Hopkins and Francis on the State of the World: A Poet’s Reflection

By Paul Mariani

It was a Jesuit priest, Gerard Man-ley Hopkins, who wrote some of the great Franciscan poems of all time, so that he and Pope Francis, a Jesuit who took the name of Francis, share that link in common. It follows, then, that Francis should begin “Laudato Si’,” his letter to the world, fittingly delivered on Pentecost Sunday 2015, by quoting from St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures”:

Praise be to you, my Lord,
through our Sister, Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us,
and who produces various fruit
with colored flowers and herbs.

And so he begins his encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home,” with Francis, reminding us that “our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” And so, in the name of the church, in the name of our shared humanity, Pope Francis reminds us that the very earth “cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.”

Hopkins, who loved God’s creation much as St. Francis did, wept over what humans were doing to the English and Welsh countryside and – by extension – to the entire world. Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do. You have showered them with love. You have given them this beautiful world, both on the cosmic as well as on the microcosmic level, if they only had ears to hear its music and the eyes to see what is there before them, if they would only take the time to look.

But look at what? Hopkins’s poems tell us what is there before us, just as Fr. Francis did and Pope Francis has been doing. “Look at the stars!,” Hopkins urges us in“ The Starlight Night,”

Look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quick gold lies!
Wind-beat white beam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!

This is Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” in a language rinsed and refreshed, words with a sense of deep wonder and awe behind them. Do you hear it? Can you see it? Get up from your chair and go out behind your house on a clear dark night, where you can actually see the stars, and let their immensity and beauty surround you, he tells us. It’s all free and there for the taking, he urges us on with nine exclamations in seven lines.

And the stars: stars as fire-folk, as bright boroughs, as circle-citadels. Or – in a reversal – diamond delves, elves’ eyes, quicksilver gold: stars like the white underside of poplars shining in the night sky. All that energy and life, like a flock of spooked doves suddenly lifting from the earth. And behind those millions of stars, behind those untold millions of gold pieces, is something even greater: the Creator of it all, the Father and “Christ and his mother and all his hallows.” A taste of heaven there for the asking.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” Hopkins wrote that same month. Charged, that is, with an electric energy coursing through it, instressed upon us, revealing a beauty and majesty that would “flame out, like shining from shook foil,” lightning-quick in its dazzle. Or it would dawn onus slowly, gathering “to a greatness, like the ooze of oil/ Crushed,” that rich yellow green oil from olives crushed in a press, their translucency reflecting the world about them in each tiny drop, because “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” And because, in spite of what we have done to our world, the Holy Spirit, like a mother dove brooding over its young, cares about us, shining out like the dawn each day, a phoenix rising again, “with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

Why are we here, the poet asks? To burrow lice-like into some giant wheel of cheese, surrounding ourselves with the fat of the world until death takes us? Or are we here to recognize what we have been given – air, water, light, nourishment, knowledge, friendship, art – and thus give praise back to our Creator. “Glory be to God for dappled things,” Hopkins sang, for the kaleidoscopic variety and freshness in all 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..
 The beautiful serene snow blankets the entrance to  Gonzaga University . Photo by Matt Weigand.

The beautiful serene snow blankets the entrance to Gonzaga University. Photo by Matt Weigand.

For if the world is charged with the grandeur of God, then we are charged with acknowledging that grandeur, since we are the only creatures consciously aware of that beauty and so of praising the Creator of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. For where else, Hopkins tells us as he witnesses the terrible effects of strip mining which leaves huge brow-like slags to scar the earth for generations after. How else can the earth cry out in its hurt? What other “eye, tongue, or heart else, where/ Else, but in dear and dogged man?” Man, so dear to his Creator, and yet so “self bent” on himself “that he would strip “our rich round world bare,” without a care for those who come after. Earth with those monstrous lag heaps for eyebrows, not unlike that massive methane leak in California’s Aliso Canyon. Methanein the air we breathe, lead in the water we drink, waste everywhere. The poor, the poor everywhere, without work, their dignity stripped from them, “Undenizened, beyond bound/ Of earth’s glory, earth’s ease,” he wrote late in his too-short life. The unemployed no longer a viable part of the commonwealth, and no one to share that care. This, he warned us, was to weigh those about us down with a hangdog dullness, a dullness which would morph to despair and then rage, turning those hang dogs to man wolves, whose packs would infest the age.

Paul Mariani is University Professor in the department of English at Boston College. His is the author of seven books of poetry and multiple biographies, including Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life (2008) and, most recently, The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens (2016). He is also author of a memoir, Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius (2002). 

The image Starry Night of Alps is courtesy of Ars Electronica of the Flickr Creative Commons.