RELIGION & POETRY
(The case of Gerard Manley Hopkins)
“What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
G. M. Hopkins
Quite recently, on Facebook, I had a small difference of opinion with another poet about the poem Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It wasn’t serious, but I felt the need to state it as my opinion that it was still a great poem. He agreed, but he qualified his own enthusiasm for it by saying “Yes, it is a great poem for the ear and the heart until I overthink its implications.” I assume (I may be wrong, of course; I frequently am.) that he was referring to religious implications. Hopkins was a Catholic and a Jesuit priest and that aspect of him is certainly on display in Pied Beauty as it is in much else he wrote. Just in case anyone doesn’t know the poem, I have taken the liberty to reproduce it here.
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
I must confess that for me Hopkins is by far and away the most enjoyable and linguistically stimulating Victorian English poet. I do not respond to other Victorian poets with anything like the relish with which I respond to Hopkins. Not Tennyson, not Browning, not Arnold, not Hardy, nor anyone else. I can work up very little enthusiasm for any of them. But Hopkins is another kettle of fish entirely. And I have felt the same since I first read his The Wreck Of The Deutschland. Furthermore, the religious elements in the poem just seemed all of a piece with the rest of the poem, because to me they are essential not just to the content of the poem, but also Hopkins’ language and technique – the sprung-rhythm used and the general linguistic panache of the poem right from the opening stanza.
“Thou mastering me.
God, giver of breath and bread,
World’s strand, sway of the sea,
Lord of living and dead:
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee."
Could anyone but a Christian - and a Catholic to boot - have written this? Its language is drenched in that religion from the very first word, and, though I am not a Christian and detest what that religion has come to represent, I can still respond to the very Christian sentiments expressed in that poem because I see them as part and parcel of the whole aesthetic experience of the poem, which, indeed, could not do without them. To paraphrase Nietzsche, who said that the aesthetic alone justifies life, Hopkin’s poetry too justifies life - especially in the light of the fact that it can be such a glorious celebration of life into the bargain - not because of the religious aspect of the poetry, but because of its actual aesthetic qualities; and yet it just so happens that these aesthetic qualities are a product of Hopkins’ whole religious temper and outlook in such a way that you cannot separate the two. The fusion is such that you cannot appreciate the poem as an aesthetic experience, without recognising that Hopkins’ own religious sensibility is part and parcel of that aesthetic experience.
Is there anything unusual about this? Are not the religious elements in The Iliad also part and parcel of the enjoyment of that poem? Do not Zeus’s marital tiffs with Hera add comic relief to the grinding tragedy of what’s going on down on the ground? And of course, the whole architecture of Dante’s Divine Comedy would be unthinkable without Dante’s religious vision. Sometimes, I think that you have to take the rough with the smooth in poetry and not worry too much about what might have inspired a poem. What matters after all is the end-product, not how the poet arrived at it or the accidental make-up of a poet’s personality which contributed to how the poem got written. Hopkins is a wonderful poet, end of; his work is extraordinary and to quibble about the religious inspiration behind it is kind of like looking a gift-horse in the mouth. It’s there; just live with it and be grateful.
Richard Dawkins seems to believe that Haydn should have written an evolution oratorio instead of The Creation. No doubt, he sees himself as some kind of Commissar for the Arts dictating the proper subject-matter for a piece of music, a painting or a poem, while damning whatever doesn’t conform to his requirements and consigning it to some kind of critical limbo because, of course, the fact that he’s a scientist makes him especially qualified to make such judgements. In contrast, Murray Bookchin, who is an anarchist with a strong desire to change the world in accordance with his own vision of it, at least seems to recognise that the arts – as opposed to politics - where mytho-poesis is invariably reactionary – may safely have a mythopoeic dimension - which, of course, could also draw on certain religious impulses. Bookchin may be a bit too obsessed about the deleterious influences of what he calls “Lifestyle Anarchism” - a la Hakim Bey - but he is perfectly right when he writes “Mythopoesis is a way to sharpen and deepen human sensibilities”, especially in its application to art, music or poetry. So it's OK, in spite of "No masters, no gods" et cetera, gods are OK in a poem. And that's because, in spite of Philip Larkin's dismissal of "the myth-kitty", poetry is not all about social-realism after all and can easily accommodate and soak up religious impulses without losing a stitch.
The more important thing for me, however, is that we can’t judge work purely on its subject-matter and content. You have to look at it as a living whole aesthetic event – and at the way the subject-matter and content contribute to it as a living whole aesthetic event. Unless you are peculiarly susceptible, Hopkins’ poetry is not going to turn you into a Christian. Auden was right to say "Poetry makes nothing happen", so have no fear. You really are free to enjoy it in spite of the ‘sinister designs’ it may have on you. You are not, after all, a captive child receiving religious instruction at school. There is nothing sinister in the enjoyment of religious impulses in poetry – any more than in music. And that’s certainly true of the Christian elements in Hopkins’ work – or TS Eliot’s Four Quartets for that matter. Such work should be taken as it is found. And if you think there are sinister implications in that, then there is not much more I can say.