Tag Archives: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Thou Blind Man’s Mark

V0006947 The death of Sir Philip Sidney at the battle of Zutphen: he

The Death of Sidney, From Wellcome Images, Via Wikimedia

Philip Sidney died a young man’s death at thirty-two years old after a wound at the battle of Zutphen in the Netherlands (see above image). By that age he had some serious professional achievements under his belt – he was governor of Flushing (Vlessingen) in the Netherlands, a town the English held as a protectorate for the rebellious Dutch against their Spanish overlords, and he had written, although not widely published, a sonnet cycle, Astrophil and Stella, whose influence would be great in the decades following his death. Following in the tracks of Wyatt, Howard and Spenser, Sidney took new types of poem into the English tradition from Italy and France, and used them to bring the tradition of courtly, or chivalric, poetry to new levels of sophistication and nuance. Compare, for example, his Sonnet ‘Having this day my horse’ I covered two posts ago with Cornwall’s poem in the same genre from half a century earlier, You and I and Amyas. As for his influence, one does not need to look long through a book of 16th or 17th century poetry before finding a sonnet sequence, a la Astrophil and Stella, in which a love-sick knight seeks the hand of an impossibly aloof and unattainable lady with a name of Graeco-Roman vintage.

Strange to say then, that by the end of his short life, Sidney seemed to have foresworn some of the very same chivalric values that animated his earlier work. That is, if the poem ‘Thou Blind Man’s Mark’ is anything to go by. But that is only one of the remarkable things about this poem:

Thou blind man’s mark, thou fool’s self-chosen snare,
Fond fancy’s scum, and dregs of scattered thought;
Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care;
Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought;
Desire, desire!  I have too dearly bought, 

With price of mangled mind, thy worthless ware; 
Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought,
Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare.
But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought;
In vain thou madest me to vain things aspire;
In vain thou kindlest all thy smoky fire;
For virtue hath this better lesson taught,

Within myself to seek my only hire,
Desiring nought but how to kill desire.

In the first four lines of the poem, Sidney presents us with a list of metaphorical descriptions all applied to the same object – Desire, revealed in the fifth. Note that these are discrete, in some senses mutually exclusive metaphors, and not different aspects of one single extended metaphor. Let us compare it to a couple of structurally similar passages of poetry. Here is part of a list in the famous John of Gaunt speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II. Gaunt calls England:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise.

In Shakespeare’s passage the images bear enough similarity to each other – throne to seat, isle to earth, Eden to paradise, kings to gods – that the passage works to build up a coherent visual picture of England – of an idyllic island of near-divine kings. Sidney’s opening lines work quite differently – although a web is close to a snare, and both could conceivably resemble a cradle, none of these things bear any point of comparison to a mark, or some scum, or a band. In this way, the passage is similar to George Herbert’s poem Prayer:

Prayer, the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav
’n and earth

There is no visual resemblance whatsoever between a banquet or an age, or breath or a plummet, or indeed between the series of metaphors that Herbert reels out through the whole poem. Herbert’s poem does not build a single picture of prayer the way Shakespeare does so of England, but rather lists a series of discrete images, each emphasizing a different aspect of the subject. Sidney’s litany works in a similar way, each metaphor emphasizing one of the aspects of Desire. Of course, there is an important difference between the two poems. Herbert’s poem is something of an encomium to prayer, and the overall impression we are left with after the series of images is a sense of prayer’s mystery, almost of it being beyond the comprehension of man. Sidney’s, on the other hand, is a veritable bdelygmia, a list of all the bad things about desire, leaving us with quite contrasting impressions of its power and its meanness. Actually, the list is not exactly as dissociated as Herbert’s – while Shakespeare’s list builds a cumulative image, and Herbert’s a series of contrasting images, unrelated except in relation to the ultimate referent of the poem, Sidney’s imagery does contain some points of comparison – that web, the snare and the cradle for example, or ‘scum’ and ‘dregs’, while at the same time containing a number of contradictory qualities – Desire is a ‘band’ of evil, but also of something ‘scattered’. Rereading yields more points of similarity than first spotted – ‘blind’, for example, if taken to mean deliberate ignorance (as its root in Middle English blin – ignore –  implies) leads quite naturally to foolishness and then fantasy (fancy); and there seems to be a hint at the misled course of desire in the use of ‘band’ and ‘cradle’, synecdoches for marriage and childrearing. The picture built is one of confusion, connection mingled with contrast – quite appropriate given that one of the points of the poem is to demonstrate how Desire muddies the senses.

It is worth noting, in passing, that Sidney’s poem predates both the Shakespeare and Herbert passages, by two decades and about half a century, respectively, and so both poets could be utilising, and perhaps refining techniques which he had pioneered.

One technique heavily employed throughout the poem is alliteration. Alliteration has a long tradition in English poetry – much longer than rhyme – stretching back to Old English, in which it was the defining poetic technique, through Middle English, where it was revived – or perhaps, as in the case of north-western material like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where it survived the transition from Old to Middle English and the introduction of rhyme from the continent. It keeps reappearing because, as Simon Armitage proved when he translated Gawain into modern English, the English language, from Old to Modern, has retained its natural propensity for alliteration. And yet it is rare to see it used as heavily in sixteenth century poetry as it is here – it seems to have been considered a less elevated, less euphonious poetic technique than rhyme. Here it seems to be used in a spirit of scorn in a number of negative phrases – man’s mark, fond fancy (i.e. foolish dream), cause of care, web of will, mangled mind and worthless ware. This alliteration seems to summon the spittle on the tongue, a curl on the lip, a consonant repeated in emphatic contempt. Strangely enough it brings to mind that (comparatively) modern master of alliteration, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Not so much his great nature poetry, in which alliteration was one of a number of aural effects in poetry used to evoke the beauty of nature and the concomitant immanence of God. Rather the self-scorning alliteration of his so called ‘Terrible Sonnets’, or ‘Sonnets of Desolation.’

 God’s most deep decree 

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse. 

  Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.

(See the whole poem and my analysis/witty commentary here ).

The similarity to Hopkins lies in both the use of alliteration for scornful purposes, and in the sort of serious self-examination that both poets are subjecting themselves to. Hopkins finds himself dull and weak, unworthy of the God whose presence he yearns for, and finally resolving to be a better person; Sidney on the other hand, is taking a close look at his relationship with desire, analysing the ways it has undone him, and boasting of his ability to overcome this internal enemy.

And this is why, as I said at the outset, this poem seems to foreswear, or at the very least question the chivalric values that underpin Sidney’s earlier work. I complained in my last post about Sidney that his dedication to his love, Stella, and the way he turned the poem This Day My Horse around to make it about her did not quite ring true. It did when Petrarch and Dante did it, but in his poem, despite its merits, it seemed a mere pretext to talk about himself. Sidney’s own self-criticism is related but different:

Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought,
Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare

Sidney’s complaint does not preclude the Dantean conceit that through love can make a better person of you, but he admits that in his case, it has led him to waste. The implicit critique of the courtly love ideal here, is that it can act as a sort of shield for mere lust. If Cornish very obliquely winked at as much in the poem we looked at last post, in Sidney’s late poem the critique, of himself most of all, is that much fiercer. Of course for a practical man such as Sidney, self-criticism could only be useful as a prelude to action, and at the turn of the sonnet – at the third quatrain, the poet’s self-criticism turns to resolve as he boasts of his ability to overcome desire itself.

It seems here that in casting off much of the dreaminess of his earlier poetry, and in taming the excess of the chivalric influence, Sidney is finally enjoying the fruits of his labour to bring the full influence of the Renaissance into English poetry, and at the same time he is finding his own voice. It is a surprisingly austere voice, more soldier than courtier, and puritan in both the 16th century and 21st century meanings, but it is a voice worth listening to – after all, what could be more apposite in a time of all-round plenty than an ode to self-control? It is not just in poetic technique that this represents a move towards modernity – or at least a move away from medievalism. If he still exudes a certain Tudor braggadocio, he also does so self-critically, reflectively, able to analyse his own thoughts and desires without too much recourse to the great personified abstractions that dominated medieval conceptions of the world. If ‘Desire’ capitalised is one such personification, there is at least recognition that the battle with desire is something internal to the poet – it is ‘within myself’, he says, that he will ‘seek my only hire,’ that is that he will set his own internal goals as motivation rather than struggle for an earthly body. In such habits of thought, Sidney seems to be reaping the benefits of the Renaissance the influence of humanism, and, some would argue (though not I), the influence of Protestantism. In that curiously Buddhist-sounding, and oxymoronic last line he both acknowledges the very real grip of the sexual desire he seeks to escape and, in implying two separate agencies at work within his own thought, hints at an understanding of human nature as something inherently fractured, something that seems closer to twentieth century thought than sixteenth.



Filed under Literature, Poetry

The Summer Malison

Alberta's tar sands (National Geographic)

Alberta’s tar sands (National Geographic)

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


Filed under Literature, Poetry

Up There

A few miles south of Hadrian’s Wall, running parallel to it through the Tyne Gap, runs the Stanegate (the stone road), or what is left of it, a Roman built road that pre-dates the Wall by a couple of centuries. This road runs right through the centre of the Roman remains of Corstopitum, the garrison and later trading town for the Empire’s northern frontiers, and base for forays into Scotland. Excavated in the 1980’s, the foundations of the town can be seen in their entirety a mere field or two outside of its modern day equivalent, the pleasant Northumbrian town of Corbridge, in one of the narrow, low-lying areas near the Tyne, a far cry (although in reality only a few miles from) the wind-blown crags on which Hadrian’s Wall perches.

The town’s foundations, when looked at in conjunction with a plan, give you a remarkably vivid idea of what the town would have been like. It was surprisingly small – perhaps the size of a modern day care home, and very organised, intersected by the Stanegate east to west, and roughly divided into four quadrants: a large grain storage building with a (once) decorated aqueduct; a sort of great square shopping centre divided into smaller stalls – sort a stone market place – in the middle of which is an empty space, but for a never-completed commander’s tower; the other two quadrants are a mix barracks, workshops, latrines and temples – an impressive four of them for such a small town.

I visited earlier this month, on a warm, dry September day. I looked around the museum a bit, at rusted coins, swords and armour, fragments of Gaulish pottery and Brittonic brooches, and statues from those temples. Then I went outside and and tried to get a sense of the place – but first I was rather distracted by the flock of twites that were pecking around the space around the commander’s house. Twites (which my auto-correct keeps changing to twits – but what is a flock of twits?) are small, likeable ground-feeding birds, somewhat like linnets, but less colourful and favouring slightly colder climes. I mention them only because it was novel to see a flock of birds on a long deserted building – a touch of memento mori and all that – but also because it’s not every day you see twites; since this is a blog about poetry, I’ll have to try and relate them to the poem later.

The atmosphere of my trip to Corstopitum was very much like that of this poem, also about Roman remains in England, albeit down in the Cotswolds, from the pen of the strange and wonderful and occasionally  slightly disorganised talent, Ivor Gurney:

Up There
On Cotswold edge there is a field and that
Grows thick with corn and speedwell and the mat
Of thistles, of that tall kind; Rome lived there,
Some hurt centurion got his grant or tenure
Built farm with fowls and pigsties and wood-piles,
Waited for service custom between whiles.
The farmer ploughs up coins in the wet-earth time.
He sees them on the topple of crests gleam.
Or run down furrow, and halts and does let lie
Like a small black island in brown immensity,
Red pottery easy discovered no searching needed
One wonders what farms were like, no searching needed,
As now the single kite hovering still
By the coppice there level with the flat of the hill.
Ivor Gurney

It is an enjoyable poem, and quite a relief from Gurney’s more battle scarred, often heart-rending war poetry, but as someone who has spent many years teaching English, I can’t help but notice Gurney’s idiosyncratic punctuation. Gurney seems to have neglected it in some parts of this poem, though after some lines throwing in a full stop where a comma would suffice. Some editors have seen fit to tidy this up – with some even adding a pronoun (lets them lie). I can see their point – Gurney obviously did not much care or think of punctuation. I have reproduced his original text, however, and I think it better suits the note-like nature of his poetry, without the addition of semicolons and ellipses, as if these were fresh observations fresh from the mouth or pen of the poet. Even that missing pronoun may have sounded perfectly natural to Gurney, immersed as he was in Elizabethan poetry. The rhyming and rhythm is perfectly organised of course, much more important from a poet’s point of view, whatever his old English teachers would have thought. I do think he might have thought to revise one of the couplets though:

Red pottery easy discovered no searching needed

One wonders what farms were like, no searching needed,

I’m warming to Gurney a lot, but I must admit this couplet lacks any coherent grammar, and is a bit of a lazy rhyme. Even editors aren’t sure what to do with this, but those of us who read poetry for pleasure can let it pass.

I love the casual way that England’s Roman past emerges in this poem, from a coin or fragment of pottery ploughed up from the ground (of course, I’m also glad that these days archaeologists take more care to put them in museums where people like me can peruse them at our leisure). The image is just right too: that black coin – for they are always black – lying atop a mound of fresh earth, or as Gurney puts it:

The farmer ploughs up coins in the wet-earth time.

He sees them on the topple of crests gleam.

For a poem about Roman remains, there is something very Anglo-Saxon about that couplet. First there is the phrase “the wet-earth time” which is very reminiscent of the old, very literal Old English names for months, such as woedmonad (weed month) or drimilcemonad (month of three milkings). The phrase ‘on the topple of crests gleam’, with that verb used as a noun, and those onomatopoeic consonant clusters, could have come from the pen of Gerald Manley Hopkins, who loved the rhythms and sounds of Old English verse, and brought them into his own poetry. You could imagine him getting a bit carried away with that coin in the mud:

He sees them on the topple of clod-clumped crests

God-given glimmerings gleaming on earth-turned crusts etc.

Recently, I read the fascinating The King in the North by Max Adams, a history of the golden age of early medieval Northumbria, focused around the great figure of Oswald. In an aside, he repeats the complaint of historians of the dark ages against archaeologists who dig up Roman ruins, that in their enthusiasm to reach stone foundations and rusted armour, they dig up the – admittedly addled – remains of the Brittonic or Anglo-Saxon buildings that were built on or around them, once the Romans had departed. It was some centuries after their departure that buildings of stone and mortar again appeared in the British Isles (except for some monasteries in the west of Ireland) – those heroes of the dark ages we hear about lived, ruled and worshipped in buildings of wood, sometimes built on or around Roman ruins. Once they had got the hang of building with stone, the British would take stones from the Roman sites – in the case of Corstopitum, it was mined for stone for Corbridge’s parish church, and for the impressive Hexham Abbey, four miles down the Stanegate. But enough remained to give the sense of much of Britain having been built on a Roman infrastructure, with the occasional structure, like Gurney’s field on Cotswold edge, left to the side and never reoccupied. I do wonder what became of that “hurt centurian” Gurney mentions. Did he stay in the Cotswolds, marry a local lass and eventually blend into the British gene pool? Or did he up sticks and head back to Italy or Byzantium with the Roman retreat?

That, I suppose, we’ll never know, but I will have to leave off such speculations, because earlier in this post I promised I would come back to those twites. If they provided my visit to the Stanegate with a chirpy touch of memento mori, then what of their rhyming cousin, the kite, who hovers over the hill in the final couplet? Last year I speculated on the meaning of this creature in the Russian poet Alexander Blok’s The Kite. In that poem, circling over a war-torn village, it seemed to signify the ever-presence of the threat of death, with vague connotations of aristocratic cruelty. Gurney’s kite also signifies something that is ever-present, but in a much more positive sense. We don’t need to strain our imaginations to wonder what life was like when the retired Roman lived here – he was surrounded by the same scenes as Gurney: the kite, the coppice, the flat of the hill. A nice ending… although we could reflect with some melancholy, reading the poem some ninety-odd years after it was written, that such scenery seems a lot less eternal than it may have appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century. But that’s taking us into Philip Larkin territory, and I’m really not in the mood, what with all these pleasant thoughts about Roman Britain, Anglo-Saxon alliteration, couplets and coppices, Corstopitum and the Cotswolds, kites, twites and farms in the wet-earth time.


Filed under Birds, History, Literature, Poetry

‘I wake and feel the fell…’

Last post I mentioned Hopkins’s ‘Sonnets of Desolation’. This is a group of five or six poems of a darker mood than most of Hopkins’s oeuvre, and of them this is my favourite:

 I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day. 

What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent 

This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went! 

And more must, in yet longer light’s delay. 

    With witness I speak this. But where I say

Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament 

Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent 

To dearest him that lives alas! away. 


  I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree 

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse. 

  Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see 

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be 

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

The poem has a memorable first line, evoking it seems a man waking to a darkness that is both literal and metaphorical: he has woken in the night in a state of agitation, and he has woken without the ‘light’ of God’s presence (we saw in ‘God’s Grandeur’ how light signifies God and hope). That ‘fell’ in the opening line means a ‘blow’, as in, I suppose, ‘a blow that falls on someone’, although my edition carries a note explaining that it is also a word that means animal fur, like ‘pelt’ – so the line carries the sense of the shock of an unhappy awakening, but also the synesthetic sense of darkness having a kind of texture – somewhat sinisterly, that of a beast. Fell is also a northern English word for a hill, and Hopkins, who for a long time lived in Lancashire, near England’s highest fells (in Cumberland and Westmorland) would have been aware of this, so perhaps the line also carries the sense of darkness looming over him like a hill, just when light should be dawning.

Initially the poem seems to be describing a sort of dark night of the soul, a night in which the poet has been wracked by tortured thoughts and doubts, but then Hopkins tells us ‘But where I say / Hours I mean years, mean life.’ This is to say that not just this night, but the poet’s whole life has been a desperate experience, and the ‘longer light’s delay’ refers not so much to the coming sunrise, or even to the next spring, but to the end of life.

Whence, then, this despair? The second part of the first stanza (or the second quatrain, if you like) blames a state of spiritual abandonment, a sense that Hopkins has been abandoned by God. He uses the metaphor of ‘dead letters’, an old term (in itself rather poetic) for post that has been sent but for one reason or another cannot reach the addressee, to describe the ‘cries, that is prayers, that seem to have been made in vain. This is not to be interpreted as alluding to any kind of atheism on Hopkins’s part, but a yearning for a closer relationship with God – one in which Hopkins feels His presence, his prayers are answers and his spiritual doubts and anxieties are assuaged. There is a tradition of such expressions in Christianity, going right back to the Bible itself – arguably to Jesus’s own lament on the cross ‘Why hast Thou forsaken me?’ Many spirituals experience a sense of having lost a closer communion with God at some point in their lives, a kind of withdrawal of God from their daily lives and thoughts, as if He is leaving them to think and fend for themselves. Mother Teresa said that this happened to her halfway through her life – which left a long time for her to rely on faith alone – doubts, and even the odd lament, are quite understandable in such circumstances.

It can also be argued that the poem describes something much like what we would call ‘depression’ and its attendant feelings of hopelessness, dread, and even a sort of existential loathing of life itself. A psychologist might not believe in the God that Hopkins reaches out for, but the despair and loss of appetite for life is still real – atheists can experience this too, in the experience of life itself seeming to lose all meaning and significance, of the joy and colour draining out of life, of the impossibility of communicating this to others.

Whatever you want to call the state of mind described in the first part of the poem, the last stanza – the sestet if we’re being technical – is interesting. As some of you students of the Italian sonnet reading this may know, the sestet is supposed to bring a ‘turn’ – a change of focus or tone that puts what has hitherto been said in a different light. In this stanza what comes with the turn is this: that the source of despair is not God, or His supposed abandonment of Hopkins, or the world, but (I am gall, I am bitter) himself; the bitterness he is tasting is that of his own self, the reason that his spirit cannot rise is his own ‘dull dough’. And Hopkins sees a lesson to be learnt in his desolation:

I see 

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be 

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

The ‘lost’ are the damned, those who in Dante’s Inferno we see suffering fates that match the sins that they committed on earth. Dante wanted to show us that sin and misery go hand in hand, that their very worst punishment is to be who they are, to be what they have made themselves. Hopkins echoes this idea, describing the lost as being ‘the scourge’ of their ‘sweating selves’; Hopkins is hardly the type to go all fire and brimstone on us, which had – at least in literary circles – gone out of fashion since Dante’s time, but isn’t it clever how ‘scourge’ brings in the idea of punishment, perhaps too of torture, while ‘sweating selves’ brings to mind those naked sinners roiling in hellfire? Having expressed his darkest despair, Hopkins is steeling himself to accept his life on earth, and perhaps, implicitly at least, to try to be a better person, as hard as it is. While he might be describing something very like what we would call depression, he does not after all seek an external cure or comfort.


Filed under Literature, Poetry

God’s Grandeur

Last post, on the topic of The Name of the Rose, I made a passing reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins, who (I thought) had inspired one of the exchanges of the novel. Hopkins deserves more than a passing reference now and again, and so here is one of his best poems. To be read aloud, ‘slowly, strongly marking the rhythms and fetching out the syllables,’ according to the poet:

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.

A friend of mine has a rather glib – though accurate – line on Hopkins that his poems can be summarised as saying, see that beautiful natural thing over there… that’s God, that is. I should mention that this friend is a big fan of Hopkins too, despite being a solid atheist. One doesn’t necessarily need to share Hopkins’s beliefs to appreciate the beauty that his poem doesn’t just describe but evokes in fresh, vivid images and crisp, musical sounds; and one still feels the despair of the first stanza and the rebirth of hope in the last without being fully able to appreciate the religious connotations – though even for a non-believer, the connection between the beauty of a sunrise and the unfathomable sense of hope that it inspires can be a source of wonder. As a religious waverer – and enjoyer of the English countryside, I think I can just about enter into sympathy with the idea that manifestations of beauty in nature are manifestations of the grandeur of God, though I lack Hopkins’s confidence that they really truly are. Even Hopkins himself had his moments of religious doubt and despair (if not actual scepticism) , however, as anyone who has read the so-called ‘Sonnets of Desolation’ can attest to.

I’ve never studied Hopkins – just read and enjoyed him. I know there will be GCSE students up and down the country marking the alliteration in the poem’s lines and trying to define its effect, and A-level students swotting up on the Italian sonnet, while some university students will be trying to unravel the mystery of Hopkins’s ‘sprung rhythm’, but his poems, though undoubtedly complex and crafted, are accessible to all, I think. The idea of light ‘shining’ from ‘shook foil’ (shaken foliage) sounds strange at first – but when we visualise it, the image is perfectly appropriate: just watch a tree in the sunlight on a windy day.

It is noticeable, reading God’s Grandeur, how modern sounding is Hopkins’s attitude to the environment. Like many conservationists of the 20th Century, he is keenly aware of the damage that mankind can do to the countryside, and even of the way that modern life can alienate us from nature and thus, from Hopkins’s point of view, from God. The poem is an ancestor of Larkin’s poetry, I think, and Hopkins’s distaste for Victorian development a precursor of that great poet-reactionary’s rejection of modern Britain. Of course, unlike Larkin, Hopkins ends with a note of hope, a sense that man can never truly vanquish the beauty in (and above) the world.


Filed under Literature, Poetry

The Name of the Rose

 I’m making a departure this week and writing about a novel rather than a poem. It is not a book review – for one thing, I’m making no effort to be either comprehensive or objective, rather focusing on a few things I found interesting and you may too. It’s more of a personal response, just as with the posts on poems… Well that’s enough prefacing, and here’s my revie- er, response, complete with wry subheadings:

Elementary my dear Adso

I started this novel with a furrowed brow. The main character is called Brother William of Baskerville. For a book – quite rightly – praised for its convincing depiction of twelfth century monastic life, the rather cumbersome homage to Arthur Conan Doyle is a bit of a mood-breaker. Way to remind us it’s only a story, Professor Eco! This aside, the historical setting and characters have a very authentic feel. I always worry, with historical fiction, that the next anachronism is just around the corner, with the next line of dialogue. And a book about monks, well – that had me particularly worried: we love to project our own ideas of religion onto monks – they must be either devout and mystical, or riddled with petty jealousy and perversion, but Eco creates a world of varied and interesting men in habits, and doesn’t rely too much on mysticism or perversion to explain their behaviour. The authentic feel is assisted by Eco’s novel way of dividing the book. Rather than chapters, the book is divided into seven days, themselves divided into the periods corresponding to the liturgical hours at which the monks must pray.

Howay the Franciscans!

There’s lots of interesting things about this book, but first, I have another bone to pick about this Baskerville business. Not only is it a bit of unwelcome intertextuality, but it rings the wrong bells geographically speaking, because Baskerville, in the Holmes adventure was in the West Country, out in the moors of Devon. William, on the other hand, is almost certainly (like myself) a Geordie.

‘Geordie’ might be pushing it, of course, as in the Twelfth Century there was no such word, but William is elsewhere described as having the appearance of someone born ‘between Northumbria and Hibernia’ – that is, between the North East of England (and the South East of Scotland) and Ireland. This would make William Cumbrian (or, on a wonky medieval map, Scottish or Welsh), but I guess that Eco rather meant someone from around the areas of Northumbria and Hibernia, as it is unlikely that the narrator – a German monk called Adso – is supposed to have had a clear idea of what a Cumbrian looked like. Eco, knowing his ecclesiastical history very well, is of course invoking the Christian heritage of Northumbria – the lands between the Tees and the Tweed, where Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. There are only two other English monks mentioned in the novel, and both are Northumbrians, one Hugh of Newcastle, who is described as having a similar accent as William, and (I think) a John of Alnwick. Forget ‘Baskerville’ then, and Sean Connery in the film version – William is a Northumbrian.

The Sorrows of Young Adso

Eco anyway has given him a dry, English sense of humour, while the narrator, his young German protégé is a little more earnest, at some points reminding us somewhat of a young, over-sensitive Goethe (or Werther), not least when he falls in love with a young peasant girl and indulges in a kind of free jazz version of Song of Songs. This sort of mild anachronism is forgivable – welcome, in fact – Eco uses his learning to amuse as well as to dazzle. I enjoyed too the conversation between William, and the Italian Abbot, Ubertino, like so many characters in the book, a historical character. They are debating how the beauty of God is manifest in the world. William shies away from the erotic connotations of some of Ubertino’s descriptions of the love between man and God, describing the beauty of nature that seems to reflect the sensibilities of English nature poetry, and particularly the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

‘God perceived us as light, in the rays of the sun, the images of mirrors, the diffusion of colours over the parts of ordered matter, in the reflections of daylight on wet leaves…’

There is more than a hint of ‘Dappled Things’ and ‘God’s Glory’ in there, just as there is more than a trace of Juana de la Cruz in Ubertino’s imagery.

Monkey Business (sorry)

The story begins with the journey of William of Baskerville, and his assistant – and our narrator- the novice Adso, to an unnamed monastery in the north of Italy, famed for its great library, on serious diplomatic business. They quickly become embroiled in a murder mystery, however, following the nasty death of a young monk and then another. This detective story drives the plot from thereon in – and, as detective stories go, it’s not a bad one. For me, however, more interesting than the identity of the murderer are the background story and the various subplots and debate. None more so than the story of Fra Dolcino, a rebel monk, and a heretic, who – I was surprised to find when I Googled his name halfway through my reading- is a real historical character. Dolcino was a kind of guerrilla fighter whose group of rebels and hangers on lived licentious lives on the run, pillaging and murdering, living free of the rule of law or of any guilt for wrongdoing. It is Dolcino’s legacy that gives The Name of the Rose some of its most interesting characters, both those who were once Dolcino’s followers, and have escaped to the seclusion of the abbey – and the heretics’ terrifying nemesis, the inquisitor, Bernard Gui.

Fascinating stuff – as are the stories about the Avignon Pope, John XXII, and the asides about 12th Century herbalism and science, and about the rarer books of the monastery’s library. If there is one scare on the anachronism front, it is with William himself, who seems to me just a little too sceptic for a thirteenth century monk – almost a proto-enlightenment figure, though Eco makes this just about plausible with his references to Oxford, William of Ockham and Roger Bacon. He is still the most intriguing character in the novel, and Adso feeds us here and there tantalising snippets of information about his past.

Various Revolutions

I began to wonder, as I was finishing the book, whether the events portrayed in it, real or fictional, had any bearing on the modern world. Authors of historical novels like to tell us that their books should be read for what they are, and not as being some discreet comment on modern times. I remember Hilary Mantel saying something of the kind a few years ago, as she insisted that Wolf Hall was a novel about Thomas Cromwell and his time, and not about ours, and I believe her. And yet it’s not hard to see how Mantel, as a Baby Boomer, would be drawn to such a character – one of the new men of the court of Henry VIII, who rose through his own merits, above those with inherited privilege, before utterly revolutionising the mores of Tudor England – or utterly devastating its moral and spiritual heritage, depending on your point of view: the Baby Boomers’ favoured version of recent history is that they did something comparable in the sixties, replacing a world of inherited privilege and Anglican values, with something like the world we have today.

Eco is not a boomer – he was born between the wars, but he may also have had more recent cultural upheavals on his mind while writing The Name of the Rose. There are some interesting parallels between the ecclesiastical and heretical movements spoken of in The Name of the Rose -from the Franciscans with concern for the poor and distaste for worldly goods to the Dolcinians with their sexual licence and violence and the Bogomils with their denial of God and their (supposed) homosexuality – and with some of the manifestations of the Modern West’s cultural upheavals – the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, 1968, and ultimately communism. Although cultural change came to Italy relatively late, far left agitation in Italy was somewhat violent and extreme in Italy compared with other western countries. The Name of the Rose was written a little more than a decade after 1968, and the violence of the Red Brigades was still fresh in the memory. I am not suggesting that this book is somehow a ‘comment’ on those events, rather that the ructions of modern days may have had Eco thinking about what has inspired such fanaticism down the ages.

Anyway, this was an enjoyable and thought provoking read.  More than just an above average episode of CSI Bergamo.


Filed under History, Literature