Sunday, April 25, 2010

Spring is "Sprung"


Gerard Manley Hopkins

Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning

I’m reading Spring by Gerard Manley Hopkins and getting drunk on words. That someone can swing language around like this, make it sing even, is too beautiful for words, and yet obviously it is not too beautiful for words.

“What is all this juice and all this Joy?” What is it but a man who is also drunk with words, drunk on spring, drunk on creation itself perhaps. As Saint Paul says, “Be not drunk with wine,…but be filled with the Spirit.” The miracle of poetry is that it can express things otherwise inexpressible. It is no accident that the largest collection of prayers in the Bible, the book of Psalms, is also a collection of poems.

Poetry, like prayer, has no real economic value. We don’t need it to survive, but one could make a case that we need it to be human. What if a society no longer felt any need to express the inexpressible? What if all of our feelings about the world were pinned down like bugs on a specimen board? The market wants to do this with everything of course. How much should we charge for awe?

Poetry, thankfully, deals mostly in the inexpressible. When Robert Frost was once asked by a reader to explain one of his poems, he famously replied, “What do you want me to do? Say it over again in worser English?”

Getting back to Hopkins, the poem is about spring of course, the blooming, birthing, and breeding that take place when the earth wakes up from winter. What gets me here is that the language itself tries to outdo the wonders it describes. It’s as if new sounds are being born and crashing into one another like the tiny thrushes that will soon hatch from the eggs. There is an opulence to the language in this poem that suggests a wealth apart from wealth. The things we keep in our heads, I think, are our true currency in this world. Money you can lose, but memorize a poem and it’s yours. Perhaps the use of language itself can be thought of as a kind of affluence.

I could say more about this poem and why it is wonderful, but I’m afraid I’ll slip into the kind of flowery, insipid language that the poet avoids. That’s the difficulty in describing the beautiful; how do you do it with a straight face? Somehow Hopkins manages to be opulent without being silly. There is a respect for the natural world in his writing that prevents him from becoming sentimental; he doesn’t anthropomorphize (not really). He doesn’t need to. Real beauty, when encountered, doesn’t require explanation. It doesn’t require us to make pandering gestures in its direction. It does require us, if we want to get anything out of the exchange, to pay attention.

The Urban Luddite