It’s just starting to cool down little by little, but while it is still summer, here is a rather sinister early Hopkins poem, The Summer Malison. Malison is an unusual word these days – so unusual that my spellchecker underlines it red, but it was a little more common in Victorian times when this was written. A malison is a curse, specifically a spoken curse – a malediction, or execration, if you like. So, you must imagine this poem, this curse, being read aloud…
The Summer Malison
Maidens shall weep at merry morn,
And hedges break and lose the kine,
And field-flowers make the fields forlorn,
And noonday have a shallow shine,
And barley turn to weed and wild,
And seven ears crown the lodged corn,
And mother have no milk for child,
And father be overworn.
And John shall lie, where winds are dead,
And hate the ill-visaged cursing tars,
And James shall hate his faded red,
Grown wicked in the wicked wars.
No rains shall fresh the flats of sea,
Nor close the clayfields’ sharded sores,
And every heart think loathingly
Its dearest changed to bores.
Readers familiar with Hopkins’ poetry will find here early traces of what would become his signature style . There is, of course, his great fondness for alliteration. There are a number of memorable alliterative phrases – fields forlorn, wicked wars, shallow shine and so on, although it is nowhere near as dense with alliteration and aural effects as his later poetry. There is also a hint of Hopkins’ later ingenuity with language, such as the use of the word fresh as a verb.But there are also significant differences from his later poetry here too: this is not, like almost all of his later poetry, religious poetry, which is not to say that there is nothing religious in it, for there is a clear reference to the dreams of Joseph in the corn with seven ears; but it is not drawing our attention to the God-given divine beauty of nature as so many of his later poems do, nor (as in his poems of despair) does it lament His apparent absence. It is hard to imagine the later Hopkins conceiving of a poem in the form of a curse: this is a comparatively secular poem, the poetry of a man who has not yet (and in his mind, still might not) dedicate his life and all his works to God. It gives us an interesting glimpse of a quite different Hopkins – but it is in any case an interesting poem in its own right.
That doom-serving old dystopian Anthony Burgess liked this poem, and called the last line ‘terrifying’. That’s something coming from a man best known for chilling visions of the future. Most people associate Burgess with A Clockwork Orange, whose two dystopian elements are, on the one hand, uncontrolled violent juvenile subcultures, and on the other, the crude psychological engineering with which the state attempts to address it. He also wrote 1985, an updating of Orwell’s novel, in which 1984‘s face-stomping totalitarianism was replaced by strong-arm trade unionism that enervates Britain to the point that it is itself usurped by nascent Islamism. The trade unionism was a wrong call, though understandable from the pre-Thatcher 70’s Britain in which it was written, while the Islamism was strangely prescient. One more dystopia of his, one I haven’t read but intend to, is The Wanting Seed, set in a future in which homosexuality is legally enforced and natural conception strongly discouraged, although fertility movements are making a comeback. You could call Burgess right wing, I suppose. But what unites all these dystopias is a sense of society running out of control, a sense that man is the prisoner of his own strange chemistry, and this chemistry as much as his schemes and systems will dictate the future.
Burgess doesn’t say so – in fact he only refers to the poem briefly – but the terror inherent in the last line, and those lines directed at John and James, is the terror of man’s changeability. We are not entirely rational souls, but vulnerable to the influence of bad spells and bad weather. It brings to mind a memorable scene from another well known 20th century novel. The protagonist of Camus’s The Outsider shoots an Arab on a beach, not for any good reason, but because it was a very hot day and he was feeling hot and bothered. What inspires Hopkins with terror, leads Camus into existential doubt: the very substance of our selves (he would not talk of souls) is shown to be entirely contingent on circumstances.
There are other varieties of terror in the poem too. The earth itself is infertile, lacking energy, unable to provide the people with food. It is interesting that the environmental terror here is presented in terms of dearth and lack, with images of Old Testament famine, dryness, tars and, most memorably, those ‘sharded sores’ of drought-hit clay fields. Horrifying indeed for a poet who would later declare that ‘The world is charged with the grace of God’, and being a native of our rainswept Atlantic islands, find proof of that grace in wetness and greenness. If the seven ears of corn bring to mind an Old Testament episode, the names John and James in the second stanza bring the disaster into more recent times. It is the universality of the names which is important to the poem – we all know a John and a James, I think, and so we do not quite imagine these men to be strangers, but our own countrymen, perhaps our neighbours and friends. This Malison is not something remote and fantastical, but something that can happen – perhaps is happening – to our own communities; and, in that very last line that so chilled Burgess, to our very own souls.
Picture Credit: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/03/canadian-oil-sands/kunzig-text