15. hopkins and the religion of the diamond body



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15. HOPKINS AND THE RELIGION OF THE DIAMOND BODY
Isn't 'fall' and 'redemption' quite a late and new departure in religion and in myth: about Homer's time? Aren't the great heavens of the true pagans - I call these orphicising 'redemption' mysteries half-christian - aren't they clean of the 'Salvation' idea, though they have the re-birth idea? and aren't they clean of the 'fall', though they have the descent of the soul? The two things are quite different. In my opinion the great pagan religions of the Aegean, and Egypt and Babylon, must have conceived the 'descent' as a great triumph, and each Easter of the clothing in flesh as a supreme glory, and the Mother Moon who gives us our body as the supreme giver of the great gift, hence the very ancient Magna Mater in the East. This 'fall' into Matter ... this 'entombment' in the 'envelope of flesh' is a new and pernicious idea arising about 500 B.C. into distinct cult-consciousness - and destined to kill the grandeur of the heavens altogether at last. [D.H. Lawrence]

I entreat you, my brothers, remain true to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of superterrestrial hopes! They are poisoners, whether they know it or not. They are despisers of life, atrophying and self-poisoned men, of whom the earth is weary: so let them be gone! Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy, but God died, and thereupon these blasphemers died too. To blaspheme the earth is now the most dreadful offence, and to esteem the bowels of the Inscrutable more highly than the meaning of the earth. [Nietzsche]

Hopkins' fascination with what he began in 1868 to call the 'inscapes' of the natural world is evident from the earliest diaries and journals, but in the eighteen-sixties it seems to have been a combination of aesthetics, draughtsmanship and natural history, having no connection with his religious concerns. Suddenly, in 1870, his inscapes acquire a new dimension and meaning: 'I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it' [Journals 199]. Later that year there follows a description of the Northern Lights, which ends:

This busy working of nature wholly independent of the earth and seeming to go on in a strain of time not reckoned by our reckoning of days and years but simpler and as if correcting the preoccupation of the world by being preoccupied with and appealing to and dated by the day of judgement was like a new witness to God and filled me with delightful fear. [200]

This fusing of aesthetic and religious experience, both grounded in natural inscapes, has been attributed to the influence of Duns Scotus; but Hopkins did not read Duns Scotus until 1872. If it is attributable to an outside influence at all, then that influence is St. Ignatius. Hopkins' commentaries on the Spiritual Exercises date from the same period (1877-81) as his most joyful and spontaneous poems and are very close to them in spirit:
CREATION THE MAKING OUT OF NOTHING, bringing from nothing into being: once there was nothing, then lo, this huge world was there. How great al work of power! ...

It is a book he has written, of the riches of his knowledge, teaching endless truths, full lessons of wisdom, a poem of beauty ...

'The heavens declare the glory of God!' The birds sing to him, the thunder speaks of his terror, the lion is like his strength, the honey like his sweetness; they are something like him, they make him known, they tell of him, they give him glory.

[Sermons 238-9]


God dwells in creatures ... God works and labours for me in all created things on the face of the earth ... All things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God and if we know how to touch them give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of him. [193-5]
But there was within Catholic teaching another tradition entirely, a tradition in the ascendant in Victorian England and much more in accord with the general morality and spirituality of the time, a tradition which regarded nature with fear and hostility, which defined nature and grace as mutually exclusive opposites, and aligned the natural world, the flesh and the devil (and woman) against God:

Hence the soul cannot be possessed of the divine union, until it has divested itself of the love of created beings. [St. John of the Cross]

Though for several years Hopkins managed to avoid this dualism, it became at last the cross on which he was crucified. Nature, which was for him in 1877 the divine creative fire of God playing through the physical, temporal world, 'the dearest freshness deep down things', 'a strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning / In Eden garden', a standard purity against which the corruption of the human world was to be judged, became by 1888 'nature's bonfire', 'world's wildfire', a heap of trash and matchwood reducing itself to ashes, a joke, and good riddance, since it was a dangerous distraction from what really matters, the only thing of true value, the immortal diamond of the redeemed soul, redeemed from world, flesh and devil. I want to try to understand the apparently unavoidable process (for a great poet who was also a Jesuit priest at that time) by which this total inversion of values took place.
* * *

When Hopkins entered the Jesuit order he welcomed the discipline he felt he needed to restrain his independent spirit and restrict his manifold interests. This meant burning most of his poems, curbing his passion for music, and giving up learning Welsh (since he could hardly pretend that his sole motive had been the conversion of Wales). It did not mean giving up his interest in the natural world and its inscapes, since it was but a short step to reinterpret these as precisely those phenomena which testified most strongly to the presence of God or Christ in creation, and therefore the most likely to help him to praise God. His moments of aesthetic insight could now be glorified as epiphanies, perceptions of the sacred, encounters with Christ. Scotus confirmed him in this, and extended his range by pointing out that it was in their characteristic action even more than in appearance and design that created things revealed their innermost being and divine purpose.

It was not long before Hopkins took the next short step, to the realization that the value of such experiences need not be private, but carried an obligation to bear witness, and that the only adequate way of testifying, for him, would be the writing of poems, for only the language of poetry could match the pattern of inscape and the charge of instress. And for this purpose it would have to be a very special and original kind of poetry which Hopkins knew he had in him, but which he knew to be beyond any of his contemporaries (with the possible and grudging exception of Whitman).

Out of this perfect matching of his religious vocation with his poetic gifts and love of nature came the great celebratory poems of the years 1877 to 1881. His effort now was not just to register physical and temporal externals, phenomena, but to interpret them as expression of the innermost, as laws of being. If this can be achieved, the object, formerly a mere eye-chaos, or, if perceived as beautiful, mere 'brute beauty' or geometry, is transfigured, becomes radiant with a meaning which is far from merely metaphorical because a tangible example of the spirit of God, the body of Christ, in this world, affording, for those of us who are not saints, our only direct experience of him in this life.

There are several Hopkins poems which seem to embody a sacramental Christianity perfectly in accord with deep ecology - 'God's Grandeur', 'Spring', 'The Sea and the Skylark', 'Pied Beauty', 'Binsey Poplars', 'Inversnaid', 'Ribblesdale'.

Let us look closely at 'God's Grandeur'.

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.
The fourth word is charged with meanings, and plunges us deep into Hopkins' distinctive poetic and religious world. The primary meaning is, of course, electrical. It suggests that God flows through the world as an energizing current, that everything in creation is therefore connected to everything else, part of the same circuit, and also to God, the source. It also suggests that the world is a huge battery in which creative energy lies latent, in which is stored an infinite potential for renewal. All processes, natural and human, are dependent on this energy, which can be manifested in very different ways. At one extreme as light, like the sudden lightning which flashes from a sheet of multifaceted silver-foil when it is shaken; at the other as steady pressure which, with such slowness that it is barely detectable, crushes the seed to release its innermost oil. It need not surprise us that Hopkins should choose examples from the world of human industry rather than the natural world, since his main theme in this poem is man's misuse of what God provided specifically for his use, such as 'coal and rockoil for artificial light and heat' [Sermons 90].

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 and shares man's smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

This strange juxtaposition of 'then' and 'now', closely followed by the word 'generations', reminds us of the first time men disobeyed God. No sooner had God charged the world with life than he put men in charge of it, and charged them not to eat of the tree of knowledge. The subsequent history of the race has been a compounding of that first recklessness. Only man has the freedom to disconnect himself from the divine circuit, and this he has systematically done, especially since the industrial revolution. The sacred flame was entrusted to man, and he has seared the world with it. Oil has been extracted not only from plants, but from the earth itself, and smeared over everything. The shod foot treading earth bare is a potent image of alienation, of man in self-imposed exile from his home 'in Eden garden' ['Spring']. Hughes expresses Adam Kadmon's glad acceptance of the earth as his proper home in the image of 'the sole of a foot/ Pressed to world-rock', to which he says 'I was made/ For you'.

The sestet testifies to that in nature which seemed to Hopkins inextinguishable:

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 and with ah! bright wings.


At the very moment when nature seems utterly spent, the first token of renewal appears. The world bent with toil, or under the burden of man's works and sins, is transformed into the image of an egg the hatching of which, under the warm breast of the dove, will release the 'dearest freshness' of innocence, joy, love, creativity, which still lives under the hard shell of greed, complacency and materialism. The Holy Ghost as dove broods over the world in both senses, pondering the crime, but also renewing victimized nature. In the 'May Magnificat' Hopkins calls Mary the 'mighty mother' and compares her to a throstle on its eggs, which 'Forms and warms the life within; / And bird and blossom swell / In sod or sheath or shell'.

'Spring' wonderfully evokes the rush and richness of new life, the intercourse of heaven and earth, as shooting weeds, birdsong and peartree leaves all 'brush the descending blue'. The vision of 'Pied Beauty' is even more ecstatically holistic, triumphantly unifying all the dualistic opposites of high and low, large and small, swift and slow, light and dark, human and non-human, change and permanence. The vision of 'Hurrahing in Harvest' is the same, until the last two lines, where aspiration towards God expresses itself as a hurling off of earth. It is not clear whether the heart only half hurls earth off because it has not quite achieved the boldness which would be needed to kick the cumbering earth off completely, or whether the poet wishes to have the best of both worlds, like Lawrence's St. Matthew:

I have mounted up on the wings of the morning, and I have dredged

down to the zenith's reversal.

Which is my way, being man.

God's may stay in mid-heaven, the Son of Man has climbed to the

Whitsun zenith,

But I, Matthew, being a man

Am a traveller back and forth.

So be it.

The ambiguity is, as we shall see, a more serious matter in 'The Windhover'.

In 'God's Grandeur' Hopkins seems to doubt man's capacity, try as he may, to do any permanent damage to the earth. In 'Binsey Poplars' and 'Ribblesdale' he becomes progressively less confident. As joy and confidence tend to produce in Hopkins verbal exuberance, sadness produces a moving simplicity. His dear aspens are 'All felled, felled, are all felled ... Not spared, not one'. 'Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve / Strokes of havoc' have unselved the scene. Hopkins stresses the vulnerability of the natural world, how easily we can threaten its complex and delicate functions:


Since country is so tender

To touch, her being so slender,

That, like this sleek and seeing ball

But a prick will make no eye at all.

We must beware, however, of imputing too much ecological consciousness to Hopkins. What we do when we 'delve or hew - Hack and rack the growing green!' may be to wreck an ecosystem and alter the world's climate, but this is of course not what Hopkins means. He means simply that the beauty of that 'sweet especial scene' is now lost for ever, so that 'After-comers cannot guess the beauty been'.

In 'Ribblesdale', 'selfbent' man, 'so tied to his turn', so thriftless, reaves 'our rich round world bare / And none reck of world after'. There is no doubting Hopkins' 'care and dear concern'. But Hopkins does not show much awareness of connections between one part of nature and another, of interdependence, only of the independent connection of each creature to God and to the individual who knows how to touch it. Perhaps we read into 'God's Grandeur' the idea of a circuit. The created world does not present itself to Hopkins as a system, rather an aggregation of single and separate miracles, each conceived and charged by God for a specific and very precise purpose (could we but see it). And this purpose is not in relation to the rest of creation, but only in relation to the augmenting of God's glory by praise and the saving of souls.

This will become clearer if we look at two more of Hopkins' most famous poems, 'The Windhover' and 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire'.

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 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!

'Caught' does not mean simply 'caught sight of'. The diction, rhythm, imagery, will not allow for so mundane a meaning. It means that Hopkins caught, perhaps for the first time, the spiritual significance of the falcon, brought it home to his heart, thereby transforming it to Falcon, the type of Christ our Lord, prince of heaven. The wonderful mimetic recreation of the characteristic hovering of the kestrel (also known as a standgale), which rides the wind with the steadiness of a skilled horseman who moves with his mount, always level in relation to it, however it may roll and threaten to hurl him, or of a skater whose skill performing figures of eight enables him to triumph over those forces which seek to bring him down, is not there merely in order to give us a vivid description of a kestrel, as in a nature poem. It is there, along with all the medieval chivalric splendour, to fuse Falcon and Christ in one composite image of mastery, mastery of all dangers, temptations, everything which conspires to overthrow the heroic spirit, everything, that is, the poet's heart is in hiding from. We hear in the apparently throw-away phrase 'my heart in hiding' an echo of 'The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod / Hard down with a horror of height' ['The Wreck of the Deutschland'], and a hint of the heart to which he will later say 'Here! creep, / Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind'. At the time of writing 'The Windhover' Hopkins both feared the height and the danger of exposure to the big wind and longed for the whirl of wings, the fling of the heart and the towering grace. The danger is that the higher the aspiration the greater the temptation to pride, and therefore the deeper the hurtle of hell. The heart hides in true humility before the spiritual achievements of Christ and his saints, but also, perhaps, in envy of the outward trappings of valorous action, its pride and plume, which might precede a fall, as it did for Arthur's chevaliers. He does not know whether his life of obscurity and renunciation, in clerical black, is a manifestation of courage or cowardice. His heart stirs for the very thing it is in hiding from (as Eliot's heart stirred for and cowered from 'the awful daring of a moment's surrender').

At the beginning of the sestet this stirring articulates itself as a prayer for the resplendent qualities of the bird. Since the Falcon is also the Prince summoned by the King of daylight to perform his chivalric deeds in high heaven, Hopkins is praying to become something much more than a cavorting kestrel, he is praying for God to buckle on him the shining armour which will transform the drab priest into the most favoured hero and man-of-action whose exploits are emblazoned upon him and flash upon the world: 'Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here / Buckle!'. That the strong verb 'Buckle!' should be carried over and given the extra stress of beginning a line, that it should seem, therefore, to have the exclamation mark to itself, and that it should be followed by the uniquely capitalized 'AND', makes it the crux of the poem. It seems that in the very process of carrying the word over it has acquired a second and rapidly overriding meaning. As the last word of the first line of the sestet, its primary meaning seems to be 'fasten'; as the first word of the second line - 'Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then' - it has become 'cave in'. The breaking of fire from something which has broken open is a favourite Hopkins image. It reappears in the very next poem as 'Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls', freshly fallen chestnuts, that is, as bright as the fire which breaks from a fallen firecoal, which before it fell might have seemed as dead as a chestnut's husk. More important, it is taken up in the closing lines of this poem, in the 'blue-bleak embers' which 'Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion'. To 'buckle' means then, primarily, to crumple, to cave in and break open. Christ does combine within himself all the admirable attributes of the falcon, but adds to them a quite different attribute which infinitely outshines them, his spiritual beauty, which shone brightest not in chivalric performance or any acts in which pride might plume itself, but in self-sacrifice, in the galling and gashes of the crucifixion. The fire that breaks from Christ then is the vermilion of blood which is simultaneously the gold of Grace.

Hopkins defines instress as 'a moulding force which succeeds in asserting itself over the resistance of cumbersome and restraining matter'. Thus the instress of the falcon is that which gives it the name of windhover or standgale, the force which gives it mastery over the big wind. The instress of Christ (self-sacrificial Love) is his triumph over the evil inherent in unredeemed matter ('mortal trash'). What instress did Hopkins desire for himself? Poetic inspiration ('the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation'), or the conquest of all such aspirations? The ostentatious skill of the windhover is also perhaps an image of Hopkins' pride in his own flamboyant poetic mastery, his triumph over the resistance of cumbersome language. Was his pride in that entirely for the greater glory of God?

The phrase 'O my chevalier!' implies a choice of the second meaning of 'buckle' and reverses the prayer of two lines earlier. The poet now prays not to ride in public and in pride, but to be ridden in humble obscurity. Christ is now Hopkins' chevalier because the poet's overweening heart is now the horse, that which must be broken ('rung upon the rein') and mastered ('Thou mastering me God'). What must be subdued is precisely that in him which rebelled against the humiliation of a life spent in obscurity ('in hiding') and 'stirred for a bird'. ('I am no wing/ To tread emptiness' says Hughes' Adam.) He can console himself that as 'sheer plod' burnishes the plough-share, so the self-renunciation of his own plodding life might burnish his soul. Not for him that honour which is 'flashed off exploit' ['St. Alphonsus Rodriguez']; rather the 'mastery in the mind' of 'Morning, Midday and Evening Sacrifice'. There are the resplendent crusading knights; there are the saints and martyrs whose wounds testify to their struggles; and there are those who have, outwardly, nothing to show for a life of dedication and renunciation and inner strife. St. Alphonsus Rodriguez was 'a laybrother of our Order, who for 40 years acted as hall porter to the College of Palma in Majorca; he was, it is believed, much favoured by God with heavenly light and much persecuted by evil spirits' [Poems 252]. It was Hopkins' hope that his own inconspicuous 'war within' during years and years 'of world without event' might be similarly favoured.

The word 'buckle' is thus perhaps the turning point in Hopkins' work at which breaks into the celebratory mood a recognition of the need to renounce the very things he found most attractive in nature, the mortal beauty which made his blood dance. Whatever is not so sacrificed becomes hostage to 'surly the mere mould'.

'The Windhover' could only have been written by someone who had closely watched and admired the behaviour of kestrels. But that is not the main subject of the poem. As the subtitle 'To Christ our Lord' warns us, it is about Christian martyrdom. There is, of course, no reason why Hopkins should not draw upon the natural world in this way. But when we look at the use he habitually makes of nature, we may become aware of some strain between, on the one hand, the claims he makes for nature as being charged with God, and the expectation this gives rise to (which is satisfied in Whitman) that what he is doing when he looks at nature is attempting to 'see into the life of things' that he might thereby know God, and on the other the extent to which what he sees in nature is determined by relatively external correspondences to preconceptions about God, Christ and Creation which have been arrived at without reference to the natural world as anyone would see it without such preconceptions.

'As kingfishers catch fire' is perhaps the poem in which Hopkins most triumphantly marries his own vision to that of St. Ignatius and Duns Scotus. The poem speaks and spells itself very clearly, and in high spirits, racing from one half-line inscape to the next. It moves effortlessly from nature to music to man to Christ to God.

We can make allowances, in 'The Windhover' for the fact that it is not primarily a poem about a kestrel, that other aspects of the behaviour of the kestrel might have been relevant for other purposes, and that Hopkins has every right to select whatever aspect of the bird he likes for this particular poem. But the more poems we read, the more we become aware that the principle of selection is always the same, and 'As kingfishers catch fire' makes clear that it is not really a matter of selection at all:




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