Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Who knows how?

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote the poem Pied Beauty in the summer of 1877. He had finished his third year of theological studies at the Jesuit seminary of St, Beuno's in North Wales, and was awaiting the exam that would determine his further advancement in the order. Ordination would follow in September. I imagine him standing on a hillside looking out over the valley of the river Elwy, overwhelmed by the beauty and diversity of the landscape. He was 33 years old, a convert to Roman Catholicism -- received into that faith by John Henry Newman, to the dismay of his parents -- and now anticipating life as a Jesuit priest.
Glory be to God for dappled things,
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
       For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced -- fold, fallow, and plough;
       And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
       With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
                   Praise him.
It is a strange little poem, reflective of the warring instincts in Hopkins himself, an exhilarating embrace of the sensuous and changeable wonder of nature, bracketed by an heartfelt alliegence to a distant and immutable God.

The -les ripple through the poem like the purling water of the Elwy -- dapple, couple, stipple, tackle, fickle, freckle. This is the poet, the lover, the mystic, the naturalist. Then there is that other Hopkins too, who distrusts his body, distrusts his passions, who can make a bonfire of his poems out of a sense that their sensuality offends God.

No wonder his parents felt their gentle, artistic son was throwing his life away. His superiors at St. Beuno's read the parents' letters to the son before they were delivered. God demanded severe obedience.

Hopkins flunked the exam, or at least did not do well enough to continue his theological studies, a prerequisite for advancement to the higher offices of the Jesuit order. He would spend the rest of his too short life as a clerical foot-soldier, going wherever he was assigned to do the order's bidding.

Hopkins was as much a riddle to his Jesuit superiors as he was to his family and friends. He beheld nature -- all things that are counter, original, spare and strange -- and, like all of us who love nature, felt an innate human urge to give thanks and praise. Who to thank? Who to praise? That, of course, is the wrong question -- who? -- and the answer led him down a blind alley. But he made the best of a conflicted life, and although lonely and miserable in an Irish assignment -- an exile of sorts -- his last words, before he died at age 45 of typhoid, were apparently "I am so happy. I am so happy."