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?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ezra Pound, "The Garden"

En robe de parade

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens.
And she is dying piecemeal
              of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble 
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.
She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
              will commit that indiscretion.  

Although I haven't researched it, I feel sure that Pound based this poem on a real  woman he must have seen in London, surrounded by poor children-- the scene just rings true.  As he does for those famous "faces in the crowd," he finds the perfect image for the way she looks:  "like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall."  She is delicate, out of her element, and the more beautiful for that vulnerable state.  Alongside this admiration, though, he expresses contempt when he diagnoses her condition:  "a sort of emotional anemia."

He feels ambivalent, too, about the children playing around her.  Their sturdiness commands respect, but when he quotes scripture and prophesies that "they shall inherit the earth," we are not sure he finds the prospect a happy one.  They are not beautiful, but "filthy."  This "rabble" represents the future.

"In her is the end of breeding"-- there's a nice double meaning here.  "The end of breeding" because she lacks the vitality to produce another generation, and so her class of people will die out--  but also because she shows the result of over-refinement.  Good breeding, fine manners, the very best in education, have gone too far in her.  Finishing school, shall we say, has finished her.  She is a virginal figure, shrinking from a possible encounter with a man-- but she remains virginal through "boredom," not devotion.

It's hard not to see the implicit observation, and maybe even warning, about the possibilities for civilization here-- but what's especially beautiful about this poem is the way it keeps that warning implicit.  It does not allow commentary to take over, but stays faithful to its image.  In the last lines Pound is still wrapped up in his gaze at this woman.  For all the decadence she represents, he still finds her powerfully attractive.