Hopkins’ To Seem The Stranger

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To Seem The Stranger
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.

England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.

I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word

Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

Discussion:

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote this “Terrible Sonnet” seeming strangely filled with inspiration, and I hope it brought him deep relief.  At the outset he declares he is a stranger removed from his family, close to God but drawn by Him into conflict and perhaps estrangement. The first stanza, like a number of Davidic hymns, can also be read from the perspective of Christ, in this case, on the cross. The author really heats up as he goes along and becomes more and more intimate with the reader.

In the second stanza, Hopkins is acting as a Catholic priest, giving all his heart to England, who ‘all his heart woos’. Does he not know to love the Lord with all his heart? I believe Hopkins here is expressing a desire to fight for the salvation of England. Therefore he writes for her, and he preaches for her, and he serves as a school teacher for her, to win souls.

Not only a soul he woos, but the wife of his “creating thought,” meaning he is created in a sense by the thoughts he has for her. (As a poet there are overtones that these thoughts are those of his poetic creativity.) So in this sense he is even created by her. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.” This sublimation of his natural being is the key to the trickiest part of the poem, its last stanza.

Hopkins says he woos England, but he does not plead with her. Christ is Hopkins’ peace and sad parting (here we see a hint that Hopkins parted from home and the Anglican faith of his family in order to serve Christ). Christ is also here his sword and strife. (line 4) This is a references to the fact that Christ did not come to bring peace, but a sword, and that by Him is the rising and falling of many. In addition, winning souls requires the wise use of the Word, which is compared to a sword. (Ephesians 6:!7, Hebrews 4:12, Proverbs 11:30)

This priest goes where wars are rife, at once saying that he is weary of idle people (meaning I think, idle Christians), so goes to war for religious purposes, to save souls, and at the same time the syntactic flexibility permits a reading like “weary of the idle except in war zones,” (where the active often seek to harm.)

In the third stanza Hopkins speaks of being at the “third remove,” meaning Ireland. I believe he is centering himself at Christ on the cross in Jerusalem. The first remove is Rome, the second remove is England, and the third remove is Ireland.

Now these two sentences are the heart of the poem and should be read together.

Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word//
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts.

In the first sentence Hopkins is saying that where love face a difficulty or extremity of circumstance, perhaps a lack of acceptance or welcome or some persecution, that is where kind love can be found. Christ did not accept loving others in the easiest of ways as virtuous because even sinners did that.

“And if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36)

But there is also a reality to the ideality that only in the greatet remove from the broad way of the world, the most instinctive way, can one give the greatest love. Where love has traveled furthest to save, love gives and receive kindness best. In the true extremity of love is the backbone of love that it possesses when dwelling in peace. By His deep descent and His exalted loftiness ascended, we understand best the infinite love, which was incarnate on the Cross in Truth. Also, only when our love is unconditional, universal, and all consuming, are we lovers because love is by its nature unstinting, and total. Moreover, in all removes with love present Hopkins witnesses to a kindness, and as Paul says, “love is kind.” (1 Corinthians 13:4)

In these ways love is not found but in the nakedness of “all removes.” This line (10) also illuminates lines 1 and 2, which read,

To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
among strangers.

This lot in life, to be among strangers, is reminiscent of the lot that the Roman soldiers cast at Jesus feet.  They were true strangers to Him, to the extent possible, and while they were humans acting so oddly they lost their humanity and relevance to the cosmos, no one treated them as strange, but God was dying on the Cross, bearing the wrath of His Father against all sin, and He retained so much humanity, that he makes human suffering imbued with his holiness and piteous tenderness.

Hopkins is saying by praising limitless removes, that he would like his missionary activity to bring him to the farthest reaches of the globe. This is where a poor stranger can receive and be shown great love. When men are separated by pain and ostracized by enmity or old guilt, then love can be most fully expressed.

This next sentence is a doozy but I believe it can be rewritten “what word my heart most wisely breeds, either dark heaven’s baffling ban does bar, or else hell’s spell will thwart.” So below I want to search out the meaning Hopkins here expresses, that his best efforts are sublimated into the blessings and energies of others, or are spread through the body of Christ.

Paul spoke of this in several places to teach us about the interpenetration of the body of believers. From scriptures like Romans 6:6, Galatians 2:20, and 5:24, and 6:14, and 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, we are taught about how we are crucified with Christ and die with Him and so live with Him, being united in His effort.  2 Corinthians 11:29, and 1 Corinthians 12:23-26 take this idea another logical step, asserting that being united in the life of Christ means being united in the lives of other believers.  And so in a mystical and powerful sense, blessings from God, and His intricate and holy work, flows between one part of the body of believers to another part. And this means that to live and die with Christ, we do not do what we would do, but are made new creatures through a kind of strange sublimation that benefits the world and the body. We desire new and wonderful things but are not in control of how they turn out, but we trust God and can often see His hand at work. The following passage makes this clear.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)

Again, Hopkins wrote,

Only what word//
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts.

This I believe is properly, but more easily understood as, “what word my heart most wisely breeds, either dark heaven’s baffling ban does bar, or else hell’s spell will thwart.” This turns on the ironic idea that the best fruit of Hopkins heart is barred by Heaven. This best fruit is described as his wisest words. It may be Hopkins feels his work is languishing in anonymity and has no impact. But what is “dark heaven”? I believe this refers to the storm clouds over Christ on the Cross, and certainly refers to the baffling mysteries of how a merciful God frustrates our hopes. But these best fruits of service are the ones that Christ would take in the Temple of sacrifice as most sweet and useful.

The idea is that in God’s wrath upon His sweet and tender Son – all sin at once being met with God’s wrath – we also know that sweet wisdom has its worshiping place. And so under the baffling ban of Calvary’s wrath, that love which is foolishness to unbelievers, (also baffling was the ban of the favor that Jesus enjoyed,) Hopkins finds his wisest words silenced by being removed from intimacy with others, because he became a stranger. (1 Corinthians 1:23) That silent cross, having a mission of love, but no intimates, remains true in his poetic life (having almost no readers.)  Also, as I have been arguing, it may be that Hopkins is barred precisely for the work, and for the service of sweet worshiping words in production, since that is how his life in the interpenetrating body is Christ-like.

But the alternate outcome is that if Satan succeeds in keeping a man blind; to use the New Testament figure, if the bird comes and eats the seed of the Gospel before it can work, then the soul is not saved, but Hell has thwarted the good work.

The next and final sentence is also wonderful.

This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

If Hopkins hoards what he hears but does not share; if a hearer of the word hoards the hearing, and does not really hear with heart; or if someone hears but does not do, that leaves a great loneliness in this priest. He is comparing Himself with the loneliness of Christ on the Cross, whose people did not know Him, who as the first Living One, the only immortal One, in whose dawn we have all found life, was nonetheless rejected even in His very kindness and innocence. (John 1:10,11) And so the Alpha and Omega at the center saved us at the extremity of loneliness; there He began, but from there He continues and marches on and brings an end of the race to all those He has made.

(The picture below is Caravaggio’s other scene of Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus.  Here is some of that strife Hopkins speaks of, as Jesus is reaching for Paul and a Jewish soldier fends Him off with a spear. This makes no sense at all on a mundane level but is spiritual, and irrational to the understanding of the flesh.)

Caravaggio Conversion Paul 1

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