Born 250 years apart, George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins are two English Christian devotional poets who conceived of God and their own walks of faith quite similarly. Both men of passionate faith, Herbert and Hopkins saw God in every aspect of created Nature, depicting it richly in their poetry. Their poems also make use of nature to convey the multiform aspects they perceived within God’s character: light and dark, sweet and sour, life and death. Their work celebrates God’s divine diversity. It also acknowledges paradoxes in people’s experience of God and the world: ecstasy and depression, obedience and rebellion, love and fear.
These ideas may sound heavy and complex, but paradoxically, the poems of George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins are delightful to read. They are full of beautiful sounds, imagery, and surprising comparisons that burst pleasurably upon the mind, like solutions to beautiful riddles.
Let’s take a closer look at two brief poems by each author. Prepare to appreciate the paradoxical!
Herbert’s Sweet Virtue
Living from 1593-1633, George Herbert was an Anglican minister who lived just before a time of intense turmoil in the English church that led up to the religious-based English Civil War begun in 1642. His own general theology conformed to the sanctioned Anglicanism of the day, though his apprehension of God and faith was quite personal.
Herbert’s “Virtue” is a lovely example of a poem using Nature to present the riddle of life, death, and faith. Small as it is, it contains a great paradox packaged into its description of a sweet spring day. (You can read Herbert’s “Virtue” at this link very quickly.) The poem is a delicate revel in gentle beauties of a spring day: the calm, bright earth and sky, said to be joined as if in marriage, and a blooming bright red rose, all enveloped in the poet’s experience like a delicious box of sweets. The problem with all of these sweets, however, is that they, along with everything else—except one thing–must eventually die.
Only one thing survives the conflagration at the end of the world: “a sweet and virtuous soul,” which “though the whole world turn to coal, / Then chiefly lives” (15-16). Indeed, a Virtuous Soul not only survives the end of all worldly delights; paradoxically, it “chiefly lives” only when everything else is gone.
The little gem “Bitter-Sweet” (read here) captures the contradictions within Herbert’s experience of God and in his walk of faith. In the first stanza, he captures contradictions within God: He “dost love, yet strike;/ Cast down, yet help afford” (3-4). If God is paradoxical in action, Herbert derives from that fact his follower’s right to be paradoxical in response. He “will complain, yet praise; / I will bewail, approve” (5-6), and “lament, and love” (8) through “all my sour-sweet days” (7).
These are only two examples of the complex apprehension of God and his response to Him that Herbert can pack into a few short, lovely lines. If you explore more of Herbert’s poems, you will find thoughtful observations on many other aspects of God’s character and of how Herbert sees Him interact with his creation.
Hopkins’s Poetry: Grand Organ to Herbert’s Lute
Like Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins was raised English Anglican, but in adulthood he converted to Catholicism and joined the priesthood. Also like Herbert, Hopkins’s poetry describes his intensely personal relationship with God. Hopkins goes beyond Herbert in not merely acknowledging the paradoxes in the attributes of God and in His creation, but embracing and celebrating them.
Writing 250 years later, Hopkins’s language is a bit more compressed and contorted than Herbert’s, making his work a little more difficult to decipher. Herbert’s works are gentle and lyrical, with a flowing sound, while Hopkins’s poems create a sound palette relying on hard-hitting alliteration and word accents, internal rhyme and slant rhyme, varying numbers of syllables in each line, and enjambed lines (meaning that the sentence is often not finished at the end of a line, but spills over into the next one). These features all produce a poem sounding less like a lute and more like an organ with both harmonizing and clashing cords.
These sound features aren’t just stylistic preferences, but reflect Hopkins’s central observation of God as a being of diversity and creator of luxuriant individuality, both in nature and in people. The idiosyncratic sounds of his poems reflect his appreciation for the many distinct individuals created by God, each designed to contribute its uniqueness to the universe. The sound of individuals being themselves isn’t always harmonious, but still produces music together. If Herbert’s poems are ballads, Hopkins’s might be more like jazz, or modernist, like Bartók’s or Stravinsky’s.
“Selving” and Hopkins’s Flaming Dragonfly
When any aspect of creation functions just as God designed it, fully like itself as God meant it to be, Hopkins called that “selving.” One of my favorite poems describing this idea is “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” (read it here). I recommend that you read it aloud the first time just to hear and enjoy the sounds it makes. Then run through a second time to think more about the meaning.
This poem illustrates Hopkins’s idea that when each object and living thing in creation enacts its own unique identity, playing the role God designed for it, it performs not only its own identity but serves as an outlet for God’s divine and living spirit into the universe. This spirit electrifies and beautifies each authentic individual, and in turn, the world, making kingfishers (an interesting type of pond-fishing bird) seem to “catch fire” and “dragonflies draw flame.” Fire and flame is emblematic of God’s spirit.
The first stanza goes on to use ringing church bells as metaphors for the actions of individuals when they are doing and being what God created them to be: “each hung bell’s / Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name,” just as each plant or animal or person makes itself known when they act as God designed them to do. Thus, each mortal thing is doing something different, because each is an individual. But paradoxically, “each mortal thing does one thing.” That one thing is to be itself, to “dea[l] out that being indoors each one dwells” (6): “[M]yself it speaks and spells, / . . . . for that I came.”
In the second stanza, Hopkins ratchets up the intensity by making the argument that when a person acts justly, as God intended, he is filled with, and enacting, the divine spirit of Christ in the world. Because many good individuals are being their unique and good selves as God created them to be (they are “selving”), “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / . . . lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces” (12-14). Here Hopkins has described another paradox: when people are acting most as authentic individuals, they are the most effective at channeling one Divine Spirit, that of Christ, which establishes a loving relationship with God.
The theology informing “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” is rather complicated, but another Hopkins poem shows the same love of God’s diverse creation in a more straightforward way: “Pied Beauty,” which you can read here. “Pied” means having two or more colors, especially in a patchy pattern, like a tortoiseshell cat. The whole exuberant first stanza of the poem glorifies God for creating all manner of things that are patchy and multi-colored. I love reading, imagining, and reveling in this various list of “dappled” things: “skies of couple-colour,” stippled spotty trout flashing in a stream, chestnuts dropping into hot glowing coals, “landscape plotted and pieced,” and the various tackle needed for all the different human trades.
As with “Kingfishers Catch Fire,” Hopkins ratchets up the intensity and movement of the poem in the second stanza, celebrating “All things counter, original, spare, strange” (7). Interestingly, he praises the imperfect: “whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?).” He packs the ninth line with three sets of opposite qualities that can all be attributed to God, who is great enough to contain oceans of opposites.
But then the poem turns suddenly from praising the varied and changing elements of God to the one supreme paradox about God’s being, as Hopkins conceives of it, its eternal unchangeability: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.” God is diverse and big enough to bring forth all manner of individual and changeable things, yet the beautiful character of God himself is eternal and unchanging.
Paradox and a Larger Conception of God
Herbert and Hopkins have their differences, but the depth of their devotion to God led both poets to appreciate paradox and diversity in God’s character, and in the way humans experience both Him and His creation. In my view, their focus on the multiple and opposite qualities of God not only opens our eyes to the beauty in every aspect of creation. These two poets demonstrate how to open our minds wider to contain a larger concept of God than we might have had before. The key is to embrace the opposites inherent in God’s character and in our experience of His creation.
What similarities and differences do you see between the poetry of Herbert and Hopkins? What do you think about their focus on paradox in their experience of God? If you have a thought on this discussion, please leave a reply in the comment section below.