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 But fortunately for us, he did, though his works went unpublished until after his death in 1889.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.
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………. This poem always makes me cry, I believe he died in training a sad loss.
I do admire your sonnet, well written. 🙂
Indeed a crash with a training plane. I’m with you, the lump comes to the throat easily. My father, who missed out on the RAF during the war and ended up in the Paras read this to me many years ago. He didn’t cry – it took him until he was past 60 to be able to cry in public – but he went very still. I can almost see him now. Why, of all the art forms does poetry and its first cousin, song grip us this way, I wonder? Thank you re the sonnet; given your own beautiful verse that is praise indeed.
Poetry and song , cousins yes I agree they carry our hopes and dreams . My father always read poetry to all of us it just seems how it should be.
we need to make it part of the wedding vows: ‘to have and to hold and to read poetry to any children..’ And get it onto the national curriculum…
Yes! I will champion such vows, Geoff! Poetry and Cousin Song are so stirring to the soul. While I’m drawn to your pairing this week, it is your sonnet that is my favorite. It has echos of beautiful pastoral language; this is an incredibly sensual, earthy line and image: Crocus tongues pushed out through softening loam. And then you hit us over the head with what we are doing to the world: Our greed has neutered Jack. That should be the cry of global warming! Back to the poets you’ve included this week. Both are so full of passion. Magee, understandable, a cocky 19-year old RAF pilot. Hopkins, fearful of his passion until he could turn it toward God. Sonnets seem to be able to contain the fullness of passion. Thanks for another Sonnet Saturday!
Thank you for the flattery Charli. It’s a subject I can become quite passionate about, as well as feeling utterly enfeebled and completely neutered.
Ha! You just described how every writer feels at one time or another. There’s no middle road on the journey!
Lovely Geoff – all of it
I might join in and catch up quickly by pinching words from Albert Einstein – someone I would have loved to have dinner with..
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in her beauty.”
I love your sonnet particularly. I love to hear these echoes from another mind I grow – in small part – to understand! I think that’s how music and poetry quicken our emotions – the rhythm, rhyme and meter etc, whether intended or not must stir understanding at a subconscious level – We can feel that poetry and music offer more than their mere words and it has long been observed that the war poets were able to unburden their shock and horror whilst still on the battle fields whereas those who recounted it with prose, often needed a decade or more to distance themselves or recover before relying on the words alone.
What a beautifully pitched comment, Lisa. Thank you. I think that poetry works best at a visceral level, some sort of mind echo. People talk about music that sticks being an ear worm – poetry is the mind equivalent – the couple sticking and repeating because of its ephemeral nature. Sometimes, like song lyrics the words themselves, gathered as they are, are meaningless in any grammatical sense, but they hit some sort of chord that resonates. I don’t know what makes a good or a great poem but I know it when I hear it – more than when I read it. When you find a poem that reaches inside you, it’s like that tingle-skin effect of a first love. Here I go, getting cheesy. I think I’ll go and talk to the Dog for a while… he’ll understand.