Monday, September 19, 2005


Springtime for Hopkins

When in doubt, anti-Fisk a poem, if the term anti-Fisk (a neologism! My own!) can be used to mean analyze for the purpose of praise.

So here's a Gerard Manley Hopkins sonnet, praised in pieces:

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee, but sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners' ways prosper? And why must
Disappointment all I endeavor end?

"If I contend with thee." I have to think poets would never come up with phrases like that if they didn't have to satisfy strict poetic forms, which force them to think of attractive and novel phrases that will fit. But then should I write in the past perfect when talking about poets.? Poets would never have come up with...if they hadn't had to....? Sigh.

"So what I plead is just." I know it just means, "so is what I am pleading." But somehow, his way is thrilling.

"Why do sinners' ways prosper?" Good question. And now that I've heard it expressed this way, I can't imagine it better expressed any other way. Though I suspect the original (the first stanza is a translation of, I believe, a Latin excerpt of Jeremiah) gives Hopkins a run for his money.

"And why...end?" When will we get to move our verbs to the end again? Continuing...

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How woulds't thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart, me. O the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
sir, life, upon thy cause....

Well, Hopkins is never better than when he's complaining, but what a complaint! You couldn't hurt me more if you were trying. I gotta start suspecting your motives. As Catholic a writer as he is, I respond to this part not only as a reader but also as a Jew. And I think anyone identifying with senseless and imcommensurate suffering would have to as well.

"The sots and thralls of lust." Now that phrase almost makes you pause, put down the slim volume, and go wash you hands before continuing. Luthor Vandross eat your heart out!

Sir, life, upon thy cause. See banks and brakes
Now leaved how thick! Laced they are again
with fretty chervil. Look, and fresh wind shakes
them. Birds build. but not I build, no, but strain,
Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes
Mine., O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

I can't think of a better plea for inspiration, and one that starts with nature's inspiration - spring.

Imagine if we had been taught poems like this, with this attitude toward springtime and renewal (while still acknowledging deeply the sources of despair). Instead of, you know, "April is the cruelest month."

April is no such thing. And no connected person has ever thought so.


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