Sunday, November 13, 2005

Like shining from shook foil

During his lifetime, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins was known to only a few close friends. The first collection of his poems did not appear until 29 years after his death. Today he is one of the best loved poets in the English language.

Hopkins was born in 1844 into a moderately high-church Anglican family, but was drawn, seemingly irresistibly, to a greater degree of ritualism and asceticism. As a student at Oxford he became high-church, then converted to Roman Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest -- to the consternation of family and friends.

Psychologists and literary biographers have tried to explain the trajectory of Hopkins' life, which led to an early death at age 45. It is commonly assumed that he hoped to subdue homoerotic feelings in a life of order and obedience. Whatever the case, there is a tension in Hopkins' life and poetry between outer and inner sources of spirituality that may go far to explain our fascination with the man and his verse.

Even as a child, Hopkins had a passionate love for the natural world: plants, animals, hills, dales, streams, slants of light, the forms of frost, starry nights, comets, stones, bells, the aurora borealis, human faces. The felling of a tree could bring him to tears.

His biographer Robert Bernard Martin tells of the time an old lay brother at the Jesuit seminary came upon Hopkins crouched in a path staring raptly at wet sand. Something about the glint of light on quartz grains compelled the young seminarian's attention. "Ay, a strange young man," said the brother later. "A fair natural 'e seemed to us, that Mr. 'Opkins."

A "fair natural," indeed. Hopkins' attention to nature had an intensity that can only be described as ecstatic. "What you look hard at seems to look hard at you," he remarked. He seems to have been able to apprehend a certain innerness of things, what he came to call "inscape." His remarkable sensitivity to the individual essence of things is manifest in his poetry:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
  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...

But Hopkins could not rid himself of the notion that by attending to the sensual world of particular things he was being drawn away from the spiritual and universal. Beauty, he imagined, was the enemy of sanctity. He sometimes practiced "custody of the eyes," forcing himself to walk though the world with his vision fixed at his feet.

He was wrestling with an age old spiritual dilemma that continues to bedevil us today: God's immanence vs. God's transcendence.

According to Martin, Hopkins found a way to resolve his dilemma in the writings of the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus, who taught that the material world was a sacramental symbol of God, not divorced from Him. Although this smacks of pantheism, and was frowned upon by the Jesuits, for Hopkins it was a kind of extension of the Incarnation to include the phenomenal world that was such an important part of his esthetic life.

This melding of inner and outer worlds came to fruition in those wonderful sonnets of his last years that so move us today, such as God's Grandeur:

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 oil
Crushed. 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 & shares man's smell: the soil
Is 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 went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast & with ah! bright wings.

Here, it seems, is a formula that lends itself as well as any to a reconciliation of science and spirit. Science attends to the universals that order and animate the world. Spirit dwells on the inscape of particular things, the "shining." Call it pantheism, call it panentheism, call it sacramental Incarnation; it doesn't really matter. It is there -- in whatever it is that charges the world with grandeur -- that lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

(This essay appeared as my back-page Natural Wonder column in the September-October issue of Science & Spirit.)

Further Reading

Robert Bernard Martin, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life. This superb biography seems to be out of print, which is a great shame.

Science & Spirit magazine is the only journal I know of that explores the interface of science and faith without compromise of the rational, empirical spirit of science.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.