Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Saying the Angelus While Driving in the City by Night

The angel declared in the silence
    On the world's stony face,
The buildings were silent and listened,
    All hail, full of grace.

The travellers paused in the highways
    When her answer was heard:
Tell Him His handmaid's desire
    Is one with thy word.

And the Word became flesh
    In a world full of stone
And dwelt among us
    Who had been so alone,

And now these are living stones and streetlights
    The roads are exchanged
For rivers of light, full of blessing,
    The world has been changed.

It may be the world's stony spirit
    Will be flesh again.
Thy grace for the cross and the glory
    Pour forth, we beseech Thee. Amen.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Wreck: Stanzas 6-8

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Not out of his bliss
Springs the stress felt,
Not first from heaven (and few know this)
Swings the stroke dealt;
Stroke and a stress that storms and stars deliver,
That guilt is hushed by, hearts are flushed by and melt,
(But it rides time like riding a river,
And here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss):

This section begins to discuss suffering. Considering all the references later on to the storm’s actions serving God, it would seem that God Himself sent the storm which sank the Deutschland. Hopkins rejects this view, however. The storm did not come from heaven, not from God, but from nature. Since God created nature, though, doesn’t that mean he causes the storm too? It seems that way, but Hopkins still holds, without yet explaining it, that God does not cause evil. The Catholic perspective is that God never wills evil, but he allows evil for the sake of greater good: man’s free will, for example. In cases where nature itself seems to be causing the evil, the case is more difficult, though. I tend to think that original sin did such damage to creation that it causes many “natural” things that God never intended in the original plan of the universe.

The sixth and seventh lines of the stanza are rather obscure to me. I would think the guilt would be flushed—in the sense of the blushings of an awakened conscience—and not hushed. Maybe Hopkins is referring to the mystery of redemptive suffering. A guilty soul welcomes the stroke of suffering in the hope that it will help purge away sin.

In the last line, we see the effect of suffering: it shakes the faith even of the faithful, while the faithless go astray in searching for explanations.

It dates from a day
Of his going in Galilee,
Soft-lain grave of a womb-life grey,
Manger, maiden’s knee;
The dense and driven Passion, and frightful sweat,
Thence the discharge of it, there its swelling to be;
Though felt before, though in high flood yet,
What none would have known of it, only the heart, being hard at bay,

Is out with it! Oh,
We lash with the best or worst
Word last! How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe
Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,
Gush! Flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,
Brim, in a flash, full! Hither then, last or first,
To the hero of Calvary, Christ’s, feet;
Never ask if meaning it, wanting it, warned of it – men go.

The origin of the stroke of the storm is not dated to the first sin, but to Christ’s life on earth. The connection, I suppose, is that Christ suffered, and therefore it is fitting for us to suffer even though Christ’s death did not cause our suffering.

Christ’s life in the womb is already referred to as a grave. This connects to the difficulty I’ve always had with T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” when birth is so like death. I can somewhat understand it, though, by realizing what the Incarnation must have been to the Eternal God. What was infinite became finite, what was immortal became mortal—is this not a kind of death? By the first moment of Christ’s conception, He had already set His foot on a road He knew would end in death.

The “discharge” of the Passion—a strange term, but I think it must refer to the blood and water pouring out of Christ’s side. His heart, as yet, was still unknown: though some had felt its love before, and though the love still pours forth today, the telling moment was when His heart burst. The image is of a hunted creature “hard at bay,” turning to use its last weapon. Christ’s weapon is His love, not completely let loose in His death until the moment evil had apparently most triumphed.

So much for His heart. What about ours? We “lash with the best or worst / Word last.” What does this mean? I think it refers to the moment of our death: how we become our best or worst at our last moment. Christ’s heart spilled forth itself in His death; we also pour our ourselves in our death, and whatever we contain within us is revealed at its best—or worst. “Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”

A sloe is a fruit, something like a plum I believe, which has been kept in lush leaves till its moment of ripeness. When the mouth bites it and it bursts, its juice gushes forth, sour or sweet, revealing the true nature of the fruit. Sometimes a beautiful fruit is sour within. In the same way our being pours out at the moment of our death, revealing us as a good or bad fruit. In a flash we fill up the measure of all we have ever been. I imagine a cup that Christ holds out to catch our soul, and we instantly fill it up at that moment with all the good or bad we contain within ourselves.

There is a command, then: come to Christ’s feet, Christ the “hero of Calvary,” by His death. Traditionally a hero would die fighting—but we know that on a spiritual level, Christ was fighting at the moment of His death, not with swords but with His love and mercy. We must come to Christ now, whether we are at the beginning of our lives or the end, because at any moment, unwilled and unwarned, our death may come.


Monday, August 06, 2007

The Wreck: Stanza 3-5

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The frown of his face
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.

I am soft sift
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.)

I kiss my hand
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.


Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Wreck: Stanza 1-2

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Thou mastering me,
God! giver of breath and bread,
World’s strand, sway of the sea,
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

The “invocation of the muse” of this poem addresses God, of course, Hopkins' inspiration for this poem. Hopkins uses the Anglo-Saxon word “master,” a verb made from a noun, which leads to a more dynamic expression than either “Thou, my master” or “Thou ruling me” -- it combines the sense of the verb and of the noun.

God is the provider of life, as well as of the world's shores and the ocean. The phrases in line 3 seem to be floating, but they are actually objects of “giver of,” along with “breath and bread.” The “strand,” the beach or coastline, and the “sway” (both in its sense of motion and of dominion) of the sea are given to men. The beginning focuses on the ocean to foreshadow its later importance. God is also the Lord of living and dead—both of which will appear in this poem. The moment of transition from one to the other ends up being quite important later.

The account of God's creation of the speaker is written with images of craftsmanship: this is not a God who simply wills the being of man, but who takes care and builds man—-just as He does in the creation account in Genesis, making man out of the clay of the earth. “After it almost unmade” is unclear; it might be a reference to some sickness or danger Hopkins had suffered, although I believe his severe health troubles began much later. In any event, the line shows God's dominion over the speaker, since He made him and can unmake him as easily but chooses to spare him. The sense of “dread” is not one of servile fear, but simply of reverence, as in the phrase used to a king: “my dread lord.” God's actions are worthy of dread, since He can do anything to make or mar us, but that does not mean that we are afraid of Him—-one of the mysteries of the faith. The speaker feels the touch of God—-a frightening thing, but he does not shrink back but instead feels God's touching finger, using God's primary action for his own following action of experiencing Him.

I did say yes
O at lightning and lashed rod,
Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
Thy terror, O Christ, O God,
Thou knowst the walls, altar and hour and night,
And the swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
Hard down with a horror of height,
And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.

This next stanza is more difficult: it may refer to actual events of which we are unaware. Perhaps the speaker is projecting himself upon the shipwreck, as though he were there, in that lightning. Whatever the case may be, the speaker affirms his acceptance of God's actions—-he said yes to them and repeats his yes. He “confesses”--an important word when taken in a spiritual sense: think of the “confessors,” those saints who proclaimed their faith, especially in a time of persecution, but who were not martyred. Hopkins realizes that he is a confessor. The grace of martyrdom is not given him, but he never ceases confessing God. Especially he confesses the “terror” of God—his ultimate, fearable power.

Yet God understands the fear the speaker has, and knows about those things that have troubled him. God knows how the speaker's heart swooned in the face of the suffering He sent him. This stanza almost makes God seem cruel and merciless, treading a heart hard down, and yet taken with the rest of the poem, it can't really be understood that way. The speaker simply affirms his sufferings and acknowledges that God knows them. The last line is mysterious: I tend to think of the midriff of the ship, stressed to breaking point, but I really couldn't say.

(Lashed rod, a commentator suggests, may be a reference to the fasces of the Roman consuls: a bundle of an axe and rods, to show the consuls’ power to punish. Lightning, as well as being present in the wreck, is also a symbol of God’s violent power: “Thou art lightning and love.” The speaker "says yes" in the face of these frightening symbols of God's power because he trusts God despite his fear.)


The Wreck of the Deutschland

All right, I'm finally going to begin posting this. It's a project I've been working on for awhile: the attempt to annotate Hopkins' The Wreck of the Deutschland, to the point that more people might actually make sense of it.

First, it might be a good idea to read the poem, although I will post each stanza as I explain it.

I'd really like feedback on this project, because I'm hoping to improve and expand it with time. If anything I write is unclear, if I left anything unexplained, or if you disagree with my explanations, please tell me!

Stanzas 1-2
Stanzas 3-5
Stanzas 6-8
Stanzas 9-10
Stanzas 11-12