Friday, June 29, 2012

Having the best-worst, most terrible time with Gerard Manley Hopkins

Posted By on 06.29.12 at 06:18 AM

G.M. Hopkins at about the time he started getting pitched past pitch of grief
  • G.M. Hopkins at about the time he started getting pitched past pitch of grief
Oh sure, I seem amiable enough. Young women smile at me on the street these days, because I remind them of their kindly old fathers. But inside? Big weltschmerz. Dark nights of the soul stretching into weeks, months, and decades. The one really precocious thing I did as a child had nothing to do with math or the science fair. It was me figuring out futility way ahead of the curve.

Which may be why I read poetry. Whitman makes an especially good antidote to despair. He knew he was deathless and said so. He was always busy jetting the stuff of far more arrogant republics. Who wouldn't be delighted?

But there's a certain dark delight in embracing the beast as well. So when I really want to sink into the great, musty arms of wretchedness—when I want the best worst time possible—I take down my book of Gerard Manley Hopkins poems.

A 19th-century English convert to Catholicism who became a Jesuit priest, Hopkins wrote some great devotional pieces (“Glory be to God for dappled things") and straight-out gifts to creation, like "The Windhover":

"I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing. . . ."

And yet he also had major bouts of despondency. Fortunately for future generations of bipolars, Hopkins wrote his way through them. His melancholic masterpiece is a series of six poems that have come to be called the "Terrible Sonnets"—terrible for the grandeur of their anguish, terrible in the sense that they do such an excellent job of embodying the terror of being human. I love several of them. "I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day," with its quiet howl, "I am gall, I am heartburn." "Carrion Comfort," with its closing struggle alluding to Jacob and the angel: "That night, that year / Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God." By far the best-worst and most terrible, though, is this 14-line lament, just barely clinging to rags of prosody:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

I'll admit, I went through a period when I repeated those final 11 words over and over to myself at all times of wakefulness, like a mantra. Crazy, right?

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