Responding to my post yesterday about Google’s decision to leave Memorial Day uncommemorated, a friend reminded me about Gerard Manley Hopkins’s moving poem “The Solider.”
YES. Why do we áll, seeing of a soldier, bless him? bless
Our redcoats, our tars? Both these being, the greater part,
But frail clay, nay but foul clay. Here it is: the heart,
Since, proud, it calls the calling manly, gives a guess
That, hopes that, makesbelieve, the men must be no less;
It fancies, feigns, deems, dears the artist after his art;
And fain will find as sterling all as all is smart,
And scarlet wear the spirit of wár thére express.
Mark Christ our King. He knows war, served this soldiering through;
He of all can handle a rope best. There he bides in bliss
Now, and séeing somewhére some mán do all that man can do,
For love he leans forth, needs his neck must fall on, kiss,
And cry ‘O Christ-done deed! So God-made-flesh does too:
Were I come o’er again’ cries Christ ‘it should be this’.
How odd that one of the best poetic reflections about why we pay homage–and why we ought to pay homage–to men at arms should come from a reclusive Jesuit priest. Hopkins is perhaps the deepest, and certainly the lushest, of the Victorian poets. His corpus is small. But his work bristles with novel melodies, what he calls in another poem (“Spring and Fall“–one of my favorites) “fresh thoughts.” Poetry in general is a medium at odds with the voracious emphemeralities of the blogosphere, in which the self-consuming “Now!” is king. Hopkins’s linguistic convolutions and densities–those odd stresses, that knotted syntax–seem especially out of place in a world that puts a premium on instant comprehension. More even than most poets, he needs to be read slowly, to be savored, to be appreciated or even understood. His music works on us with a strange immediacy, but his meaning blossoms with the magisterial deliberateness of a rose. Quoting Hopkins in a blog post must there seem quixotic, or at least pointless. Who in the hurly-burly of the news-news-news cycle will pause to read, really to read, him? Well, Ezra Pound said that poetry is news that stays news. So perhaps quoting Hopkins is not so strange after all.