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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Charles Taylor makes mess of "The Windhover"

I know this is going to be cheap of me, and I'm sure I've made similar mistakes myself and will probably be caught in the future making others. I've been known to refer to a book by a (very slightly) incorrect title all the way through a review. Ouch! We're all fallible.

And, look, before I go on, I actually think that A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor, is a very useful book. It provides an extremely detailed account - admittedly from a liberal Christian viewpoint - of how we became secular. That means many things, as Taylor explains, but the book is largely devoted to a discussion of how we moved from a situation in Europe in, say, 1500, when atheism or "exclusive humanism" was almost unthinkable, to the situation now ... where it is very thinkable indeed in the countries of the West. We need thorough historical/philosophical discussions like this, written from all viewpoints, to form our own understandings of how our contemporary reality came to be as it is.

It doesn't even matter that I find some of Tayor's arguments weak, although he does, in my humble opinion, make far too much of the fact that some people continue to yearn for something beyond nature, and specifically for some transformation of their lives that will take them beyond "merely" worldly kinds of human flourishing. That's an interesting psychological phenomenon, but no supernatural explanation seems to be required. There are many reasons why even the best human life seems unsatisfactory compared to what we can imagine - but that is in no sense a reason to deprecate the genuine joys and satisfactions that we can have. To his credit, Taylor is wary of the churches' historical calumnies of the flesh. In any event, I'm learning much by reading this huge, bug-crushing work of scholarship (and I thank one of my closest friends for buying it for me as a present, since it's a book I really need on my shelves).

But I had to wince at a passage near the end, where Taylor has been discussing various fears about the cheapening or flattening of poetic and other language. To make one point, he discusses Gerard Manley Hopkins and specifically quotes the octave of "The Windhover", perhaps the most famous poem in the Hopkins canon, observing how Hopkins attempts to reveal and celebrate the force of particular existing things. Here is the actual octave of Hopkins' great poem ... which, alas, Taylor quotes with numerous errors:

The Windhover:

To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Note that I have lost the indentations, but that is not my doing - just the way it comes out on Blogger.

Taylor misquotes this in a way that destroys the urgency of the sprung rhythm in the fifth line, and, indeed, the line's overall effect. I knew that something had gone wrong, as it matched neither my memory nor my sense of the rhythm, and went off to look it up. Hence my provision of the correct version above. (This is taken from W.H. Gardner's standard selection of Hopkins' poetry, but I checked it in a couple of other places to make sure.) I can forgive the fact that "big wind" is printed in Taylor's book as "bog wind" - presumably just a typo - and some of the other errors (such as the accent marks that Taylor provides, which do not seem to match those in the manuscript, if Gardner's notes are correct); but leaving out (as Taylor does) one of the two "off"'s in line five, then adding the word "a" before "swing", is disastrous. It may not change the literal meaning, but it produces a much weaker, "flatter" effect. Then there's the addition that Taylor makes of an "is" before "in hiding" in the second last line of the octave (this totally alters the meaning, disrupting the octave's past-tense narrative, if it actually makes sense at all).

All of which suggests, I say smugly, that theists don't have an advantage over atheists in appreciating the language of poetry.

To start where I began, though, I really don't want to make too much of it. True, the multiple and poem-wrecking errors could only be made by somebody who does not have a feel for the poem's rhythm and sense - it's dangerous to quote something you don't fully understand. But in fairness, I'm not sure I fully understand it either. The poem has its points of difficulty. And again, perhaps a research assistant mistranscribed it (and then Taylor neglected to check).

Still, the errors are so blatant, and have such an impact on the poem, that I can't just let it slide. Particularly when I noticed, a few pages later, another poem-wrecking misquote, this time from the opening of Hopkins' "(Carrion Comfort)" ... and yet other lines from Hopkins that don't sound quite right to my ear and have probably been mistranscribed. And particularly when all this appears on the heels of a discussion of the heights and nuances of poetic language.


Jerry Coyne said...

Lord, I love Hopkins; such a feeling he had for the music of words. And yes, Taylor slaughtered it, but he'll cry all the way to the bank.

I disagree about one thing, though: I think most people would be far more familiar with Hopkins' poem "Spring and Fall":
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Russell Blackford said...

Or "God's Grandeur".

Ophelia Benson said...

Now...this can't be right. Surely those boring positivistic scientistic scientist types can't love Hopkins. Advertising jingles and traffic signs are their idea of poetry, aren't they? Surely.