The Reward of Awe
Oh let’s take a risk, or at least let us look at something from a different angle. Ask a different question! Sure, we can take a well known, popular, brilliant poem and thrash out all the regular observations and noises, dissect, analyse and conclude exactly the way it’s been done a hundred thousand times before, and yes, tick the boxes that give the marks, that boost the points that earn the college places and on it goes, blah-de-blah.
But come on, let’s take a step on the road less travelled, and yet do so in a fully respectful manner, and hopefully include due homage to the tried and trusted, but at the same time maybe broaden our gaze ever so slightly, let us ask the question ‘Why?’.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) was born in Stratford, England. A Jesuit priest, he died at the relatively young age of 44 and full appreciation of his writing prowess, like many a fine poet was posthumous, so, conclusive answers to questions about his writing do not exist.
Nonetheless, there is little doubting that his work centred around the adoration of God, and is great testimony to his probable strong faith in the Almighty. One of the finest examples of his talent and unusual writing style can be found in that masterful poem, ‘The Windhover’.
As mentioned, we can firstly pay it due homage, mark what a fine piece it is, appreciate its living rhythm, its old diction, its alliteration, metaphors and internal rhymes (which are wonderful), dissect its complexities and imagery, Christian symbolism, marvel at the beautiful accuracy with which he captures and shares the description of the falcon, and then conclude, as usual with the work of Hopkins, that the poem’s theme is actually related to his praise of Christ, rather than about the bird at all! Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, and lazy!
Some would have us believe that Hopkins awoke this particular morning, reached for his parchment and quill, or his paper and ink, trooped out into the fields and tasked himself with the challenge of different ways to praise the Lord. How shall I capture His divinity today?
This approach to the works of Hopkins is over simplistic, and is akin to putting the cart before the horse. On this occasion, following his encounter with the falcon, I suggest, he was simply, and yet majestically, struck by what he saw! He was arrested in his tracks! Perhaps it even rescued him for a moment? Was he having a dark day? He says himself his heart was hiding. A crisis of faith? Carrying a head full of woe? It happens to us all, at some time or other.
We find ourselves possibly uttering one of the following phrases when knocked sideways by wonder: ‘Lord above, would you just look at that!’ or ‘God, isn’t nature amazing all the same!’
It’s like a time-out, a focussing, a meditative moment. We look, we stop, we admire, we cherish. It gives context and order. Something creates this, allows it to be, and for a brief few seconds, all is good. It might be shooting stars or returning swallows. We are temporarily healed by a Greatness. I like to think of it as that overpowering weakness, yet warm reward that accompanies awe. Whether that be Godly or not.
Yes, Hopkins constantly reminds us that he thinks these things ultimately Godly, but we should not always fast forward to the conclusions of his work. In reading it, we should dwell a while on how he gets there.
And back to the ‘Why?’ Maybe he knew that all which he saw he may never understand, and hoped that all he understood, he may yet see. He believed in God, but just as importantly he believed in the signs of God. He recorded them ‘to’ God, not ‘for’ God. But for now, for him, in privacy, the wonder of the bird created order. An order that underpinned his faith. That is the ‘Why?’ And the writing is beautiful.
I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom 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,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
(Gerard Manley Hopkins is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin). John J Kelly is a multiple award-winning poet from Enniscorthy. He is the co-founder of the Anthony Cronin Poetry Award with the Wexford Literary Festival and co-ordinator of poetry workshops for schools locally. Each week, John’s column will deal mainly with novels, plays and poems from both the Leaving Certificate syllabus and Junior Certificate syllabus. email@example.com