Wednesday, May 7, 2014

a poem and some questions about it

Matt sometimes walks me to school in the morning, which recently has been the most breathlessly beautiful time of the day. Before we stepped out this morning, he said "Stop! Let's read this poem."
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring--
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush's eggs look like 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 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.
It's by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I think I mostly get it up until "Christ, lord." Without "Christ, lord," I can read the next-to-last bit as advice to the reader, and here's my prosaic translation:

Have and get (Experience? Acquire the mind of...?)Spring. Get it before it becomes cloying and too sweet, before it clouds and sours with sin the innocent mind of youths just starting to bloom into maturity.

We could talk for a while about what that means, but that's what I think it says.

As for the rest, "O maid's child" is probably Christ, so "Most thy choice" refers to his choice. But what exactly is he choosing?

At first I thought that Spring was a possible grammatical candidate, since that is the "it" you're sposta "get," but I don't know where that would take us. It seems more likely that the innocent mind of girl and boy is most his choice and worthy the winning, especially insofaras he is the child of a virgin.

But now what I really don't get is why we've got an imperative seemingly addressed to the reader and a vocative addressed to Christ. Surely the poet is not advising Christ to have and get Spring? Are we (we interpreters) comfortable with just switching the object of address in the middle of the sentence? Do we have two objects of address, so that poet is advising the reader to have and get Spring (whatever that means,) with Christ kinda in the corner, so that he can turn to him to reinforce his point ("I know that's what you'd do, Christ.")

Perhaps if the poet is addressing "have" and "get" to himself, it could be almost a prayer. I've never thought about it before in this way, but I suppose that sometimes when I'm sternly exhorting myself to strive for something, in almost the same breath I'm praying Christ or Mary's help, and turning my mind to behold them, (especially considering those qualities which serve as ideals which I'm currently trying to emulate.) So "have" and "get" are here, almost, "let me have" and "let me get." Or at least, by the end of the poem, that's what they've become.

The question of what it means to "have" and "get" Spring is open for me, and probably depends on how we resolve the problem above. I lean towards reading it as a plea for me to "become like" or "acquire the mind of" Spring.

Well I just don't know. Do you?

A theologically intriguing thing about this poem is the bit about Eden, because if the syntactically troublesome remainder of the poem implies that Spring's cloying, clouding, and souring with sin is simply a matter of time, a natural ripening and rotting process, then perhaps the poet is saying something similar about Eden. That might be the least enjoyable level on which read a poem but it's something that came to mind.

I love how the poem starts with a cliche (like duh, spring is nice,) which even uses a totally boring word like "beautiful," and then the words start to whirl and whip around me, until by the end I have no idea what he's talking about.

Good old GMH. I would name a kid after him if all his names weren't so weird.


  1. You should name your child Manley, regardless of its sex.

    If a boy, baptismal name is to be Maxiums. If a girl, Macrina.

    1. Makes me think of that hoarse, loud (very sweet) child from CTS named Manny. I thought that was a really cute name for him. And didn't Laura Ingalls Wilder call her husband Almanzo by Manly?

      Now that I think about it, the name Andrea means "manly," and nobody makes fun of girls named Andrea.

      Gerard could be easily baptized as Gerasimus! "Thanks mom, at least I have one normal name."