Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all-triumphant splendor on my brow;
But, out alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no white disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.
This is Shakespeare’s 33rd sonnet and looks for all the world to be a comment on the English weather – the first 8 lines seem to be exactly about all those days that begin brilliantly and then become progressively dull and greyer – and the village has seen more than enough of those this year.
Yet the remaining 6 lines suggest that the poem is really a comment something much more personal than the weather: “… my sun …”
Every year, as spring arrives and I walk along the canal, I have a strong urge to know the names of the plants that I see emerging. Not content with their beauty, the pleasure of seeing them, and with what simply is – and uninterested in the finer detail of the ecology – it’s knowing what they are called that seems to matter. Reflecting on this absurdity usually brings Henry Reed’s ironic poem to mind. Written in 1941, it contrasts some very natural and unnatural processes: nature’s eloquence, vital acts of procreation, and knowing your rifle – and shows the futility of
The Naming of Parts
To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.
I looked up and saw a kestrel – a windhover – framed in the window. This is Gerald Manley Hopkins’ description.
To Christ Our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
Hopkins thought this “the best thing I ever wrote”, although it wasn’t published in his lifetime. Written in 1877, just before he entered the priesthood, its abstract form and language anticipated the modernist poetry of the 20th century. Ploughing the field was a common medieval metaphor for a writer’s pen scratching across paper, with furrows corresponding to the rows of letters, and sillion is the soil that’s turned over by the plough. Although it seems to be a sonnet about kestrel flight, it’s really an Easter passion poem.