NE OF THE THINGS that I found most memorable in the recent papal interview was his off-the-cuff response to a question about his preferences among artists and writers. The Holy Father gave a rather detailed, albeit spontaneous, response, which indicates to me that he has a truly wide appreciation for culture and the arts. Off the top of his head, he named (and even quoted) the following favorites: Dostoevsky, Hölderlin, Manzoni, Hopkins, Cervantes, Caravaggio, Chagall, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Wagner. In some instances, he even specified particular recordings, singers, or conductors.
It thrilled me to read that Pope Francis is a lover of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the imitable Jesuit poet of nineteenth-century England. It also surprised me greatly. It seems apparent that our Holy Father has little facility in the English language, and poetry such as Hopkins’ could never be successfully translated. His reliance on assonance, alliteration, and sprung rhythm would make the work of translating Hopkins nearly impossible. The pontiff doesn’t explain how he came to be a Hopkins fan, but I do find that revelation encouraging.
O MANY OF HOPKINS’ POEMS treat of beauty that the subject could rightly be considered a recurring theme. Two poems, in particular, make an interesting point about the intended direction of beauty. For Hopkins, beauty is something to be rendered unto God. He never denies that the Lord is the source of all things bright and beautiful, yet the poet proposes beauty as something to be simultaneously & mysteriously returned to Him. This work of handing over beauty to God appears, in a number of poems, to be one of the duties of man.
Consider first the opening stanza of Morning, Midday, and Evening Sacrifice:
The dappled die-away
Cheek and the wimpled lip,
The gold-wisp, the airy-grey
Eye, all in fellowship—
This, all this beauty blooming,
This, all this freshness fuming,
Give God while worth consuming.
The stipulation “while worth consuming” reminds me of the Gospel story about the widow’s mite, wherein the Lord instructs us to give not only from our surplus, but even from our need. We are to offer the beautiful things of this world to God now, while they are still beautiful, not sometime in the future when all their beauty has faded away. In Hopkins words, “What death half lifts the latch of, What hell hopes soon the snatch of, Your offering, with dispatch, of!
Another masterful poem, The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, opens with a search for how to retain beauty. In a world of “ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay,” how does one “keep back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, . . . from vanishing away?”
Later on, the one whose voice speaks in the poem (presumably Hopkins?) changes focus. No longer does he ask how to “keep back beauty.” The question becomes how best to give beauty back.
Hopkins uses the image of gorgeous hair to make this point:
Sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace—
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath,
And with sighs soaring, soaring sighs, deliver
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
What a lovely appellation for God: “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” When we make this fundamental shift—from retaining beauty to giving it away—the extraordinary happens:
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
One of my prized books is the complete poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. In every poem, Hopkins proves himself both a master of the craft and a man of keen Christian insight. They have nourished me, along with so many other Hopkins fans—including even the pope.
As Hopkins once said in a dialogue with an Oxford scholar: “Beauty therefore is a relation, and the apprehension of it a comparison.” The poetic mind is one capable of drawing and elucidating those comparisons. Glory be to God for the poetic mind given to Hopkins!