15. hopkins and the religion of the diamond body


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where a candycoloured, where a gluegold-brown

Marbled river, boisterously beautiful, between

Roots and rocks is danced and dandled, all in froth and water-

blowballs, down.

He hears a shout
And the riot of a rout

Of, it must be, boys from the town

Bathing: it is summer's sovereign good.

By there comes a listless stranger: beckoned by the noise

He drops towards the river, unseen

Sees the bevy of them, how the boys

With dare and with downdolphinry and bellbright bodies huddling out,

Are earthworld, airworld, waterworld thorough hurled, all by turn and

turn about.
He hies to a neighbouring secluded pool ('the best there'), throws off his clothes, 'offwrings' his boots 'Till walk the world he can with bare his feet', and enters the water:
Here he will then, here he will the fleet

Flinty kindcold element let break across his limbs

Long. Where we leave him, froliclavish, while he looks about him,

laughs, swims.

This comes very close to section 11 of 'Song of Myself', where a listless woman in hiding observes twenty-eight young men bathing, and in imagination joins them:
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,

The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them. ...

The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun,

they do not ask who seizes fast to them,

They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,

They do not think whom they souse with spray.

'Epithalamium' (1888) is by far the most relaxed and high-spirited of the late poems. The 'listless stranger' is clearly Hopkins himself ('to seem the stranger lies my lot'). Though he cannot join the 'dare' and 'downdolphinry' of the boys, he can at least cast off his cares with his clothes:

No more: off with - down he dings

His bleachèd both and woolwoven wear:

Careless these in coloured wisp

All lie tumbled-to

It is a frolicsome poem, clearly releasing Hopkins' repressed desire to enter the world of joy-in-life, to acknowledge the healing power of nature in itself, the earth and its elements as man's natural home. But of course 'our Law' does not allow it, overrules imagination. He takes it all back, retreats into hiding, with the disingenuous excuse that it is all an allegory:
Enough now; since the sacred matter that I mean

I should be wronging longer leaving it to float

Upon this only gambolling and echoing-of-earth note -

What is ... the delightful dene?

Wedlock. What is water? Spousal love.
It is not. Nothing Hopkins can say now can denature the delightful dene, or turn the 'fleet, flinty kindcold element' into anything but water. Both are far too real, too 'there', too concrete and sensory, too specific, to be reducible to allegory. This is Hopkins painfully renouncing what the poet in him found sacred but the priest could not. This is the crime against nature and his own nature he was virtually to accuse himself of a few months later in 'Thou art indeed just, Lord'.

* * *
Not only was the teaching of St. Ignatius and Duns Scotus wholly anthropocentric; it also encouraged in Hopkins a heightened sense of unique selfhood. If it is possible to touch God in other creatures, how much more so can we know him in other men:

Our law says: Love what are love's worthiest, were all known;

World's loveliest - men's selves. Self flashes off frame and face.

['To what serves Mortal Beauty']
and how much more fully and directly in ourselves. Hopkins' intense sense of self borders at times on the narcissistic and solipsistic:

When I consider my selfbeing, my consciousness and feeling of myself, that taste of myself, of I and me above and in all things, which is more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, more distinctive than the smell of walnutleaf or camphor. ... Nothing else in nature comes near this unspeakable stress of pitch, distinctiveness, and selving, this selfbeing of my own.... Searching nature I taste self but at one tankard, that of my own being. [Sermons 123]

Again the closeness to Whitman, Whitman taking the self to be the world in little, is astonishing:
I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious

['Song of Myself' 24]

But Whitman's exaltation of self is always qualified by his comedy -
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer
- and balanced by an equally exaggerated humility:
I project my hat, sit shame-faced, and beg. [37]
The conclusion of Hopkins' commentary is 'that I am due to an extrinsic power' [128]; but once the conviction of the identity of self and Christ is lost, the strands of selfhood are untwisted, and the way is opened for the terrible recriminations of the years in Ireland:
I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

['I wake and feel the fell of dark']
Hopkins accuses himself of the sin of Adam, 'rebelling against God his lawgiver and judge' [Sermons 67]. What form could this 'selfyeast of spirit' have taken but that, believing himself to be praising God in his creation, he had in fact been praising himself:
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot


Me? or me that fought him? O which one? ['Carrion Comfort']

In the last poems, the conviction that to be oneself is to be Christ can no longer be sustained. The 'unspeakable stress of pitch' becomes 'pitched past pitch of grief', where to the musical meaning is added the sense of shipwreck and of being thrown away as of no worth - a 'Jack, joke, poor potsherd'. The temptation is to 'choose not to be'.

In 'That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection', the charge which had sanctified the world in 'God's Grandeur' becomes 'world's wildfire' reducing it to ash. Man, nature's 'clearest-selvèd spark', goes into the bonfire with the rest. The poor Jackself is now mere matchwood. Yet none of this really matters, within this poem, for Hopkins has the master card, the last trump, up his sleeve - the resurrection which will transform his 'mortal trash' into 'immortal diamond'. It is no longer good enough as it was in 'The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo' that the body should be recovered in its youthful beauty ('not the least lash lost') at the resurrection. The desperate need to defeat time, decay and death results, as it always does in poetry ('Ode to a Grecian Urn', 'Sailing to Byzantium') in an exchange of the living body for something cold, hard, and as incapable of living as dying. Freud described this wish for a self-contained and immortal body as both infantile and narcissistic.

'That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire' is the last poem with Hopkins' characteristic bravura - inventive diction, sweeping rhythms, clinching rhymes, triumphant coda. The result is a fine but, in comparison with the poems around it, a closed poem. It ends with not the hope but the certainty of the resurrection, leaving no room for other possibilities or for creative interpretation by the reader in terms of his or her nature and experience. It is clear from the surrounding poems that it is not true to Hopkins' real state, in which the only comfort which served was that 'all Life death does end, and each day dies with sleep' ['No worst, there is none']. The well-wrought poem, in its closed circularity, is itself a life-belt for the drowning self, as the externally-validated doctrine of the resurrection is its beacon. The whole human being, whose last strands are being untwisted, is excluded from the conclusion of the poem in favour of the confident believer.

What Hopkins is undergoing in these last years is the experience Simone Weil calls 'affliction':

Affliction is essentially a destruction of personality, a lapse into anonymity ... it is a pulverisation of the soul by the mechanical brutality of circumstances. ... Unless constrained by experience, it is impossible to believe that everything in the soul - all its thoughts and feelings, its every attitude towards ideas, people and the universe, and, above all, the most intimate attitude of the being towards itself - that all this is entirely at the mercy of circumstances. ... When thought finds itself, through force of circumstance, brought face to face with affliction, it takes immediate refuge in lies, like an animal dashing for cover. ['On Science, Necessity and the Love of God']
It can also take refuge in the comforts of faith, which, whether true or false in the absolute, is always poetically false unless poetically substantiated. Poetry has nothing to do with 'truths' handed down from above, only with those less comforting truths the imagination dredges up from below. In this poem Hopkins commits one of the original sins of Hughes' Adam:
Wrapped in peach-skin and bruise

He dreamed the religion of the diamond body. ['Adam']

The loss of the sense of self as something unique, eternal, and of infinite worth, was devastating to Hopkins, who needed a personal and special providence not to be shared with mere sparrows. Again there is a strong contrast with Whitman who would happily grant everything he claimed for himself to a blade of grass, and who viewed his inevitable dissolution with equanimity.
* * *

I am, I suppose, moving towards the suggestion that Whitman's open style is morally superior to Hopkins' style of the middle period in that Hopkins', like most highly wrought styles, is an attempt to impose an aesthetic or rhetorical order on material which might otherwise threaten the control and security of the ego. Hopkins' Ignatian theology, his anthropocentrism, narcissism, aestheticism, his inscapes, his elaborate over-complex style, are all symptoms of the same syndrome, of the kind of hubristic or ego-defensive imagination which, according to Janos Pilinszky 'places the stylistic certainty of appearances before the self-forgetful incarnation of the world' ['Creative Imagination in Our Time'].

The unique Hopkins style is 'counter, original, spare, strange'. It enables us to share the thoughts and feelings of a refined sensibility. No-one would wish to be without the famous poems which exemplify it. But they are not Hopkins' finest. The greatest poetry in the language is the simplest. Not the simplicity of innocence, but a strong, naked, irreducible simplicity on the far side of experience, usually of breakdown, which dispenses with verbal richness or complexities ('the poetry does not matter'). No longer, at this level, do words strain and slide away from meanings. The language is capable, we know, of perfect expression, 'a condition of complete simplicity' ['Little Gidding']:

I am a very foolish fond old man,

Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less;

And, to deal plainly,

I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

Methinks I should know you and know this man;

Yet I am doubtful: for I am mainly ignorant

What place this is, and all the skill I have

Remembers not these garments; nor I know not

Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;

For, as I am a man, I think this lady

To be my child Cordelia. [King Lear IV vii 60-9]
The greatest lines are utterly purged of style:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow.
Never, never, never, never, never.

Only the greatest poets have touched this level of self-abnegation. It is touched again and again in the last sonnets, where Hopkins speaks directly, unselfconsciously, out of the spiritual nakedness and sterility of his 'winter world'. They came, he says, 'like inspirations unbidden and against my will'. Ostensibly, he is praying and pleading that his work might become more rewarding and his poetic inspiration return, but the insistent imagery of fertility in both the human and the natural worlds tells another story. His last cries are addressed not to the God of 'yonder', but of here and now, to the 'lord of life', who has cut him off from all that sustains life, from the common life-need of water, and from the communion of natural life to which even the birds and plants belong.

Hopkins' inability to find 'Thirst's all-in-all in all a world of wet' reveals, consciously or unconsciously, in its echo of 'Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink', his sense of spiritual kinship with the Ancient Mariner. Hopkins knew the spectre of Life-in-Death, the loneliness of a soul in agony, the curse of spiritual drought. Does he also share the mariner's guilt, the deep knowledge of a crime against nature and his own nature, like a dead bird hanging about his neck? It was a full acceptance and spontaneous blessing of all the creatures he had formerly despised, of their lordly autonomy, which released the Ancient Mariner from his curse, and allowed nature to resume her fertile processes:

To Mary Queen the praise be given!

She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven,

That slid into my soul.


And when I awoke, it rained.
Mary Queen provides for Coleridge here a continuity with the great pagan Queen of Heaven, who was, according to Hughes 'the goddess of Catholicism, who was the goddess of Medieval and Pre-Christian England, who was the divinity of the throne, who was the goddess of natural law and of love, who was the goddess of all sensation and organic life' [WP 110]. This is very much the goddess Hopkins had celebrated in 'The May Magnificat', where he comes close to saying that May is Mary's month because she is no other than the great Mother Goddess of earth's renewal. When he asks the 'mighty mother' why May is her month she answers with her own question: 'What is Spring?', to which she answers 'Growth in every thing -'
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,

Grass and greenworld all together;

Star-eyed strawberry-breasted

Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin

Forms and warms the life within;

And bird and blossom swell

In sod or sheath or shell.

All things rising, all things sizing

Mary sees, sympathizing

With that world of good,

Nature's motherhood.

Hopkins continues to celebrate 'Spring's universal bliss' until, almost as an afterthought, he awkwardly drags himself back from the pagan world:
This ecstasy all through mothering earth

Tells Mary her mirth till Christ's birth

To remember and exultation

In God who was her salvation.

The atonement of body and spirit, nature and God, pagan and Christian, which Hopkins had almost achieved at that time is finally abandoned in 'Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves'. Here everything his sacramental vision had unified is unwound, dismembered, back to a stark dualism which is death to poetry, except the terrible poetry of the death of poetry:

Let life, waned, ah let life wind

Off her once skeined stained veined variety upon, all upon two

spools; part, pen, pack

Now her all in two flocks, two folds - black, white; right, wrong;

reckon but, reck but, mind

But these two; ware of a world where but these two tell, each off the

other; of a rack

Where, selfwrung, sheathe-and-shelterless, thoughts against thoughts

in groans grind.
The great mother has now turned dragonish:
In her death-throes, nature has defensively manifested herself to him her unacceptable, demonic aspect, embodying the primeval fear of the monstrous, devouring female. Hopkins can no longer integrate and reconcile the energies of his inner dragon, his unfallen self, and is consigning her to the darkness, separating the female from the male, 'black' from 'white', 'wrong' from 'right'.

[from an unpublished essay by Ann Mackay]

Hopkins, like Wordsworth, now finds himself excluded from Nature's festival, but does not for that reason end in repudiation of her. His faith in her proves at the last more resilient than his faith in a God outside nature. At the same time that he is crying out for a diamond body, he is pleading for impregnation and conception, for the creative life of the living body. These are, of course, metaphors for grace and for poetic inspiration. But it is surely highly significant that in searching for appropriate metaphors for those things which constituted for him the very meaning and justification of life, he should turn so often, so insistently and powerfully, to sexual metaphors and the closely related metaphors drawn from nature's capacity for self-renewal, nature's never-lost in-built grace.

Hopkins would have agreed with Wordsworth that the making of metaphors is 'the great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder' ['Preface' to the Lyrical Ballads]. Wordsworth adds, astonishingly: 'From this principle the direction of the sexual appetite and all the passions connected with it, take their origin'. It is ironic that the poet of all poets whose metaphors most vindicate this claim should have been a celibate priest whose sexual appetite was doomed to lead only to secret and sterile sin.

The last two sonnets are driven by sexual imagery. 'To R.B.' is a cry from Hopkins' widowed anima, his muse, his soul, a cry for impregnation ('live and lancing like the blowpipe flame'), for sunshine and spring rain. But in 'Thou art indeed just, Lord' he is himself the lacking father, castrated and impotent:

See, banks and brakes

Now, leaved how thick! laced they are again

With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes

Them; birds build - but not I build; no, but strain,

Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.

Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

['Thou are indeed just, Lord']
These by no means lagging lines, stripped of all consolations from above, and of all the ego-protection of an imposed style, speak out of the real desolation of the heart. They echo hollowly the joyful shout at Eleusis: 'The people, looking up to heaven, cry "Rain!", and, looking down to earth, cry "Conceive!": hye, kye' [Baring 381], and the opening of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, which testifies to a spiritual life in men which is not cut off from the fertile processes of the natural world, but continuous with them:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye

(So priketh hem nature in hir corages);

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages ...

Nature pricked Hopkins' heart that spring, but in so doing only taunted him and brought home to him the horror of the chasm which had now opened up for him between nature and God.

© Keith Sagar 2005, 2012. This essay may be quoted within the limits of fair use, and with due acknowledgement to this website.

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