Talking about poems just for the pleasure of it

Friday, March 25, 2011

Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Spring"

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.



The first statement here, just as in "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge," is a sweeping superlative-- there is nothing more beautiful than what I see in front of me at this moment, the speaker declares.  This is how it is when we see beauty-- we feel a sudden urge to give it top prize.

The two quatrains reveal what the particular beauty of sping is---  a kind of free, loose, unrestrained life.  This life flings itself out without care:  the lush weeds grow so fast they form wheels-- they can't support themselves upright but keep growing nonetheless.  The beauty here is of a dizzying, dazzling kind-- dynamic, potent, concentrated, "all in a rush/ with richness."  The thrush's song saturates the ear and then wrings it out, with an energy so overpowering it's like lightning.

As in "The Starlight Night," earth and sky are mingled in the speaker's perception-- "Thrush's eggs look little low heavens"; the peartree seems actually to touch the sky; the sky, in turn-- or its blue, its light--  seems to rush down to be brushed by the tree.  

When the speaker steps back from this experience-- "all this juice and all this joy"--  to ask what it is, the answer is ready.  It's a remnant of the earth's unfallen state, before sin came to "cloy," "cloud," and "sour" it.      The lines that follow connect this innocence with that of virginity; the sweetness of Eden still exists in the "innocent mind" of children and is the preference of Christ-- which is natural to him, since he himself  is a "maid's child."  So what we've been given is an image of virginity not as something prim and proper, but as something  lush and wild.  I think that's just wonderful.  This, we are told, is what God loves best in us.

What I don't fully understand is the speaker's urgent advice-- "Have, get, before it cloy"-- which is similar to the plea of "Buy then! Bid then!"  in "The Starlight Night," but the meaning is less clear here.  What would it mean to "have" and "get" this juice and joy?  How can spring, something inherently transitory, be preserved and possessed?  Would it mean to live in a kind of purity or wild generosity?  What would that mean?  Can anyone shed some light on this?

17 comments:

  1. In my head, in the rhythm of the lines, the words "--Have, get," seem to be paralleled with, or sort of echoed by, the words "Christ, lord." They make me think, "Have Christ," or "get Christ, the lord." That is, having or getting some of this spring-thing, this juice and joy, involves having or getting Christ.

    Also, I take the line, "O maid's child" as speaking to the reader (as Mary is our mother, too), and not to Christ, as it seems a continuation of the advice to the reader: something like, "you can get Christ, child of God -- it's your choice, and sure worth it." I didn't see the line as speaking to Christ, the maid's child, and acknowledging that Christ's preference is for the virginal innocence of children.

    Perhaps this interpretation could answer your question, i.e., how can something transitory like spring, or the beauty of it, be possessed? If one "gets" Christ, that beauty can be owned, eternally.

    But -- you note the imagery of speed -- we must grab it, now, before it's gone, like the little lambs in the first stanza. We must race to have our "fling" with Christ, before it is too late.

    So that's how the poem worked in my head, anyway.

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  3. I am struck by some of the alliterating word-pairs with contrasting, or perhaps corresponding, sound and emotional force:
    weeds/wheels
    strikes/sing
    juice/joy
    being/beginning
    cloud/Christ

    A sort of urgency is created by these pairs, which move along the action but also retard it, calling the mind back to the first word of the pair as the poetic narrative progresses.

    This seems to me to parallel the progression from 'Christ' to 'sinning' to 'innocence' to 'mayday' of the final stanza, a cycle of words which resonate as they spiral.

    Anyway, perhaps this motif of progression with recollection relates to your thoughts about preservation of the transitory.

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  4. Mary, I can see what you say as a meditation that this poem could lead to, but I can't quite see it here within the poem. I saw the "Christ, lord," as a kind of interjection, a breaking through of feeling, and at the same time a prayer invoking Christ. While it's true that this having and getting would involve having and getting Christ, I can't see that as what he's saying directly right here, since Christ couldn't be the "it" that would "cloy" and "sour with sinning." But you are so right to pay attention to the rhythmic repetitions here, which I've neglected. And I think what you say about the lambs having their fling, and how the poem seems to tell us to have our "fling" before it's too late, is right on too. Suddenly I realize this is something like the old carpe diem theme, isn't it? Instead of telling the girl to give in to her lover before it's too late and she grows old, the poem is telling us to give in to Christ? While we're still young and innocent? But we aren't young and innocent. Maybe he's only speaking to the young. But even if we have already "soured with sinning," we can still experience that "sweet being in the beginning." He seems to say it is still available to us even in our present state. Sorry for rambling-- it's getting late and I didn't want to leave your comment overnight.

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  5. Doug, I'd like to read more of what you could say about alliteration in Hopkins. Maybe this could be something for you to publish on once you finish your current projects. AS you probably know, he was steeped in the old roots of English, and even wrote some poems in Welsh. It's wrong of me to write about his poetry without addressing all the ways he plays with sound, and with the textures of words and their dynamism, and the way sound and meaning have such total integrity in his work.

    Your last thought, about recollection with progression taking place right there within the poem as it unfolds in the ear and on the page-- possibly that's the key to answering my question. Maybe this having and getting is meant to happen right there within the poem. The poem is transitory yet permanent. Or maybe that's too much too wish for. Sorry, I'm too sleepy to write clearly about this right now.

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  6. Ima, if you can remember exactly what you did to get that comment to post, I'm looking forward to reading what you say. Or, like I said, email me and I'll put it up.

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  7. Lots to think about...Cloy and Cloud and Sour are such great words there, not that I know what they mean, either, exactly.
    "So what we've been given is an image of virginity not as something prim and proper, but as something lush and wild. I think that's just wonderful. This, we are told, is what God loves best in us."--really well put! Someone was saying the other day--well, this is sort of related--that when people talk about the "new springtime" of the Church they should stop and think what spring is really like--it's not just everything calmly getting warmer and pleasanter, but wind, violent weather, unpredictability--I think there's a deep-rooted misunderstanding out there that God likes things not just "prim and proper" but boring, too.
    Anyway, I'm glad you're blogging again!

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  8. Beautiful reflection Sarah. Devra, right on about the "new springtime" of the Church.
    On Sarah's question, it seems to me that the "Have, get" is addressed to "Christ, lord." To express it in a prosaic way, its as if he is saying, "Christ, lord, have, get the innocent mind and mayday in girl and boy, before it cloy,
    before it cloud, and sour with sinning"--that is, he is asking Christ to get and keep the innocence of young people before it gets spoiled by sin. Perhaps this implies the special love of Christ toward those whom He preserves from childhood in their springtime innocence, like a St. Catherine of Siena or a St. Therese (also perhaps that he takes them to Himself while they are still young?--as was case with both these saints). One only needs to read either of these saints to see that the innocent love of Christ is lush and wild, unrestrained and free, "mad love" as Catherine calls it. Mad enough to jump on the Pope's lap. No prim and proper girls, these.

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  9. Sarah, yes, I think that I was wrong about the "Have/get, Christ/lord" thing. What you say makes sense. Further, Mr. Janaro's interpretation seems more logical.

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  10. Devra, thanks!

    John, that reading makes sense. Somehow, though, I don't want to let go of "Have, get" as a general exhortation rather than a prayer. It seems, to my ear, that when we first read those words, they at least _seem_ to be addressed to us. Christ is not mentioned till the second tercet, after two intervening clauses, "Before it cloy, before it cloud". If Hopkins meant it to be addressed to Christ, why would he first make us _think_ it was addressed to us?

    I just want to believe that Hopkins is pointing toward some way that we can keep that freshness he's talking about. Maybe I have in the back of my mind his poem "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo," in which has two voices debating whether there is any way "to keep . . . back beauty . . . from vanishing away." (the ellipses are due to the many, many repetitions in this poem. I haven't decided yet whether it "works" as a poem, but thematically it's wonderful.)

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  11. Hi Sarah, This is from Eileen, not John. You've inspired me to do this poem with my students tomorrow. John and I were just talking about the poem. The first stanza talks about the spring that is "a strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning." Every spring, we reexperience this season of newness, growth, freshness, innocence, new life. In us, who are not innocent, perhaps it brings about a sadness for what has been lost, and thus the pleading prayer of the second stanza. The prayer's first addressing Christ is "Christ, lord," as the savior Christ, the one who died on the Cross for the new creation. The second addressing is "O maid's child," child Himself, and child of the virgin. There is, as John said, the definite prayer to preserve the innocence of the child. The speaker of the poem experiences spring with a certain amount of pain that perhaps the innocent would not. The sound of the thrush "strikes like lightnings." Thanks for drawing me into the discussion, Sarah.

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  12. OK, I think I see it now. It's that joy tinged with pain that gives rise to the prayer. That's why it fits in to the flow of the poem for that plea to be a prayer. I was thrown off by wanting to read it as parallel to the "The Starlight Night," which is about a different experience.

    Yeah, it's so right that the innocent would not feel the same pain in the experience of spring-- but of course that pain strengthens and sharpens the joy. And that's right, that's what the "lightnings" of the thrush's song are about.

    I'm honored that this has prompted you to do this poem in class! I hope you'll be dropping in here to contribute often.

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  13. This is Eileen again. We had a great class, by the way. We were talking about all the words, and we were looking at how he uses the word "strain"- we talked about strain as the residue left when you run it through a colander type tool, or the strain in a musical piece, or when we work hard and stretch ourselves to capacity. I think they all apply to the meaning. The present moment the poet experiences gives him a residue of the innocence of "Eden garden." There is longing for that innocence and a strain of the heart towards it, and it is joy and pain together- perhaps remorse for the loss and joy for that innocence we still find in the child, in Christ, and in Mary. I'm not totally sure about the strain with musical allusions. The song of innocence that one can still hear?

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  14. Lucky students! I wish I could sit in on your class.

    Well, I went to the dictionary and found "strain" defined as a kind, stock, or line. So combining that with the idea of a residue, it could be a remnant of an inheritance-- something that still remains of the original creation, unadulterated.

    The musical sense of "strain" could hint at the ancient idea of music as constitutive of nature, the harmony of the spheres.

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  15. I tend to think that the theme of 'time' in this poem ought to be explored. "Have, get" may rest in its full meaning in the cradle of time.

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  16. "Rest in its full meaning in the cradle of time." I hope you can find time to expand on this image! Yes, we can't ignore that all-important dimension. I guess time is almost always of the essence in lyric poetry. There's a contrast here between the carefree feeling of the earth, and the urgency felt by the speaker-- who knows that something will be lost. Hope and fear are unknown by the earth and the animals that spring from it-- they are experienced only by the human consciousness. This contrast is really a big part of the poem's poignancy.

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