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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Number 30: Gerard Manley Hopkins "Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord"

Thou art indeed just, Lord

Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum;verumtamen justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum properatur? etc.

    Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
    With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
    Why do sinners' ways prosper? and why must
    Disappointment all I endeavor end?

    Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
    How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
    Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
    Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,

    Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
    Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
    With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes

    Them; birds build--but not I build; no, but strain,
    Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
    Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

    --Gerard Manley Hopkins
Hap Notes: Gerard Manly Hopkins (1844-1889) was a Jesuit priest. He converted to Catholicism from the Anglican church while he was a student at Balliol College, Oxford. He was the oldest in a talented family of nine children. There is always talk (whenever anyone is a Catholic priest) of suppressed homosexuality in a few of his poems but I find the talk mostly hearsay (and tiresome, frankly)- and it matters very little since Hopkins was totally disciplined within his faith. His love of the God in three persons reminds me very much of the Sufi Dervish poet Rumi's love of the divine. Hopkins loved God and the natural world created by God with a profound and ecstatic depth.

Hopkins had very few (a couple, maybe) poems published in his lifetime. He was friends with the poet Robert Bridges (they met in college) and it was Bridges who published the poems after Hopkins' death. Hopkins wrote his poems with verve in silence, feeling that publishing them would be an even bigger burden to his vows of humility than writing them was. Thank God he kept writing them!

But I don't want to talk too much about his life since it's his poetry that is so extraordinary. He's possibly my favorite poet and his work is so extraordinary that still no contemporary poet can touch him for sheer use and sound of words and rhythms. It's a bit sad to start us out with Hopkins with one of the last poems he wrote before he died (he was only 45) but I think it's one of the easiest to understand with his "sprung rhythms" and "inscapes" as he called them. The rhythms are almost Welsh-like and the "inscapes" is a word Hopkins used to describe the inner spirit of a thing or place or incident.

The first verse of the above poem (replicated in the Latin in italics) is from the Bible: Jeremiah, 12:1 "Thou indeed, O Lord, art just, if I plead with thee, but yet I will speak what is just to thee: Why doth the way of the wicked prosper: why is it well with all them that transgress, and do wickedly? " Hopkins was a great scholar of Latin and wrote some poetry and translations with it. The speaker (in the poem and in Jeremiah) is obviously frustrated by what appears to be an unjust situation with "sinners" ways prospering.

Hopkins springs off of this and gives us examples, saying the "sots and thralls" of lust, alluding to drinking and sex, probably, but more than that. Anything that makes a person drunk and idle with lust, besotted with something and wanting it more than union with God and the universe. He says those besotted with lust for whatever accomplish their questionable goals more in their spare time than he, who spends every moment of the day in service to God.

Now he goes on to talk about the natural world around him that taunts him with its gorgeous productivity: the river banks, the "brakes" (an area of thickets or undergrowth) full of leaves and growth. Laced with "fretty" chervil (fretty as in fret-work or even as in the word fret-he loves to make descriptive words.) Chervil is an herb sort of like parsley (see picture above.)

It's the staggering of the words, when you read it aloud, that do a lot of the work. In the beginning, notice how the question he asks,"How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost/Defeat, thwart me?"- it sounds thwarted, choked and stopped up, doesn't it? Then there's the way he stops the reader to say "look" or "how thick!" in the middle of a sentence. The beauty of the phrase "fresh winds shake them"- can you hear the airy breeze in the bushes there? How dull and thick the "sots and thralls of lust" sound! There's great beauty in his intricate and seemingly effortless rhyming (did you even notice it rhymed?) He shows us all these lush things growing and prospering with life, while he feels like "time's eunuch"- castrated from ever breeding anything with life in it. The almost sassy way he uses the word "sir." And then the humbled last line.

Who has ever mapped creative or spiritual frustration quite so well? He starts out a bit resentful, gives us examples, sees the luxuriant natural world, sees all around him building as he strains, then, humbly implores God for nourishment. Notice how he prefers the lush vegetation of a plant- his "roots."

I don't believe, in the hundreds of times that I've read this poem over the years, that I have ever not had a tear in my eye after reading it. Sometimes it's for me, sometimes it's for Hopkins, sometimes it's for the world but it's always there. Even now.

Here's a good Hopkins quote: "What are works of art for? to educate, to be standards. Education is meant for the many, standards are for public use."

We will do much more Hopkins but I wanted to start out with an "easy" one. He's not hard to read but he is very original and, oddly enough, modern. You can find more Hopkins here:

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