12 February 2012

God's grandeur: on listening and good literature

I sat in church and tried to focus, but the pastor had mentioned Gerard Manley Hopkins in his sermon.

In the face of Hopkins, it's often hard to concentrate on anything but the images that fill that movie screen in your mind as you read his poems.

Word by word, verb by noun, that man could create the most dazzling, glowing images with just a few strokes of the pen.

I imagine that, if he were a painter, he would've used entire tubes of color on one painting.

He would've created the kind of paintings that imprint themselves on your eyelids—the kind you can still see when you close your eyes. He would've painted the kind you can see for years after you leave the white, hushed space of the museum where you first saw the boldly declarative painting.

Hopkins' poems let you make your own paintings in your mind, the kind that come back years later when you hear or read the poem again.

So, in light of Hopkins' image-laced words, I can't be blamed for not paying attention to the sermon, even if it was, ironically, about listening {to the Lord, of course, not just to the pastor}.

As quickly as the images came back for "God's Grandeur"—images formed when I read the poem for my Modern Brit Lit class at Truman State University—I stumbled around my brain for the literary details I'd learned about Hopkins as part of that class.

Not just the facts of his life: those are not interesting to trot out, even in the dullest of trivia games.

I mean those literary details that explain why he was an important writer and what his traits were and how you can identify him in a poetry line-up {which is the kind of line-up interesting to English majors and perhaps not to any one else.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was known for developing his own rhythm. He gave it a particular name, and as I sat in church not bothering to listen, I was trying to remember what he'd called it.

It seemed, in that moment, that the entire point of my English degree dangled dangerously off a cliff, hanging on with fingers that were quickly tiring.

A bit dramatic, a bit Gothic, a bit exaggerated, and perhaps that's what my English degree was good for: for creating overwrought sentences.

How could I study for years—analyzing, deconstructing, comparing, contrasting, writing, reading—and end up, not even a decade later, unable to recall the word for that kind of rhythm Hopkins created?

This disturbed me.

It made me wonder what else I would forget, but that didn't seem like a thought worth pursuing during church, when you're supposed to be remembering Jesus and not worrying about tomorrow {for tomorrow will care for itself}.

Through the Nicene Creed, through the Confession of Sins, through the Doxology, through the Lord's Prayer {so many words ingrained in my soul!}, I tried to come up with that one word for Hopkins' rhythm.

I could come up with:
  • fragments from his other poems: No worst, there is none. Oh the mind, mind has mountains. Glory be to God for dappled things.
  • where I was when I first read all those poems: mostly in Pickler Memorial Library, on the second floor and tucked away in a corner next to a window where I could see the bell tower.
  • an image of my Modern Brit Lit textbook open to the Hopkins' section: Notes everywhere, in the margins, in between the lines, many things underlined as I tried to get down the essence of the poem. As I tried to distill it into ink and lodge it in my brain.

But I could not come up with that particular vocabulary word, and I finally had to let it go.

I could remember the essential of the poems, and when it comes to literature, isn't that what matters? Literature, good literature, is about getting under our facades and niceties. It's about challenging what we've always thought. It's about figuring out a new way to say what we've always thought.

Good literature isn't about memorizing every word; it's about taking in every word and letting it soak into who you are.

If the feeling of a poem is still with you years after you've read it, you know it was good literature. Even if you can't remember the name of Hopkins' rhythm.

God's Grandeur
Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


It's sprung rhythm, by the way. It came to me the next day when I was at work, and I breathed a sigh of relief. My English degree knowledge and trivia may be slipping away by degrees, but it's not all gone yet.


  1. Many weekend mornings the boyfriend and I take his ipad down to the coffee shop and gorge on Wall Street Journal crosswords. So, so many times I have this exact feeling: I knew that once! I spent so many hours, so much effort, so much money -- and so, so much of it is just flown away. I tell myself that at least I remember how to learn it again. (Probably.)

  2. Perhaps we should give each other random pop quizzes on important literature things, Rachel.



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