W.H. Gardner’s synopsis:
“Part the First (Stanzas 1-10):
“Meditation on God’s infinite power and masterhood, on the direct mystical ‘stress’ or intuitive knowledge by which man, the dependent finite creature, apprehends the majesty and terror, the beauty and love of his Maker. Not only through beauty and joy do we know Him. Since the Incarnation and Passion, the human heart has become sensitized to the deeper mystery of suffering and loss—the paradox of God’s mastery and mercy. Adoration to Him! May He subjugate and save His rebellious creature, man.”
Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
First of all, God is addressed as master, very much in the way we speak of a human as the master of a pet: but God is not only the giver of bread, like a pet’s master, he is giver of breath, his own breath, as in the Biblical account of God breathing breath into the Adam fashioned of clay. He is the strand of the world, the shore to which it washes (its goal), and also strand in the sense of makeup, fabric. This “pantheistic” aspect of God, that nothing can exist without direct participation in the Being of God, repeats itself in the next image: God is the sea’s sway(er), prime mover, but also its sway(ing), its own movement. (Later in the poem Hopkins actually uses Paul Tillich’s twentieth-century term for God, the “Ground of Being.”) God is Lord both of the living and the dead—a first suggestion that the poem will focus on martyrs (the five nuns principally, but also all their shipmates) who share in the passion of Christ. The priest-poet’s own experience of God immediately asserts itself: after creating me, you almost destroyed me with dread: the first emotion mentioned. (The last emotion mentioned will be “charity”—Christian love. The poem can be seen as a passage between these two states.) The poet is amazed that after such an experience of destructive dread, he can once again feel the “finger” of God (God’s grace, he explains in a note on a later line: but can he also be thinking of the creative finger/touch we see in Michelangelo’s awakening of Adam?).
I did say yes
O at lightning and lashed rod;
Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
Thy terror, O Christ, O God;
Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:
The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
Hard down with a horror of height:
And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.
A fuller description of the poet’s dread, an actual experience of terror he won’t locate in space and time (except that it was in a church), but God remembers it too: he compares it to a rod (maybe lightning rod, but in a note on the poem he expands it to “birch-rod”) struck by lightning—or the rod is a switch striking the worshipper’s shoulders: also compares it to vertigo, fear of heights, or actually being swept or hurled down from one. The victim of this divine assault bows in worship (at the midriff), laced or bound tight with a force (stress) like fire. “Stress” is also an echo of Hopkins’ technical term “instress:” the force of individuality which gives every singular being its identity. The two meanings combine to suggest an experience in which the poet’s very identity was sheer fright.
The frown of his face
Before me, the hurtle of hell
Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?
I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.
Now it becomes clearer that the terror and dread are consciousness of sin, of offending God, and having nowhere to hide from his wrath: but recall that the poet is kneeling in a church, a Catholic church with a tabernacle in which the Host (the consecrated wafer: in Catholic theology, the actual physical presence of God) is kept. He suddenly grows wings, and with the homing instinct of a carrier pigeon, flees to the protection of Christ. (Most commentators read “that spell” as meaning “at that time.”) The first “flame”(and first “grace”) is the terror brought about by the sense of sin, the second is the cleansing fire of God’s forgiveness. The poet “towers” in the sense of “flies upward.”
I am soft sift
In an hourglass—at the wall
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
And it crowds and it combs to the fall;
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall
Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein
Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.
Returning to the present, the poet still experiences himself in both these ways: as a doomed sinner, like sand hurrying out of an hourglass (“mined” in the sense of a buried bomb, as well as “undermined”), but also as a believer saved by grace (the word “grace” means gift). Hopkins wrote this poem in Wales, and “voel” (pronounced “voil”) is a Welsh word for a mountain. The grace of God running down from above constantly fills the well of the soul, even as the sand runs out of the old sinful life. Grace has a “pressure” of its own to counteract the “mining” of the fall (of the individual sinner as well as the Fall or original sin in Eden, inherited by all Adam’s children).
I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.
For Catholics we aren’t completely fallen but retain a natural goodness common to all God’s creations. The poet can still encounter God’s power and beauty in starlight and storm, in the purple sunset (like a damson plum). While these things could be seen as the world’s own splendor, it is possible for us to “meet” God in them by “instressing” (making one’s own) and “stressing” (emphasizing) the mysterious presence of the Creator in his creatures.
However, it isn’t primarily in the experience of nature that we encounter God …
TO BE CONTINUED