The extraordinary in the ordinary

In advance of tomorrow’s inevitable annual explosion of Gerard Manley Hopkins May Magnificat all over the Catholic blogosphere, today’s glorious sunshine and vibrant displays of spring tulips, turned my thoughts to one of my favourite Hopkins’ poems; Spring.

Oh, nothing is so beautiful as Spring —
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
That nothing is so beautiful as Spring.

The lilting alliteration, the assonance, the echo, internal rhyme and imagery, so rich and evocative, are every bit as gorgeous and lift the spirits almost as much as the reality.

Technical skill aside, what I love about this poem is the dense imagery, how Hopkins’ deploys his Ignatian training in order to invite the reader to share in his sense of wonderment of this God-created world. He prefigures the spirituality of St Theresa of Lisieux, taking time to appreciate God, the extraordinary in the ordinary, in everyday and in everything. These are not simply thrush’s eggs, but they are reflections of heaven, and even the birdsong, like the dews on the grass is reminiscent of the waters of baptism, rinsing us clean and making us new.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.

As Balthasar notes, Hopkins’ poetry was sacramental, his then groundbreaking language, a “theological phenomenon”- everything is fashioned and determined for Christ. Perhaps that’s why so many modern readers find him so difficult as to a non-Christian he is almost unintelligible. He was determined to revalue and re-equip language to expresses the unique and extraordinary in order to use this to direct the reader towards God, regardless of critical reception.

Though he initially struggled with the notion that expressing oneself in written form could be a holy endeavour, burning all his early work in 1866, he eventually came to see that far from being a distraction to his priestly vocation, poetry was vital to expressing his religious belief. He saw God everywhere and in everything. His poems were just another instrument to prayer. Like St Ignatius himself, Hopkins recognised that if everything is directed towards God, everything is prayer. Perhaps that’s a lesson from which Christian bloggers can all learn.