Why the Leaden Echo isn’t Enough

Gerard Manley Hopkins can be seen as a poet of despair. In 1991, the Russian composer, Leonid Desyatnikov adapted his poem, “The Leaden Echo,” to music. He assigns a male countertenor the role of the speaker, and the boy’s haunting voice captures the essence of the maiden chorus.

Counter to the rhythm of the music, the repetition of “despair” fades to silence. We are left with nothing but silence and our own thoughts. Desyatnikov understands “The Leaden Echo” very well, but there is one important divergence between Desyatnikov and Hopkins himself. Wait one beat, then two, and nothing happens. There is no airy aspiration pleading with us to turn from our dark thoughts. There is no “Golden Echo” to redound from the walls of the well, saying “Spare!”

Click on image to view Margaret Tait’s short film. Runtime: 6.27

Stopping with “The Leaden Echo” would be like only reading the Inferno and then telling Dante and Virgil that we don’t want to join them any further on the journey. Margaret Tait takes a very different approach to the echo poems. She too includes “The Leaden Echo” with its fears that there is nothing to keep beauty back, that there is nothing to stave off age and wrinkles. She too is quick to despair. But then, the camera pans upward with the still motion of the trees and there is the important echo: “Spare!” Then, many of the same images are repeated, but in a new light, that there is a place where everything that is called fair can remain.

Desyatnikov has privileged one echo to the exclusion of the other, while Tait shows us that each echo needs the other. “The Leaden Echo” contains the seed of what is good in “The Golden Echo.” It is good to value beauty, especially human beauty. It is good to sorrow at the loss of beauty. “The Golden Echo,” in turn, takes what is good in “The Leaden Echo” and magnifies it. Yes beauty is good, the echo suggests, so we should give it back to “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” Desyatnikov lets one pole stand on its own, but Hopkins presents the contraries together.

There’s something attractive in meditating on “The Leaden Echo” for too long. Maybe that’s why in some ways, Desyatnikov’s interpretation is more alluring than Tait’s. Ill and lonely in Ireland, Hopkins knew this echo intimately. Rarely published, he prayed the lord of life to send his roots rain. His eyes were dimming from pouring over Latin papers rather than delighting in the bright plumage of birds in flight. Even his final poem, “To RB,” moves towards offering an apology:

O then if in my lagging lines you miss
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.

And yet, in his final moment, his last word was not the dangerously mellifluous repetition of despair, but “I am happy, so happy.” In his doubts and plaguing sense of artistic sterility, he gave beauty back to “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” He is not a poet of despair, but a poet of hope and joy.


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A Retreat with Hopkins: Easter

Easter Communion

Pure fasted faces draw unto this feast:
God comes all sweetness to your Lenten lips.
You striped in secret with breath-taking whips,
Those crookèd rough-scored chequers may be pieced
To crosses meant for Jesu’s; you whom the East
With draught of thin and pursuant cold so nips
Breath Easter now; you sergèd fellowships,
You vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,

God shall o’er-brim the measures you have spent
With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze
And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment
Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease.
Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent:
Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lent 1865

I can’t get over the rhythm of this poem. Look at how the alliteration pulls the first lines together onto themselves. “Fasted faces draw unto this feast.” Stop. To “Lenten lips.” Stop. But then, the poet himself breaths Easter and the pace quickens. The enjambed lines pushes us past “pieced” and “East” as though the speaker’s excitement doesn’t actually allow for the very breath he’s talking about. And then we are back to end-stop lines as the speaker exhales and waits for divine action at the end of his sonnet.

Post previously published here on 3-27-2016

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A Retreat with Hopkins: Holy Saturday

Unknown painter - Resurrection of Christ and the Harrowing of Hell - WGA23499

‘O Death, Death’

O Death, Death, He is come.
O grounds of Hell make room.
Who came from further than the stars
Now comes as low beneath.
Thy ribbèd ports, O Death
Make wide; and Thou, O Lord of Sin,
Lay open thine estates.
Lift up your heads, O Gates;
Be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors
The King of Glory will come in.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins, March 1865

This very intertextual poem is drawn largely from Paul’s treatment of death in 1 Corinthians and Psalm 24, linking the idea of liturgically entering the Temple with the tradition of the Harrowing of Hell. As a Jesuit, it is likely that Hopkins would have read the following description of this tradition from an ancient homily:

Something strange is happening–there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

Whenever I read the Terrible Sonnets, like we did together yesterday, I keep this poem in mind. It’s the ever present consolation even when all he could think was that “all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.” It’s that far-off yet continually arriving moment when his roots are finally given rain.

Post previously published here on 3-26-2016

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A Retreat with Hopkins: Good Friday

‘No Worst’

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief-
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old ánvil wínce and síng–
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
Ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins 1885 or 1886

A dark poem for a dark day. This is one of Hopkins’s “Terrible Sonnets” or “Sonnets of Desolation.” These poems are why he is sometimes thought of as a poet of despair. But remember the same crushed, desiccated soul of the Terrible Sonnets will end with the final coda, “I am happy, so happy.” For Hopkins, the tension between life and death, as beautifully represented in the final line here, is resolved by the comfort of the resurrection. The body may die and crumble to ash but, “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” (Final lines of “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire”).

Post previously published here on 3-25-2016

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A Retreat with Hopkins: The Ninth Hour

The Mother of Sorrows




In shade of Death’s sad tree
Stood doleful she.
Ah she, now by none other
Name to be known, alas, but Sorrow’s Mother.
Before her eyes
Hers and the whole World’s Joy,
Hanging all torn, she sees; and in His woes
And pains, her pangs and throes:
Each wound of His, from every part,
All more at home in her one heart.


What kind of marble then
Is that cold man
Who can look on and see,
Nor keep such noble sorrows company ?
Sure even from you
(My flints) some drops are due,
To see so many unkind swords contest
So fast for one soft breast:
While with a faithful, mutual flood,
Her eyes bleed tears, His wounds weep blood.

– Richard Crashaw

There’s no direct evidence that Hopkins read the baroque poet, Richard Crashaw, so perhaps it’s just a nice fantasy to pretend that he would include this poem in a retreat. But John Henry Newman, who had a part in Hopkins’s conversion, and Francis Thompson, a young contemporary poet, were part of the growing interest in Crashaw.

Besides, look at the way Crashaw sighs the word, “Ah.” That’s so Hopkinsian! Or perhaps Hopkins is Crashavian…

Anyways, back to the poem. Crashaw is reaching back to Jacapone da Todi’s Stabat Mater (though we’re not quite sure who wrote it).  Through describing the poem as a descant, he evokes liturgical music. Rather than presenting his poem as a separate hymn, he matches its stanzas to those of Stabat Mater, but also enters into the tradition, making it his own, rather than statically reproducing it. As Austin Warren puts it:

Though he has appropriated the substance of da Todi’s poem, he has completely reshaped it, translated it into his own sensibility as well as into English, and made of his version an independent work of art.

I first read this poem over a decade ago. It was my first experience of Marian poetry. What still gets to me every time is the chiastic inversion of weeping and bleeding in the final line of the second stanza, suggesting a shared intimacy between the two characters. This poem has arrested me so much that I keep coming back to it every year. Some years, I’m the cold man of marble. Other years, my flints are more responsive. Either way, some drops are always due.

Here’s Palestrina’s Stabat Mater for us to get a feel for what Crashaw’s “descant” would be sung with.

Post previously published here on 3-25-2016

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A Retreat with Hopkins: The Sixth Hour

From The Dream of the Rood

So I lay watching there the Saviour’s tree,
Grieving in spirit for a long, long while,
Until I heard it utter sounds, the best
Of woods began to speak these words to me:
“It was long past – I still remember it –
That I was cut down at the copse’s end,
Moved from my root. Strong enemies there took me,
Told me to hold aloft their criminals,
Made me a spectacle. Men carried me
Upon their shoulders, set me on a hill,
A host of enemies there fastened me.
And then I saw the Lord of all mankind
Hasten with eager zeal that He might mount
Upon me. I durst not against God’s word
Bend down or break, when I saw tremble all
The surface of the earth. Although I might
Have struck down all the foes, yet stood I fast.
Then the young hero (who was God almighty)
Got ready, resolute and strong in heart.
He climbed onto the lofty gallows-tree,
Bold in the sight of many watching men,
When He intended to redeem mankind.
I trembled as the warrior embraced me.
But still I dared not bend down to the earth,
Fall to the ground. Upright I had to stand.
A rood I was raised up; and I held high
The noble King, the Lord of heaven above.
I dared not stoop. They pierced me with dark nails;
The scars can still be clearly seen on me,
The open wounds of malice. yet might I
Not harm them. They reviled us both together.
I was made wet all over with the blood
Which poured out from his side, after
He had Sent forth His spirit. And I underwent
Full many a dire experience on that hill.
I saw the God of hosts stretched grimly out.
Darkness covered the Ruler’s corpse with clouds
His shining beauty; shadows passed across,
Black in the darkness. All creation wept

Translation by Richard Hamer

Surely Anglo-Saxon loving and kenning-making poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, would have read this poem. “The Windhover” adopts the same metaphor of Christ as warrior, which fits seamlessly in the militant self-conception of Jesuits. In Dayspring in Darkness, Loomis points out that the gold-vermilion color combination that Hopkins uses is reminiscent of the dreamer’s vision of a gold-plated cross with blood coming out of it in The Dream of the Rood.

I can’t get over the imagery of the line: “All creation wept.” The way it is juxtaposed with the powerful metaphors of Rood and Christ as unyielding warriors amazes me. The Rood as suffering soldier is part of a world of weeping. The next poem in the retreat will look more at weeping and suggest that “some drops are due.”

Here’s a great site to learn more about The Dream of the Rood. Yeah, I know, frames, but the content is gold!

And here’s a reading of the poem in the original Anglo-Saxon:

Post previously published here on 3-25-2016

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A Retreat with Hopkins: The Third Hour

“The Dark Morning”

This is the black day when
Fog rides the ugly air:
Water wades among the buildings
To the prisonder’s curled ear.
The rain, in thin sentences,
Slakes him like danger,
Whose heart is his Germany
Fevered with anger.
This is the dark day when
Locks let the enemy in
Through all the coiling passages of
(Curled ear) my prison!

– Thomas Merton

For this morning’s retreat, we’re being a little anachronistic since Hopkins is Merton’s predecessor as priest-poet. We know from Seven Storey Mountain that Merton read and “became absorbed in the poetry of Hopkins.” He even wrote a poetic response to Hopkins. You can read more about that connection here.

Written in 1939, this is one of Merton’s war poems. That explains why Germany is internalized as the prisoner’s self-antagonizing heart. In “Landscapes of Disaster,” Patrick O’Connell finds a paradoxical sense of hope in the transition from the third person to the first person pronoun:

But in the final words of the poem the speaker no longer refers to “his” but to “my prison.” He has recognized that the condition he had analyzed in the first two stanzas also applies to himself – he too is imprisoned by his anger, longing for the dark rain’s “thin sentences” to penetrate the “coiling passages” of his own ears. He has realized, as Merton repeatedly emphasizes in his prose works from this same period, that as a sinner he shares in the culpability for the conditions that have made the war possible. This evidence of self-knowledge is then, paradoxically, a slight but genuine countersign to the hopelessness that has dominated the poem up to this final confession.

Even dark mornings have some glimmer of hope, some small “countersign to the hopelessness.”

Post previously published here on 3-25-2016

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A Retreat with Hopkins: Holy Thursday

S. Thomae Aquinatis

Rhythmus ad SS. Sacramentum
‘Adoro te supplex, latens deitas’

Godhead, I adore thee fast in hiding; thou
God in these bare shapes, poor shadows, darkling now:
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting, are in thee deceived;
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed:
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.

On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men;
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.

I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he:
This faith each day deeper be my holding of,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.

O thou our reminder of Christ Crucified,
Living Bread the life of us for whom he died,
Lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.

Like what tender tales tell of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran–
Blood that but one drop of has the worth to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.

Jesu whom I looked at veilѐd here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with thy glory’s sight.

In his English paraphrase of Aquinas’s Adoro Te Devote, Gerard Manley Hopkins, contains worlds within the liminal space created by the poem. A rising to heaven is counterbalanced by a descent to earth, creating a space in between that the poet inhabits. The Godhead is hiding, the low heart is lost in God, and “Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.” At the heart of the matter: “Blood whereof a single drop has power to win / All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.” All of the pain of the world can be washed in one drop. The divine/human blood encloses the world, just as “Spring and Fall” encloses “worlds of wanwood leafmeal.” From duality to centrality, there is an aesthetic of unity from paradox. The dichotomous inward/outward movement of the soul and body resonates with the upward/downward movement of heaven condescending to earth and the Incarnation lifting humanity to heaven.

Here’s Hopkins’s poem set to music. You’ll notice that it’s a little different from Hopkins’s exact wording. I believe this is Owen Alstott’s rendering.

Post previously published here on 3-24-2016

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