Before me, the horror of hell
Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?
I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dove-winged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.
The frown of whose face? I'm inclined to say God the Father. Hopkins fears the justice of a judging God, yet feels himself pinioned between the just God who must condemn him for his sins and hell which seems open to receive him. His choice is to fly to the “Host,” the sacrifice, which is Christ. His heart is like a bird, both a dove and a bird of prey. He flashes from the flame to the flame—perhaps from the flame of hell to the flame of Christ’s love. Towering from the grace to the grace suggests that he moves from the grace of the Father, of the Old Covenant, to the grace to the New Covenant offered by the Son; having lost the first grace of adoption, he looks for the grace of redemption.
In an hourglass, at the wall
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
As it crowds and it combs to the fall;
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall
Flanks or fells of the voel, a vein
Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.
This difficult stanza deals with many metaphors. “Soft sift in an hourglass” suggests the speaker’s limitation: he is not eternal, but constantly sliding toward destruction. The well is another image. Water in a well has the appearance of stability, still within like a pane of glass, but in reality the cause of its stability is that it is constantly fed by rivers from higher up. “Flanks or fells of the voel,” means “sides of the mountain”—voel is a Welsh word for a mountain. “Roped with,” in Hopkins’ usual imagery, suggests a mountainside scored with “ropes” of river. “Vein” also gives the same image, while continuing to remind us of the river’s action in feeding the well. In the same way, the gift of Christ’s grace feeds the soul, keeping something which is inherently temporal, sliding toward oblivion, instead stable and possessing something of eternity.
The readers can imagine the streams of water twisting like silver' ropes down the rocks of the high hill, and then entering into the veins of the lower rocks to replace what is drawn out of the well. (Kimiko Hotta, in this article.)
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it, and
Glow, glory in thunder,
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west;
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed,
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.
This stanza introduces us to Hopkins’ idea of instress. It’s a difficult notion to understand, considering that the poet never defined it, but it had to do with giving close attention to created things in order to understand their inner essence, or inscape.
Hopkins kisses his hand to the stars, not only because they are lovely (lovely-asunder is a beautiful phrase; it suggests the broken light of stars), but because they seem to breathe out the presence of God. This is not only the idea that creation suggests God or makes the speaker think of Him, but an acute awareness of God’s real presence in creation.
Christ is under the splendor of the world, but that isn’t enough for Hopkins. Instead, he must actually look for Him, giving the presence of God appropriate emphasis and attention. This is so that he can speak to God when he finds Him and offer his prayer of praise for every work of God he understands.