“The times are winter, watch, a world undone:”

Gerard Manley Hopkins manuscript at Bodleian Oxford

Gerard Manley Hopkins manuscript at Bodleian Oxford

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,
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
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-vermilion.
Gerard Manley Hopkins

This poem is dedicated to Christ, and is Hopkins yearning for, desperate for the transfiguring experience of feeling at one.  In his mind at that time, this unity would be sought in experiencing a vision of God.

HIs innate ability to concentrate his senses in the attempt to expose what he termed the ‘inscape’ of living entities is astonishing.  He describes the wave

“Note: The curves of the returning wave overlap, the angular space between is smooth but covered with a network of foam. The advancing wave, already broken, and now only a mass of foam, upon the point of encountering the reflux of the former. Study from the cliff above. Freshwater Gate. July 23.”

Again and again in Hopkins poetry describing nature, his attention is paramount to bringing a scene to life and reinvigorating it by his fantastic, immoderate use of language. He excites, and is exciting; which is in complete contrast to how he lives his life. All is indeed paradox. This tale is sad.

Heralded by subsequent poets as one of the most important Victorian poets, Hopkins led a troubled, confused adult life. Having had a loving family and a close relationship with his father, he became estranged from them after converting to Catholicism. Faith was a huge part of Hopkins life, his background had been one of Protestant daily worship in which his mother was a practising HIgh Church Anglican. Her son’s conversion to Catholicism was experienced as a deep loss to her, and consequently he will too have felt the implications of losing a family to serve a Jesuit God. The Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation became for him the mystical catalyst which could transmute into gold, redeem, and regenerate all that is base–what Hopkins called “the triviality of this life,” “the sordidness of things.” This creates a deep schism between him and his Anglican family.

Added to this was his unwilligness to allow his sexual feelings, which he undoubtedly had toward his own sex, choosing to live instead a celibate life, abstention being preferable to Hopkins , who must have judged himself having unnatural, and thus disallowed feelings.
Cut off then from the comfort and security of his loving family, and distanced from his own nature, this young man chooses to place himself in a position where he cannot practise his art of poetry, since it in his view clashes with the requirement of the his position within the Jesuit faith “What I had written I burnt before I became a Jesuit and resolved to write no more, as not belonging to my profession, unless it were by the wish of my superiors; so for seven years I wrote nothing but two or three little presentation pieces which occasion called for [presumably `Rosa Mystica’ and `Ad Mariam’].

“My Liverpool and Glasgow experience laid upon my mind a conviction, a truly crushing conviction, of the misery of town life … of the degradation even of our race, of the hollowness of this century’s civilisation: it made even life a burden to me to have daily thrust upon me the things I saw.”

It is hardly surprising that the poet suffers from terrible periods of melancholy, and his later poems bear a great deal of desolation. In my mind this desolation and despair of life is an inevitable result of the conflicts he felt between his nature and the context of living in a Victorian Britain.

The poetry he leaves to us had profound implications on the modernist poets like Eliot who came after him. For me, the glory of his poetry is the power which is visceral in it’s quality, achieving a burst of wonder and joy. It is his ability to use words as immediately as an artists uses brush strokes and colour to evoke a surprise , a delight in the reader that is his glory. I grieve for the man, who lived with deep grief for far too much of his life, but I applaud the poet, who left us a rich and satisfying heritage. HIs work is like diving into a box of the most delicious , exciting chocolates, the sort crafted by a top notch chocolatier, rather than Cadbury’s. Sometimes dark and thrillingly disturbing, at other times sweet on the tongue and immensely satisfying. And like chocolate, it changes the brain. Be careful, this is a drug!!

Further reading http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/284


The title is from the poem:

The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less
The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;  
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:  
They waste, they wither worse; they as they run  
Or bring more or more blazon man's distress.  
And I not help. Nor word now of success:       
All is from wreck, here, there, to rescue one—  
Work which to see scarce so much as begun  
Makes welcome death, does dear forgetfulness.  

Or what is else? There is your world within.  
There rid the dragons, root out there the sin.   
Your will is law in that small commonweal...

I found this commentary on the web, which I thought was brilliant;

 "Many of their poems have the compression of black hole events. The reader stands at the tongue of the event, leaning over gingerly, having a bit of a look, afraid of the pull.


3 thoughts on ““The times are winter, watch, a world undone:”

  1. simonhlilly

    He’s always on the verge of uncommon madness, the loony on the bus. If he were not such a musician of sounds. A turbocharged confection of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) alliteration with British (Welsh) rhythmic styles. Like good chocolate, though, best in small amounts, perhaps!



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