Archive for category Reflections on the Universe
[I wrote this in response to a question in an online group generally about meaning and God. It is quite meandering, but I thought I would post it here anyway.]
I’ve been reading Pride & Prejudice and some Wittgenstein recently, and that’s about the best way I can imagine beginning a response to A____’s prompt. It’s probably all downhill from here. That I should start in this way might also indicate that everything following is provisional, and that’s true. A____said something about this conversation being one inevitably made up of day-by-day vision and revision, so I’ll take that as permission and justification. For whatever intentions are worth, I think these comments will incline toward some issues that I’ve been mulling over for the last couple of years and think fairly important. I mention Austen and Wittgenstein only partly because I’m unduly proud of having finally gotten around to reading both of them; primarily, I mention them for a certain overlapping concern they share regarding a mode of thinking/living that strikes me as quite right. I will call this the Augenstein Factor.
The Augenstein Factor, in Pride & Prejudice, is the way the characters live, court, and think by means of descriptions of one another which they bandy about in rumor, attack with in slander, and constantly revise in very specific ways in order to fall in love. The embarrassingly obvious example is the way Lizzy’s prejudiced descriptions (to herself and to others) of Mr. Darcy prevent her from seeing him, knowing him, and loving him properly. It’s notably a moral failing on her part, here, and that will come up again later on. The more entertaining example comes from an absolutely delightful passage near the end of the novel in which Lady Catherine de Bourgh (VIP, and also Darcy’s aunt) tries to convince Lizzy that she cannot marry Darcy, and she makes that argument by giving various skewed descriptions of Darcy, of Darcy’s availability, and of Lizzy herself. The scene is brilliant for what Elizabeth has to do to counter or reject Lady Catherine’s descriptions and find different descriptions, and she comes out in the end seeing herself as quite able to marry Darcy after all.
Now then: Wittgenstein. What follows is probably a bit of a stretch—I am no scholar of Wittgenstein—but in the hope that most of you don’t know Wittgenstein much better than I do, I’m going to risk some probably ill-advised appropriation of his ideas. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations takes up a very similar notion of description and he sees it as even more central to human activity than does Austen. The mode of Wittgenstein’s investigations is partly justified by his concern not primarily with giving the right or correct description of whatever is his subject (language and how we use it to do all sorts of things, mostly) but with rightly seeing the object of description and understanding the description relative to the whole object. The problem is that human beings often give adequate descriptions while being mistaken or lazy about what they actually describe. By way of an example, this comes out in Austen when Catherine claims that Elizabeth would be shamed if she married Darcy, and Elizabeth’s response isn’t that, no, she wouldn’t be; instead, she responds that that description might very well be true, but it’s only a description of her relative to other snobby high-society folks, not a description of her relative to Darcy, thank you very much. If her relationship with Darcy is good—if he love and respect her—it doesn’t matter what society thinks and so Catherine’s description doesn’t matter. Wittgenstein sums up part of the Augenstein Factor: “And one has to say this in many cases where the question arises ‘Is this an appropriate description or not?’ The answer is: ‘Yes, it is appropriate, but only for this narrowly circumscribed region, not for the whole of what you were claiming to describe.’” My working thesis is that the great stumbling block on the narrow path to meaningfulness is my tendency to take the narrowly circumscribed region that I see for the whole, and to content myself with inadequate descriptions of that thing.
(It occurs to me here that I’ve given pretty much no justification for this tiresome discussion, and none of you really ought to have read even this far. Should that stop me? Probably. Will it? Alas! probably not.)
To clarify why I’ve put you through this and what it has to do with meaning, I’m going to invoke a third author. Despite this addition, I will not modify the name Augenstein Factor, because Augensteindoch just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Iris Murdoch has a fascinating little book on moral philosophy in which she sets up the idea that fundamental moral good is bound up with the idea of attention, attending to things properly. Human moral activity looks like devoted, diligent, painstaking attention to individuals (among other things) to see them properly: i.e. describe them properly, if I’m not playing my cards too early. Think of the stereotypical husband who, ten years into the marriage, describes as annoying, pestersome, grating, etc. all the things that most endeared his spouse to him on their honeymoon. These aren’t trivial descriptions. He has become the kind of person who sees these things in this way, and he sees his wife as the kind of person who has these bad traits or habits. Failure to attend properly, to describe properly, and to limit those descriptions to their actual subject is really, really important. The last part is important, I think, because you can imagine saying “X is an angry person” as a negative judgment which purports to be a claim about the whole person; but if X were not always an angry person, or were maybe only sometimes an angry person (when, for example, thinking about the current political state and the totally outrageous but apparently unstoppable moral self-destruction of our culture) and otherwise X is a gentle, self-less, etc. etc. kind of person, then while the simpler description may not be entirely wrong, it’s only a partial and dangerously incomplete one. We have to delimit our descriptions to the proper object and found them in faithful, diligent, actually surprisingly difficult attention to anything, whether it be X, or my wife, or my children, or my students, or whatever.
Here it will come out that all this has been a tedious setup to say basically what others already said [in the discussion group] much more nicely about finding meaning in relationships and some of the difficulties which there inhere. I often experienced an effect in poems and novels and songs where they name or manifest something that I recognize but never knew that I knew, something that I never had a name or a concept for. The Augenstein Factor is like that for me. Whenever I get this right—whenever I stave off the hasty, uncharitable, incomplete, misdirected descriptions of the things that matter (e.g. God, my family, myself, good books, art, the world around me, etc.), whenever I manage to attend to those things faithfully and struggle to find the right descriptions of them (a thing very, very hard to do)—I get the closest I can to something like a sense of meaningfulness, a sense of rightness. Austen implies and Wittgenstein and Murdoch make explicit that pretty much everything about ourselves, other people, and this universe generally interferes with us getting those descriptions right and getting them right about the right things. I am selfish and impatient; I can barely see myself with any clarity (and what I see scares and confuses me), much the less can I rightly see anything or anyone else. This is perhaps the moral equivalent of that funny thing our brains often do with our vision when we think we’re seeing our surroundings but it turns out most of it is interpolated, filled in by our brain so that it doesn’t have to work as hard actually to see. And, gosh, it is grueling work attending to a four year old, seeing her mind for the shocking, awe-inspiring, clever, and cruelly snarky thing it is when I’m tired, I’ve been at work all day, every single item in the cupboard has been strewn across the floor, I just stepped on a lego, and all I want to do is drink whisky and doze off. This is such a stereotypical problem because it seems to me to be a pretty universal problem. I can at least aver that it’s my own problem.
So, it’s hard: but when I get it right, it is everything. The Augenstein Factor manifested looks like human relationships, really knowing someone; it looks like understanding art and literature (or at least beginning to; it’s a lot like a relationship, actually); it looks like true religion, neither platitudes about God nor shallow systematics to box him in (again, this is also a lot like a relationship, if that word in this context could ever be redeemed from its use by evangelicals).
Another paper! This one explicates Gerard Manley Hopkins’s (unconventional) sonnet “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” and particularly argues that the poem depicts the approach of the Final Judgment. I’m content with this paper and, at the least, enjoyed the close reading of such a difficult poem. My only real regret is the dearth of footnotes. I include the poem below and would strongly encourage any to read the poem through carefully a few times.
Gerard Hopkins’s “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”
Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, | vaulty, voluminous, . . . stupendousEvening strains to be time’s vást, | womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, | her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the heightWaste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, | stárs principal, overbend us,Fíre-féaturing heaven. For earth | her being has unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; | self ín self steepèd and páshed – quiteDisremembering, dísmémbering, | áll now. Heart, you round me rightWith: Óur évening is over us; óur night | whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish | damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! | Lét life, wáned, ah lét life windOff hér once skéined stained véined varíety | upon áll on twó spools; párt, pen, páckNow her áll in twó flocks, twó folds – black, white; | right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mindBut thése two; wáre of a wórld where bút these | twó tell, each off the óther; of a rackWhere, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, | thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.
Be Beginning to End: Ending and Judgment in Hopkins’s “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”
“Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” is a meditation on ends and ending. The close of day propels the poet toward the thought of the very end of all mortal things, the Day of Judgment. The central image of evening in balance between day and night embodies the poem’s tension between the present endings and their final conclusion. This poem works in that tension between the now and not-yet, between a tale and an oracle; Hopkins not only foretells what will end but what is now always ending. The poem serves as a call for himself and his reader to participate in that process: to be beginning to end.
The octave presents the literal image of evening that provides the foundation for the whole poem. The poet looks out at a fading day and describes the frustration of his senses as all things diminish from their sunlit hues to flat greyscale. The poem opens with a lengthy catalogue of epithets that delay evening until the second line; these adjectives build suspense that peaks in the pause before the poet finally settles on stupendous to characterize this evening. There is something of a shock as evening finally gives these modifiers a context. Hopkins shapes an evening here that is first earnest: it has agency; it strains with intensity and seriousness towards night. It is a thing apart from and above the speaker. It is itself in balance between light and dark—the evening is the cusp—and it is able to bring all things into balance, into harmony. After the caesura, vaulty hints at the noun that will come: it captures the arch of the sky over the poet. It is voluminous: not merely large, but literally able to fill volumes of poetry. Yet the evening is clearly incommunicable for the poet slips into an ellipsis that marks a pause and denotes something missing: the volumes unsaid that would clarify this evening so vast and beyond the reaches of the poem. Finally Hopkins settles on stupendous, with its implications of immensity and some of the original Latin’s force of stunning and astounding. This foreshadows the straining of evening to encompass all and become the night that will “whélm” the poet at the close of the octave (8).
When the long-delayed “stupendous / Evening” finally comes, it contextualizes the speaker beneath the sky at the close of the day. The evening is not yet but strains to become night, and the stupendous evening is more cosmic by reaching towards not merely the earth’s night but the vast night of time in two senses at play with each other: this striven-for night belongs to time and yet encompasses time, reaching to be its womb, home, and hearse. This language initiates the apocalyptic implications that will unravel in the sestet, and there are significant echoes of scriptural language from the book of Revelation where God declares himself “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end . . . who is, and who was, and who is to come” (Douay-Rheims, Rev. 1.8). Here, though, the night is pointedly not yet upon Hopkins, and it is important not to let hearse overpower womb and home. While there looms a death, another birth and life likewise remain.
The “fond yellow hornlight wound to the west” (3) is of course the sun that has slipped beneath the horizon pictured as the cloudy light through the horn pane of a lantern, and Hopkins imbues it with all the warmth and familiarity of fond. It is hard not to recall the “last lights off the black West” of “God’s Grandeur” (11), but “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” withholds the promise of an imminent dawn. This warm but vanishing light is balanced above the speaker by the “wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height” (3). This is the pale, blank light of the fading day, not yet the darkened night sky. It is a vast blankness, empty and grey. Hoar further implies an ancientness. This scene is jarred by the verb isolated on the next line: “Waste” (4). These last bastions of day are spending, exhausting themselves and fading into the annihilation of night. With all its implications—of barrenness, wild ruin, and decay—this verb aggressively prepares for the confusion to come. Peter Milward’s otherwise sensitive and insightful commentary on “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” at this point goes astray. He insists rightly that the term emphasizes the sense that “all is but a vast and empty desert” in the gloam, but he then argues that it must be taken as an adjectival description; to take it as a verb “immeasurably weakens its force”, he argues (87). But waste as a modifier would leave this no sentence but a fragment with little sense and less force. It is precisely because this vestige of day is actively, presently wasting that the poet is spurred on to the despondency of the second half of the octave. The action of this poem is the process of ending, and the verb here complements and reiterates that movement.
The night’s way is prepared by the first stars that appear above the poet. These stars are “earliest” (4) at least in appearance on this particularly evening, but perhaps in creation as well. They are “earlstars, | stars principal” (4), stars personified as leaders and nobility, chief among stars. This “Fíre-féaturing heaven” that “overbend[s]” the world is peopled (4-5); principal connects these beings with the angelic principalities. The poet is small beneath these stars that bend over, looking down upon him as if in judgment. That playfulness of Hopkins’s earlier poem “The Starlight Night” is absent here: this evening is sparer than that other night’s “fire-folk sitting in the air” (2). Hopkins likely had in mind the role of stars in Revelation and their close connection to the judgment of God. There, the Apostle John sees omens of the day of “the wrath of the Lamb” when “the sun became black as sackcloth of hair” and “the stars from heaven fell upon the earth” (Rev. 6.12-13, 16). Hopkins’s stars are not yet falling, but they draw ever nearer to the earth with a fiery countenance.
These stars approach and overbend in judgment because, Hopkins tells us, “earth | her being has unbound” (5): confusion reigns below; the poet’s sight is confounded in the gloaming; the earth’s pied beauty is flattened into silver-grey. All things are “as- / tray”, and the line-break severs the very word (5-6). Hopkins turns from the confusion of the natural world to human nature: self, the distinguishing, identifying particularity of a thing, is turned inward, violently dislocating itself from all things and forgetting them. Echoes from Hopkins’s comments on the Spiritual Exercises inform this language: there he speaks of the fall of Lucifer as a turning away from God, an “instressing of his own inscape”; Lucifer raised his own hymn of selfpraise against Christ’s call to praise God “which indeed was a call into being”; Satan’s hymn is joined by other angels becoming “a counterpoint of dissonance and not of harmony” (Sermons 200-201). The poem here also bears echoes of Hopkins’s comment that, in death, “all that energy or instress with which the soul animates and otherwise acts in the body is . . . thrown back upon the soul itself” (Sermons 137). Such moral dissonance, the separation from God, works on the language of “self ín self steeped” and all things “throughther, in throngs” (6).
The structure of rhyme in this octave proffers a counter-voice to the discord and confusion that Hopkins mourns. Even the same violence exemplified by the severing of “as- / tray”, allows for the elaborate rhyme that ties “end, as-” back to the “stupendous / Evening” and the more orderly stars that “overbend us”; the rhyme clings and lingers even when the poet says his night “will end us” in the last line of the octave. Hopkins is able to instress a structure that persists within the chaos of the evening that he sees before him, and this more hopeful seed will flourish in the orderly division of all things in the sestet.
Hopkins’s heart, he says, sees something of that structure and rounds on him. The primary sense of round is to whisper, and it is a whisper that Hopkins affirms is “right” (7). The OED notes the sense of to open or widen the eyes (“round v.2”), and here the poet’s heart is widening his view so that it encompasses not only this particular, literal night, but the world’s last night, the end of all things, that brings with it God’s final judgment. Hopkins marked stresses on both ours, and the effect is to separate him from the chaos of the evening before him, his evening from this particular, literal evening, and the coming night from his all-encompassing night which “whélms, whélms, ánd will end us” (8). The end of day then becomes a picture of the end of all things; the confusion of literal sight and its reduction to monotone shades pictures the moral blindness and the division of all things into black or white that will come to the forefront in the poem’s conclusion.
The “Only” that opens the sestet presents a forceful opposition to all the chaos and confusion of the octave: Hopkins calls himself and us to attend this singular thing. It is also an only of exception: but for this one thing he would patiently await the oncoming night. What demands this attention and exception is a tree that Hopkins sees silhouetting the twilit silver of the sky. Its boughs are “dragonish”, and the poet emphasizes that they are “black, / Ever so black” against the “bleak light” of the sky (9-10). That these boughs are dragonish places them in a distinctly ominous light and reifies the connection to Lucifer discussed above. In those same notes on the fall of Lucifer, Hopkins observes the dragon to be “a type of the Devil to express the universality of his powers” and a symbol of “one who aiming at every perfection ends by being a monster, a ‘fright’” (Sermons 199). These boughs, then, are of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which Satan “[s]elf-trellises” in “The dark-out Lucifer” (2). That tree and the eating of its fruit by Adam and Eve is, in Christian thought, the font of original sin that cuts mankind off from God. Hopkins likewise wrote of the constellation Draco, the sign in the heavens which he takes to represent Satan’s attempt “to possess himself of the sovereignty of things, taking . . . the culmination of the firmament towards the pole, as a throne and post of vantage and so wreathing nature and as it were constricting it to his purposes (as also he wreathed himself in the Garden round the Tree of Knowledge)” (Sermons 198). In Hopkins’s thought, the dragon, Satan, and the Tree are closely intertwined; the devil’s rebellion spans time from before the world’s creation to the Day of Judgment. Here, it interposes itself between the speaker, who stands in the evening on the darkling earth, and the bleak but still illuminating pale light of the firmament. As this light becomes associated with the white and right of the poem’s close, it stands here for God.
Comments from Hopkins’s meditation on Hell further elucidate this image of boughs blotting out the grey light. These damasking branches mirror the effect of what he calls “scapes”, artifacts of thoughts and actions that are the source of the suffering of those in Hell; he says, “Our action leaves in our minds scapes or species, the extreme ‘intention’ or instressing of which would be painful and the pain would be that of fire” (Sermons 136). Pivotal to his idea is that, as creatures of God, we are directed and so strain towards Him; for the fallen, the scapes of sinful actions interpose themselves between us and God and so blot Him out and painfully rebound.
But this constraint and this blindness or darkness will be most painful when it is the main stress or energy of the whole being that is thus balked. This is its strain or tendency towards being, towards good, towards God—being, that is / their own more or continued being, good / their own good, their natural felicity, and God . . . . The one stress or strain then encountered and clashed with the other; for instance the will addressed, ‘at forepitch’, towards beatitude, happiness, in God, with its own act of aversion, with the scape or species, indurated in it, of the act by which it turned aside; the understanding open wide like an eye, towards truth in God, towards light, is confronted by that scape, that act of its own, which blotted out God and so put blackness in the place of light; does not see God but sees that . . . . (Sermons 138-9)
As the poet’s heart rounds him and his vision is widened to see this soon-to-whelm night, he recognizes these scapes of sin that separate him from his God. Hopkins of course is not in Hell, where the lost see nothing but these scapes, but he is an inheritor of the Fall and so must wrestle with his own sin. This same analogy between himself and the lost is present in “I wake and feel” where he says, “I see / The lost are like this, and their scourge to be / As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse” (12-14). The scourge of the lost is utterly to be themselves, to fully realize and perpetually instress their own sin. They are worse off than the poet: he is not cut off from God utterly: the light, though bleak, is not wholly blocked by these dragonish boughs.
This is not merely the poet’s own struggle: the Fall is of all mankind, and these dragonish boughs darken the vision of each man, woman, and child. That it is a general experience will be affirmed by the close connection to the biblical judgment of all mankind in the next few lines of the sestet. In an earlier poem, “The times are nightfall”, Hopkins calls on his readers to deal with their sin. The setting and language of that poem are strikingly similar to “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”: “The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less; / The times are winter, watch, a world undone” (1-2). In the midst of this undone world, Hopkins calls his reader to turn to “your world within. / There rid the dragons, root out there the sin” (9-10). This is “Óur tale”, the story of all mankind since the Fall begat original sin. The metrical stress on our makes this tale parallel to “Óur évening” at the close of the sestet. This tale then is of life’s evening when we see as in a glass darkly but with vision enough to distinguish these dragons and begin to end them, to root them out.
Likewise, “óur oracle” corresponds to “óur night”, and it is to this oracle, this prophecy, of the end of things that the poet turns in the concluding lines of the poem. This oracle is spelled out by the leaves that damask the sky, and it is from this image that the poem draws its name. These are the oracles of the Sibyl, scattered to the wind. The closest allusion is to the Dies Irae, the hymn of the day of God’s wrath and judgment. There, the Sibyl is paired with the biblical King David as those who sang of the day when God will judge the quick and the dead, when all hidden things will be revealed. Coupled with the explicit reference to Christ’s own words about his return and his subsequent judgment in the next several lines, this squarely places the sestet in the setting of the biblical apocalypse where all are separated based on their relationship and obedience to God. This oracle looks forward to something far more encompassing than the night of “The times are nightfall”; in that day, the time for rooting out sin will be past, and naught will remain but to join the world in being judged.
The poet calls on his own heart to allow life—now wound down and faded with the sunlight to the West—to unravel, as one would yarn, all of its dappled “variety” according to its general color: black or white. What of life has hitherto been bundled up together in the poet’s actions and heart, he calls to be separated out on two spools. This consummates the octave’s image of twilight: in the last vestiges of light, the particular shapes and shades of a thing are indiscernible; what can be made out is merely a thing’s barest shape, its barest reality. It is or is not: has being or is not-being. Here that being is toward God, or it is the blackness of not-being, privation, away from Him. This variety being divided is also, given its biblical background, people: souls pitched toward or away from God. The whole passage depends on that binary opposition: either/or—one spool or the other—with nothing outside or in between. Hopkins calls for Christ’s words to be fulfilled: “He that is not with me, is against me; and he that gathereth not with me, scattereth” (Luke 11.23). He again calls on himself to participate in this, to be an agent of the Judge: “párt, pen, páck” all into “twó flocks, twó folds—black, white; | right, wrong” (11-12). The language drawn from shepherding is rampant throughout scripture, and it ties the sestet back to all things “astray” in the octave. These flocks then are primarily people and secondarily the activities that move the agent either toward or away from God. The good and bad actions of a person are intimately bound up with their being, their self, and are definitive of their relationship to God and their eternal existence. Hopkins wrote,
God is good and the stamp, seal, or instress he sets on each scape is of right, good, or of bad, wrong. Now the sinner who has preferred his own good, as revenge, drunkenness, to God’s good, true good, and God, has that evil between him and God, by his attachment to which and God’s rejection of it he is carried and swept away to an infinite distance from God; and the stress and strain of his removal is his eternity of punishment. (Sermons 139)
The tension between moral good and evil plays out in the rhythm. The two sets—“bláck, white” and “ríght, wrong” are each metrical feet, and both black and right have stresses marked. White and wrong do not easily take a slack, however, and the rhyme between white and right invites a weight there that black and wrong lack. It is fitting that this tension in the rhythm exists here for in dividing up souls, actions, and things in this manner, both the pied beauty of things and the variety that is a valuable good are sacrificed for that ultimate division between right and wrong, yes and no.
Again, this separation of things is both a tale and an oracle: now and not-yet. Now, the speaker may labor to divide the actions in his own life, his own heart. He may engage in the ending, the winding down of things and begin, in small, to separate his chaff from his wheat. The language of shepherding is particularly apposite given Hopkins’s responsibilities as a pastor, shepherding the flock of Christians. From these sheep comes the wool and yarn that provide the metaphor in the sestet. The oracle presages a day to come: that final day about which Christ spoke “when the Son of man shall come in his majesty . . . . And all nations shall be gathered together before him, and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left” (Matt. 25.31-33). Christ gave the terrible warning that for those who failed to do justice or charity to the least among mankind, there waits the “everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” (25.41). This is the primary sense of the close of the poem. Hopkins calls himself to let all things—him included—be separated in this manner, to resist the chaotic blending and confusion of the octave, the ramifying effects of the Fall. The night that will end him brings with it the final division, when he and all things will be separated to or against God.
That dreadful end appears vividly to the poet who, in his meditation on Hell, sought to “see with the eyes of the imagination the length, breadth and depth of hell” and experience “an interior sense of pain which the lost suffer, so that if I should through my faults forget the love of the Eternal Lord, at least the fear of punishment may help me not to fall into sin” (Sermons 135-36). In this exercise, he aimed to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the suffering of those in Hell. The reality of his imagination permeates the meditation, and it inspires the warning to heed nothing in life but these two flocks: “reckon but, reck but, mind / But thése two” (12-13). This warning is threefold: to measure out or count out all into these two, to heed and to concern oneself with only these two, and to take thought after or to hold in the mind only these two. The significant semantic overlap between these terms enforces the seriousness behind the poet’s call. He continues to admonish himself and his reader both to beware and to be aware of the world of the Day of Judgment where these two flocks will “tell, each off the óther”—that is, where they will count off of the other: an addition to one is a detraction from the other (13). Every son and daughter of Adam will be reckoned up in one of these two flocks: the poet’s somber warning is to heed which flock it is that we stray towards.
Ware takes a second direct object: a rack. The rack consummates the rhymes begun by pack and black, and the consonantal violence of reckon and reck; it pointedly puns on wrack. Here Hopkins shows us the ruin of the lost. On this rack are thoughts: the thoughts wring themselves, tortured by the instressing of the scapes of their own sin; they string themselves by their own aversion from God and even constitute the rack on which their selfishness strings them; they are disembodied, unable to find shelter, unable to escape their selves. Like Milton’s Satan and Hopkins’s own Caradoc, they and their actions are themselves their Hell. Hopkins wrote that “in man all that energy or instress with which the soul animates and otherwise acts in the body is by death thrown back upon the soul itself”, and here that violence grinds them (Sermons 137). This is the final equivalent to the octave’s earlier “self ín self steeped and páshed—qúite / Disremembering, dismembering | áll now” (6-7). On this rack, we are shown the lost synecdochically as thoughts: from a whole person the body is torn away, and the spirit is reduced to only the thoughts that are its torture, its godlessness. The blending of spiritual and physical in the thoughts which “agaínst thoughts ín groans grind” (14) is characteristic of Hopkins’s view of Hell where the lost suffer sensibly through the “intellectual imagination” (Sermons 136). The instressing of themselves—their own sin—is their rack. For those who say no to God, who strive after the black and the wrong, this end realizes fully their disobedience. With this dreadful warning of what end awaits the lost in that final day, the poet concludes the sonnet.
Hopkins introduced his meditation on Hell by noting all the different classes among the lost, and he states his intent to make “a Colloquy with Christ our Lord . . . therewith to give Him thanks because He has not permitted me to fall into any of these classes by putting an end to my life” (Sermons 136). In light of the inextricable relationship between the language and imagery of “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” and this meditation, it is important to emphasize with Hopkins the sharp divide he draws between himself and the lost. As wholly as he enters imaginatively into the experience of that place, he is not of it and does not remain there. It rightly spurs him on to holiness as it never does for the truly lost. For all the spiritual struggles that his darker sonnets convey, Hopkins does not abandon himself to Hell. Unfortunately, some critics have proven all too ready to read Hopkins as the primary victim of the rack in the last two lines of this poem. While thoughtful in his analysis, Raymond V. Schoder reads the poem so and therefore misses the thrust of the eschatological language. Schoder sees in the close of this sonnet a poet who, in response to the whelming night, “must no longer fear or struggle against this darkness in his mind and soul. Rather he must understand and accept it, even welcome it as an implicit promise of a coming, however distant, dawn” (645). The final rack is “of his own bitter meditations” that he is wrung upon willingly, argues Schoder (645). The poem resists such a reading. The black (actually of the boughs silhouetting the pale evening, not of the night) is a moral darkness, against which Hopkins would certainly continue to struggle. And, again, the rack is so closely connected to Hopkins’s thoughts on Hell that it seems beyond belief to think that he would consider himself truly stretched upon it. In context, the rack exists first in an oracle; it is not a present, personal torment that he here describes.
I join Robert Boyle, contra Schoder, in finding “no ring whatever of relief, patience, or resignation” in these concluding lines (141). Boyle helpfully and respectfully corrects some of Schoder’s interpretation where it goes astray, but, like Schoder, he reduces the eschatological force of the sestet and finds Hopkins presently on the rack: “He strings himself,” says Boyle, “to resist that torture, that wringing, which he himself inflicts on himself” (142). The earth unbounding her being and falling into darkness is not a normal law of the spiritual life and so not a model for Hopkins, as Schoder argues: Boyle takes it to be precisely that falling into night that Hopkins must resist so terribly and painfully. He must fight the “advance of self-induced darkness, hanging on to what is left of day” (142); his “thoughts would not grind together in his heart if he would loosen the tension . . . if he would relax into being a rebellious or disloyal man . . . and give up reaching for a share in God’s life” (143). This unfortunately misconstrues the pivotal difference between the night of the octave that will end us, and the blackness of the dragonish boughs in the sestet that blot but have no clear movement within the poem: they do not whelm as does the night. The poet’s statement (with the definite modal auxiliary will) does not seem to leave room for the resistance to the night that Boyle finds, and there is little room to wiggle in the poet’s clear and firm assertion of what night will bring: conclusion and judgment. Nor does such a reading easily make sense of the sestet as an oracle of that future world which informs the central emotion of this passage. Where Boyle wants to read only a present reality in this image, the poet looks at the future spelt upon these leaves. It is precisely the consummation of all things that are presently ending that is so arresting about this final world and this rack.
“Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” depicts endings: the end of day and dapple that draws Hopkins’s thoughts to the final end of all mortal things. Not merely descriptive, the poet calls himself and his reader to be beginning to end, to engage in that divisive process of all things towards or away from God. It is this ultimate end that the poet instresses in the strain of evening towards night, in the confusion of all things in the growing darkness, and in the scapes of his own and of all mankind’s sin that stand between us and God. The eschatological language is primary in this poem and so must be read as central to interpret rightly. However conclusive, the poet does not despair for this ever ending world but spurs himself and his readers to end rightly, to divide up all things, and await in readiness the end that will come like a thief in the night.
Boyle, Robert. Metaphor in Hopkins: “That Small Commonweal”. Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina, 1961. Print.
Douay-Rheims Bible. Ed. Richard Challoner. 1752. Sacred-texts.com. Web. 2 December 2015.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ed.
Christopher Devlin, S.J.. New York: Oxford, 1959. Print.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Major Works. Ed. Catherine Phillips. New York: Oxford,
—. “God’s Grandeur”. 128.
—. “No Worst”. 167.
—. “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”. 175.
—. “The dark-out Lucifer”. 129.
—. “The times are nightfall”. 161.
Milward, Peter. Landscape and Inscape: “Wild Hollow Hoarlight”. Grand Rapids: William B
Eerdmans, 1975. Print.
“round, v.2.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 25 November 2015.
Schoder, Raymond V. “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”. Thought 19 (1944): 633-648. Print.
“stŭpĕo”. Simpson, D. P. Cassell’s Latin Dictionary: Latin-English, English-Latin. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1977. 146. Print
 From stupendus, the gerund form of stupēre, “to be stunned, struck senseless” (“stŭpĕo”).
In late August I began attending classes at the University of Dallas in pursuit of my M.A. in English. I’m enrolled in two classes: one studying the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins particularly in a philosophical and theological context, and one studying The Dunciad of Alexander Pope as an introduction to literary study at the graduate level. I present here a polished draft of my first work on Hopkins. Instead of explicating one of his earlier (and less interesting) poems, I begged leave to write on “God’s Grandeur”. As it turns out, there is far more to be said about this poem than one such as myself can express in twenty-five hundred words, but I’m not wholly dissatisfied with where the essay stands currently.
For any reader’s convenience, I post the poem here in its entirety:
“God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
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 oilCrushed. 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 soilIs 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 wentOh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —Because the Holy Ghost over the bentWorld broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
God of Grandeur, Rod, and Wing: A Reading of Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur”
The central movement of Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” begins from a meditation on the grandeur of God throughout the world (lines 1-4) which spurs the question of mankind’s disregard of it; man’s depravity (lines 5-8) presents a problem that in turn elicits a sort of theodicy of God’s grandeur from the speaker (lines 9-14). The speaker’s answer is that despite man’s harm of the world, nature is “never spent” (9); the “freshness” (10) of nature is upheld, for Hopkins, by the mediative hovering-over of the Holy Ghost. The central conflict or issue—“Why do men then now not reck his rod?” (5)—is pressed upon the speaker in response to the opening exploration of the suffusion of nature with God’s grandeur: “The world is charged with the Grandeur of God” (1). Despite its digression into mankind’s disobedience, the poem foremost seeks to illuminate God-as-Trinity manifest in the world, demanding praise and obedience from man.
The language in the first four lines conveys grandeur in suspense; it is not static—the language is energetic and vital—but “charged” (1) implies readiness for a thing yet unrealized: it “will flame out” (2; emphasis mine) in the future. This grandeur is in the process of “gather[ing] to a greatness” (3). The “shining from shook foil” (2) Hopkins himself glosses in a letter as of “[s]haken goldfoil” which “gives off broad glares like sheet lightning” (qtd. in Hopkins 347); this image pictures a radiance that belies the size of the foil. The next image invokes the oil from a pressed olive that moves toward itself and collects together (lines 3-4). The poet here develops the image of God’s grandeur as it charges the world, but it has a deeper Christological sense discussed below. These similes relate God’s grandeur to particular, familiar things and in so doing concretely instantiate that grandeur which otherwise could be received abstractly and lifelessly by the audience. Alliteration ties together each set of thing and thing expressed: “grandeur” and “God”; “flaming” and “foil”; “shining” and “shook”; “ooze” and “oil” (lines 1-3). This not only binds these words together for the hearer, but it hints at a closer union of the things (foil, olive) with the things that flash forth (shining, oil) just as God becomes identified with his expressions of grandeur in the world by the poem’s close.
The speaker’s immediate response to the grandeur of God is to ask then why men fail to “reck his rod” (5). At the back of this response is the tacit assumption that God’s expression of himself in the world places a moral demand on mankind for a right response, a response which the speaker asserts mankind does not make. This moral overtone resounds through the rest of the octave. The language here is interesting: to reck is “to heed” and to respond with “desire, or favour” towards a thing (“reck”). What mankind fails to heed is God’s rod, made parallel to God, in line one, by the end-rhyme scheme. That it should be his rod is perhaps not immediately clear. The word is deeply rooted in the Bible, and the manifold semantic echoes of the word would certainly have been familiar to Hopkins. A rod in Scripture can be one of discipline, and of guidance; but significantly for this poem, the word is closely bound up with Christ: the Messiah is referred to as the “rod out of the stem of Jesse” (King James Version, Is. 11.1). The association of the rod with Christ is tightened by what the OED calls a “formal and semantic overlap” with the archaic rood, the Cross (“rod”). Brought to bear, this implies that (part of) the recklessness of man is that he does not see Christ crucified in the grandeur of God revealed in the world. This identification of Christ with the grandeur of God may elucidate the image of God’s grandeur gathering “like the ooze of oil / Crushed”: echoing the language of key messianic passages (e.g. Is. 53.10 in the English Standard Version: “It was the will of the Lord to crush him”), the olive crushed for oil reflects the suffering undertaken by Christ so that grace might abound. In this light, the grandeur of God involves the Father and the Son in these opening lines; as the poem unfolds in the sestet, it involves the Spirit as well.
The fourth line has presented man’s failing, and the second quatrain (lines 5-8) elaborates and explains it, giving both cause and effect of mankind’s recklessness. The upshot of this passage is that mankind’s failure is both a willful blinding of self to the world and a veiling of the world by violent suppression. For “generations” men “have trod, have trod, have trod”, the stomping repetition of which hammers home the willful crushing (5). The grandeur of the world is physically underfoot, unheeded by man. There is perhaps another remote echo back to the “rod” of line four which, in a number of British dialects, is road (“rod”): man is blind to the thing he walks upon, his very foundation.
This self-blindness affects the world: it becomes “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil” (6). Seared hints at a cauterization of sorts which the heedless treading of man has effected. Throughout this passage are glances to Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us” in which through “getting and spending” we “lay waste our power” to “see in Nature what is ours” (lines 2, 3); Hopkins responds to this in the sestet when he asserts in like language that, in spite of all that man has done, the world will never be exhausted of God’s grandeur: “nature is never spent” (9; emphasis mine). But for Hopkins, the blindness of man clearly harms the world: nature is marred and masked with “man’s smudge” and “smell”, and the “soil / Is bare” (7-8). There is an environmental concern here which Hopkins held in common with the Romantics in the face of the devastation of the Industrial Revolution, and he deals with the theme elsewhere in his poetry; yet there is a more central moral and epistemological concern, for though the soil is bare, man cannot even feel that for “being shod” (8). We have smothered the world and cut ourselves off from it.
This assessment both of God revealed in the world and of mankind’s condition mirrors the meditation on God’s wrath from the first chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul there speaks of God’s “eternal power and Godhead” which are “clearly seen” in creation (KJV, Rom. 1.20). Paul continues that man, despite knowing God through creation, failed to honor him and so grew “vain in their imagination”, “their foolish heart was darkened”, and they “became fools” (Rom. 1.21-22). The world, as an active participant in manifesting God to man, likewise suffers because men “suppress” that truth (ESV, 1.18): Paul later says that the world “groaneth and travaileth in pain” (KJV, 8.22), eagerly awaiting its release from the “bondage of corruption” (8.21) brought on by mankind’s sin. In masking nature with our “smudge” and “smell”, we have, as Paul says, “changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man” (Rom. 1.23). These Pauline themes echo throughout “God’s Grandeur”, and, if nothing else, further emphasize man’s failure to see God’s grandeur in the world and characterize it as an explicitly moral issue; these parallels with Paul squarely place both God’s revelation and man’s heedlessness, as Hopkins characterizes them, into a traditional Christian context, identifying that grandeur with an explicit self-revelation of God, and identifying the failure of men to perceive it with the original sinfulness of man. In Hopkins’s own vocabulary, mankind in Paul’s understanding and in “God’s Grandeur” is guilty of a refusal to instress God as he reveals himself in the world.
While the octave closes with something of a grim assessment of man and his world, the speaker’s response is a sestet of theodicy. But the theodicy here for Hopkins has little in common with, for example, Alexander Pope’s reasoned vindication of God’s ways in The Essay on Man, and instead shares in the spontaneous praise of the Psalmist. Instead of defensiveness, the ninth line asserts his response with “And” rather than a conjunction to contrast or to refute: “And for all this, nature is never spent” (9). Despite man’s self-crippling and irreverent treading, nature is not a currency we could ever rid ourselves of, nor is its force to be exhausted. The poet celebrates a vital energy—the “dearest freshness deep down things” (10)—that remains unharmed by man. That it is “deep down” hearkens back to the notion of God’s grandeur-in-suspense early in the poem: the world yet remains “charged” with it. The alliterative d, the sharply monosyllabic “deep down things”, and the syntactic compression—eliding the preposition relating “down” to “things”—infuses the whole line with a quickness and an excitement. The effect is to sweep the reader along with the speaker’s enthusiasm away from man’s failure back to the speaker’s primary interest: the grandeur of God.
Following a semi-colon, the subsequent image is likewise introduced by the conjunction and, making lines eleven and twelve parallel to the celebration in lines nine and ten: both sections serve as the poet’s answer to the states of man and the world at the end of the octave. The image the poet here presents is of sunset and sunrise compressed into a moment: night masks the world in blackness, but “morning…springs” (12) at the horizon. The “black West” (11) is perpetually pushed back by the “brown brink eastward” (12) in the natural cycle of day and night as light chases darkness around the planet. The horizon is yet brown in this image for the sun has only begun to “flame out” (2); it is the “dearest freshness” which remains “deep down things” (10). The “brink” (12) here denotes more literally the edge of the ocean over which the sun rises but also carries close associations with the edge of a chasm and the grave (“brink”). It is over such an abyss that the glimmer of morning comes. That glimmer of light draws from the speaker a visceral “Oh” of praise (12). The morning “springs” (12), which word is packed with connotations of life and energy, bearing the echoes of Spring’s green growth and of resurrection from Winter’s sleep. More, if I am right in earlier finding Christ crucified in the rod which men fail to recognize, it is fitting that there would here be a hint of the Easter of Christian thought—Christ raised, long associated with the Spring season—in the freshness that comes flashing out of the night. In this image, with all its Christian associations, the poem attempts to capture and communicate the rod which we ought to reckon with in nature. On one level of meaning, the poem serves an evangelical call to the reader to correct the mistakes of men: to see aright, to reck.
The poem spells out the meaning that underlies the natural event. What man ought to see is not merely the sunset itself but what lives “deep down” within it, invigorating it. The morning which bursts forth forever new against the night is neither self-generated nor a brute fact of nature: as the closing lines make clear, it is precisely “because the Holy Ghost . . . / . . . broods” over the “bent / World” with his “warm breast” and “bright wings” that the warmth and brightness of the sun can spring (13-14). Thus Hopkins ties together the central ideas of the poem: it becomes fully Trinitarian by invoking the Spirit alongside the crucified and risen Christ and the Father, with whose grandeur the poem begins. These closing lines further identify the Godhead with the expressions of himself in the world (though not exhaustively so). That is, the Spirit’s breast and wings are manifest or incarnate in the sun; the sun pictures the freshness that remains within the world; that freshness is the grandeur of God. Though the world is “bent” (13), the Holy Spirit hovers above it, maintaining it and the presence of God within it, as a bird its egg. Because he hovers, it can never be spent, however blindly man tread, and tread, and tread, searing and smothering the good gifts of God.
The poem’s two closing lines are more ponderous than the earlier enthusiastic shock at the world’s freshness with which the sestet opens. The expressive “ah” (14) at the bright wings of the Holy Spirit reveals both a wonder and a relief. It is in this meditation on the Spirit that the poet rests, unharried by the wickedness of mankind. The lyrical moment has passed through the celebration of God in his grandeur expressed in the world and here comes to a calm in the thing expressed: God himself.
* * *
 This does not imply that the grandeur of God is hidden or invisible: it does not alleviate mankind’s responsibility to apprehend and assent to it in the mind of the poet, for it is precisely this assertion of a world charged with God’s grandeur that underlies and spurs on the subsequent discussion of man’s failure.
 E.g. Isaiah 10.5: “…the rod of mine anger” (KJV).
 E.g. Psalm 23.4: “…thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”.
 The Latin Vulgate has conterere (Vulgata Clementina, Is. 53.10), defined in Cassell’s Latin Dictionary as to “grind” or “pound”, and includes the sense of “to trample under foot” (“contero”).
 The idea here has an analogue in the Christocentric language of Hopkins’s “The Windhover” with its “blue-bleak embers” that “fall, gáll themselves” and “gásh góld-vermíllion” (13-14). “The Windhover” as a whole serves as a concrete example of the way that Hopkins seeks rightly to “reck” God in the world.
 See “Binsey Poplars” in particular.
 Christ is notably called “the bright and morning star” in the Book of Revelation (KJV, 22.16). Hopkins’s poetic invention is here again, in this image of the sunrise, squarely rooted in biblical language used to speak about the Father and Christ. Consider Psalm 30.5: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning”, and Lamentations 3.22-23: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning”. That newness each morning informs Hopkins’s freshness. Closest of all to Hopkins’s thought here is Psalm 19 in which the Psalmist, after announcing that God is proclaimed throughout the world in his creation, particularly highlights the sun like “a bridegroom coming out of his chamber” that “rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race” (19.5). Just as the grandeur of God stirs Hopkins to address man’s responsibility and failure, the Psalmist, on the heels of this celebration of the sun as a manifestation of the glory of God, turns his song to the law of the Lord and a prayer to be kept from breaking it.
* * *
Holy Bible, The. English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway, 2007. Print.
Holy Bible, The. Authorized King James Version. Nashville: Holman, 1979. Print.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Major Works. Ed. Catherine Phillips. New York: Oxford, 2009. Print.
—. “God’s Grandeur”. 128.
—. “The Windhover”. 132.
“reck, v.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 22 September 2015.
“rod, n.1.” OED Online. —.
Simpson, D. P. “Contero.” Cassell’s Latin Dictionary: Latin-English, English-Latin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1977. 146. Print.
Vulgata Clementina. 2006. Web. 22. September 2015. <http://vulsearch.sourceforge.net/html/index.html>.
[Edit 9/25/15: I’ve updated this with a few modifications.]
“In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.”
From Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet.
This image has pestered me for many a month: that glimpse at a life lived out, used up. Helen Vendler, in her careful and thoughtful work The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, characterizes this quatrain as capturing the notion that “one dies simply of having lived” as burns out the fire on itself. It is a valuable truth to recall that our finitude and our mortality are bound up with one another: we are always using ourselves up. This third image seems truer than the first two that the speaker has tried: first, of the autumn swept away by the cold (and lifeless) winter; second, of the gloaming eaten up by night, the “second self” of death. I feel foolishly young and vital to try even to speak on the specter of death; regardless, this final image seems a far more satisfying one. The speaker of the poem certainly seems to rest more contentedly on this particular image as a resolution to his pursuit of a satisfactory image for himself and his own life. Life must expire and be all consumed, but this is caused by no more fearful a thing than simply having lived, having glowed brightly for its time, given off its warmth and light—a defense against and rebuttal to the wintry night of the first eight lines—and finished itself.
I recently revisited Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” while still ruminating on this sonnet, and I found in Keats an interesting complement to it in the fanciful tale of a knight’s romance with a fey lover and the grief that follows. Here is the poem in its entirety:
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
The poem opens with a speaker addressing a knight “on a cold hill’s side”; this knight is “haggard”, “woebegone”, and pointedly marked with a sickness—”a fading rose” on his cheek perhaps not entirely different from the symptoms of consumption Keats experienced. We begin somewhere very near the wintry night of Shakespeare. Both poems at least share the implication of smothered life, and the rest of Keats’s poem bears out this tone. To relieve us from this bitter cold, though, the atmosphere is punctuated by the knight’s tale of his brief interaction with a “Lady in the Meads”, who is “beautiful” and “a faery’s child”. Unlike the frame narrative, the knight’s tale is full of life, beginning with the portrait of this lady; to it he adds “Garlands”, “fragrant Zone”, “roots of relish sweet”, “honey wild” and “manna dew”. The language is quick and vital, overflowing with a sort of eldritch wildness, abounding in life and growth. Of course we do not remain there: lulled to sleep, the knight dreams of a “death pale” crowd who warns of this elfin woman, the beautiful lady without pity or mercy, and the knight wakes from his sleep on the cold hill’s side where our frame narrative began. Framed by lifelessness on either end, this brief interruption proves tantalizing but deceptive and even deadly. In many ways, this whole poem seems, on first glance, to strike a note much like the opening of Shakespeare’s sonnet: life is closed bitterly and violently by an outside force.
But, as I’ve stated, I find Shakespeare’s rejection of that image and his substitution in the last quatrain far more fitting. Perhaps these poets simply differed; or perhaps Shakespeare recognized something that the younger Keats could not. I thought so, for a long while, but I come to see more in Keats’s poem that undermines my original assessment. I begin to see something that strikes me as quite profound, and a few critical works have helped justify my interpretation. Some of the foundation for this analysis is a view expressed by Keats that imagined beauty, which can sublimely raise one up out of the cares of this world, invariably leaves one despondent in its wake when that beauty has passed. This is coupled with a view of beauty as inextricable from truth—even equivalent to it as in the conclusion to “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—and both as essential to life. That movement of elevation and depression has a prominent parallel in the movement of the poem in question, so much so that I think it warrants evaluation in light of this paradigm.
Though I realize this is predominantly speculation, I find one can helpfully view the movement and tenor of the poem as an exemplification or illustration of that idea, manifested in a beautiful fairy tale of sorts. In this paradigm, this faery child becomes a picture for the sublime of the world, the beautiful; she is the transporting kind of beauty that strains at you, that absorbs your attention and energy and life in its pursuit; she is the kind of joy that, in Keats’s view, a poet ought to lose himself in to capture and show. But, of course, such things are fey and perilous by their very nature, and they cannot be held on to. Though the knight and elfin woman journey to this “elfin grot” where they whisper words of love and shut “wild wild eyes” with kisses, it does not and cannot last. The sublime cannot be sustained; life lives itself out. So, the knight is lulled to sleep, he dreams of those who have come before him only to be equally disappointed in the end, and he wakes on the cold hill’s side where our original speaker finds him palely loitering. I take, then, the dream revelation that “La belle dame sans merci / Hath thee in thrall” not as the unmasking of a villain or of a femme fatale but instead as the recognition of the nature of such perilous things to pass away; the knight, like the pale kings and princes before him, has drunk life to the lees and is left with an empty glass: he is finished. (Even if you do not quite take the description of the knight in the third stanza to intimate a mortal wound, he is at the very least sorely suffering because of this deprivation.)
I recognize a few issues with this interpretive framework: it relies on a number of external ideas without which my thoughts would be only tendentiously supported by the poem. I think it also fair to say that this kind of pseudo-allegory robs the characters of some of their nature: the knight becomes almost an Everyman, while the elfin woman become something far more abstract: the fantastic and sublime. That loss of concrete identity is a problem for my interpretation, and it is one I have not resolved satisfactorily yet. That said, those same external ideas reassuringly parallel what the poem reveals upon a closer reading, and I think the resulting interpretation demonstrates fewer problems than most others; the characters, too, are presented in such sparse detail that they almost necessitate abstraction in any analysis. In fact, I think this kind of interpretation (which would harm many poems) saves “La Belle Dame sans Merci” from some of its features which else would be failures. The story is not only sparse but obscure at points; the characters are in many ways weak on their own merits. If, however, they are not intended nor need to rest on their isolated features, if they ought to be read as more than they are, there is no failure or flaw in that presentation. My interpretation also makes sense of, and takes as heartfelt and serious, the lady’s inconsolable weeping and her sure words of love. If she knows that she, by her very nature, will leave this knight despondent, of course she weeps. Regardless, I think there may be a worthwhile nugget in all of this analysis. If it is not of Keats or his poem, I think it is worth pondering nonetheless.
These rabbit trails all comes back around to Shakespeare’s sonnet. We die of living, but that does not rob life of its worth; in fact it makes the life lived a matter of the most pressing importance. I would, as it were, like to glow rather than putter out in a heap of ash. I would like to chase after those moments of truth and beauty, even though they can be difficult to bear, even though they can be utterly exhausting. The most valuable of things—the true and the beautiful and the joyous—demand and warrant a price, but it need not be one handed over reluctantly or begrudgingly as a miser who fears to run out of gold (as if hoarding our time and energy, as if protecting ourselves from the best things that make us human, could ever save our lives; it is, after all, by losing our lives that we save them). It is not of spending until we’re paupers that will kill us; no, it is of starvation: hunger for the honey wild and manna dew of life. It is the refusal to pay the price for those moments of beauty and bliss, those moments of the marvelous and the strange. We must be willing to buy those things, to chase after the things that make us most human. With no fuel to feed us, we will glow but dimly.
[Note: WordPress rather mutilated the formatting of the poem. There should have been breaks between each stanza.]
“It was not just to unburden myself that I told him those stories. Robustly he moved within my past, unknown to the figures there even as he upheld them.”
Refinements, Kirsten Callahan
The past lives only in memory and memorial; it is not static—as though well-water drawn—but is warped by the remembering and the present: changed, refined, salvaged, and (perhaps) redeemed. I have struggled with past, with history, and met it in many faces, treated it with many words and ways. It has become one of the most common themes in my thought and writing; if there be solutions to its problems, I have not found them. Still, I wrestle.
In December of 1990, I was born to Mary and Dave. In 2005, my dad died: cancer. My memories are not him, but they are of him; I wonder whether I love him or them. He was a good father and a poor dad, human in too many ways. I remember once being thrown against a wall by his strong hands (my body was frail, pale, and bony; I flailed, but my strength was naught). He was angry, but he was angry at the wrong child. My little brother had shoved me off of a bunk bed, and we had been shouting: I do not know if the crime or the crying had aroused my father’s wrath, but I received the blame. In my memory, it does not hurt, but it frightens always; I was wounded most by the wrongness of it all, for I was innocent. I remember all this vividly, and yet I have no anger toward my father*, maugre his misdeeds. This moment in memory (to my grief the most vivid remembrance I have of him) has entwined itself to so many others and to myself as I now am, and that moment (in fact or in memory only, I am unsure) has been salvaged by the cohesion of my dad as I know him. And I know him better and better as I age, and the memories for good or ill become inextricably complected with the whole of him. His wrongs are not so great, methinks, but he does not stand judgment before me; in my memory, at least, he is redeemed.
So I am forced to wonder: is salvaging and salvation by the present enough for the past? Does now redeem then, or is it merely lost, left to be mulled over and meticulously mined for what bits of it we can cling to? In Kirsten Callahan’s novella, Refinements, the narrator broaches a parallel question: can a character be saved by symbols of which they are unconscious? The narrator’s belief seems to be that the symbolism alone is separate from the salvation. But if the remembering of one’s past can bestow upon it redemption, is that a redemption of the past itself or only the memory of that past? At a specific moment in history, Christ bore the sins of his children and wrecked them (by being wracked by them) upon a tree; the salvation thereby wrought pierces through every moment in time: my now, my then, and my not-yet. And, in that deed, His blood also backwards stretched and lifted the doom on those before Christ; it had to precisely because the symbolism in the sacrificial offerings of animals did not satisfy. (A tangent: redeem and doom seem meet etymological siblings, but it is sadly not so.) Does the analogy hold true, though? Can merely mortal remembrance pierce the past in a significant and objective way?1
I have wrestled with this theme in some of my recent writings (but even more in my inchoate or abandoned stories). In my original plan for a series of short stories, an old man dies blandly, not with a bang but a whimper, and several characters struggle with the apparent futility of it all: was the life he lived worth itself despite (or in light of) the feeble death that took him? In the very best of stories, it is a commonplace that the happy ending redeems the suffering that comes before. There is a fairy-tale in which a girl’s father severs her hands at the devil’s bidding, and she is left to wander through the wilderland alone; soon she marries a king but is then cast out and forced into hiding. Of course, years later all is made right and she lives in love and bliss with her husband: the eucatastrophe strikes and all manner of things are made well. The conclusions does not (and never should) erase or ignore the sorrow that leads to it, but it does alter it in ways I do not fully grasp. Because of the conclusion, the sorrow is given a purpose and significance that it would otherwise lack (I think of Ethan Frome and the nihilistic futility to which the entire story is abandoned by the exhausting cyclicism of the novel’s close). Though I fear to conclude another paragraph with echoing queries unanswerable, I, unsure, wonder if this trust is more than a hope, a belief; if events stretch beyond themselves and give meaning to the remembrance or the suffering.
A similar (perhaps identical) question arises in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (and for the same reasons in much Anglo-Saxon and Northern literature). In Middle-Earth, the ages of the world are long and much is lost to the dooms of time. Much passes beyond memory. The scraps of history and legend (mostly identical in Tolkien) occasionally persist in the various presents, and they often carry surprising power to manifest themselves (sometimes figuratively—stories recalled, brought to life; sometimes literally—what we would call magic). In one of the most fantastic works of criticism I have ever read, Tom Shippey spends much time discussing Tolkien’s philological predilections and his inferred belief that philology does (or, sadly, did) what no other science or course of study could: it resurrected history, otherwise forgotten. Literature—Art—is able to capture something essential and sustain it, making it effective and potent throughout time. In The Lord of the Rings, one of the more obvious examples of this attitude comes from The Two Towers (I believe) in which Frodo and Sam wonder whether there will be told stories of them and their quest (a parallel passage comes just after the ring is destroyed when Sam imagines folk telling the story of Nine-fingered Frodo). It would be misguided and whimsical to glean the idea that the artistic recollection of their quest (even if real, not merely imagined) somehow lessened the burden Frodo bore or slaked their thirst and suaged their wounds. And yet, it is not so far-fetched to see the artistic remembering (perhaps even re-creation) as a memorial that not only recalls but makes well as the Providence of God working to redeem all that is fallen. (Perhaps it can do this because the art and remembrance are Myth? Perhaps because they are true?) A more literal example of the intertwining of these several parts is in the Barrow-downs of the first volume where the memorials manifest themselves with evil and power in the present directly because of the past. [Alas, I fear my thoughts in this paragraph have come out muddled and shallow: I shall re-attempt this one day.]
In these things—my father, the fairy-tales, the stories—the remembrance reaches back to history and pulls it forward, at least offering some small redemption that can be found in the present. I do not know if it is the fact of the remembrance or something else dependent on the present. Even so, there is something there—a valuable thread worth hanging on to—but I have not yet kenned it, and I am not through trying.
1. It seems that the retroactive nature of salvation exists due to an arbitrary (in a technical sense; not caprice) act of God’s will by which the sins of the past are deemed paid for: indeed, this is perhaps simpler to grasp than the projection of Christ’s blood beyond that moment to its future. Is the salvaging of one’s own past the same sort of arbitrary act of will and thought? Or (since our and others’ sins in our pasts do not wait on us for their doom) is the guilt mitigated by time and we left free of the misguided attempts to punish those sins ourselves? Perhaps, as in stories, the whole (when considered as an artifactual whole) reveals itself as a work of Providence, and the momentary, visceral reactions fade before the cohesion of one’s history into something synergistic and transcendent.
*This is probably a lie.
This summer has been filled with strange insights in unexpected places. I have been worked to exhaustion time and time again, my skin and bones painfully repining against my abuse. As the summer solstice came and passed, my muddy and bloody pursuits brought me face to face with a number of serious and difficult questions about the world in which I live. One might wonder how building playgrounds—be as it may in the merciless Texas sun—would elicit existential quandaries; I would never have thought it possible until it happened to me.
As far as problematic philosophical questions go, one of the most perennially pestiferous—that is, the problem of evil in the world—has caused me little trouble. Evil itself has handed me a few blows, but the concept of it and its existence has not pestered me unduly; however, of late, a tangential cousin of the problem of evil has appeared to stir up mistrust, spreading even so far as God. But first I must clarify my position.
This summer has incited the creation of a theory. As a result of numerous experiences throughout my two months of strenuous physical labor (much involved with sharp and heavy objects) I posit the following as a Natural Law of the Universe:
Firstly, injuries are inevitable. Secondly, after suffering any injury, the likelihood of repeatedly injuring yourself in the same spot is exponentially proportional to the inconvenience, aggravation, and pain it would cause. Thirdly, with annoying injuries on vital parts of one’s body (primarily meant to include the face, the hands, and the feet), the probability of repeatedly hurting the same spot (until the frustration and pain drive you nearly to tears) approaches absolute certainty.
Personal experience, rigorous double-blind studies, and confabulation with my brother (who is the same line of work) have confirmed this. I laughed when the theory formed in my head. Recognition of this truth caused me some grim humor for a while; soon, though, it began to cause me questions. How, I asked myself while driving steel screws into steel pipes and repeatedly slipping so as to drive the knuckle on my middle finger painfully into a pipe, can this be? I go hours without injuring myself; then, just after finally scraping my knuckle on some wire mesh, I suddenly injure the same spot over and over again within twenty minutes in a half dozen different ways. It is as if one small injury suddenly gets in and then immediately invites all his friends over for a party. To my chagrin (though I have been known as something of a wild party animal in my own day), their parties involve a great deal of smashing things into my already wounded body. My behavior does not change, and yet the injuries come in quick succession. It is as if some malevolent force took pleasure in my pained frustration.
Ah, that was it. In the end, I was faced with the fact that there is no natural reason this should prove true. And, yet, it does, as my scarred fingers will cry evidence for years to come. If this be true, then the source of this happening is a grave problem. The atheist must shrug their shoulders in defeat for they have no explanation. The orthodox Christian must grant it to God’s sovereignty and ineffable wisdom. The Eastern religions must chalk it up to karma. For myself, I cannot grant that God actively pursues the annoying harm of His people, and so there must be another option. I have decided it must be fairies. There can be little doubt.
P.S. Dear readers, I shall leave you about two thirds through what I originally intended because it is late now and I must go to bed so that I may work in the morning. Goodnight.