Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. — Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)
This poem — perfect for Easter, in my opinion — is a Petrarchan sonnet penned by Gerard Manley Hopkins, an Englishman and a Catholic priest, who wrote many remarkable Petrarchan sonnets, though this particular poem is not among his most famous. I think it deserves to be.
The first thing to say about virtually all Hopkins’s poetry is that his religious devotion entirely infuses his literature, and so if one is put-off by religious subject-matter, even in metaphor, Gerard Hopkins, the genius priest-poet, is not for you.
Hopkins was a trained musician and also a poet — a poet of such wild originality that I’ve often speculated his prosodic imagination must surely have come from some madman-like admixture of the private music inside his brain, combined with syntax influenced by his deep knowledge of Latin.
As I’ve mentioned before, Gerard Hopkins is one of the very few poets I will perfervidly call a true original — he’s at the very top of my list, in fact, the most original of them all. Because of his originality — which I believe came in part from the wild and brilliant strangeness of his musically-minded brain — Hopkins’s syntax as well as his language and diction, his meter and metric, his entire writing-style (and his subject-matter too), are often cryptic and odd, difficult to decode. Many people do not think Hopkins is worth the effort it takes, and though I disagree, I do not begrudge anyone this opinion.
Once decoded Hopkins’s poems yield up incredible things, and many of these poems never stop yielding, no matter how many times you read them. In this regard, there’s only one poet who’s superior, and that is Shakespeare. This is my opinion.
As I’ve also discussed, the Petrarchan sonnet — or Italian sonnet, if you prefer (the two terms are synonymous) — is a sonnet which, like the English or Shakespearean sonnet (those two are also synonmous) has fourteen total lines. In the Petrarchan sonnet, as distinguished from the Shakespearean, the first eight lines (the octet) follows a strict ABBAABBA rhyme-pattern, and then in the second section (the sestet), the final six lines are patterned CDCDCD. Traditionally in Petrarchan sonnets, sestets will often vary, but the pattern Gerard Hopkins chose for most of his poems is the most traditional pattern for the Petrarchan.
(The primary difference between the Shakespearean form and the Petrarchan form is that the Shakespearean consists of three quatrains rhyming ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, and concludes with a couplet: GG.)
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney described Hopkins’s poem “Spring” a “two-parter” — by which Heaney meant: the first eight-lines are a one-part unit celebrating the magic of spring; the final six lines are a concluding unit relating the spring season to God.
Note the ordinary and even prosaic opening line to this poem — completely uncharacteristic of Hopkins poetry:
“Nothing is so beautiful as Spring”
It’s difficult to imagine a more inauspicious or undistinguished beginning, and this becomes all the more remarkable in light of everything that follows: the astonishing things Hopkins chose to capture spring’s beauty. They thunder and boom with poetic power and significance.
“When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush”
The use of the word “wheels” here refers to the circular shape or pattern in which weed-patches often grow, and the originality of this two-word description is to me a miniature marvel.
“Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens”
This line is a simile without the word “like” — thrush’s eggs look like little low heavens because they’re blue, those little eggs, just like the sky above, and the thrush’s song “through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring the ear” that it “strikes like lightning to hear him sing.”
Please take a moment and consider the poetic depth and the syntactical concision of that idea, as well as the image and the rhyme. A few good commentators have also speculated that Hopkins chose the word “timber” (instead of, for example, “forest” or “woods” or “trees”) because of his musical nature and the connotations of “timber” with “timbre,” all in relation to the thrush’s song, and I think this is a plausible and smart interpretation.
Note also the alliteration and partial rhymes, “the rolling around of word sounds,” as Seamus Heaney described it, as “all spring is throbbing”: weeds/wheels, long/lovely/lush, rinse/wring.
“The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
the descending blue, that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.”
The “racing lambs” refers to the fleecy clouds passing across the sky, as well as to the actual newborn lambs of spring. The leaves and the blooms of the glassy-looking pear tree (Hopkins makes “peartree” into one word purely for poetic effect, as he often in his poetry takes linguistic liberties like this) seem to brush the “descending blue … blue all in a rush with richness.”
Have you ever looked up at the blue sky, perhaps as a child, and felt it was descending down upon you? That, I believe, is what Hopkins seeks and captures here: the rush and richness of the descending blue sky when you tip back your head and look up into it.
Yet there’s almost certainly another reason that Hopkins focuses on the color blue, beginning implicitly in the third line of the poem — the little blue heavens of the thrush’s eggs — and that other reason is that blue is traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary, whom Hopkins refers to in the final line of the poem, when he describes Christ as “maid’s child,” and whom Hopkins in his poetry frequently likens to nature and mother nature and the month of May and motherhood in general.
In an Easter article I wrote some time ago, I quoted the following passage from a Hopkins poem titled May Magnificat, which is also about spring and also about mother nature:
What is spring?
Growth in everything.
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Throstle above her nested
Cluster of bugle-blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod and sheath or shell.
All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathizing
With that world of good,
Birth. Blood. Death. Winter. Resurrection. Rebirth. Spring. Life.
“There is nothing greater than life,” said Voltaire.
That is what Easter is about.
Hopkins understood this — as did many of the early Christians, who for this reason kept the ancient Pagan symbols of spring. They absorbed them, as it were, in part, perhaps, because these symbols are so primal and so beautiful and so immutable and true. One does not need to be religious to grasp and appreciate this.