Lewis meant by Joy and the vanishing quality of it—how a lush-kept, plush-capped metaphor will burst once and leave only a memory of sweetness, to which you must be faithful. It is possible to guzzle poetry until it cloys, and when that happens, you can only put your favorite book away and wait until you have become a different person if you want to be surprised by it again.
Even now, though, after I have turned the farmhouse into a B&B, sold the sheep, and otherwise read Hopkins to death, I still feel the rare gust from the dark, warmed by the herbs of daylight. And honestly, so what? Hopkins doesn’t need my adoration—I can feel him pulling the hem of his cassock from my fingers. He signed the brows of half the poets over the last century and said, “Admire and do otherwise”—and off they went, WH Auden, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, and so many others. It’s time for me to go too. Seamus Heaney once wrote that when he was young he wanted to write stained-glass poetry, and after many years he wanted to write poetry that was a clear window someone could look through. Hopkins himself said, towards the end of his short life, that he was moving towards a plainer style. I’m still in my twenties, so I’m looking forward to this development about as much as I am to minivans and crows’ feet, but I can see myself accepting it. Give beauty back.
But not before I make my own stained glass! It’s October as I write, which seems to be a poetry-writing season for me and possibly a lot of people—off the top of my head: Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath—and I wonder why that is. Is it because we finally give up on the lie of eternal summer and accept that we have limited light to work in (easy thing to forget, when poetry is something you can procrastinate on until you die without inconveniencing anyone)?
If you are one of these people and you are thinking about your neglected poetry or fiction again, you are probably praying for inspiration right now. In addition to praying, I must admit that I always revisit a handful of poems that have a quality best captured by the Welsh term “hwyl” (hoo-ill?)—a kind of high-handed mastery, a sense that the poet has just been ordained and that power has been poured into him (rappers and slam poets know hwyl and lust after it). Such poems ought to annoy us, but instead they elate us with their crazed virtuosity. Dylan Thomas’s “Author’s Prologue” is one of these, calling upon all the animal kingdom, all of nature, everything really, to “flash to my patch work ark,” the book of his poems. Another such is “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” which I quoted earlier.
This turned out to be the only poem Hopkins wrote that was long enough for him to really revel in hwyl: almost immediately he began to give beauty back, obedient to rejection. He mostly gave up on trying to publish, and he stuck to sonnets and shorter pieces, brilliant, sometimes ecstatic, but inherently more modest than his first, thundering song. As Jill Muller says in her book on Hopkins and Victorian Catholicism: “At the triumphant finale of The Wreck, Hopkins becomes the bardic voice of English Catholicism: in the later poems, he speaks as a solitary watcher, a solitary sufferer, a ‘heart in hiding.’”
When I was very small, maybe five or six, my mother would say, when it got late, “It’s an hour past your bedtime.” There was a bone-freezing horribleness to this phrase, and not just because it meant I would have to stop playing and go to sleep. When I grew up I read “The Second Coming” and wondered if Yeats had gotten the same edict as a child: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last . . . ” Who can say why sounds do what they do to us?
They give us mysterious terror and mysterious consolation. Sonnets and psalms: they are veils for brides; they cover the frailty of the sick. Hopkins wanted to cram all the reddest sounds into a pomegranate and fold the coolest sounds into a paper boat, “an ark for the listener, for the lingerer,” and if you read this magazine, odds are you’ve tasted those seeds, taken that voyage, cut a sacrificial lock of your own.
We will ride out alone, and then,
Under the stars of Wales,
Cry, Multitudes of arks!
Multitudes of songs, of small, buoyant graces. If, when, I reach heaven, I will know that Hopkins kept me hungering for it.