Gerard Manley Hopkins can be seen as a poet of despair. In 1991, the Russian composer, Leonid Desyatnikov adapted his poem, “The Leaden Echo,” to music. He assigns a male countertenor the role of the speaker, and the boy’s haunting voice captures the essence of the maiden chorus.
Counter to the rhythm of the music, the repetition of “despair” fades to silence. We are left with nothing but silence and our own thoughts. Desyatnikov understands “The Leaden Echo” very well, but there is one important divergence between Desyatnikov and Hopkins himself. Wait one beat, then two, and nothing happens. There is no airy aspiration pleading with us to turn from our dark thoughts. There is no “Golden Echo” to redound from the walls of the well, saying “Spare!”
Stopping with “The Leaden Echo” would be like only reading the Inferno and then telling Dante and Virgil that we don’t want to join them any further on the journey. Margaret Tait takes a very different approach to the echo poems. She too includes “The Leaden Echo” with its fears that there is nothing to keep beauty back, that there is nothing to stave off age and wrinkles. She too is quick to despair. But then, the camera pans upward with the still motion of the trees and there is the important echo: “Spare!” Then, many of the same images are repeated, but in a new light, that there is a place where everything that is called fair can remain.
Desyatnikov has privileged one echo to the exclusion of the other, while Tait shows us that each echo needs the other. “The Leaden Echo” contains the seed of what is good in “The Golden Echo.” It is good to value beauty, especially human beauty. It is good to sorrow at the loss of beauty. “The Golden Echo,” in turn, takes what is good in “The Leaden Echo” and magnifies it. Yes beauty is good, the echo suggests, so we should give it back to “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” Desyatnikov lets one pole stand on its own, but Hopkins presents the contraries together.
There’s something attractive in meditating on “The Leaden Echo” for too long. Maybe that’s why in some ways, Desyatnikov’s interpretation is more alluring than Tait’s. Ill and lonely in Ireland, Hopkins knew this echo intimately. Rarely published, he prayed the lord of life to send his roots rain. His eyes were dimming from pouring over Latin papers rather than delighting in the bright plumage of birds in flight. Even his final poem, “To RB,” moves towards offering an apology:
O then if in my lagging lines you miss
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.
And yet, in his final moment, his last word was not the dangerously mellifluous repetition of despair, but “I am happy, so happy.” In his doubts and plaguing sense of artistic sterility, he gave beauty back to “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” He is not a poet of despair, but a poet of hope and joy.