Spring: What Is All This Juice & Joy?

(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

— Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)

This poem — perfect for Easter — 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, and though I profoundly 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 poet 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 synonymous), 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 (including this one) 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, and the final six lines are a concluding unit relating the spring season to God.

I agree with Seamus Heaney’s lexical assessment. It is, in my opinion, a different way of stating one of the two primary things that distinguishes the Shakespearean sonnet from the Petrarchan.

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 undistinguished beginning to any poem, and this fact becomes all the more remarkable in light of everything that immediately follows his undistinguished beginning: i.e. descriptions of spring that boggle the brain with their brilliance and uncanny accuracy; the astonishing words and syntax Hopkins uses to capture spring’s beauty. It almost seems as though Hopkins deliberately opened with such a dull first line only so that he might then lay to waste that same first line with the stupendous earthly magic that each springtime brings. Post first-line, this poem positively thunders with poetic power and brilliance.

“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 alliterative two-word description, in collaboration with the next word “shoot,” 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 depth and the syntactical concision contained in that idea, as well as the image and the rhyme.

A few excellent commentators have speculated that Hopkins perhaps chose the word “timber” (instead of, for example, “forest” or “woods” or “trees”) because Hopkins was a musician, and his musical brain connotes “timber” with “timbre,” all in relation to the thrush’s song, and I think this not merely a plausible but also an ingenious interpretation — ingenious and accurate — and yet even more ingenious is that Hopkins conceived it and captured it in language of such evocative force and poetic strangeness.

Note also all the alliteration and partial rhymes in this poem — “the rolling around of word sounds,” as the poet Seamus Heaney described it, as “all spring is throbbing”: weeds/wheels, long/lovely/lush, rinse/wring.

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, and often in his poetry he 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 suddenly 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 the heavens.

And yet I believe there’s 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 this other reason is that blue is traditionally associated with Mary, the mother of Christ, whom Hopkins refers to in the final line of the poem, when he describes Christ as “maid’s [May’s] child,” and whom Hopkins in his poetry frequently likens to nature and mother nature and the month of May and motherhood in general.

I repeat: I am a firm and principled atheist.

I say to you also now in this context that for this exact reason I fully understand the utter importance and even human necessity of metaphor to a reasoning, conceptual mind. I assure you I understand it, and it is a very large part of why I loathe so-called new-atheism and the entire movement behind it.

In an Easter article I wrote some time ago, I quoted the following passage from a different Hopkins poem titled May Magnificat, which opens with “May is Mary’s month.” That poem is also about springtime and about growth and life and mother-nature as well:

Hopkins understood this — as did many of the early Christians, who for this very reason kept these 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 need not be religious to grasp and appreciate and love this very much, as I do.

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