Gerard Manley Hopkins on Details


Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet and Jesuit preist of the 19th century. He was torn between satisfying his poetic impulses and conforming to the expectations of the priesthood, an inner rift that lasted until his death at 44. How tragic to believe that poetry and spirituality are separate.

I'm sharing this sonnet of his apropos of my post yesterday, with a few comments following. In the sonnet, accented vowels are the start of a metrical foot. It was this metrical innovation, which Hopkins called "sprung rhythm," that ensured his place among the Victorian poets.

AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

"Christ plays in ten thousand places" is the line that came to mind today, in connection with "God is in the details."

Hopkins uses "fire" here in reference to the inner essence of a creation, which he called an inscape. Here each part of creation declares its nature to the rest of the world ("Whát I do is me: for that I came").

The Indian perspective would be that there is no self-nature of this kind that could be found. To the Hindus, all living things share an ātman, a universal Self; and to the Buddhists, all creation is devoid of self-nature, i.e. "empty." To both, the notion of being intentionally created for a specific purpose would be curious.

And it's perhaps for this reason that I find "for that I came" to be a weakness of the poem. A similar idea in a more sophisticated form appears in this Zen story (quoted from here):

When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer. “Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”

At these words Banzan became enlightened.

Or in the Zhuangzi:

Simple, pure, he sees the ten thousand things become simply so, and they form one whole.

If you go beyond duality or comparison, everything is exactly as it is.