About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, September 24, 2011

How religion does dirt on everything good (1) - with some reflections on Gerard Manley Hopkins

Does religion poison everything, as the sub-title to Christopher Hitchens' book suggests it does? On the face of it, this seems absurd. Irrespective of the persistence and pervasiveness of religion, life goes on, and much of it is good. Religion does not take all the juice and joy out of life, even if that often seems like its purpose.

Hitchens, of course, means something rather specific when he talks about religion poisoning everything. While the claim seems hyperbolic, he explains it in terms that are far less so. In particular, he is concerned that religion insults us deeply when it suggests that ordinary human decency is not enough, or that we lack adequate naturalistic resources to sustain it. It wounds our integrity, for Hitchens, when religion claims that we need supernatural support and some vision of a good that goes beyond ordinary human flourishing.

I should let Hitchens speak for himself - something he's done in many forums. Without wishing to interpret exactly what he means, I'll simply suggest that there is truth in the vicinity of his hyperbolic claim that religion poisons everything. All too often, in all too many ways and times and circumstances, religion may not succeed in spoiling things for us, exactly, though it can do that to, but it does succeed in disparaging - in doing dirt upon - everything genuinely good.

Consider Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "Spring", which I linked to above. Hopkins has written a lovely sonnet in praise of the spring season, which he depicts in some detail within the vivid lines of the octave: here birds sing; flowers bloom; trees and sky appear to reach for other; lambs race and gambol. The world is rich and happy, and the speaker lays it all out for us in joyous language: the sentences appear to revel in their own imagery, alliteration, and a partly irregular rhythm that plays a merry dance around the half-expected march of traditional iambic pentameter (though these lines are nothing like Hopkins' more extreme experiments with his trademark "sprung rhythm"):

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.

Read this aloud and savour it: "weeeds in wheeels shoot loong and lovely and lussshh..." The language is full and sensuous, delightful to our tongues and ears. Some critics will find hints, even here in the octave, that all is not well - when the lambs "too" have fair their fling, does this "too" suggest "too much"? - but I suggest we set that aside, at least for now. Yes, there are sinister interpretations available, once we look for them, but poetry can always be read against the grain (can't it?), and at least on first inspection the grain all runs the same way. Joy and wonder dominate our attention.

Even if we reconsider when we reach the sestet, for now let's take the lines of the octave at face value and enjoy their sweet ripeness.

But then, in the sestet - the final six lines of the sonnet - the speaker asks for the source of the juice and the joy, and now Hopkins' religious motivation appears more explicitly. The spring tableau, we are told, is "A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning/In Eden garden." So far, so good, we might think - the poet invokes the story of Eden and the Fall metaphorically, with spring seen as a strain of earth's paradisal beginning such as described in Genesis.

A secular poet could have used that metaphor, I don't doubt, but not the appeal to Christ ("O maid's child") that comes next:

[...] 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.

The speaker calls on Jesus Christ to seize spring, and/or its "juice" and "joy", before it can "cloy" and "cloud", and "sour" innocent minds with "sinning". The language retains its strength - the rather heavy, if uneven, rhythms, alliteration and internal rhymes, the powerful, concrete, evocative words and phrases. Whatever your religious beliefs, or mine, or whatever our lack of them, we can experience the momentum of the poem at this point, and can buy into its resolution.

But there's more going on here, and in particular, once we take a step back ... isn't there something pathological about this? Confronted by the joy, beauty, and sensuality of the natural springtime world, the speaker expresses no wish to be part of it, or, indeed, to relish the cycle of which it, in turn, forms part. Rather, he calls on God the Son to stop it in its tracks, to take it - "Have, get" - before it cloy, cloud, and sour into sin, before it can somehow corrupt the innocent (and there must, in a poem full of blossoming flowers and birdsong, be an unhappy sexual implication here).

Imaginatively, we can be onside with the speaker, but the speaker is misguided, and at one level even Hopkins must know this: there is no prospect that Christ will somehow stop the process of the seasons and "Have, get" spring while it is fresh, clear, sweet, and innocent. That is the way of things, and perhaps one reason that the poem works is that it is written against such a factual background. The speaker calls for ... not so much an impossibility as something that simply does not happen and will not happen, and we all know this, perhaps the speaker as much as the reader. The speaker's fears get expressed, but of course Christ does not act.

We have a great poem on our hands. It's a poem to cherish, but not one to trust entirely. For all that I've said, the poisonous thought does get expressed. Even in writing about the juice and joy, the sensuousness and richness, of springtime, Hopkins turns to troubled thoughts of the corruption of youth, and a wish for the whole thing to stop while it is still innocent. He cannot simply affirm spring for what it naturally is. Hopkins is a Catholic priest, and for him an awareness of sin cannot be far away.

In the end, alas, in one of the most joyful poems in the English language, a worldly affirmation of spring and everything it stands for can not be allowed stand alone and unchallenged. At the very same time, the entire world of experience is disparaged from a viewpoint focused upon corruption and sin. Via our imaginations, we can enter into this aspect of the poet's vision - surely this is not beyond us, even if we are not religious ourselves - but we can also step back and see part of an unwholesome pattern. Religion all too often disparages the good things of our world.

Hopkins' sonnet does not lose its greatness because of this. Perhaps the doubleness of its vision strengthens the poem in a way. The sestet sends us scurrying back to the octave, looking for possible hints of what was to come (and if we overread in doing so, as we're likely to do, surely there's a sense in which even this is almost invited). And yet, what if Hopkins could have reached a final affirmation that simply stays with nature, rather than turning to God's relationship with it? The final note is an adoration of Jesus, far removed from the opening depiction of a purely worldly beauty. Why did it have to be thus?

Tomorrow, I want to take this a bit further. The point today is that a glorious poem in praise of nature still disparages nature. It still portrays the natural world as incomplete - and even corrupt, or trembling on the verge of corruption - when viewed in isolation from an imagined God. This is a leitmotif running through Christianity and many other religions: this belittling and denigration of the good things that the world offers. Tomorrow, I'm going to focus on one of the speeches from the theist side in the recent "Atheism is wrong" debate, to show how easy it is - how rhetorically and imaginatively seductive - for religion to do dirt on everything good.


Russell Blackford said...

I may not actually be able to follow up tomorrow. If not, soon.

ivo said...

Very well expressed. If I recall correctly, I've had similar sentiments while reading some of Blake's poems. Of course at some point he must have seen through this, as the following Proverb of Hell shows:

"As the caterpiller chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys."

Lee Eddy said...

Very interesting thoughts, thanks for sharing. I hadn't revisited Hopkins since my deconversion.

Looking forward to the next post you promised.

Abigail said...

Another view is that it's actually quite a homoerotic poem.

Russell Blackford said...

I've never felt that I really understand Blake. He was something of a mystic, of a kind, but also very anti-clerical in his way. In any event, his more important works are full of personal mythology and imagery, and I've never been convinced by any scholarly accounts of what they're really about.

I think today is going to be a busy day with a family occasion, so posting here will take a back seat until tomorrow.

g said...

I agree with your main point -- Hopkins here begins in sheer joy and then his religion puts the dampers on it -- but your reading of one crucial bit of it seems to me to be askew.

Surely "Have, get" can't mean anything like "take away" -- and if it did, what's one to make of the bit about "innocent mind and Mayday"?

And why should "before it cloy ... before it cloud" mean that the joys of spring are themselves the *cause* of the cloying and clouding?

It looks to me as if (1) the cloying and clouding and souring are supposed to be the result of sinning, not of spring as such; and (2) Hopkins isn't asking Christ to do away with spring, or take away its juice or its joy; rather, "have" means some combination of "claim ownership of" and "enjoy", and "get" means some combination of those things with "bring into being" (= "beget").

In other words, the last 3 1/2 lines mean: "O Christ, our lord, let girls and boys enjoy spring innocently; for they have been chosen by you for salvation and are well worth saving." So it seems to me, anyway.

For the avoidance of doubt, I don't think this reading clears the poem of the charges you make against it. Hopkins *does* clearly think that there's something bad about the sexual element of spring; he *does* clearly think that when that innocent girl and boy start to feel spring the way the rest of Nature does, that'll be sinful and corrupting and cloying-and-clouding-and-souring and Bad; that clearly *isn't* going to happen, and Hopkins is clearly wrong to want it to happen, for multiple reasons; and Hopkins *is* denigrating nature just as you say he is.

(And, also for the avoidance of doubt, I agree with you that those unpleasant features of the poem and the thinking behind it don't stop it being a great poem.)

Incidentally, is it terribly literal of me to be wondering how something can simultaneously cloy and be soured?

g said...

Oops, what I wrote there is (entirely by my fault) garbled at an important point. So, in case it isn't obvious: "that clearly isn't going to happen" refers to Hopkins's hypothetical preservation of "innocence". Though, now I think about it some more, I'm not convinced he's actually asking for one; rather, he's asking for those who are still "innocent" to enjoy the joys of spring.

Russell Blackford said...

Interesting. As a point of clarification, I meant "take" in the sense of seize or claim, not in the sense of remove. Still, it might come to much the same thing if Christ is supposed to seize or claim it before it can cloy. That would, it seems to me, mean something like stopping the process in its tracks before it goes bad.

But, hmmm, yeah, the language is difficult at this point of the poem. While the general sense is reasonably clear, the grammatical structure is less clear and seems ambiguous, and that can affect the exact meaning.

Dubhglas Henning said...

Hopkins had an extremely fraught relationship with sexuality, especially his own longings for the poet Digby Mackworth Dolben. Dolben was a writer of homeoerotic Christian poetry. Hopkins was forbidden by his confessor to have any contact with him and only wrote letters, which reveal his passions, though closely guarded. Dolben's death at a young age greatly affected Hopkins and "many of Hopkins’s best poems — impregnated with an elegiac longing for Dolben, his lost belov├Ęd and his muse — were the result."