A Retreat with Hopkins

Last year I ran a series looking at seasonal poetry for the week with poems from Gerard Manley Hopkins and a few related poets like Thomas Merton. I thought we would take a look at it again this year. This will be my daughter’s first Easter, so maybe I’ll read a few of the poems to her. I just read “The Wasteland” to her last week, so some Good Friday poetry might actually lighten the mood a little.

GerardManleyHopkinsThis would be an important week for my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. As a Jesuit priest, he would have been active in the liturgies celebrated during this time. The Hopkins scholar, Joseph Feeney, even refers to “the busy Fr Hopkins during Holy Week.”

We’re going to spend this week with “the busy Fr Hopkins,” dwelling on poems that either trace his experience of the feasts or touch on similar themes.

There is a kinship between literature and liturgy that Hopkins would have felt deeply. Often, across traditions, liturgical texts are poems or narratives, and neither can be contained within a single experience. We’ve never really read a poem until we’ve read it twice. Liturgy works on the same principle, which is why religious calendars bring back the same old holiday every year. It’s the same reason that Carnival comes back every year too.

In this way, poems are mysterious. We can keep reading them, keep returning to them, and never exhaust them. In an 1883 letter to Robert Bridges, Hopkins defined mystery as “an incomprehensible certainty: without certainty, without formulation there is no interest . . . the clearer the formulation the greater the interest.” He proposed that “at bottom the source of interest is . . . the unknown, the reserve of truth beyond what the mind reaches and still feels to be behind.”

In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor attributes the same power of mystery to novels:

I think that the way to read a book is always to see what happens, but in a good novel, more always happens than we are able to take in at once, more happens than meets the eye. The mind is led on by what it sees into the greater depths that the book’s symbols naturally suggest. This is what is meant when critics say that a novel operates on several levels. The truer the symbol, the deeper it leads you, the more meaning it opens up.

So we’re not going to try to get at Hopkins’s poetry all at once. We’re going to experience it slowly this week, and just look at a few things that stand out.

Come back to spend time with Hopkins this coming Thursday through Sunday.

2 Responses

  1. I love your reflection on the relationship between the experience of liturgy and the experience of poetry and other literature. One could add other human experience such as looking carefully and often into the face of one’s spouse. Repetition is key to becoming fully human, fully alive.

    • I like that idea that we are fully human through repetition. It seems like we’re always told that we can only be human if we reject repetition and turn from patterns.

      My infant daughter is very close to the leap where she’ll start experiencing patterns. I’m glad that she’s entering into repetition.

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