The Power of Language to Transform the Human Heart

Victorian ShelfieWhile packing up my books for the move, I came across a passage in Frederick Buechner’s autobiography, The Sacred Journey, that I must share with you.

At the same time I happened to have for an English teacher an entirely different sort of man. He had nothing of the draughtsman about him, no inclination to drill us in anything, but instead a tremendous, Irishman’s zest for the blarney and wizardry of words. I had always been a reader and loved words for the tales they can tell and the knowledge they can impart and the worlds they can conjure up like the Scarecrow’s Oz and Claudius’ Rome; but this teacher, Mr. Martin, was the first to give me a feeling for what words are, and can do, in themselves. Through him I started to sense that words not only convey something, but are something; that words have color, depth, texture of their own, and the power to evoke vastly more than they mean; that words can be used not merely to make things clear, make things vivid, make things interesting and whatever else, but to make things happen inside the one who reads them or hears them. When Gerard Manley Hopkins writes a poem about a blacksmith and addresses him as one who “didst fettle for the great gray drayhorse his bright and battering sandal,” he is not merely bringing the blacksmith to life, but in a way is bringing us to life as well. Through the sound, rhythm, passion of his words, he is bringing to life in us, as might never have been brought to life at all, a sense of the uniqueness and mystery and holiness not just of the blacksmith and his great gray drayhorse, but of the reality itself, including the reality of ourselves. Mr. Martin had us read wonderful things–it was he who gave me my love for The Tempest, for instance–but it was a course less in literature than in language and the great power that language has to move and in some measure even to transform the human heart.

For some context, let’s look at Hopkins’ poem that Buechner refers to:

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

The very same transformation that Buechner proposes words bring about in us is happening to the speaker of this poem. Felix is transformed by his sickness, and it is through his sickness that he transforms the priest. Then in turn, we as the readers are transformed by their mutual transformation. We are broken, mended, and tendered to.

When have you not only been moved by but transformed by something you read. I know my tone here isn’t quite right and that it may sound like I’m just musing, but I mean it. When have you been transformed? What were you reading? What did it feel like?

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5 thoughts on “The Power of Language to Transform the Human Heart

  1. I’m not sure when that would be, for me. I know some of the books that have felt most mind-expanded were nonfiction pieces aimed at explaining a time and place that’re now alien, such at Cait Murphy’s Crazy ’08 (about the 1908 professional baseball season, which was a kind of odd one) or Stewart O’Nan’s book with the title I can’t remember about the Ringling Brothers circus fire of 1944.

  2. Such an interesting idea (and thank you for introducing me to another great Hopkins poem). It’s a challenge to answer the question though, because I don’t think I’ve been changed by literature so much as been brought close to my true self. When you read a book that really speaks to you it’s like you realise something you always kind of thought, but were never able to articulate or confront. On the other hand, I hope I’ve plenty more reading ahead of me so maybe the transformations are all yet to come…

    1. I’m glad you like the poem. It’s one of my favorites of his with how tender Felix is treated in it.

      You make a great point about how reading helps us find our true selves. It reminded me of this line from Mark Edmundson: “The reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated or more articulate… The best reason to read them is to see if they may know you better than you know yourself. You may find your own suppressed and rejected thoughts flowing back to you with an ‘alienated majesty.'”

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