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 — is a Petrarchan sonnet penned by Gerard Manley Hopkins, an Englishman and a Catholic priest, who wrote many remarkable Petrarchan sonnets, though this particular Petrarchan 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. If, therefore, 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 greatly influenced by his profound understanding of Latin.
As I’ve mentioned before, Gerard Hopkins is one of the 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 Latin-soaked strangeness of his musical 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 readers do not think Hopkins is worth the effort, 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 reread them. In this regard, there’s only one poet who’s superior, and that poet is William 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 terms are also synonymous), has a total of fourteen lines, all of which rhyme.
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 usually patterned CDCDCD. I say “usually” because in Petrarchan sonnets, the sestets can vary in their rhyme schemes. The pattern Gerard Hopkins chose for most of his Petrarchan sonnets (including this one) is the most traditional pattern.
(The primary difference between the Shakespearean sonnet and the Petrarchan sonnet 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” as a “two-parter” — by which Seamus Heaney meant that the first eight-lines are a one-part unit celebrating the magic of springtime, and the final six lines, taking a dramatic turn, are a second unit which relate the spring season to God.
I agree here with Seamus Heaney, who whether he knows it or not is articulating one of the two primary things that distinguishes the Shakespearean sonnet from the Petrarchan sonnet: i.e. the dramatic shift that occurs after the first eight lines, the octet.
Among the first thing to note in this particular Hopkins poem is the ordinary and even prosaic opening line — completely uncharacteristic of Hopkins’s poetry in general:
“Nothing is so beautiful as Spring — ”
It’s difficult to imagine a more undistinguished opening to any poem.
This fact is made all the more emphatic by every single line that follows Hopkins’s undistinguished opening: depictions of spring that boggle the brain with their blinding originality and uncanny accuracy — the eye-popping images and heart-stopping words Hopkins uses to capture spring’s beauty.
I’ve over the years thought a great deal about Hopkins’s ostensibly trivial opening line.
For a long time (up until about two years ago) I regarded it as, in essence, nothing more or less than exactly what it appears: an uninspired opening line to an otherwise excellent poem.
In-and-of-itself, this is not particularly noteworthy since, as all writers of poetry know, opening lines are often the most difficult to compose.
I now no longer think this about Hopkins’s opening line in “Spring.”
Hopkins was far too meticulous, far too thoughtful — too original and linguistically erudite — to settle for such an uninspired opening.
This fact alone has always struck me as somehow off, and because of which indicative of something more significant at work.
Hopkins was a compulsive rewriter, laboring over every word, sometimes for years, and for this reason alone there is no doubt in my mind that Hopkins would have spotted in his rewrites his conspicuously ordinary opening.
What I now think — and this struck me late one night like the dawning of a revelation — is that Hopkins deliberately opened with such a prosaic first line, only so that he could then lay to waste that same first line with the thunderous earthly magic that each springtime brings.
Spring is in a certain very real sense ordinary —by which I mean, easy to take for granted, especially when we’re preoccupied with work or school or family — insofar as spring, like every other season, comes with a clockwork regularity that can make it seem commonplace. And yet the moment we pause and regard spring with the full attention of human focus, we all, whether poet or not, see the magnificent fireworks display of earthly beauty that each springtime brings.
I now think Hopkins opened his poem the way he did for precisely this purpose: to create juxtaposition and paradox, to jolt our attention and fix our focus upon the strange incredible loveliness of each and every springtime.
Why do I think so?
I think so because post first-line Hopkins’s poem, like spring herself, positively explodes with poetic power.
“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 and line.
Consider the images and rhymes.
You’re planted directly inside that new green timber, with shafts of sunlight pouring like lasers all around you, and you hear with absolute precision the thrush’s sharp song, which rinses through your ear and resounds throughout the sun-slashed woods: you hear it and see it and feel it, as I do too.
A few excellent commentators have noted that Hopkins chose the word “timber” (instead of, for example, “forest” or “woods” or “trees”) because Hopkins was a musician whose musical brain likened “timber” to “timbre,” all in relation to the thrush’s song. I think this not merely plausible but ingenious — ingenious and accurate. Yet even more ingenious is that Hopkins conceived it and captured it in language of such evocative force and poetic originality, and subtlety.
Note also all the alliteration and partial rhymes throughout this entire poem — “the rolling around of word sounds,” as the poet Seamus Heaney excellently described it — as “all spring is throbbing”: weeds/wheels, long/lovely/lush, rinse/wring, leaves/blooms/brush, rush-with-richness, fair-their-fling.
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, and often in his poetry he takes linguistic liberties like this) “they brush the descending blue … that blue all in a rush with richness.”
Have you ever looked up at the blue, blue sky, perhaps as a child, and felt it suddenly descending down upon you?
That, I believe, is what Hopkins seeks and captures here: the plunging rush and richness of the descending blue sky when you tip back your head and look up into the heavens and it seems as though it’s collapsing down upon you, the brittle newborn pear-tree leaves like glass.
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. 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 am, please note, a principled atheist. My love for this poem has nothing to do with religious devotion — or, at any rate, not in the traditionally conceived meaning attached to the phrase “religious devotion.”
I say to you in this context that for this exact reason I completely comprehend and appreciate the vital importance and human necessity of metaphor — for any and all reasoning-conceptual brains — which is to say, human brains. I understand it as a writer and I understand it even more as a living, breathing human-being. This is also the primary reason I loathe “new-atheism,” so-called, as well as the entire ideology which spawned it and drives it, and which hardened into cultic-secular dogma the instant it was hatched, complete with the most garden-variety political convictions imaginable.
In an Easter article I wrote some time ago, I quoted the following passage from a different spring poem Hopkins wrote. That poem is titled “May Magnificat,” and the opening line of this Hopkins poem is “May is Mary’s month.” That poem, too, is about growth in spring and life and mother-nature, and it, too, positively thunders with poetic strangeness and pow-uh:
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. The lengthening of days. Light. Life.
“There is nothing greater than life,” wrote Voltaire.
That is what Easter is about.
That is what spring is about.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, the genius priest-poet, understood this — as did many of the early Christians, no matter their denomination or sect, and who for this very reason preserved these ancient Pagan symbols of spring. They absorbed them, as it were, these precious independent thinkers, and they syncretically made them their own.
They preserved and absorbed them, as Hopkins also does, for one reason above any other: because these symbols are so primal and immutable and true.
One need not be religious to appreciate and love this, as I do.