July 28, 2008
What is all this juice and all this joy?
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, July 28, 1844-June 8, 1899
English Jesuit priest and poet
Dear Father Hopkins,
If I were a poet, I would address you as Maxine Kumin does in thirty-one unrhymed lines on the occasion of buying a new edition of your collected poems to replace the one she has lost. I would spin out tercets the way she does in another poem, riffing off a single line. I would write a sonnet or a villanelle about how I sat in your study — literally and ironically — not long after it was turned into a public toilet to serve the tourists, like me, who came to wander through the old University College Dublin buildings, to smile at the naked sculptures Cardinal Newman ordered clothed in clumsy plaster, to climb the stone steps with their feet in the hollows worn by the likes of you and James Joyce. I would tell you how much I loved you before I knew who you were, how I loved you as a ten-year-old sneaking her poetry book onto her lap while Mrs. Smith drilled us endlessly in arithmetic, how I loved you for your fabulous rhythms and your invented words, loved you before I knew how important poetry was, how important it would be to me.
But I’m not a poet. I am a writer of prose in the best sense of the word, so I can speak to you only in straightforward, unadorned, everyday language. On this anniversary of your birth I draw down my Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets edition of your work. The ribbon marking “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” reminds me that two years ago you gave me the image for my summer. Have you come to me again? Glory to God for dappled things, For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow, and Flesh and fleece, fur and feather, Grass and greenworld all together I read at my table and when I look up the wing of a cardinal lit from above catches my eye as it crosses my vista this sparkling July morning. I wish I had your way with words, but all I have is scarlet, streak, slice.
And now I am reading you as if for the first time, “God’s Grandeur” embodying both despair and hope in seventeen lines. We live in a natural world seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil and yet nature is never spent . . . because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings. And I think of you, certainly depressed, bipolar perhaps, a stranger in a strange land in the gray drizzle of Dublin sorely missing your beloved England, still able to see and give thanks for all this juice and all this joy.
Happy birthday, Father Hopkins, and thank you.
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