Apologies to regular visitors to the blog, which has lain fallow much of March. I find these brief unplanned breaks from blogging are good for me, but I’ve missed sharing reflections and poetry (and hopefully at least a few of you have missed it too). I return, though, because Good Friday is one of my favorite (and most challenging) annual traditions—tackling an explicitly Christian poem in a way that tries to make it accessible or meaningful on some level to people of all faith traditions and levels of interest in spirituality. I’ve gone with more modern poets on recent Good Fridays, but this year I feel like reaching back a little to one of my all-time favorite poets, a writer so devout that he nearly gave up his gift for God’s sake and it’s only by happy chance that much of his work survived to be shared and read. The whole story of Gerard Manley Hopkins is a fascinating one, but one I won’t belabor now. For this solemn holiday (for me, at least), I just want to settle into the poem right away, and see what thoughts I have that may resonate with any of you. This is “As kingfishers catch fire”, written in 1882 but not published until 1918, well after Hopkins’ death:
“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ—For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
Another sonnet, of course, and a carefully crafted one: Hopkins begins with a world on the edge of something inexplicable and almost explosive, with a nimbus of flames wreathed around these tense, alive bodies and even the inanimate stones seeming to jostle actively. This is the kind of theme he likes—he explores in a couple of his more famous poems, “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover“, the idea that just beneath or hidden among the physical world is this bright, fiery reality we can see if we attend to it—and his care with sounds is remarkable. Hopkins’ best poems are, for me, better aloud than almost anyone else’s (except maybe Dylan Thomas, but this is no accident: the Welsh Whitman was definitely influenced by Hopkins’ style), and here the patterns are incredibly well crafted. The kingfishers and dragonflies hide inside themselves the bursting “f” sounds that immediately catch “fire” or “flame”, the alliteration acting almost like sparks flying out from the hidden insides of these creatures and kindling Hopkins’ imagination. The sequence of “r” and “o/ow” sounds in “over rim in roundy wells stones ring” rattling and echoing like real stones clattering down the sides of a deep well. In the music of these sounds, Hopkins builds a world in the first half/octet of the sonnet, and one that expresses a simple and essentially secular message: the earth, he says, is full of things, all of which are at their best and almost startlingly alive when we let them be themselves. There isn’t a division here between spirit and body so much as an important fusion, where those deep truths held inside everything, animate and inanimate, are meant to be expressed somehow. Hopkins isn’t writing us a prescription here, of course, so much of this is shrouded a little by the poetic language—what does it mean that the birds and insects are catching fire in the opening line? Is the bell singing out its “name” really a “mortal thing”? He pushes past this, though, to conclude the octet with another characteristic flourish, verbing a noun in an unusual and thought-provoking way: in this case, the word “self” becomes a verb, “to selve”, to speak and spell what and who we are because this is what we were meant to do. There’s something lovely and old-fashioned in the idea, and if the poem ended there that’s not a bad stretch to have walked: again, I think this isn’t particularly religious of him, and I feel like a lot of folks can identify with something there—the call to discover who we truly are and live that out unashamedly, as secure and confident in being us as a bird or stone or bell is in being and doing what it is.
The Christian turn, then, and the added layer I want to ponder on Good Friday, is the sestet, the final lines that make a sonnet a sonnet by upsetting the coziness of the poem’s opening 8 lines and showing us the man behind the curtain. In this case, that “man behind the curtain” is almost a literal one: Hopkins is almost artless, plain-spoken, in urging us onward with that child-like statement “I say more”, as though we were about to turn away from him with his thought only half-completed. It’s not enough to be human and to “selve” out that humanity. We dig deep and find these extraordinary qualities within us that go beyond mere humanity—the thirst for justice that makes us “verb” it into the world (“the just man justices” — what does it mean to us to justice? What can or should we justice today?), the way that the grace we feel in our life can become a force that sustains all our journeys in the world. They too go out of us into the wide earth. And, here the explicit theological idea underpinning all of this, ultimately Hopkins sees us as people who have put on the form of God, who are dwelled in by God, and thus somehow we must break that into the world the way a bell rings out its name. There’s a danger to this kind of thinking, of course—the man on the street corner who thinks he speaks for God when he lists off the hated, the judged, the ones who will be excluded from glory (in his mind)—and one I don’t want to minimize. But I’ve also seen the beauty that Hopkins’ way of seeing the world can inspire, the way that people afraid of the earth’s great agonies and sorrows, people certain they are too small to really make a difference, put on that Christ cloak that urges them to be God’s hands in the world to heal, to help, to shield and to save. Ultimately one of the most powerful messages in Hopkins’ poem is that message that is fully encapsulated by Good Friday: the notion at the core of Christian theology that to be human is to share an identity with the divine power underpinning the universe, and that to live out humanity fully in imitation of the divine example means to risk all for the sake of the world. To risk pain and death, even, for the sake of love; to reject violence as a means of “solving” a problem even to the point of suffering violence with patient forgiveness in our hearts. This is the theological core that inspired and steadied the civil rights movement, that helped Gandhi (who famously lacked much sympathy for Christianity, but who said that no one had done more for humanity than Jesus) articulate the ideas of non-violent protest and soul force that continue to change the world.
I recognize that not everyone will respond to this poem as I do, any more than that all of you will feel the same mix of emotions and reflections that I do on Good Friday. What I hope does resonate, and move you on some level, is the reminder that the kind of self-expression Hopkins explores in the opening half of the sonnet isn’t meant to be self-indulgent or self-absorbed. He’s opening us up to the beauty of that kind of surrender to live out our true purpose because he wants to then push us to find our truest purposes in service to that ideal of love, of grace for those who need it, of justice for those who have no one else to stand by them. The selves we are, in Hopkins’ eye, are made for that kind of work. If these Christian holidays are a part of your life this weekend, I hope they help center you (and me) on that true purpose, and the knowledge that love and hope are not alien to us, not strange clothing that ill fits us, but rather are the deep identity locked inside of us that we have always been meant to open up and bring into the world. And if the holidays mean little or nothing to you, I hope at least that this season of spring, with the return of warmth and life and growth, of kingfishers and dragonflies soaring over nearby waterways, turns your mind to that kind of “selving” that reaches beyond ourselves and into the lives of those you can meaningfully bring help to.