Saturday, March 01, 2014

Like shining from shook foil -- a Saturday reprise

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man's smudge & shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast & with ah! bright wings.
Poor Gerard Manley Hopkins. Caught agonizingly between God's immanence and God's transcendence. From the time he was a child he was drawn to the natural world: plants, animals, hills, dales, streams, slants of light, the forms of frost, starry nights, comets, stones, bells, the aurora borealis, human faces. He was attuned to these things with a special sensitivity. It was almost as if he could see into them, to what he called their inscape, "the deepest freshness deep down things," a grandeur inherent in materiality that he perceived as divine.

But Hopkins could not rid himself of the notion that by attending to the material world of particular things he was being drawn away from the spiritual and universal. The Jesuits, to whom he gave his short life, believed the senses were the enemy of sanctity, that beauty was the Devil's share. The young men at the Jesuit novitiate -- eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, at the peak of their sexual and sensual awakening -- were kept occupied every waking hour of the day lest their idle senses become an occasion of sin. They were even given "modesty powder" for their bath to make the water opaque; God forbid that they might be aroused to lascivious thoughts by the sight of their own genitals. Hopkins seems to have borne such training gracefully, and it must be said the Jesuit regimen was not at odds with his own ascetic inclinations. He often practiced what his religious superiors called "custody of the eyes," forcing himself to walk though the world with his vision fixed at his feet.

It is all terribly Roman Catholic, this perplexed attraction and revulsion to materiality -- heaven knows I was there myself as a young man. Hopkins seems to have resolved the conflict only in his late sonnets, such as God's Grandeur. It was an almost pantheistic formula he contrived, and it was looked upon with suspicion by the Jesuits. But as we read the poems we sense a man who has looked deeply into himself and caught there a sense of something both material and spiritual, not as opposites, but as complementary manifestations of the same "bright wings."