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And wisdom is early to despair

April 4, 2012

A diptych by Gerard Manley Hopkins. They’re not his best work, but these two poems are what first convinced me he was worth studying. They originated as chorus-songs in a play Hopkins was writing (he had strange ideas about what might work in a theater), and, like most of his work, should be read out loud. Here’s Geoffrey Hill doing so.


HOW to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?
Ó is there no frowning of these wrinkles, rankéd wrinkles deep,
Dówn? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?
No there ’s none, there ’s none, O no there ’s none,
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair,
Do what you may do, what, do what you may,
And wisdom is early to despair:
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there ’s none; no no no there ’s none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.


There ís one, yes I have one (Hush there!);
Only not within seeing of the sun,
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air,
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,
Oné. Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,
Where whatever’s prized and passes of us, everything that ’s fresh and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matchèd face,
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets móre, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an everlastingness of, O it is an all youth!
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace—
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath,
And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs deliver
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold
What while we, while we slumbered.
O then, weary then why
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept.—Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where.—
Yonder.—What high as that! We follow, now we follow.—Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,

Re-reading, I’m struck by how close much of the imagery here is to that of J.R.R. Tolkien. I suppose I’m thinking of the first line’s “bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key,” and the later “winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay.” Flowing hair and keys and tombs–all very faerie-like, more at home in Middle-Earth than Hopkins’ nature poems. “As kingfishers catch fire” describes a thing through what it does, while these poems describe a thing through its physical attributes. Faerie imagery, perhaps, is that which works through synecdoche.

But it’s the tone, not just the poetic logic, that seems Tolkienesque. These poems are leaden and golden, both colors of twilight, not of fiery day (as his nature sonnets) or blackest night (as his later sonnets of desolation). It’s closest to “Spring and Fall,” but lacks that poem’s motherly tone. Here, not yet trapped within “thoughts against thoughts,” Hopkins can see the world around him, but no longer does it “gash gold vermilion.” It is fading, as at the end of The Lord of the Rings the elves are fading and vanishing into the West. The “messengers of grey,” and, of course, the final word “Yonder,” could both be straight out of Tolkien. As the elves are leaving, heaven can seem “yonder,” far away but still somewhere; after they’re gone, it cannot be located, only anticipated. It’s the realization of time that takes away space. Hopkins’ early poems give a gorgeous landscape and a moment of buckled beauty, but little sense of what comes before or after. The later poems are obsessed with the tension of anticipation, but rarely show us the world around as one waits.

The Leaden Echo: “wisdom is early to despair”; and the Golden Echo: “beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it.” Wisdom despairs early in other Hopkins poems, but only here does he show us that act from the outside; here he does not despair, but shows us wisdom despairing, a strangely beautiful sight, the beauty of things passing away. Elsewhere in Hopkins it’s always bright sparks in dark rooms, but in these echoes, I sense a vision of what was always in Tolkien’s sight: the ghostly afterglow. Not the light’s origin, but the light itself as it permeates the room and fades away into darkness. Not ecstasy or entrapment, but catharsis.


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