With his emphasis on the embodiment of Christ in his poetry, the priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins has quite a few seasonal poems to choose from. Last year, we looked at one of his darker Christmas poems, but I thought we would be a little more festive this year.
The stanza above is from “Ad Matrem Virginem,” which is subtitled as a “eucharistic hymn” for “the feast of the Nativity.”
As a classics professor, Hopkins was fluent in Latin, so he has a few poems written in the language, and he even penned Latin translations of Shakespeare. Here’s a prose translation from Catherine Phillips’s collection of Hopkins’s poetry:
Mother of my Jesus, Mother of mighty God, teach me about Him, the small sweet God. How much did you love Him whom you conceived, the inconceivable, the terrible Lord, but as the Word made flesh brought into smaller compass in you?
We don’t know for certain when Hopkins wrote this poem since it is undated, but according to Phillips, the “handwriting suggests that it dates from Christmas 1870.” Having entered the Jesuits two years earlier, 1870 is the year that he began his philosophical studies in Stonyhurst.
Throughout the poem, which you can read in translation here, the speaker enters into a dialogue with Mary and requests knowledge of Christ: “teach me about Him, the small sweet God.” This request, which implies the intimacy between Christ and Mary, is countered with the speaker’s unworthiness. While she brings Christ to the world in the Visitation, the speaker is the poor sinner that only shows Christ crucified back to the Father. All of these pleas for the grace to change, to “love,” to “rejoice,” to “embrace,” and to “contemplate” are all answered through the shifting attitude of the speaker, culminating in the joyous act of worship of the final line: “Praise to God always!”
Hopkins also translated Latin hymns into English, like the 13th century Christmas carol, Angelus ad Virginem. You can read the original verse with Hopkins’s translation here. Hopkins prepared the translation for the Jesuit magazine the Month. The original is in MS Arundel 248 and is held in the British Library. You can see the carol with its square notation at the very top of leaf 154, while the Middle English translation starts on the fifth line down from the top:
In a letter to his mother on Christmas Eve of 1881, Hopkins describes the music as “interesting from its great age besides being striking and pretty.” See for yourself if you agree with his assessment as you listen to the music below. You can even follow along with the leaf above. I know the square notation looks different than the modern notation we’re used to, but don’t let that stop you.
Merry Christmas from us and Eleanor!