Whenever I’m asked, “Why read Hopkins?” I have no clue how to answer. I stumble through something about his view of language with his elaborate internal rhymes and chiming of words influenced by Welsh poetry. Or maybe I turn to the solace of his line that the “mind has mountains.” Or the decade and more that I’ve been haunted by “worlds of wanwood leafmeal.” But that doesn’t answer the question. I’m dancing around the inner kernel that could answer it because that, perhaps, says too much about me as a reader.
I read Hopkins because every moment I spend with him through his poetry is this ever-expanding and ever-unattainable experience of poetic truth.
I’m thinking about this because I’ve been reading through medieval texts with students lately, and I’ve had this lectio moment with Julian of Norwich (you can read more about lectio and literature here and here). In her Book of Showings, she has this famous line that I’ve read before but it’s never really struck me:
al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele.
This line is in the context of discussing how “synne is behovabil,” which is often presented as seeing the Christian concept of a Fall or Original Sin as a “happy fault” that enables the Incarnation. Well, that is unless someone has leanings towards Scotus’s thought like Hopkins did, and wonders if the Incarnation is a poetic expression that is not contingent on a Fall.
But when I was struck by the text, I was thinking about it in a very different way from these old scholastic arguments.
I’m not normally one to promote looking at a line out of its historical context, but let’s linger with this line without worrying about these religious concerns.
Christ as character (it’s okay, that’s not a slight) tells Julian that “all shall be well.” I think this struck me so much and has been staying with me more than all the other texts I’ve been reading this term (and I love medieval texts very much) because it articulates what I’ve being trying to discover through writing this blog. This is the heart of the hermeneutic of hope. That’s why “The Leaden Echo” can never be enough. This is why the mystery of failure leads us not to despair but to a better understanding of ourselves.
The same moment comes when Sam Gamgee looks at the sky and marvels at the stars untouched by smoke. Or that moment when Primo Levi in The Periodic Table tells us that Carbon is the element of life and that
To carbon, the element of life, my first literary dream was turned, insistently dreamed in an hour and a place when my life was not worth much: yes, I wanted to tell the story of an atom of carbon.
This story concludes Levi’s book with the movement of an atom of carbon from smoke stacks through a leaf engaged in photosynthesis and into a glass of milk drunk by the author to finally end up in the last period on the page. Even the fiery destruction of a furnace cannot stop carbon from saying “everything to everyone.”
When we feel that our lives aren’t worth much, when surrounded by the smoke of Mordor, or “worlds of wanwood leafmeal,” or just our own faults, that’s when carbon speaks to us and says “al manner of thyng shal be wele.”
I’m almost hoping that no one wants to talk about Julian when we have discussion again. It can be hard to talk about a text that you think approaches truth in a deep and insightful way.
What are your moments with a poem or story or anything else hits so deep you aren’t sure how to talk about it?
This was originally posted here on September 26, 2016.