Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What in Christ's name does this mean?

The Starlight Night

LOOK at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! 
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there! 
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes! 
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies! 
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare! 
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!—
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, aims, vows. 
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs! 
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows! 
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house 
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse 
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

So what does the poem mean?

What means this bizarre double-jointed curvature, this sharp hairpin turn from fireworks "ooooooohs" and "ahhhhhhhhs" into the kind of heavy and even suffocating religiosity that leaves me completely kerflummoxed?

I don't know much about Gerard Manley Hopkins except to say that when he became a Jesuit, he burned every poem he had ever written. Thus perhaps some of his best works were relegated to the ashcan.

He's the one who wrote about depression, that Carrion Comfort one that I find so harrowing, to the point that I think he must have been a true sufferer. But why must everything in Hopkins be Christified?

The poem starts off very much like an innocent Robert Louis Stevenson verse for children, a "how would you like to go up in a swing" sort of thing. But there is a sort of urgency to it, as if we'd better look now or we'll be too late. It seems to tug and poke at us, hey, take a look up there, look at Casseopeia (which I can NEVER see - I am the poorest of visual discerners and can't tell one bloody constellation from another). Then comes a flood of almost-precious elven description right out of Lord of the Rings. Cockle-shells and dingle-bells. Except that, because it's Hopkins, he can get away with it. It's a surprising, even shocking quality, the art of verbal daring.

Fire-folk sitting in the air, why yes, that's a line any poet would kill for. Quickgold: that's perfect, isn't it - why didn't anyone think of that before? The air swirls with magic, you can see your breath, you're shivering yet too warm, your companion's hand is like ice in yours. Yes, you're there, transported, borne up like a downy feather (take THAT, Gerard!) as the constellations wheel drunkenly over your head.

Where I go off-course is in the line, "Ah well! It is all a purchase, all is a prize." What can he be getting at? Taken literally, it makes no sense at all. Purchase what? Prize what? Does he mean we have to earn the right to get into heaven, so to speak - heaven represented by the rapturous star-filled night? Is immortality a kind of lottery, a spiritual 6-49?

Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, aims, vows.

I don't know if he's talking about "buying your way in", trying to bribe God (good luck!), or the cheapness and crassness of reality compared to the gasping celestial vision. It's one of those weirdball Hopkins-ian things that makes you want to toss the book across the room.

But then he gets back to the "look, look" stuff, which by now is getting a little old (can't help but think it!) in spite of the "Maymess" (a word I really thought *I* had invented) and the "mealed-with-yellow sallows".

But then come the strangest lines of all.

These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

I don't know, this grounds the poem with a thud, steals all its magic. Hopkins must have had some sort of a thing for Christ, and it's weird. When I first read this startling thing, my reaction was "what"? These are indeed the - barn? And what are "the shocks"? Kindly explain yourself, poet.

I can only guess - and I am really guessing here, because this is an odd thing that doesn't make much sense even after a lot of analysis - that he thinks of the heavens/nature and all that jazz as "housing" Jesus and Mary and all those holy folk who to him represent God. Or does he glimpse the holy/eternal in and through, are those starfolk sitting in the air little glints of God, God's little birthday candles maybe?

Is the universe just God's skin?

I might be reading more into this than I should. Hey, maybe I'm smarter than he was, or at least less obscure. But there are things I don't like here, words that may or may not be used for jarring effect: "barn" (barn? Haven't we just travelled to the farthest reaches of the universe? Why use the image of an outbuilding that is basically full of shit?); "shuts" (an awful word, implying "shut-in" and even "shut up!); "spouse", a sort of creaky word referring to one's life partner - oh, that's creepy! Oh, that's creepy! Is he married to Jesus, or his mother? I guess "espouse" can mean just believing in something. Or something.

Or surrendering to it? Oh God. I was never one for surrender, though in certain circles (does the term 12 Step Program mean anything to you?) it's considered the highest achievement.

And that word "hallows" is not one I am comfortable with either - all hallows eve, hallowed be thy name (which for some reason always reminded me of the inside of a pumpkin, that punky smell). So he throws in some language which could not be more at odds with the dazzling fluidity of those first few lines. What of buying, selling, bidding - what's he on about? Maybe it would be better to stop at Line 7. Can the Sunday school lesson; just dazzle us.


  1. Hmmmmmmmm. I like the beginning better, too. Maybe that's why he burned them -- couldn't stand his endings.

  2. It wouldn't surprise me if Hopkins had temporal lobe epilepsy. He had these religious convulsions that led to the strangest, most beautiful imagery. I don't think he was a happy man, to say the least. I must Wiki him now.