MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríevingOver Goldengrove unleaving?Leáves, líke the things of man, youWith your fresh thoughts care for, can you?Áh! ás the heart grows olderIt will come to such sights colderBy and by, nor spare a sighThough worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;And yet you wíll weep and know why.Now no matter, child, the name:Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressedWhat heart heard of, ghost guessed:It ís the blight man was born for,It is Margaret you mourn for.
I confess to returning Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight to the library unfinished. It’s an intimate, meandering meditation on how books helped her survive breast cancer and its treatment, at points very lyrical. Adrift in dark waters, her lights are works of imaginative literature and what others have written about death, love, family, and loss. I read the first few chapters and found myself a tearful mess. I resolved not to finish it, but still there followed one of the most piteous and unshakeable moods of gloom I’ve had this many a day; a realisation that though nothing’s wrong yet, by getting married I’ve knowingly signed up for eventual wrenching loss; combined with a generalised regret at the lot of humans who must all bid a bittersweet goodbye - for me never far from the surface. Dawkins or Hitchens or somebody like that wonders why Christians don’t look eagerly for death. At one level he’s right, and we do, but at another, we could hardly be human if we didn’t feel the pathos of this ultimate severance. John Ames, the hero of Gilead, is sure of his salvation, but nonetheless filled with sadness at the ending of his long loved life. In Gethsemane, Jesus is ‘overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ a state which must have comprehended more than the simple fear of pain or loss of friends. I believe in the resurrection – the remedy for mortality – but that belief has never made my heart hard to the thought of going. Like Walker, I find that literature helps. My gloom was dissipated by a good sleep, a kind spouse, and a dose of poetry. This is that skylark Hopkins (a better guide than Hitchens or Dawkins) and his poem “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and the Comfort of the Resurrection.”
Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indignation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief's gasping, joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
This poem is a tad unseasonal, but the Magnificat is after all a Christmas song, and Christmas in Australia is much more like an English May than an English December. Canberra in summer, with our dams full of rain, makes the phrase ‘grass and greenworld’ toll in my head whenever I go outside. So here's Gerard Manly Hopkins' “May Magnificat.”
May is Mary's month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—
Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?
Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?
Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—
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 or sheath or shell.
All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.
Well but there was more than this:
Spring's universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfed cherry
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—
This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ's birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.
I like this poem “Snow” by Louis Macneice, an Irish contemporary of Auden and Stephen Spender.
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes–
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands–
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
I like the idea that the world is “incorrigibly plural.” Our minds tend to be reductive; we try to manage our experience by draining out the colour and complexity, sifting, sorting, simplifying. But there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. They are more generous than we.
I liked this poem, but I don't think its idea is fully embodied in it - there's no sense in the words and lines themselves of that breathless realisation of things being various. In contrast, Hopkins’ poem “Pied Beauty” is full of the dazzle and irregularity he praises.
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: