Thursday, May 24, 2007

Closet Classics: Gerard Manley Hopkins

May 24, 2007

Years—dare I say decades?—ago, in the early days of MTV, there was a segment that came on at noon called Closet Classics. (Perhaps this is still part of the MTV line-up, but I haven’t watched MTV in over 15 years.) I was in college then, and there were several of us who, disdaining pop music, would gather in our dorm’s lobby religiously to get our daily dose of Closet Classics.

The 18th century writer Charles Caleb Colton wrote: “Books, like friends, should be few and well chosen. Like friends, too, we should return to them again and again for, like true friends, they will never fail us—never cease to instruct—never cloy.” Immersing myself in American Lit classics these past few weeks, I’ve been re-reading many writers with whom I was, as a student and English major, once more intimately acquainted. I read much poetry and many short stories in high school and college. I rarely read poetry now, which is odd since I am, primarily, a writer of poetry. And I rarely read short stories now, which is also strange because some of my best literary friends are short stories.

And so my summer resolution is to read more classic literature, from poetry to short stories to novels to plays. And when I remember, at noon, sporadically, I will post a Closet Classic, like this…


by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush ;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing ;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue ; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy ?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,

Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

About the Writer:
Gerard Manley Hopkins (July 28, 1844 – June 8, 1889), a Jesuit priest, was an English poet. Hopkins is famous for defying conventional poetry of his day. At this time, most English poetry embraced a particular rhythmic structure, with the stressed syllables falling in the same place on each repetition. Most of us remember this from high school English class, when we thought we would die from trying to figure out the mysteries of iambic pentameter.

Hopkins called his own rhythmic structure “sprung rhythm,” which he saw as a way to escape the constraints of conventional rhythm. Hopkins said that poetry written in only conventional meter often becomes "same and tame." In this way, Hopkins can be seen as anticipating much of free verse.

Hopkins is also loved for his use of language, particularly in his gentle use of alliteration. I love the language in the middle stanza: juice and joy, being and beginning, Eden and garden. Added richness comes from Hopkins’ extensive use of assonance, onomatopoeia and rhyme, both at the end of lines and internally as in: Hopkins was a poet who tasted the words, speaking them and perfecting them before he put the word on paper.

One of my professors in college, a poet himself, loved Gerard Manley Hopkins, and it wasn’t unusual for Dr. Magness to quote a line from Hopkins in Bible class or during a communion meditation at church. Amazingly, none of Hopkins' poetry was published during his lifetime. His work finally appeared in 1918 when it was published by his friend and fellow poet Robert Bridges.

More works by Gerard Manley Hopkins here.

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