Sunday, July 5, 2009

Bright boroughs, circle-citadels...

I'm finishing THE ART OF DESCRIPTION, a short book that Graywolf will bring out next year as part of a series of books titled THE ART OF..., each addressing some aspect of the writer's work. I more-or-less finished the book last year, but wanted to go through one more time and polish and fiddle and amend. In one chapter, called "Remembered Stars," I've gathered a group of poems that demonstrate description as an active process, a thinking-through of a problem or question accomplished through a descriptive process. So far, the group includes poems by Henry Vaughn, George Herbert, and Hart Crane. But while I was working on it today I remembered that the Paul Mariani biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins I've been reading referred to a poem of Hopkins' I didn't know, so I went and found it, and good lord, what a dazzle of figuration, what a strange and brilliant sonnet.


LOOK at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
    O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
    The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
    Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
    Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!—
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, aims, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs! 10
    Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
    Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

What an amazing performance of excess and exactitude. A "May-mess, like on orchard boughs"! "Flake-doves sent floating forth at a barnyard scare"! And you can see Hopkins thinking, as he moves from his figure of the stars as something he'd doubtless seen -- startled doves scattering in a barnyard -- to think of all of the physical world as a barn, housing the real spectacle, to which all else is simply gorgeous clothes.

And who else would ever imagine referring to the divine housed within its barn of stars as "the shocks"?


apprentice said...

I love the "windbeat whitebeams", just for the sound of it.

Thanks for drawing my attention to this wonderful poem.

Mari said...

Hopkins - he's tough to beat. Thanks for this.

MonicaJBrown said...


I love it. Thank you.

Robin Merrill said...

Thank you for this poem; I didn't know it yet. I can't wait to read your book! I'm working my way through the whole series! Peace.

A.H. said...

Hm. I am pleased that you have revived the alchemical and Biblical Vaughan. Do you know the work of Stevie Davies in relation to Vaughan? She has produced the finest descriptive readings of him...the landscape of mind. I don't much like the Hopkins, too often his dazzle just ends in predictable religious twaddle. This reads, to me, like dead Celtic Twilight grafted onto alliterative verse.

Mark Doty said...

When I was a kid I did a little study of glass-making, at an art school in the desert outside of Tucson. I made a bowl out of strips of glass, which I laid into a hollow I'd carved in soft brick, and then fired the whole thing so that the glass fused and sagged. Months after it was made,
the thing just simply flew apart, all at once; there was so much tension held in the form, between all those colors and thicknesses of glass, that it just couldn't hold. I mention this because of the tensions in Hopkins. It's true that the turn toward Christianity in this poem is a quick two-line movement, one that tries to dismiss all the spangled glories of the world as merely shell, nothing but a "barn" to hold the real treasure.
But nonetheless the poet has devoted the ecstatic body of the poem to that same world, and he evokes it with such energy and pleasure (and anxiety, too, as if nervous about both what he's doing and language's capacity to hold this over-brimming ecstasy) that his dismissal doesn't sit easily.
I like that struggle going on inside the poems, Eshuneutics, though I can see why you'd find the ending a turn toward the conventional. But if you think of the poem as less resolved, it becomes a more interesting dynamic;
plus, you know, it's hard to think of the shocks in the barn as exactly predictable speech, even if you're expecting what those terms refer to!

A.H. said...

Too early for Celtic Twilight, but drawing upon mystical verse from the Celtic Welsh tradition. Thanks you for the glass metaphor--a lovely parallel. I wonder if there is a supressed conceit within the poem. Virgo/Astraea, the Virgin Star Goddess is the Harvest Month. Her sign is the harvested ear of corn. She is the cornucopia of Heaven. Hopkins would have known this as a commonplace within English poetry. Implicitly, he contrasts the Virgin who entered heaven--and her plenitude--with the Virgin Mary. He is drawn to the goddess who left the inhabitants of the Earth and to the Mother whose habitation is the Biblical barn. The problem is to reconcile the instress of Nature with Christian vision. Hm. More to the glass than I'd seen before :-)