67. The Moral And Spiritual Perception of the Beautiful in Nature in the Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Department of English, Guru Nanak College, Madras
Christ as the underlying reality is explicitly stated in a number of poems. In `God's Grandeur": "the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings". It is continually and actively present in the world, holding it from returning to the primeval nothingness. In `Pied Beauty': all dappled things glory Him, "Praise him". In `Starlight Night': the starry sky is the Christian heaven, and only by the disciplines of `prayer, patience, alms, vows' can men join the band of Saints, who are visualised as assembled together beyond the stars like sheaves of corn in a barn. The stars and the skies are the walls of heaven. Hopkins uses the scriptural image of heaven as a `barn' and suggests the communion imagery in using the `shocks' of wheat. Nature in this poem as also in terms of actualisation of the Biblical trope of Christ's barn, protectively garnering all believers. "These are indeed the barn; within doors house; The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse; Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows."
In the words of Hopkins himself: "God's utterance of himself is God the Word, outside himself is this world. This world then is word, expression, news of God" (1).
The Psalmist sang: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork" (Psalms 19). The world, with all its riches, is a gift of God to man. Man in his gratefulness offers praises, service, reverence to the great Giver. The entire creation: the sun, moon and stars, the plants, trees and their flowers, the birds, beasts and insects, the seas and rivers, in their own way, praise God. The distinction of man is, unlike all other created things, he can know God, can mean to give Him glory consciously, willingly, knowingly. The glory he gives God is `Lovely Glory'. Other things, Hopkins believed, were, "by themselves, poor praise, faint reverence, slight service, dull glory". Man was created to praise and glorify. So the praise given by man is intended praise, he being the `clearest-selved-spark', and keeps hurrahing, praising, glorying. One of his sermons, an exhortation to the congregation to praise God, closes in a beautiful litany of praise: "Glory be to Christ's body, Glory to the body of the Word made flesh ... " (2). He exhorts to glory Christ in his beauty, Weariness, passion, death, burial; he says, in his body he was most beautiful, most beautiful of the body and mind, he was most beautiful in Character, he was full of love and of grace and of truth. So it was that Hopkins praised God through the outpourings of his soul. Such then was the beauty of the Lord that he saw manifested in nature.
For Hopkins, poetry, born in a process of passionate empathy is but a `Passionate science'. His poetry is a process of analysis, an electrolysis of the objects before him, however trivial they may be, with a view to extracting the universal principles of beauty and truth. All that he observes in nature, all the essential attributes of beauty, the form, colour, substance, scent and the touch of things, seem to crystallize gracefully, in the powerful medium of his passion, which serves as a catalyst, into beauty's diaphanous self through which he perceives the inscape of God himself. He used nature as an ultimate vehicle of this belief.
Hopkins's Journals are faithful records of his exercises in the science of perception. He made an accurate, empathic cognition of plants, flowers, trees, metals, stones, clouds, stars, seas, waters, towers. The descriptions are of scientific neutrality with no serious errors on the side of exaggeration.
Hopkins's observation is a serious attempt to study the great workmanship exhibited in an ordinary piece of creation with the eye of a botanist who has specialized in the aspect of structural beauty; and, more than a botanist's, an attempt to look into the soul of things - a rare combination of the naturalist, artist, and the spiritualist. The whole procedure is beautifully summed up by Prof. Sulloway thus: "The First step is to see what is before him, and to see it quietly, and accurately, that is to say, `innocently'. The second step is to respond, and the third is to reproduce what he sees"3. His Journal note of July 1866 reads:
"Oaks: the Organization of this tree is difficult ...... The determining planes are concentric, a system of belief contiguous tangents, whereas those of the cedar wood roughly be called horizontals and those of the beach radiating but modified by droop and by a screw-set towards jutting points. But beyond this since the normal growth of the boughs is a radiating and the leaves grow some way in these is of course a system of spoke-wise clubs of green-sleeve-pieces ......."
This first vigorous expression of Hopkins's faculties for studying the effects of light and wind upon vapour and water, for drawing beautiful images of bright colours and patterns, `damasqued' and `fretted' creation, can be found in `A Vision of the Mermaids'. Dealing with this poem Gardner says: "The boy Hopkins equals the twenty- two-year old Keats in the luscious quality of the Romantic imagery (4). It is easy to trace the influences that worked in Hopkins which helped to develop in him an early love for the sensuous in nature which took strong roots in his aesthetic make-up. The classic Arcadian calm of Oak Hill in Hampstead, to which the family moved when Gerard was eight, "its green umbrageous nooks and its breezy atmosphere redolent of culture and the breath of the marigold ..." (5) seem to have been a positive influence on the formative years of the boy. According to his brother Cyril, Hopkins was "a fearless climber of trees, and would go up very high in the lofty elm tree, standing in our garden ..... to the alarm of on-lookers like myself" (6).
Hopkins, as Keats, is a poet of colours; all colours, especially the dark ones, attracted him. He had the vision of the fair bed of `water-lily flakes clustering entrancingly in beryl lakes'; `The glassy white moon by day light'; `crimson fireball sets looks laid for feasting and for rest'; `wind-beat white white beam'; `strawberry breasted throstlle', `a cross of flowers in purple bloom'. Hopkins thus describes the setting of the sun: `Plum-purple was the west; but spikes of light/Speared open lustrous gashes, crimson-white'; (`A vision the Mermaids'). As a painter he reveled at the beauty provided by the fine contrast of colours. Like Keats he had a special charm for the intensest hue: "... some sapphire molten-blue/Were veined and streak'd with dusk-deep lazuli,/Or tender pinks with bloody Tyrian dye" (`A Vision').
"But such a lovely damasking in the sky as today I never felt before. The blue was charged with simple instress, the higher zenith sky earnest and frowning, lower more light and sweet. High up again, breathing through wooly coats of cloud or on the quains and branches of the flying pieces it was the true exchange of crimson, near the earth/against the sun/it was turquoise, and in he opposite south-western bay below the sun it was like clear oil but just as full of colour, shaken over with slanted flashing `travellers' ..." (Journal note of 22 April 1871).
The colourful sensuousness and the surprisingly apt epithets remind one of `The Eve of Saint Agnes'. Copious images are drawn from the precious and semi-precious stones with enthusiasm of a cataloguer: pearly, ruby, sapphire, garnet, beryl, turquoise, onyx, jacinth, coral and lapis lazuli. Gardner points out: "The extreme of emotional sensitiveness is betrayed in the recurrent pathetic fallacy of a blushing, sighing, trembling, languishing, throbbing and shivering Nature" (7). The lavish, luxuriant description at times seems to lapse into the sentimentally common place. Near the beginning of `A Vision of the Mermaids' there is, what may be called, a `rosy passage', `rose of air', `rosy-lipp'd', `rosy-budded', and `garnet wreaths', also of roses - all the eight coming in eleven lines. Though there is a quick succession of varied colours, they, far from giving us an impression of excessive prodigality, only produces an effect that is luscious and luxuriant, which is apt to the situation. This too clear painting of nature imagery may be repulsive to some readers who may dismiss his striking phrases of description as ingredients of a visual art unsuitable for poetry. But painting with words is certainly a different art which affords equal, if not greater, pleasure.
The mature work of Hopkins, in which his subtler qualities and idiosyncrasies and eccentricities develop, do not immediately prompt one to associate him with Keats. Nevertheless the same Keatsian sensuousness and strength in their developed manifestations are present. What happens is an interaction of nature and religious faith, which results in the integrated existence of the normally considered discordant qualities of both the starkly sensuous and the austerely spiritual. But critical opinion differs. Prof. Abbot feels: "The fusion of earthly beauty besieging his senses ....."(8). Suffice to say that a reply to Daiches can be found in the Book of Psalms as also in various other books of the Bible, which abound in passages that are but litanies of praise declaring the beauty of the created things.
The old Stonyhurst mansion, the Gothic revival Church there, the Chapels, yew-walks, greens, ponds, vineries, the heather-capped fells, the `branchy bunchy bushybowered' banks of the Hodder; all these provided him with delightful visual riches. The Stonyhurst winter gave him abundant opportunity to study and record various effects of freezing. There he could observe the crystals, hailstones, icicles, and miniature pillars of ice.
With the deepening of spiritual vision and the growth of poetic techniques there is no real abatement of the starkness of senses which is so lush in his early poems. F.N. Lees aptly points out the "Very prominent ..... Sensory communication of such phrases of `The Deutschland' as `How a lush-kept, plush-capped sloe/Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,/Gush!....' or the inboard seas run swirling and hawling,/ The rash smart sloggering brine/Blinds her ..." (9). `Penman Pool' is an illustration of Hopkins's enjoyment of natural beauty. Describing it as `daintily peaceful effusion' Gardner asks: ".... how many other Victorian poets could match the clear, sharp yet still sensuous tones of `Penman Pool'? "Again, in both `The Starlight Night' and `God's Grandeur' nature supplies the fruitful sensuous imagery.
A promise of development in Hopkins's awareness of the observing process begins to show in `A vision of the Mermaids'. Robinson observes: "This piece [about a rainbow in August 1864] evidences Hopkins' intense curiosity about the real nature of visible things and a recognition that perception contains an intellectual component crucial to the experience of seeing. Seeing was to become for him a way of realizing the security of absolute truths in a world subject to change" (10). Hopkins always tried to grasp fully what he had observed. There is a story that a lay brother who remembered Hopkins at Stonyhurst said that one of his delights was to bend down and examine closely the way the crushed quartz glittered when the sun came out after a shower.
There is no dearth of beauty on the earth. It is full with the `barbarous' beauty of the stocks, wind-walks, silk-sack, meal-drift moulded clouds, the azurous hung hills; all these things are here on the earth; only the beholder is wanting. It recalls the Biblical trope: "The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few" (Luke 10:2). When one perceives the majesty and the `very-violet-sweet' of these things, `The heart rears wings..../And....hurls earth for him off under his feet".
A divine power of inspiration, true to the Romantic tradition, is present in all his poems. This is evident in `Hurrahing in Harvest' which is "the outcome of half an hour of extreme enthusiasm as I walked home alone one day from fishing in the Elwy" (11). The clouds float without distinct forms, but constantly assuming different shapes out of the `meal-drift' stuff. It is as though the harvested wheat had been ground and scattered by the wind in the heavens. Though he is fascinated by the `rising' and `sizing', `moulding' and `melting' across the sky, his eyes in this `lovely behaviour' catches the presence of `Ipse', the only one, Christ, King, Head. "I walk, I lift up heart, eyes, Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;" Here is a definite purpose, something to accomplish when he says: `I lift up'. `I lift up to glean our Saviour' unlike in Wordsworth's "My heart leaps up when I behold/A rainbow in the sky". Mature human activity should have a purpose, which the former has and the latter lacks.
The opening line of `The Starlight Night': "Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!" reveals that he was fond of leaning back and looking up at the sky. This is an echo of an experience recorded in his Journal of 1874: "As we drove home the stars came out thick: I leant back to look at them and my heart opening more than usual praised our Lord to and in whom all beauty comes home". While everything on earth may fade, fall and cease, in heaven above Hopkins recognizes the barn in which `the shocks' are stored. There is the eternal dwelling of `Christ and his mother and all his hallows'. The nature described in this poem seems to be the nature that is less accessible. The distant `fire-folk' in the `circle-citadels' up at the skies, are further distanced from the earth. The `diamond delves' and `quickgold' reserves are to be mined before they can be enjoyed. One has to `buy' them and `bid' them with `Prayer, patience, alms, vows'. Only a sacrifice can cut the distance short between us and the heavenly gift offered.
Hopkins's nature poems are poems about the growing time of the year. In winter he was less interested. There is a limitation of range and mood on him inasmuch as he has excluded the trouble of confronting nature which has the tiger as well as the lamb, although he could handle deftly the complications of adversity and suffering as in one true winter poem, `The Wreck'.
Spring haunted Hopkins. Even in an exceptionally cold spring when the leaves of the chestnut tree are limp with frost, he found ever so many welcome signs of spring to observe on his frequent walks: creamy drifts of cowslips, voluptuous green meadows, dog violets, new beech leaves edged with minute silver fur, and blue and purple swallows with amber-tinged breasts.
In "Spring" he enumerates the various kinds of growth in nature: `weeds shoot long, lovely, and lush', of fleece in lambs as they `have fair their fling', `glassy pear-tree leaves' and blossoms; and he inscapes the music of the thrush after describing the appearance of its eggs:
"Thursh's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing"
Seeing through the ears! the auditory sensation is transmuted into fine optical vision just as a scientist would convert a thing, say heat, into electricity. He employed his mind and senses with so much power and concentration as to force into words the very essence, the soul of the subject he contemplated.
Hopkins describes the merry month of May as Mary's month, and for that reason it is all the more magnificent. It is the time God commanded: "Be fruitful, and multiply" (Genesis 1:28); the time of his favourite blueball, of birds, nests and blossoms; a season of nature's prolific fecundity. It does not have any hint of the imperfections of summer's overripeness, winter's discomfort, or autumn's decay. May, spreading youth and freshness, is Hopkins's salad days. In the `May Magnificat' he gives a description of Spring which symbolizes growth in everything:
"Flesh and fleece, fur and feather, Grass and green world all together;
Star-eyed strawberry-breasted. Throstle above her nested
Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin. Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell. In sod or sheath of shell."
The `rising' and `sizing' and magnifying of things are likened to how Mary did `in her magnify the Lord'. There is still more. It tells the mirth, the ecstasy of the Maid:
"!When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple. Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry ....................................
This ecstasy all through mothering earth. Tells Mary her mirth till Christ's birth."
In spite of the slovenliness of the fallen man, and his sordid avocations - whether he inflicts suffering on the world of nature, or in turn suffers from the World - the freshness gathers to a `greatness', it wells up like a spring and steadies `as water in a well', no less in himself than in the world, continually. This is inspite of the fall, because, the `warm breast' and the `bright wings' of the benevolent Holy Ghost impart warmth and brightness. "The bold identification of the sun", P.M. Ball says, "with the Holy Ghost as dove is only on of the solutions Hopkins finds to bring about the integration, not merely of feeling with fact, but of his religious awareness with the thing seen" (12). Unlike other poets Hopkins was very clear about this, and there can be little misgivings about the sincerity with which the sentiments of horror and joy are expressed in `God's Grandeur'. "Not Wordsworth himself was half so rapturous a poet of nature as Hopkins, when his senses responded to `the Grandeur of God', .... (13).
`Epithalamion' gives us a perfect example of summer's delights as when "We are leafwhelmed somewhere with the hood/of some branchy bushybowered wood', with the `boisterously beautiful river', flowing through it with the `sweetest, freshest, shadowest' pool, with `silk-beech, scrolled ash, packed sycamore, wild whychelm, hornbeam fretty overstood/By'. The items of the natural scenes are rendered with the Romantic charm of `fairyland picture' with refreshing, revitalizing energy and contagious delight. As Gardner rightly says, it is "one of the loveliest nature poems in the language".
Hopkins's thought and mood find distinctive and perfect expression in wholesome images, which at once serve as Christian exegesis:
"For us by Calvary's distress, The wine was racked from the press;
Now in our alter-vessels stored, Is the sweet vintage of our Lord.
In Joseph's garden they threw by, The riv'n Vine, leafless, lifeless, dry
On Easter morn the Tree was forth, In forty days reach'd Heaven from earth;
Soon the whole world is overspread; Ye weary, come into the shade."
The description of the immortal beauty of the immortal vine of Gethsemane is unparalleled in its superb imagery, in which what Eliot called the unified sensibilities, the fine fusion of feeling, thought and conviction find an `objective correlative'.
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, the motto of the Society of Jesus, was the fundamental direction of Hopkins's thought. Nature was valuable to him in so far it is glorified God. For him nature has specific uses. It is for clothing the invisible king with visible apparel befitting His majesty that `We see the glories of the earth'; and the beauty of the earth sparks off a craving in him: `to behold Thee as Thou art'; and he says: `I'll wait till morn eternal breaks'.
Free from any taint of undisciplined exaggeration Hopkins says: Gather gladness from the skies; Take a lesson from the ground; Flowers do ope their heavenward eyes And a Spring-time joy have found; Earth throws winter's robes away, Decks herself for Easter Day.
Beauty is fleeting; but it helps us to be aware of the urgency with which to `Give beauty back .... back to God' before it cloys and clouds. The lovely objects are not to be employed as toys, but to be utilized as `tools' to praise our Saviour: Take as for tool, not toy meant And hold at Christ's employment.
Natural phenomena make even animals `leap up' by instinct; but when Hopkins `lifts up, it is to `glean our Saviour'. It is here where Hopkins differs from almost any other nature-poet. While discussing Hopkins's oddities Geoffrey Grigson writes: "In 1870, concerned with the beauties and severities of the winter and neutrally alive to things as much in one place as another, Hopkins observed that `slate slabs of the urinals even are frosted with graceful sprays' (14). Hopkins, like Magi, would always be drawn towards the Bethlehem manger wherein lay the infant Jesus of immortal beauty - "God's infinity/Dwindled to infancy".
That Hopkins had a special likeness for the wild nature is evident from his writings. That is because of his instinct for the primordial instinct for nature before the surreptitious invasion of the sophistication of life which are antagonistic to the "strain of earth's sweet being in the beginning/In Eden Garden'.
Father Peter Says: "Mould and dust may be as interesting to study as petrified rocks that have been chipped, pounded and cleansed by erosion; and still waters may be as attractive as running waters. Mould, dust, and stagnant waters are part of things as they ARE, and are thus to be respected; nonetheless the `purity of the rock' must be morally `contrasted with the foulness of dust or mould', and `flowing water is healthier than stagnant water'" (15).
In `Ribblesdale' Hopkins states that the spoilation of natural beauty is caused by the delinquency of "dear and dogged man", who is a selfish depriver. In Duns Scotts's Oxford' he deplores the depredation of the beauty of the old city by the new materialistic suburbs.
Although Hopkins has the comforting and consoling belief that the unleaving in Goldengrove only prophesises, "if winter comes can spring be far behind?", that the sun sets only to reappear "at the brown brink eastward", the dying embers fall in the fireplace only to expose the "gold-vermilion" beneath; the fact remains that there is eternally present this distress of "unleaving", the disappearance of the day, "the blue-bleak embers" veiling the glory. In `Ribblesdale' he deprecates human cruelty and the way nature is illtreated when men "delve or hew/Hack and rack the growing green". In all these poems the themes of `fall' and the consequent pathos are prominent.
There is a frequent charge against Hopkins that he has exalted nature at the expense of man. In `God's Grandeur' man is thought of as one who has defiled the earth: "And all is seared eith trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil, Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod."
It is true that man is `life's pride and cared-for crown'; but it is also true that the roar of the sea and the `rash-fresh' music of the lark, being pure, shame the sordid man. Man, the crown and glory of God's creation, is presented as a pernicious vermin crawling on the earth, constantly denuding earth's `freshness' and driving it `deep down' and making it `dearest', which would mean rare, costly. The damage suggested by `bleared' and smeared' is superficial, but `seared' is deeper. Similarly `wears man's smudge' though serious, is not so easily repairable damage. The question is how far man's contamination has penetrated and whether it can be redeemed. The renewal and retention of nature's beauty is made possible only because of the warmth of divine Grace - `Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods'. The contradistinction between man and nature seems to disappear in `Spring and Fall' where nature and man are bound together, who seem to be denizens sharing the same predicament in a mutable world. Margaret's mortality is equal to that of the Goldengrove's; nothing more. `Ribblesdale' compliments nature for "You can but only be, but you do well" whereas man "gives all to rack or wrong".
In fine, Hopkins's poems give a Christian basis to the live of nature. To the non-believers they give at least a moral basis. The beautiful things of nature are the tools to praise God; they are the candle of incense, gold and myrrh, used in worship; they are not toys; they are not to be destroyed. Hopkins makes even the humble things respectable because they find a definite place in the scheme of things. He seems to compliment nature saying: "You can but only be, but you do well". Then he returns to man and seems to blame him saying: "You give all to rack and wrong".
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