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Joseph J. FeeneySeptember 10, 2018

Dear Gerard,

Happy Centenary to you and to your book! A hundred years ago your poems were first published in book form, and this June in London 40 Hopkins scholars from around the world gathered to celebrate you and your poems and your book. These events urged me to write this “love letter” to you!

I’ve never written a love letter before, but I’ve long loved your poems and your affection for humans and for God, so as I begin this love letter I turn to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” and I offer three ways I love you: (1) for your wild poetic imagination; (2) for your poems about unnoticed people; and (3) for your poems about the Divine.

I: Your Wild Poetic Imagination

You have, Gerard, a wild and wildly original imagination—I think of you as a magical metaphor maker. As a magician and trickster you link images—sometimes near-incompatible images—to make sparkling, dancing, even fantastic metaphors.

I begin with my favorite metaphor for spring—it’s from “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” not a poem where we’d expect spring beauty! Stanza 26 tells of “the jay-blue heavens appearing/ Of pied and peeled May!/ Blue-beating...height.” That word “beating” is the magic: the sky is active and, given your word “jay-blue,” I see your sky as a flock of blue jays. You look up and suddenly see a radiant, pulsing blue sky—a “Blue-beating...height” that moves and throbs as if a sky full of bluebirds were flapping blue feathers, a sky palpitating with blue joy.

I offer three ways I love you: (1) for your wild poetic imagination; (2) for your poems about unnoticed people; and (3) for your poems about the Divine.

Now, Gerard, I turn to another bird and look at your imagination in “The Windhover.” As you walked outdoors that bright May morning, you saw that kestrel circling and darting in the sky, and your imagination leapt and bounced with metaphors, seeing the kestrel first as “morning’s minion”—morning’s favorite—then as a French prince, then a horseman, then a skater, then a struggling fighter, then a knight, then a plough, then a fire’s golden embers, all with overtones of Christ and of Joan of Arc. What a journey for your imagination—such very diverse metaphors. And in your poem “The Woodlark” you even enter personally into your metaphor: at the end of the poem you tweet like your woodlark: ”Sweet, of a sweet, of a sweet joy/ Of a sweet—a sweet—sweet—joy.” You’re part of your metaphor—it’s magical!

A similar magic sparkles in your poem “The Starlight Night.” First, you tell the reader, “Look at the stars! look! look up at the skies!” Then you create a rush of metaphors: the stars are “fire-folk sitting in the air!” then “bright boroughs,” then round medieval castles—“circle citadels there.” Then suddenly your sky becomes “dim woods” with “diamond delves!”—diamond mines gleaming in the dark. Other stars are sparkling “elves’ eyes!” staring at us viewers. Then the sky becomes “grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies,” then white poplar trees, then white doves scared into flight by a farmyard noise. And all this in a sonnet’s first seven lines. Then in the sestet the night sky becomes the wall of a wooden barn with cracks and holes that let us look inside to see a bright heaven—“Christ and his mother and all his hallows.”

You take a perception—of a bird, a sky, your pain—and you express it through a long chain of metaphors.

Years later, in the anguish of your 1885 depression in Dublin, you’re still a magician as your sonnet “No worst” offers wild and stunning metaphors for pain. First your “pangs”—sudden attacks of anguish—sound like a violin whose strings are tuned too “tight,” so tight they sound like screams—“eeeeeeeeeeeee.” Then these pangs “wring” you—twist you like a wet cloth being wrung dry. Then your cries of pain sound like a moaning herd of cattle: “My cries heave, herds-long”: moooo, moooo, moooo. Then you’re an anvil struck by a hammer—an image of pounding sound and physical pain. Then you’re a man hanging from a cliffside with only your tiring fingers saving you from a fatal fall. Ah, dear Gerard, what awful pain caused you to imagine such metaphors and make them part of your darkest poem—the most terrible sounds and physical horrors you’ve ever written. This is dark, dark magic, brilliant and apt.

I chose these poems, Gerard, to show a major technique of yours: you take a perception—of a bird, a sky, your pain—and you express it through a long chain of metaphors. Some are incongruous, but as we “jump” from one image to the other, all the metaphors somehow fit together—your “magic”—to describe both the perception and the object perceived! Such a metaphor chain is typical of you.

And now I leap to your last poem, “To R.B.,” of 1889, and I note, with joy, one of the finest lines you’ve ever written, eight words that describe the essence of a poem: “The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation.” Here your imagination puts all poetry into musical terms to describe “the creation” of the poet-artist.

II: Your Poems about Unnoticed People

Now, Gerard, I celebrate your poems about unnoticed or unimportant people. Though born into an affluent family and growing up in London’s upper-class Hampstead, you don’t write about kings or queens or popes or bishops or people of power and wealth, but of unnoticed “little” people—a rare, countercultural choice. A grand example is your short poem of 1879, “Cheery Beggar”: a poor fellow in Oxford begs for coins “Beyond Magdalen [College] and by the Bridge/...in a burst of summertime/ Following falls and falls of rain.” Your insight is quick: “The motion of that man’s heart is fine”: He did not let his “want” and “struggling” embitter him—he was “cheery.” Then, Gerard, realizing that “a gift should cheer him,” you dig into your “poor pocket of pence, poor pence of mine” and gently hand him some coins to bring him cheer. Then you immortalize him in your poem—a grand gift, far more than your “poor pence.”

Though born into an affluent family, you don’t write about kings or queens or popes or bishops or people of power and wealth, but of unnoticed “little” people.

Throughout your poetic life you similarly noticed the world’s unnoticed people—the young, the poor, the blacksmith, the farmer—and you immortalize them in poems. From your Oxford parish, “The Handsome Heart” records an altar boy’s “gracious answer” to you when you asked what gift he’d like for his extra work in Holy Week: “‘Father, what you buy me I shall like the best.’” “At the Wedding March” watches a newly married couple leave the church and prays that they may have “lissome scions”—frisky, nimble children. “Brothers” tells of two students at a school play, young Jack on stage performing, his older brother Henry watching and hoping young Jack won’t make any mistakes. “On the Portrait of Two Beautiful Young People” prays that these Irish children may avoid corruption as they become adults. Ah yes, all these everyday, unimportant people are nameless and unknown, but you, Gerard, have made them immortal.

In other poems you take real (but still unimportant) people and give them made-up names: one poem’s “Felix Randal” is your parishioner “Felix Spencer,” while “Tom’s Garland” and “Harry Ploughman” owe their first names to the proverbial “Tom, Dick and Harry.” But whatever the name, you celebrate simple, ordinary people. Even your most heartbreaking poem, “Spring and Fall,” foretells a sad young girl’s inevitable death, and names her “Margarét” from the Greek word for “pearl.” Ah, Gerard, so often you celebrate these unnoticed, unimportant people with heartfelt affection: children, beggars, newlyweds, blacksmiths, farmers, workers, young girls and boys. You saw their beauty and you made them live forever. I love you, Gerard, for your empathy for these people, and for giving them poetic immortality

III: Your Poems about the Divine

Now, dear Gerard, I end this love letter with poems about your dearest love, God, the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and in 1879 you wrote Robert Bridges that Jesus is “the only person that I am in love with.” Your portraits of God are highly diverse, even offering comic portraits of the Trinity.

As a pious schoolboy and the son of a religious Anglican family, you wrote your first poem, “The Escorial,” about a Spanish monastery and the martyr St. Lawrence. Your third poem, “Il Mystico,” portrays a religious mystic who wants to flee from earthly pleasures. Your Oxford poems tap into guilt, fear of the “world,” the life of Christ and the saints, the Eucharist and the love of God. In “Jesu Dulcis Memoria” you even call Christ “Jesu my sweet.”

In 1875 your first poem of genius, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” shows a deep engagement with God—a painful one—about your religious conversion and your later decision to become a Jesuit and a priest. In this shipwreck poem God is a controlling and dominating figure who is “mastering” you, painfully forcing you: “I did say yes/ O at lightning and lashed rod.” (But even in pain you make a pun: in England a ship captain is called a “Master”!) But God did “frown” at you and threatened “hell,” so you “fled” to Christ for help. And here God is kind and caring: He is a “giver of breath and bread” and a world creator who actually is the motion of the seas and is the shore surrounding the seas. This God, the “Lord of living and dead,” has created you—has “bound and veins in me, fastened me flesh.” Terror becomes gratitude, and like a trained bird you flew “to the heart of the Host”—to Christ—and now you write, “I kiss my hand/ to the stars” in gratitude to Christ: always ready to heal, he is the “hero of Calvary” and to him, instinctively, “men go.” And the Trinity is “lightning and love” and “most...merciful” as they “melt” a rebel sinner and “master him still” (that punning word again)—“master” the human, but now, gently. So, above all, “be adored,...be adored King.”

Your first poem of genius, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” shows a deep engagement with God.

Then, Gerard, you turn to the shipwreck and the five nuns on board, and you ask the Father whether his blessing and mercy were with the ship when it ran aground on a sandbar and was swamped by the sea, with loud screams and tears and the great cry of the “Tall Nun”—“O Christ, Christ, come quickly.” She “rears herself to divine/ Ears,” to the “martyr-master,” and, Gerard, you ask the full meaning of the Tall Nun’s cry: “The majesty! what did she mean?” Then, after puzzling about the meaning of her cry and of human suffering, you answer that through this shipwreck God is touching all the victims with his finger, calling all of them (including sinners) “back!” to God. But unlike the opening lines, it is now a gentle touch of God’s finger, since Christ and the Father are “compassionate” to their world and its people. Finally, as you end the ode, you expand its focus and ask the Tall Nun, in heaven, to pray that Christ may return to all England: “Our King back, Oh, upon English souls!/ Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us,” our “prince, hero of us, high-priest” and “Lord.” This is quite a different and gentler God than the “terror” of the ode’s beginning!

This warm and loving God transfuses your rich Welsh sonnets, Gerard, and despite your 1885 depression in Dublin marks most of your later poems, coming to a climax in “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire” in 1888 where every silly human, every “Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood” is—because Christ was a human—this silly human is, like Christ, an “immortal diamond.”

And now, Gerard, I end this love letter with your comic pictures of the three persons of the Trinity, to show your warm, deep affection and love for the Trinity. Your playfulness with God the Father appears in your sonnet “Ribblesdale,” an environmental protest written in 1882. You were teaching at Stonyhurst College in rural Lancashire, where the River Ribble is just a gentle stream where the schoolboys swim—but later it becomes a polluted river flowing through ugly industrial areas like Preston. Yet, in the octave of “Ribblesdale,” you picture the creator, God the Father, as a simple, common fisherman taking his fishing rod and casting the line randomly over the “lovely dale” to make, first, the winding stream in the countryside, then the river flowing into the smoky, polluting city of Preston. But humor is still there: God the Father remains a fisherman.

For Christ, your comic portraits come in poetry and sermons. In your poem “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire,” Christ the human is called a “Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood”—a common laborer, a laughable fellow, a broken fragment, a fool, a splinter. Is this the Christ of the Trinity? And in sermons at Bedford Leigh and Liverpool, you call Christ a “sweetheart”—a touch comedic, to be sure, while also deeply affectionate.

The Holy Spirit, finally, is portrayed as a cricket player and as a nesting bird. In a Liverpool sermon you describe the Holy Spirit as a sportsman, “who cheers, who encourages,...who exhorts, who stirs up, who urges forward,” like a cricket player—a batsman—calling to his hesitant teammate, “Come on, come on!” and score! And in your sonnet “God’s Grandeur” a lovable portrait of the Holy Ghost graces the last two lines: like a mother bird protecting and nurturing her baby birds in the nest, morning “springs” each day with brightness and hope “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” What a comparison: the Holy Ghost as a brooding bird warming and protecting her—and our—world.

On that merry note, Gerard, I end this study of “The Divine” as presented in your poetry and prose. Gerard, the world is a richer place because of your poems. Many thanks, dear friend, for the joy and light—and darkness—which you’ve brought into our lives and the life of the world.

More: Poetry / Jesuits
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Paul Ford
5 years 5 months ago

Thanks, Father, for this, especially the section: "Your Poems about Unnoticed People." You drew my attention to peoples I had never read before, except for "Spring and Fall."

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