Tuesday, December 23, 2008

At play in the fields of prosody

At this time of year my thoughts invariably turn to the religious poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I am not a believer in the deity, but growing up in the Christian tradition taught me to appreciate the inspired language of the King James Bible and the 16th century Anglican Book of Common Prayer ("Speak now or forever hold your peace"). Religious exaltation often produces great literature.

Hopkins (1844-1889), who was a Catholic convert and a Jesuit, was an early experimenter with language and prosody, creating intricate and often metaphysical images in a loose poetic meter he called "sprung rhythm." Although he wrote his poems more than a century and a quarter ago (they were not published until 1918) they still flash with sparks of modernity.

One of my favorites is the sonnet "Pied Beauty":

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 áll trádes, 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.

Except for its dedication, his greatest poem, "The Windhover" (probably a kestrel), can be read as not overtly religious, but a Christian might see in it a similar celebration of God's creation:

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-vermillion.

Now that's a poem for all seasons. I often think of it when I'm sitting on the beach of Lake Superior with a camera and long lens, capturing wheeling, soaring gulls, "rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing." Oh, their mastery of the thing.

1 comment:

  1. "God's Grandeur" is also a great Hopkins poem -- it's MY favorite.