CCENTRIC and unappreciated during his lifetime (like many great artists), Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1844-1889) now owns a spot on any decent list of eminent English poets. Some of Hopkins’ poems are very well known, such as God’s Grandeur and Pied Beauty and The Windhover. Poetry lovers would also recognize Spring and Binsey Poplars and The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo.
One of his poems seems apt during this time, when our return to the public celebration of the Sacraments has begun to take shape. I will share this poem below.
Hopkins has a style unlike any other. It is no exaggeration to say that his work is groundbreaking, since he is the progenitor of such innovations as sprung rhythm, the curtal sonnet, and the concepts of inscape and instress. When I first read Hopkins in college seminary, I dismissed him as amateurish (!), what with his excessive alliteration and assonance, tmesis and onomatopoeia. In time, I came to realize that I had the roles reversed.
Since then, I have written about my admiration for the way Hopkins approaches the concept of beauty. His poetry has much to say.
The poem to which I direct your attention today is one of his lesser known pieces, Easter Communion (1865). Dating among his early works, this sonnet certainly does not reflect his mature prowess, but it is nevertheless a meaningful poem.
In terms of context, it is important to remember that this poem was written several decades before Pope Pius X (1903-1914) advocated frequent reception of Holy Communion by the faithful. Even more, it postdates Hopkins’ reading (1864) of Cardinal Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua by one year and predates his own conversion (1866) from Anglicanism to Catholicism by one year. As such, what Hopkins describes historically is his experience of making an annual communion during Paschaltide—the “Easter duty.” We might choose to read it today in the light of the Eucharistic fast we have been enduring throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Additionally, although the poem is sometimes criticized for its references to severe ascetic practices, it must be noted that such piety was not uncommon in Victorian England. We ought not forget, moreover, that mortification is an essential ingredient in the Christian life. Nor should it be assumed that the specific penances to which the poet alludes are meant only in their physical sense, with no sensus plenior. In our present context, the penances Hopkins describes embracing might well be taken as proxies for the unchosen sufferings associated with present affairs.
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
Breathe 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. 1
My sincere prayer is that the separation of the faithful from the Sacraments will come to an end soon. I hope that your return—whether it comes within the Easter season or thereafter—will enable you to “breathe Easter now.” I am confident that God will, indeed, “o’er-brim the measures you have spent with oil of gladness.”
I hope, moreover, that this experience will prove our local Catholic communities to be truly “sergèd fellowships,” overcast by such strong threading that they do not fray, even in the adverse conditions of a global pandemic.
Widely considered Hopkins’ finest poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland is a semi-historical ode commemorating the deaths of five exiled Franciscan nuns and other passengers aboard the SS Deutschland, which sank in 1875. In the final stanza, Hopkins envisions a new dawning of faith in his native Britain, coupled with a renewed reign of Christ the King:
Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us,
Be a crimson-cresseted east,
More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls. 2
May your own return to the Sacraments, whenever it may occur, be a moment for Christ to “easter” anew in you.
COVID-19 Pandemic Reflections
On Separation from the Sacraments:
On Returning to the Sacraments:
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Easter Communion,” The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 4th ed., ed. W. H. Gardner and N. H. Mackenzie (London: Oxford UP, 1967), no. 11, pp. 20-21.
2 Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” in The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 4th ed., ed. W. H. Gardner and N. H. Mackenzie (London: Oxford UP, 1967), no. 28, p. 63.Opinions by blog authors do not necessarily represent the views of Corpus Christi Watershed.