All Shall Be Well


Julian of Norwich by David Holgate

Whenever I’m asked, “Why read Hopkins?” I have no clue how to answer. I stumble through something about his view of language with his elaborate internal rhymes and chiming of words influenced by Welsh poetry. Or maybe I turn to the solace of his line that the “mind has mountains.” Or the decade and more that I’ve been haunted by “worlds of wanwood leafmeal.” But that doesn’t answer the question. I’m dancing around the inner kernel that could answer it because that, perhaps, says too much about me as a reader.

I read Hopkins because every moment I spend with him through his poetry is this ever-expanding and ever-unattainable experience of poetic truth.

I’m thinking about this because I’ve been reading through medieval texts with students lately, and I’ve had this lectio moment with Julian of Norwich (you can read more about lectio and literature here and here). In her Book of Showings, she has this famous line that I’ve read before but it’s never really struck me:

al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele.

This line is in the context of discussing how “synne is behovabil,” which is often presented as seeing the Christian concept of a Fall or Original Sin as a “happy fault” that enables the Incarnation. Well, that is unless someone has leanings towards Scotus’s thought like Hopkins did, and wonders if the Incarnation is a poetic expression that is not contingent on a Fall.

But when I was struck by the text, I was thinking about it in a very different way from these old scholastic arguments.

I’m not normally one to promote looking at a line out of its historical context, but let’s linger with this line without worrying about these religious concerns.

Christ as character (it’s okay, that’s not a slight) tells Julian that “all shall be well.” I think this struck me so much and has been staying with me more than all the other texts I’ve been reading this term (and I love medieval texts very much) because it articulates what I’ve being trying to discover through writing this blog. This is the heart of the hermeneutic of hope. That’s why “The Leaden Echo” can never be enough. This is why the mystery of failure leads us not to despair but to a better understanding of ourselves.

The same moment comes when Sam Gamgee looks at the sky and marvels at the stars untouched by smoke. Or that moment when Primo Levi in The Periodic Table tells us that Carbon is the element of life and that

To carbon, the element of life, my first literary dream was turned, insistently dreamed in an hour and a place when my life was not worth much: yes, I wanted to tell the story of an atom of carbon.

This story concludes Levi’s book with the movement of an atom of carbon from smoke stacks through a leaf engaged in photosynthesis and into a glass of milk drunk by the author to finally end up in the last period on the page. Even the fiery destruction of a furnace cannot stop carbon from saying “everything to everyone.”

When we feel that our lives aren’t worth much, when surrounded by the smoke of Mordor, or “worlds of wanwood leafmeal,” or just our own faults, that’s when carbon speaks to us and says “al manner of thyng shal be wele.”

I’m almost hoping that no one wants to talk about Julian when we have discussion again. It can be hard to talk about a text that you think approaches truth in a deep and insightful way.

What are your moments with a poem or story or anything else hits so deep you aren’t sure how to talk about it?

11 Responses

  1. Thank you for this reflection. I was pulled up short by your final question, feeling somehow that I had been put on my mettle. I have often read Julian. I thought of a line from her Revelations of Divine Love today in another context. What strikes me when I return to her is that her words often have a renewed power. It would be possible to read the line that you consider as a cliche, so familiar has it become but anyone who reads it in as such would, in my view, have become sadly jaded and incapable of any true delight. When Julian speaks these words they are the fruit of the suffering of Christ and her own suffering.
    I am grateful to Julian for not being reduced to silence. I am also grateful that she spent a lifetime pondering her experience before she caused it to be written down. The pondering must have been perceived as silence but inside her the Word was becoming flesh, being formed within her, so that when she finally spoke it had a power that few other writers have known.

    • Thank you, Stephen.
      I think I’ve been one of the people that passed over the “all shall be well” line before without letting it sink in, but this time Julian put up with no resistance. I never thought of the paradox of her waiting in silence but not being reduced to silence. That’s a very beautiful way of looking at it. Yes, it’s a very Incarnational, and a very Marian disposition to ponder on it in her heart. It’s like the nine years a poet has to wait, forming the poem like a child.

  2. I’ve never read Julian of Norwich or Primo Levi, but now I want to read both ASAP.

    I’ve actually been working on a post about a few of the reasons why I read poetry and I’m finding it very difficult to put my ideas into words. I love poetry and I would love to talk about it, but for whatever reason, I often have trouble getting my ideas about it across to other people, even in writing.

    • Both are pretty mystical. Julian is more what we might describe as mystic, while Levi is more of an immanent, material mysticism, but he still meditates on universes “formed in eternal” silence when thinking about the elements of the periodic table. I’m going to a talk about him tomorrow that I’ll try to livetweet, and I plan to post my paper on him after I present it at a conference in November if you’re interested in reading more.

      I’m looking forward to your post on poetry. I know how hard it is to articulate it.

  3. “What are your moments with a poem or story or anything else hits so deep you aren’t sure how to talk about it?”

    I want to say “Every moment” but I will qualify that. I reread all the time and each time get closer and closer to being able to say something about the works. I love Hopkins and Wallace Stevens as well as those wonderful Victorians. From Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues to Swinburne’s verse, the period seems so wealthy to me.

    My failure is that some things don’t hit me at all–or very little. I don’t know if I need to feel that something is already “canonical” or if some contemporary poetry seems too glib, too easy, or too irksomely devoid of meaning. I absolutely agree with what you say about Hopkins.

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