Faithful Encounters: Toward a Christian Ethic of Reading

Among Winter Cranes
The Quarterly of the Christian Poetics Initiative
Vol. 2 Issue 2
Spring 2019

Faithful Encounters: Toward a Christian Ethic of Reading
By Devon Abts

I.

In his 1967 essay, “The Vocation of Poetry,” literary critic Henry Rago asserts that the language of poetry, which is “that of the imagination,” demands to be read “in the very density of the medium, without the violence of interpolation or reduction.”1 At first glance, this injunction may seem like little more than a quintessentially modernist observation about the daunting complexity of poetic language; yet if we dwell on this passage a little longer, we find that Rago’s words appear to be predicated upon a deeper conviction about the nature of language itself. When he declares that a poem demands to be read in a certain way, Rago implies that there are certain unavoidable exigencies—semantic, formal, even ontological2—inherent within the very textures of the verbal medium. Poetry, he suggests, has a way of making these exigencies acutely present: by putting pressure on the ordinary functions of language, the poet brings forth from the “density” of the verbal medium forms of expression that do not fit within the usual parameters of our linguistic practices. However recondite these expressions may appear, Rago argues, the reader must resist the urge to simply “reduce” or “interpolate” what is revealed by the poet, as this would be an act of violence against the work, perhaps even against the verbal medium itself. Poetry therefore requires what he describes as an “exquisite … delicacy”3 of attentiveness on the part of the reader: in order to arrive at any genuine understanding of a poem, he insists, the reader must enter into “the very density of the medium” without reserve.

If we were to ask what “the density of the medium” signifies in the context of Rago’s essay, we might say that the author uses this phrase to urge the modern reader to set aside her preference for simplicity and ease, and to respond in earnest to the demands that are made on her by the language of poetry itself. In other words, Rago’s injunction is above all a reminder that we have a moral responsibility to read a poem on its own terms, in all its inexhaustible depth and impenetrable density of form. We might say, perhaps, that what is most intriguing for the Christian scholar is the tacit claim underlying such an ethical assertion: when he writes that a poem asks to be read in a specific way, Rago implies that there is something within the verbal medium that addresses us, that makes a claim on us as readers. In this view, the notion of verbal density suggests a kind of excessive presence: in “the very density of the medium,” I am brought to an encounter with that which is irreducibly other—something which is not myself, which is always a little mysterious to me, and yet which demands from me a kind of reciprocal recognition and response.4 As we dwell on this idea, an intriguing question begins to assert itself on our consciousness: who or what is this mysterious “other” that addresses us in “the very density” of poetic language? Of course, as Rowan Williams reminds us, Christianity teaches that to be a creature is to be “always already addressed” by God.5 So it would seem that Rago presses his argument to the threshold of theological discourse when he asserts that we are ultimately ‘answerable’ to something more than ourselves in our negotiations with the language of poetry.

What I want to suggest in this paper is that any modern project of Christian poetics ought to be committed to an ethic of reading which recognizes and responds to the inherent demands of poetic language in all its rich, vital, perplexing density. To support this claim, I will be drawing particular insight from the Victorian priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who is known for his exceptionally dense and demanding verse.  Consider, for example, the opening line of his sonnet, “Carrion Comfort”—“Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, despair, not feast on thee”—a verse so densely packed with the cadences of double and triple negatives that the reader cannot help stumbling from one word to the next; to understand this line, we must work our way through its dense congestion. Elsewhere the poet compresses single words into compact neologisms—for example, in “Harry Ploughman,” “A man’s strength” becomes “Amansstrength”—or fastens them together into tightly-knit descriptive clauses: the “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon” of “The Windhover,” “very-violet-sweet” in “Hurrahing in Harvest,” line 12, etc. In his curtail sonnet “Pied Beauty,” the poet condenses the 14 lines of a sonnet into 11 shortened lines of four feet, where stress, metaphor, and rhythm that builds into a pressurized syntax:

With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:

Práise hím.

The stress marks here are Hopkins’s own, and while it is the first quoted line that most immediately captures the density of his syntax, it is the final line which captures the greatest distillation of the poet’s thought: a prayer of thanksgiving condensed into two short words. Elsewhere, Hopkins presses the sonnet form to its utter limit in order to pack more into the space than is traditionally permitted: in “Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves,” for example, he stretches the traditional five-foot line to eight feet:

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, || vaulty, voluminous, … stupendous

Evening strains to be tíme’s vást, || womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.

(lines 1–2)

Here, all that “pied beauty” which Hopkins celebrates in his nature sonnets dissipates. The coming of night spells the unravelling of creation; and as the poet seeks to capture his terrifying apocalyptic vision, the sonnet form, too, seems to be unravelling.

As all of these citations demonstrate, this obscure Jesuit writer was an artist of the highest creative caliber who constantly tested the limits of poetic expressiveness and form. And, indeed, although he remained unpublished during his own lifetime, Hopkins is widely celebrated today as one of the most inventive poets ever to have written in English. Importantly, however, I would contend that the Victorian poet presses the boundaries of verbal expressiveness, not in order to flaunt his genius as a writer, but rather as a means of incarnating moral and spiritual perceptions within the “density of the medium” of his art. In other words, each abrupt cadence, strange neologism, and wild syntactical formulation in Hopkins’s poetry is capable of disclosing theological insights to the attentive reader. In order to be “in earnest” with Hopkins’s theological genius, the reader must enter into the technical density of his writing without evasion, self-interest, or fear.

It is far beyond the scope of this short essay to elucidate all the myriad technical innovations that Hopkins employs as negotiates the exigencies of his artistic medium. Therefore, I have chosen to concentrate here on the way that he harnesses the power of poetic stress in order to incarnate a vitalizing ethic of conversion within the dense formal and stylistic modalities of his art. In the next section, I will trace a very broad account of some key themes in Hopkins’s writings about the nature of stress, noting in particular how he imbues this term with myriad linguistic, ontological and theological significations. Drawing in particular on his great poem of conversion—“The Wreck of the Deutschland”—I will then demonstrate how each carefully-weighed stress registers the poet’s diligent effort to break with the inert conventions of “literary decorum” and to re-align the rhythms of his poetic utterance with the vital rhythm of grace.

II.

It is no exaggeration to say that Hopkins’s life was shaped by dramatic conversions. He converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism while studying at Oxford, and was received into the Catholic Church by John Henry Newman in October 1866—a move that was nothing short of metamorphic. His reception into the Roman Church caused a rift in his familial relationships which never fully healed, and his polemical, conservative Catholic views remained a source of strain on many of his closest relationships throughout his lifetime.6 His second conversion—upon his entry into the Jesuit priesthood—would leave him further alienated still. And yet, Hopkins never wavered in his vocational decision; instead, he devoted himself to the “sheer plod” of self-abnegation and dutiful obedience which he felt his priesthood demanded, holding to his conviction that conversion is an ongoing process of shaping one’s own inner life after Christ.

As I have already intimated, I am convinced that Hopkins strives to incarnate this ethic of conversion within the dense textures of his poetry through a vitalizing theological ethic of stress. In Hopkins’s writings, the word “stress” refracts in multiple distinct but related directions. It is first and foremost a mechanical element of poetry which has its roots in the organic speech-rhythms of the English language. As the Victorian poet knew from his philological studies, stress forms the basis for the natural rhythms of the English language, in which all spoken utterances have an underlying rhythmic pulse formed by the alternations of stressed and unstressed syllables. Importantly, this does not mean that stress is merely ornamental; rather, as Hopkins well-understood, it is a vital and essential part of the processes by which we, as speakers, share in the common practice of meaning-making.7 And so, when we speak about poetic rhythm as the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables into more-or-less regular patterns, what we are describing is the poet’s deliberate and resourceful act of harnessing something which is a natural element of living speech. More than any other poet in his era, Hopkins grasps these organic roots of English verse-rhythms; yet in his own writings on the nature of poetic stress, he adds his own distinctive gloss. “Stress,” he writes in a letter, “appears so elementary an idea as does not need and scarcely allows of definition, still this may be said of it, that it is the making a thing more, or making it markedly, what it already is; it is the bringing out of its nature.”8 Here, Hopkins suggests that there is an ontological dimension to stress: something in the “nature” of a word (or even a syllable) that is beyond our subjectivity, irreducible in its “otherness”—a gratuity of vital presence. Thus, when Hopkins writes to a friend that the stress of his own “sprung rhythm” is “more of a stress,”9 we might surmise that the poet means to suggest that stress “wrings” life out of words.

This brings us to the distinctively theological inflections of Hopkins’s notion of stress; for the Victorian poet describes frequently God’s vital act as an action of stress. For example, in a revealing passage in his spiritual notes, Hopkins writes that grace, “…is any action, activity, on Gods part by which, in creating or after creating, he carries the creature to or towards the end of its being, which is its self-sacrifice to God and its salvation. It is, I say, any such activity on God’s part; so that so far as this action or activity is God’s it is divine stress, holy spirit… it is Christ in his member on the one side, and his member in Christ on the other.”10 As this passage suggests, Hopkins particularly identifies the transforming grace of the Spirit with stress. We may also think of Stanza 5 of “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” where Hopkins writes that,

… though 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.

Using his own idiosyncratic expressions, Hopkins declares that God is an intelligible presence “under the world’s splendour and wonder,” whose mystery “must be instressed, stressed” so that we may “greet him” in the density of created experience. Elsewhere in his spiritual writings, Hopkins refers to the wrath of God in terms of the divine “stress of anger.” He describes how God casts the Lucifer out of heaven with a “stress” of divine power so strong that the rebel angels are dragged down with him; all plunge downward, “straining, in one direction,” towards hell.11 The stress of divine activity can be felt as judgment as well as grace; yet in either case, “stress is the life of it”—a revelation of God’s vital power in the textures of language.

In his editorial preface to the first edition of Hopkins’s Poems, the English poet Robert Bridges warns potential readers about the peculiarities of his Jesuit friend’s writings: “… [the] blemishes in the poet’s style are of such quality and magnitude as to deny him even a hearing from those who love a continuous literary decorum and are grown to be intolerant of its absence.”12 Here, Bridges describes Hopkins’s departure from the conventional methods of English poetry as a definite “fault,” an error so egregious that we can reasonably expect his work will alienate most readers. However, I would suggest that Hopkins’s effort to compress as much stress as possible into the textures of his verse ultimately permits him to resist the inert conventions of “literary decorum” and to align the rhythms of his verse with the stress of grace. Turning now to Hopkins’s great poem of conversion, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” we shall see how the abrupt stress of sprung rhythm provides a means by which the Victorian poet is able to incarnate this ethic of conversion and sanctification within the “the density of the medium.”

III.

Hopkins’s ode is a fitting place to draw this paper to a close, for this is the Victorian poet’s greatest masterpiece: his most original contribution to English poetry and the most striking testament of his capacity to register theological insights in the density of the medium. The poem is composed in thirty-five stanzas totaling two hundred and eighty lines, with each stanza employing the same rhyme scheme: ABABCBCA. The entire sequence is written in sprung rhythm, and, like its rhyme patterns, the number of stresses per line are consistent throughout the poem (with an extra stress added to the first line of each stanza in “Part the second”). I have marked the stresses on the following stanza as an example:

Stresses per line

2

Be adóred among mén,

3

Gód, three-númbered fórm;

4

Wríng thy rébel, dógged in dén,

3

Man’s málice, with wrécking and stórm.

5

Beyónd sáying swéet, past télling of tóngue,

5

Thou art líghtning and lóve, I fóund it, a wínter and wárm;

4

Fáther and fóndler of héart thou hast wrúng:

6

Hást thy dárk descénding, and móst art mérciful thén.

(Stanza 9)

What is most striking about “The Wreck” is the abrupt character of its music, which is mimetically suited to express the poet’s self-abruption under the abrupting stress of divine encounter. The God of this poem exemplifies the character of the God whom Hopkins describes in a sermon: “He brings together things thought opposite and incompatible, strict justice and mere mercy, free grace and binding duty.” Here, the poet is brought under the stress of a God who is revelation and mystery, grace and duty, beauty and terror, speech and silence, mastery and mercy—“lightning and love,” “a winter and warm.” Through his vitalizing ethic of stress, Hopkins resists the inert conventions of “literary decorum” and renders his rhythms “in earnest” with the stress of grace, thereby incarnating an ethic of conversion in the density of the medium.

“The Wreck” is by far Hopkins’s longest poem, and a rich treatment of its dense layers would be a monograph in itself. Since my theme is the ethics of conversion, I shall be focusing my commentary here on the first stanza, where the Victorian Jesuit recalls the dramatic narrative of his own conversion in his encounter with divine stress. While I cannot offer a comprehensive analysis of this long poem, what I hope to do is model a Christian ethic of reading in the density of the medium.

Turning then to the stanza that broke seven years of poetic silence, we find that Hopkins opens his great ode with an awe-struck address of the heart to God:

THÓU mastering mé

Gód! giver of bréath and bréad;

Wórld’s stránd, swáy of the séa;

Lórd of livíng and déad;

Thou hast bóund bónes and véins in me, fástened me flésh,

And áfter it álmost únmade, whát with dréad,

Thy dóing: and dóst thou tóuch me afrésh?

Óver agáin I féel thy fínger and fínd thée.

Hopkins’s poem about a wreck opens with a deeply personal reckoning: the terror and wonder of his encounter with God. From the first word, “Thou”—printed all in caps in the original manuscript—Hopkins evokes the language of prayer, establishing a hauntingly grave tone for his work and simultaneously declaring his intention to offer “The Wreck” as a sacrificial offering to God. Over the first two lines, we meet this God, who is both the “mastering” divine judge, and the merciful “giver of breath and bread.” Terror of divine judgment is juxtaposed against the promise of providence right from the very beginning. As the “world’s strand” and “sway of the sea,” divine stress is the rhythmic pulse surging throughout creation, holding all things together under its creative agency; it is God, not the poet, who is the master of rhythm (in Stanza 33, Hopkins will underscore this point through his invocation of God as “Master of the tides”). In line four, we hear the echoes of Romans 14:9—“For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living”—as the poet continues to unfold the paradoxical nature of his divine addressee. And then, in lines 5 to 7 we come to the gravitational center of this opening stanza: here, God is Creator and Destroyer, the one who binds bones and fastens flesh, who yet wields the power to unmake that which he has made. The poet feels, acutely and simultaneously, the stress of grace and the stress of judgment, an urgent pressure from God to make a vital act.

We have only just scratched the surface of these lines, and already, it will be evident that in order to understand what Hopkins is doing, we must go beyond the content of his utterances. Here, discursive content alone will not suffice to convey the poet’s sense of fragile vulnerability before his divine maker; each carefully-weighed stress registers the self-under-stress, the utter awe felt in the depths of his soul in this encounter with the stress of divine power. By employing the dense, grave stresses of sprung rhythm, the poet sets his utterances in earnest with the gravity of his circumstances. And this, I would argue, must form the basis for any sincere Christian ethic of reading: like the poet in his negotiations of the verbal medium, we as readers are asked to enter “into the language” of the poem—not in the expectation that we can master or manipulate it, but rather in the hope that we might be brought into a transformative encounter with the stress of divine grace.

Devon Abts
PhD Candidate in Theology and Visiting Research Fellow
Department of Theology and Religious Studies
King’s College London
Devon.e.abts@kcl.ac.uk

1. Henry Rago, “The Vocation of Poetry,” Poetry 110, no. 5 (August 1967): 331.

2. We might also add, “theological,” though it is not entirely clear that Rago himself would take this position, despite the fact that his broader argument is fundamentally concerned with the relationship between poetry and religion. Indeed, one senses a note of hostility in his efforts to define the latter of these two categories, where Rago takes pains to avoid the “obvious question” of “particular belief”: “I assume that we are safely beyond the danger of taking a doctrinaire or parochial approach” (Rago, “Vocation of Poetry,” 329).

3. Ibid., 332.

4. In the passage under scrutiny, Rago never specifies the ontological dimensions of this “otherness”; however, later in the same essay, Rago makes his view plain: “To be a poet at all,” he writes, “is to be present to the ontology that is hidden in words” (Ibid., 340).

5. Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005), 24.

6. The strain on his relationships is not solely due to anti-Catholic prejudice. Hopkins’s unwavering commitment to the rightfulness of the Roman Church could, at times, turn into a kind of violent overconfidence, making him a rather unsympathetic companion to those who did not share his particular religious convictions. For example, when a friend from Oxford wrote to Hopkins in 1868 in a state of anxiety over his Anglican vocation, Hopkins rebuked him in two separate letters, accusing him in the first of “throwing away that dogmatic ground… without which your whole movement and your whole individual life are nothing” (Hopkins, The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Christopher Devlin (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), 49), and in the second, of “trying the forbearance of God.” (Ibid., 51) This is a close friend who turned to Hopkins for comfort in a time of deep personal crisis; yet the response he receives is cold, dismissive, and disturbing. There is a kind of strength to Hopkins’s courageous, unyielding commitment, but it is also important to note the cruelty that such confidence produces in these letters.

7. Hopkins, Journals and Papers, 270.

8. Hopkins, Further Letters, 327.

9. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, ed. Claude Colleer Abbott (London: Oxford University Press, 1935), 39.

10. Hopkins, Sermons and Devotional Writings, 154. Italics mine

11. Ibid., 200.

12. Robert Bridges, “Editor’s Preface,” in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems (1918) (London: Humphrey Milford for Oxford University Press, 1918), 97.

Image Credit:

Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. “Momoyogusa = Flowers of a Hundred Generations.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-cb13-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99