Saturday, 4 August 2012

Resurrection: Religious poetry for atheists

It has been a while - life has got in the way of my poetry project. But I have decided to resurrect my blog. In honour of the theme, this will be a post on another Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, this time on the subject of resurrection. I know it's poor form to repeat poets so early on, but this is the best poem I know about resurrection.

Many atheists steer clear of religious poetry, but I think some of the great religious poets, like Hopkins and (late) Donne, say profound things about life, doubt, pain and death which make their verse powerful to believer and unbeliever alike. The title of this poem refers to a 'Heraclitean Fire'. Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher who (as I understand it) thought that fire was the fundamental element, and gave rise to the other elements, and to all things. He wrote that: "The death of fire is the birth of air, and the death of air is the birth of water." Hopkins poem is about the transformations of nature - from air to water to fire - and the transformation of Man through resurrection. For a clear explanation of the poem see here (if you read it and don't understand it).

As discussed in my previous post, Hopkins uses really unusual meter, which here is used to capture the vibrancy and movement of the natural world. He also invents words, which is cool. Like 'firedint', which seems to mean the mark we make on the world - in the end it is nothing, because you can't dint fire; it is in a state of continuous change. Technically, this poem also makes incredible use of commas and lists.

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection 
Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest's creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature's bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
                            Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart's-clarion! Away grief's gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
                            Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world's wildfire, leave but ash:
                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                            Is immortal diamond.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a priest, but many of his poems are about depression and despair. This poem almost perfectly combines his love of nature, his despair at the fleeting nature of man's existence, and his faith. The start of the poem captures the movement and constant change of the natural world. The reference to 'squadroned masks and manmarks' integrates the world of man into the picture of nature - man is not separate from nature nor controlling it, but merely another moment in the transformation of the Heraclitean fire - nature's 'clearent-selved spark'.

Then comes the moment of despair - 'all is in an enormous dark/Drowned. O pity and indig'nation!' None of the marks Man makes on the world will remain - not only does death blot us out, but the 'marks' we leave on the world 'vastness blurs and time beats level'. This entire middle section is a stunning portrayal not only of our fleeting time on earth, but of the smallness of our 'marks' - fame, fortune, poems - in the face of time and the world.

But for Hopkins, the Resurrection of Christ is our hope - 'A heart's clarion'. We can leave the world and nature - 'world's wildfire, leave but ash'. Our physical body returns to nature; grief and dejection also fall away. While I don't believe in Jesus, the resurrection etc, if I did the version I would believe is Hopkins'. Christ, by becoming a man, transforms Man in death, from matchwood to immortal diamond. Christ is also both "Jack, joke, poor potsherd", as well as God and the saviour. And the repetition of 'immortal diamond' is just beautiful.

I love this poem because even though there is despair at its heart (ie in the middle of the poem), there is still so much love and beauty in it - love for nature (full of movement and frenzy and change) and love for Christ (ending in the stillness of the immortal diamond - solid and unchanging forever). Nature and God are both eternal - one eternally changing and one eternally still in the final transformation from Man on Earth to Man in Heaven.

Regardless of whether you believe in the Resurrection and the Life, I believe this poem is a beautiful exploration of the nature of existence and the fear of death; the wildness of nature and the transience of our place in it.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Nature Poetry Part 1: The Windhover, Gerard Manley Hopkins

For many years I firmly believed that nature poetry was completely lame.  Why did I think this? I was of the view that nature best expressed itself, and that nature poetry was little more than a pale, boring reflection of reality.  Also, I've never got into Wordsworth, who I strongly associated with nature poetry. Then I revisited this poem in a book of children's verse which I had owned for years.  I had been reading Gerard Manley Hopkins' super-bleak sonnets (worth another post), and found this much more uplifting verse (which incidentally I don't think was written specifically for children).

The Windhover
I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
  dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,        5
  As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion        10
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
[Note: Apparent Hopkins invented the word sillion, which means: The thick, voluminous, and shiny soil turned over by a plow.]
This poem is full of unbridled enthusiasm for the beauty of nature, and describes both the bird in flight and the viewer's response to it.  The rhythm of the poem slows and quickens, like a bird riding the currents of air - rising and falling.

Hopkins was a master of meter. He 'discovered' a type of meter which he called sprung rhythm.  This basically is a form of meter where the number of accented syllables in a line are counted, but the number of unaccented syllables are not.  So, a foot will have one accented syllable, but could have any number of unaccented syllables.  A paeonic foot ordinarily would have one stressed syllable followed by three unstressed, and Hopkins identified this poem as containing paeonic feet, as well as 'outriding' feet - unstressed syllables not counted in scansion. 

It is this uneveness of the rhythm due to the use of unstressed syllables which creates the effect of slowing and quickening, and rhythmically reflects the movement of a bird in the sky. While I think that scanning Hopkins poems is great fun, the complexity of his rhythms makes it too large a task for a blog post.  For example, Hopkins typically stuck to the right number of feet per line.  Theoretically this means that this poem should scan five stressed syllables to a line.  However, in my view line 2 is extremely difficult to scan with only five stressed syllables, and I end up with seven.

The overall point is that the use of irregular rhythm was intended to sound more like natural speech, and Hopkins is seen by some as just giving a fancy name to free verse.  But he clearly still considered he was writing more formal poetry.  This poem is a petrarchan sonnet - fourteen lines divided into an octave and a sestet.  Typically the rhyming rules are not particularly strict for the sestet.  Hopkins rhymes all the lines in the octave, whereas a more typical rhyme scheme would be abba abba.

He also uses other poetic techniques like repetition and alliteration - "I saw this morning morning's minion"; "dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon", "rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing".
So, why is this poem not lame?  In my view there a three main reasons.  First, the link between the form of the poem and what it seeks to described, conjuring the image of the falcon through both description and sound.  Second, the bending of language to seek to describe the extraordinary - a normal form of words will not suffice so instead he makes a compound adjective: dapple-dawn-drawn. Third, because it seeks not only to describe but responds - "My heart in hiding/Stirred for a bird".

This latter line is so small, and yet so big - "My heart in hiding" conjures a retreat from the world, a sad heart which the bird calls out for a moment. Hopkins was a priest, and his nature poetry is also linked to a love of God in nature - the bird stirring his heart is perhaps also an image of God speaking to the unquiet or doubting spirit.

And how impassioned is the description? The excess of adjectives and emotion - "the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion/Times lovelier, more dangerous'. Nature here is dangerous and volatile - out of our control.

So, this poem converted me back to nature poetry, because I saw that nature poetry is not so much about description, but our relationship to nature and the world.  Poems where nature is just a metaphor are, I think, a little different.  Perhaps some more on that another day.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Poetry in context: John Donne

I heard a rumour that somebody read the poem I put at the end of my first post - John Donne's 'The Flea' - and thought it was a bit distasteful.  Perhaps the notion of seducing someone by saying you wished they were a flea sucking on your blood is a little gross.  Anyway, this comment made me think about Donne.  When I first read Donne as a teenager, I thought he was a horrible misogynist.

His poem Air and Angels is a good example of evidence in support of this argument.  I won't reproduce the whole poem here,  but the crux of it is the end of the poem:
Of air, not pure as it, yet pure doth wear,
    So thy love may be my love's sphere ;
        Just such disparity
As is 'twixt air's and angels' purity,
'Twixt women's love, and men's, will ever be.
The implication appears to be that a woman's love is less than a man': men's love is objectively and universally better than a woman's love because men's love is more 'heavenly', corresponding to the view that men are closer to God that women.  And definitely that's the kind of line which made me think Donne was a sexist jerk when I was a teenager.

But are things so simple? How to we approach a poem from a very different time, when society, beliefs and thoughts were very different to our own? I studied Donne at university, and suddenly 'discovered' him, as this amazing, complex poet full of ambiguity and beauty.

Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed is a fantastic, raunchy celebration of his lover.  Here is a saucy excerpt (but definitely read the whole poem):
Off with your hose and shoes ; then softly tread
In this love's hallow'd temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven's angels used to be
Revealed to men ; thou, angel, bring'st with thee
A heaven-like Mahomet's paradise ; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite ;
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
    Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below. 
Hot stuff.  And here the woman is linked with religious images, and the act of love becomes an act of celebration of beauty a spirituality.  Innocence and guilt are removed from sex, hinting at a different kind of morality.

On the other hand, Love's Alchemy is a bitter account of love and women.  The last stanza runs:
Our ease, our thrift, our honour, and our day,
Shall we for this vain bubble's shadow pay?
        Ends love in this, that my man
Can be as happy as I can, if he can
Endure the short scorn of a bridegroom's play?
        That loving wretch that swears,
'Tis not the bodies marry, but the minds,
        Which he in her angelic finds,
        Would swear as justly, that he hears,
In that day's rude hoarse minstrelsy, the spheres.
    Hope not for mind in women ; at their best,
    Sweetness and wit they are, but mummy, possess'd.
No sign here of spirituality and beauty in lovemaking, or in women.

After writing a lot of sexy love poems, Donne then wrote a whole lot of 'divine' poems about God. He eventually went into the Church. So for some people he is a great religious poet, for others a great love poet.  His religious poems are also great. Here is one of his Holy Sonnets:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
This is an extremely personal account of a struggle with faith - not an intellectual discourse.  It admits the reader like a love poem into the struggle in the heart of the speaker.  Reason and love pull the speaker in different directions - reason cannot bring him to God, but he loves God.  He is aware that a state of holiness will bring freedom, but cannot achieve it through an exercise of his own will - God must 'entrall' and 'ravish' him violently to bring him to this state.  Hot stuff.

So when people 'read' Donne, and write long essays or books about him - he's one of the most written about writers in the English language, up there with Shakespeare and William Faulkner - they often try for a unifying theme to understand all these works.  Often they look for a unified 'self' behind the poems, or an ideology.  This may involve trying to read Donne entirely in the context of his time, his life etc (ie - he was sexist because it was the olden days), or entirely from a modern perspective. I think both of these approaches are misguided, particularly where they seek a unified self (even a progressing self) behind the poems.  I believe Donne's poetry, in its very inconsistency,

He is often described as a metaphysical poet, which I believe means he wrote about the experiences of human beings in the world, and used interesting metaphorical devices to express them. Basically. A lot of books have been written about this.

What I think we can connect to in Donne is his uncertainty, his seeking.  He wears masks and personas, inhabits different positions.  He does not have coherent answers to the questions he raises.  But this uneasiness about being human - about love and sex and faith - can still reward the contemporary reader.  What kind of man he is - sexist, religious, conniving - is in the end not the point.  He is also really funny.  In 'Air and Angels' he refers, for example, to 'love's pinnace'.  I love dirty jokes that still work after half a century.

So, read Donne. He is an example of how poetry can explore what it means to be a human being in the world - our world, or another world.