A must read for any fans of Bill Bryson, Gerard Manley Hopkins or Lightnin' Hopkins
If you go down to the pub today…
American writer Bill Bryson continues his series of articles on the literary heritage of his inherited country. Today: Gerard Manley Hopkins*.
Gosh. Wasn’t Gerard Manley Hopkins – wait a moment, I’ll spell that for you, it’s M-A-N-L-E-Y, and not manly without an ‘e’ – he might have been manly, for all we know, but that wasn’t how he spelt his name. Wasn’t he a great poet? Back in Iowa, where I come from, we get excited if some redneck farmhand, in a moment of inspiration, happens to rhyme ‘now’ with ‘cow’ – or, to give his sonnets a wintry feel, ‘trees’ with ‘freeze’. We start thinking we have a poet on our hands. But England is – well, let’s admit it – different. I hadn’t been a month in this country before, sitting over a jar in a pub in the picturesque village of Little Wotton, Oxfordshire, I heard a silver-haired old lady at the next table intoning:
“I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn drawn falcon…”
I wondered what she was on about, actually. Thought she was having some kind of fit. But I got it in the end: that’s just how the English react whenever they happen to spot a kestrel hovering over the motorway. Fuck me, I thought. I’d better have another drink. Or two. A little while later, staggering out of the pub across the car park in search of my car, which I’d unwisely decided to drive home in, some more words of this delightful ditty came back to mind:
“As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow bend…”
That’s just how my feet went sliding Eastwards, while my head and shoulders, never wholly under control at the best of times, shot to the West; and I fetched up with an almighty clatter against a row of bicycles, which went down like so many dominoes. I’d tripped over my own feet again – well, you do, don’t you, after eight pints?
My point is that those words from Hopkins fitted the situation to a ‘t’. Now don’t get me wrong. We have poets in the States too – big ones. They too help citizens struggling for the precise words to express the manifold situations Life throws in their direction. Have you ever stopped on a walk through a wood, scratching your head (or any other part of your anatomy) because you’d just come to a fork and didn’t know which way to go? You’ll know what I mean, then. Or, have you ever stopped your pony to watch some remote field fill up with snow, instead of hurrying home to get in out of the cold? You haven’t? You don’t know what you’ve missed! There’s a poem about that in the American canon, just as there’s one that expresses how you would feel if you happened to have a crush on a sea-captain who’s just died on deck, or if, woken at midnight by a strange croaking sound, you should flick on your bedside light and see a raven cavorting on your hearth-rug.
But if you want a poet to express, in myriad shades of rhythm and rhyme, the absolute essence of a moment of Life, as it happens to everyday people in England – then, my friend, you should check out good old Gerard Manly (sorry, Manley) Hopkins. Please – borrow my book. Oh and by the way, if you take me up on the offer, please don’t rip the pages out when you get to a poem you like. It kind of irritates me when people do that. And I’m a mild man. But I digress. Here are some little known facts about Gerard Manley Hopkins I’ve just invented to fill out the page. Did you know that his total poetic output consisted of seventy six sonnets? That his longest sonnet contained one hundred and forty three words, not counting the title; and his shortest only fifteen? Hopkins was nothing if not original. He invented something called ‘sprung rhythm’ to make his sonnets seem longer than they were. To make it harder to write his immortal works, he would mortify himself by writing them in the dark, sometimes while actually asleep. This was because his preceptor in the Society of Jesus, the Very Reverend Aloysius Skinner, had forbidden Hopkins the sensuous indulgence of writing verse, unless he included a rave mention of Jesus, or failing that, God, in every poem.
I was sitting on the toilet the other day, my wife hammering on the door and accusing me, as is her wont, of reading while in the course of moving my bowels. Actually, I was reading, but don’t tell her. I’d just got to my favourite Hopkins poem, which is called ‘Hurrahing in Harvest’ – hurrah for good old alliteration, that’s what I say! I’d only got as far as the opening line, which, for those of you who don’t remember it, I shall print below:
“Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise around…”
Right. First question – for five points. What are ‘stooks’? What do you reckon? Are we talking about crane-like birds – some relative of the heron, perhaps, flapping its wings to get airborne? Or what about some big black bird – a relative of the raven, or the rook? Hopkins was writing before the days of aeroplanes, so your mind should not be enticed into error by thinking he’s a Second World War poet, writing about stukas. Your guess is as good as mine, you say? You give up? I’ll let you into a secret – I had to look it up too. We’re talking about those sheaves of wheat that stand up in fields after they’ve been over them with the combine harvester – or, in Hopkins’ day, after peasants with scythes have been bashing about for days in the field. Yep. They’re called stooks. My point is simply this. You could sit me in a room with pencil and paper from here ‘til the end of time, and tell me to think of an adjective describing the beauty of the stooks at harvest-time – and I’m from Iowa, I’ve seen a stook or two in my time – and I would never, ever, come up with the adjective barbarous. Well, would you? Is that Nature poetry? I mean, Beauty is supposed to be nice, right? My first thought would be something like this:
“Now, wondrous in beauty, the stooks…etc.’
Or how about:
‘Now, majestic in beauty…’
Then what about:
‘Now, becoming in beauty?’
The possibilities are endless. You could make a society game out of this, to be played at Christmas-time – in the Bryson family, we have. The rules are simple. Just give out pencil and paper; competitors read the line, with the adjective blanked out, of course, and have two minutes to come up with an adjective. Then take votes on which one is the best – and then, as a final treat, you reveal the adjective Hopkins actually chose. They’ll gasp – they won’t believe you, but then you can just take down your copy of the Collected Verse, and PROVE IT!
I don’t intend here to explain to my readers why Hopkins chose this adjective. All I know is that, strange as it may seem, that one appeals to me over any other I’ve ever heard advanced as a substitute – and it’s not just because of the alliteration. You write in and tell me your theories – you English are so literate, and you read so darn much. I’m just an old cow-poke from Iowa county –
Next week in this series, Bill Bryson gives his hilarious, transatlantic take on Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
* Author’s note: (For American readers). NOT to be confused with Sam ‘Lightning’ Hopkins.