Friday, November 12, 2010

Hopkins, redux

When my mother died five years ago at age 92 it fell on me to say a few words at her funeral. I chose to read a poem that I knew to be one of her favorites, from the anthology of Victorian poetry that she had used as a student at the University of Chattanooga, the Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, dedicated "to Christ our Lord."
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
I knew the congregation might not grasp the significance of the poem -- I'm not sure I fully understand it myself -- but the beauty of the words would be a kind of hymn for someone who loved words all her life.

It was brief, and it captured something of the essence of her life.

Her head was always in the clouds, soaring with the falcon, riding the gusts and swells up there above the mundane circumstances of her life. Her books were her wings. Even into her final weeks she could recite poems she had committed to memory as a student. But it was sheer plod that gave the shine to her life, the buckling down, the heart in hiding. And, oh, yes, she kept it hidden; she was not one to readily demonstrate emotion.

There was no wonder in it. No magic. No supernatural grace. Something lovelier, more natural, more dangerous. Sheer plod. Sheer plod. That lets the blade turn the furrow, heaping up the moist, wet, fertile soil, shining, shining.