This Saturday I thought we would look at some aspects of nature through the eyes of one of the great sonneteeers and a young man who never had the chance to fulfil his potential.
As I have said before, one of my favourite sonnet writes is the Essex genius, Gerald Manley Hopkins. Dylan Thomas, for one, admired his talents greatly and is said to have learned a lot about the use of language from him.
Given when he was writing (mid 1800s), his imagery, breaking the mould of the more conventional forms, caused something of a stir. Take the opening of The Windhover:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding high there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing in his ecstasy!
I’ve rolled the opening lines together so you can appreciate the sheer glory of the words as they tumble and turn, as the bird would tumble and turn in the early morning air, seemingly giving in to the sheer abandon of being able to fly. If in doubt at the genius read the opening words out loud; better still find Richard Burton to speak it in his deep dark Welsh treacle voice. Try this!
He wrote this in 1877, yet it feels so modern and fresh to me. Genius. He is credited with being the discoverer of Sprung Rhythm, a meter that reflects the usual mode of English speech that he said he found in poems by Milton, Shakespeare and Dunne. Not everyone agrees. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
He had an interesting life, as in the Chinese ‘May you live in interesting times’ sort of way. Of an academic inclination from a High Anglican family, his time at Oxford seems to have worked a major change on him. Perhaps it was a barely expressed homosexuality that appears in some ascetic works from his early years that led him to decide to challenge what seems to have been his fear of sin. Whatever it was, and against his family’s wishes he converted to Catholicism, and became Jesuit priest. He destroyed his early works in a grand bonfire and it was some while before he felt able to reconcile his religious fervour with his need to glory nature by recommencing his poetry. But fortunately for us, he did, though his works went unpublished until after his death in 1889.
His later poems, even for those who find his religiosity a touch clawing, are beautifully drawn with a passion for his subject matter.
The sonnet I offer here juxtaposes what man has done to the earth and yet how nature will not be cow-towed. I particularly love ‘shining from shook foil’ and ‘all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil’ and ‘there lives the dearest freshness deep down things’.
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 and 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 and with ah! bright wings.
My second sonnet (or sonnet-like poem since, for some, the rhyming scheme does not conform to strict rules – it has a scheme and is 14 lines long with a twist so it ticks my box) looks at nature through a different perspective, again deferring to a Divine Hand at the end. A as fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain John Gillespie Magee clearly loved flying and captured that elation beautifully. The imagery here has echoes of Hopkins’ description in the Windhover. Both glory in the sheer joy and freedom felt by this release from gravity’s tiresome pull. The tragedy here, however, is the early death of the poet (he died in a mid air collision, while a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force which he joined before the US entered the conflict); such a talent lost in the pursuit of a different glory to that of Hopkins.
The poem, a favourite during WW2 has become well known to aviators and, latterly spacemen and women. When the awful Challenger disaster struck, President Ronald Reagan used part of it in his speech to the nation (right at the end if you want to skip through).
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
‘I have slipped the surly bonds of earth’. What a sumptuous way to describe the ecstasy of flight for a young pilot? Equally, whatever your views on faith, you cannot but feel the inspiration that suffuses the last three lines ‘And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod The high untrespassed sanctity of space, Put out my hand, and touched the face of God’
How much talent do we sacrifice when we send our young people to battle? Magee was just 19 when he died, on the cusp of fulfilling his potential. It is wanton, enough, that we reject our work (as per Hopkins’ approach to his early poems) in the name of some cause but at least he had the chance to explore that talent. It is quite another that we lose it before it has a chance to show itself at all. When will we learn?
My own humble offering looks at the issues around climate change and how man’s endeavours have challenged our planet’s very continuance. I will nail my colours here; I have long felt a sympathy for James Lovelock and his Gaia Theory of this planet as a single organism. We tinker with its balance at our peril.
A Springless Future
Cold Jack, content and job well done, crept home
Allowing Spring her turn to warm the earth.
Crocus tongues pushed out through softening loam
As glass-eyed shepherds watched their flock give birth.
We, unplucked youth, prime cocked with urgent sap,
Felt the tug of Nature’s call to breed.
Like sheep, we followed Her bewitching map
To plant, in fertile earth, our febrile seed.
Yet somewhere Nature’s diverse scheme was lost;
Our black-fuelled lust seared seasons into one.
Our greed has neutered Jack; he’s become a ghost,
Sharp fingers culled by a remorseless sun.
Why would our lambs breed, given this breach of trust?
We’ve fried this once green Earth, turning it to dust.