Hopkins and the Seraph

Charles Cameron


Let me confess that my own first love in the arts was Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ, and that he has provided the template on which the first part of my life has been envisioned. Hopkins was not published in his own time, and it was not until one of the great clocks of heaven struck a new hour that his work was in fact heard. I am no critic, but would say until corrected that Eliot brought with him a sensibility that could appreciate Donne's brilliant metaphysical wit, and that that same sensibility could hear in Hopkins what he was: a great poet. But to his contemporaries, raised on late sweet Romanticism, Hopkins gave only a tortured sound...

Saint Francis, it is said, received the signs of the stigmata -- wounds of the crucifixion -- into his body, in a visionary ecstasy in which he saw his crucified Lord carried by a seraph. Hopkins, lamenting the deaths of five Franciscan nuns in a shipwreck, wrote of the founder of their order:

Joy fall to thee, Father Francis,
drawn to the Life that died;
With the gnarl of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his
Lovescape crucified
and seal of his seraph-arrival!

There is a tortured sound in there, Hopkins' contemporaries were not mistaken: "gnarl of the nails in thee, niche of the lance" is as vivid in sound as is Grunewald's terrible crucifixion in paint. The pain is -- return to the root of the word -- excruciating... But as readers, perhaps we do not linger: we pass from "Joy fall to thee, Father Francis" almost trippingly to "Life that died", taking a brief rest there, then onward across "gnarl of the nails and niche of the lance, his" and headlong into that triumphant and terrifying "Lovescape crucified" with its rhyme... which should provide us with a resting place. Read those first four lines again, without the fifth: they would be complete in themselves, if Hopkins permitted it. But no, he has us hurtle on into the next line with not so much as a comma to slow us down, slamming us into the sudden "!" which is emphatically more than a full stop at the end of that strange enigmatic phrase "seal of his seraph-arrival"...

All this was not done by Hopkins to make a beautiful formulation in words. This was not done by Hopkins to make life pleasant for the common reader. This was not done by Hopkins to resemble the poets of his day. This was not done by Hopkins to be novel. This was not done by Hopkins to get published. This was not done by Hopkins to please critics. This was not done by Hopkins to prove himself avant-garde.

This was done by Hopkins to wrestle an angel into words.

This was done, in fact, *to* Hopkins... and constitutes the marks -- "gnarl of the nails, niche" in him, in his language -- of his own Jesuit stigmata. This is the excruciating -- read it as parallel to exfoliating, for the cross is also a tree -- of Christ's passion in Hopkins' imagination, and he offers it to us so that we can make it imaginatively our own.

For the sake of *continuing* the seraph-arrival...


I said that all this was not done by Hopkins with the wish to make a beautiful formulation in words -- which is what we usually take a poem to be -- and I would like to be somewhat more precise about that.

The attempt at beauty results in prettiness. The attempt at truth results in beauty.

Hopkins was after truth.


What I am after here is to dispel the idea that real art is a matter of working within an esthetic.

The problem with our modernism and post-modernism is that it has become a style, there is an esthetic to work within. And within the confines of that style or esthetic there is no room for the freedom of a master -- a Kandinsky or a Klee.

In some very simply and direct way, masters do not work within an esthetic. Oh, they may be aware of it, for one may permeate the air around them. They may not resent or fight it, if it keeps out of their way, or they may be utterly unable to tolerate it -- as the Baal Shem Tov was once unable to tolerate the prayers in a synagogue, which he said lacked wings and were cluttering the place up to the point where it was no longer possible for him to breathe. But they do not work within it. Masters may forge one esthetic, or destroy another -- but they do this because what must come through them has so much passion that it requires every muscle of language or color or sound strained to the limit to hold it. It is the exigency of their art that drives their esthetic, not the other way around.

Only this one word, "gnarl", Hopkins senses, will work musically against these words, "of the nails", to grind those imagined nails into the imagined palms of the hand twisting so hard that nerve recoils and blood starts... in the reader. And until Hopkins has brought the reader to that pitch, until he has devised his sole infallible method of conveying that aweful vision via words to the sensitive and willing reader, it will not let him alone, it will fester in him... There are no two ways about it, it is not a matter of choice, he has to wrestle it into words to release it -- and himself...

And as he wrestles the language of his art into the sinews he needs to do this, he is effectively wrestling the angel, the seraph, even the vision of Christ crucified into words.

For it is only in his utter and complete vulnerability to the wounds of his Christ, that the need for this faithful, this truthfilled, wrestling with form and passion, vision and language, arises.

So trained "elite" crowds flock to the galleries and hip poetry magazines and concerts to find further examples of an esthetic (today, the modern-post-modern esthetic) that they have learned. Untrained "crowd" crowds likewise flock to disparage an esthetic (the same) that they have not learned, and would not wish to learn. And the artist has an angel within him, and must deal with that fact.


I have said that all this was done by Hopkins to wrestle an angel into words. I would like to make it clear that in my opinion, the angel was "within" Hopkins. I am using the term, I hope, in the same sense in which Ibn Arabi intended it when he wrote: "Angels are the powers hidden in the faculties and organs of man."

Hopkins, being a most fortunate and unfortunate man, was also for a time at least "within" the angel.

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