"Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

Monday, September 1, 2014

Matthew Monday: Fifth Birthday

Normally the Matthew Monday posts come out in the morning but I’m squeezing this in this evening because today was Matthew’s fifth birthday.  This morning Matthew woke me up as usual on days I’m home (the Labor Day holiday today) by coming over to my bedside.  As I opened my eyes, his first words were, “I’m five years old.”  I guess he remembered his mother’s last words from the evening before as he was put to bed when she said, “Go to sleep.  When you wake up you’ll be five years old.”  She said it as if there was some magic behind it.

 When I hugged Matthew this morning he felt warm, and sure enough he had a mild fever all day.  Even now as he’s been put to bed his fever is up.  But we had planned a little get-together birthday (mom, dad, the two grandmothers, an uncle) and he was well enough to have that.  Fever and all he was still energized, and he probably would have been uncontainable if he had not been slowed down with an abnormal temperature.

The theme for this year’s party was Batman!  He is absorbed in everything Batman.



We had Batman napkins and cake plates.




  
And my wife baked and decorated the Batcake!





Matthew blowing out the five distinct candles.






Holy smush, Batman.  He liked the Bat frosting.





He even got a few Batman oriented gifts, a Batcave set.





And a hood jacket that comes with a built in mask.






Perfect for a Halloween costume.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Lines I Wished I’d Written: The Tool-Shed from Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar”

Last year I started reading the short stories of H. H. Munro, otherwise known by his pen name, Saki.  Saki’s short stories are typically five or so pages long and in some cases three.  It takes real talent to write such short shorts.  I am continuously amazed at how much information he packs in.  Sharp wit, deft eye for the exact detail, diction that accentuates the sarcasm under his tone, Munro is a satirist exploiting the foibles and arrogance of upper class Edwardian England, an England that was at the height of its empire.  Last year I read his story, "Esmé" and thought it a minor classic.  I just read “Sredni Vashtar,” and though I don’t think this rises to a classic, it’s still a fine story.  Perhaps others might elevate this to a classic; it has its own Wikipedia entry.    

This is the story of a sickly, ten year old boy, Conradin, apparently an orphan and being raised by his cousin, a Mrs. de Ropp.  Conradin hated his cousin as only a boy could hate a matronly overseer, and in his imagination exacted some sort of pleasurable enmity.  It is implied, though never stated, that the boy lives in his imagination because of his illness.  The passage I quote below is where he establishes a hideaway in a garden shed, sharing it with a Houdan hen and a ferret, elevating the ferret into a deity, and setting up a shrine. 

In the dull, cheerless garden, overlooked by so many windows that were ready to open with a message not to do this or that, or a reminder that medicines were due, he found little attraction.  The few fruit-trees that it contained were set jealously apart from his plucking, as though they were rare specimens of that kind of blooming in an arid waste; it would probably have been difficult to find a market-gardener who would have offered ten shillings for their entire yearly produce.  In a forgotten corner, however, almost hidden behind a dismal shrubbery, was a disused tool-shed of respectable proportions, and within its walls Conradin found a haven, something that took on the varying aspects of a playroom and a cathedral.  He had peopled it with a legion of familiar phantoms, evoked partly from fragments of history and partly from his own brain, but it also boasted two inmates of flesh and blood.  In one corner lived a ragged-plumaged Houdan hen, on which the boy lavished an affection that had scarcely another outlet.  Further back in the gloom stood a large hutch, divided into two compartments, one of which was fronted with close iron bars.  This was the abode of a large polecat-ferret, which a friendly butcher-boy had once smuggled, cage and all, into its present quarters, in exchange for a long-secreted hoard of small silver.  Conradin was dreadfully afraid of the lithe, sharp-fanged beast, but it was his most treasured possession.  Its very presence in the tool-shed was a secret and fearful joy, to be kept scrupulously from the knowledge of the Woman, as he privately dubbed his cousin.  And one day, out of Heaven knows what material, he spun the beast a wonderful name, and from that moment it grew into a god and a religion.  The Woman indulged in religion once a week at a church near by, and took Conradin with her, but to him the church service was an alien rite in the House of Rimmon.  Every Thursday, in the dim and musty silence of the tool-shed, he worshipped with mystic and elaborate ceremonial before the wooden hutch where dwelt Sredni Vashtar, the great ferret.  Red flowers in their season and scarlet berries in the winter-time were offered at his shrine, for he was a god who laid special stress on the fierce impatient side of things, as opposed to the Woman’s religion, which as far as Conradin could observe, went to great lengths in the contrary direction.  And on great festivals powdered nutmeg was strewn in front of the hutch, an important feature of the offering being that the nutmeg had to be stolen.  These festivals were of regular occurrence, and were chiefly appointed to celebrate some passing event.  On one occasion, when Mrs. de Ropp suffered from acute toothache for three days, Conradin kept up the festival during the entire three days, and almost succeeded in persuading himself that Sredni Vashtar was personally responsible for the toothache.  If the malady had lasted another day the supply of nutmeg would have given out.


Notice the irony here.  A sickly orphan is a child one typically feels compassion for, and we presume Mrs. de Ropp has indulged in just that, but it’s that very coddling to his illness that he grows spiteful against.  And so he creates this sort of evil god, gives it some sort of exotic Hindu name, and performs some sort of black worship service to spite “the Woman.”  There’s a certain boyish misogyny in that term.  The boy seems to feel a sense of powerlessness, and so tries to gather power in his ritual.  The scene is rich with psychological depth.

You can read "Sredni Vashtar" on line at the Literature Network.  It's a short read.  You can read and listen along with this reading by a Tom Baker.



Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Music Tuesday: “Ode to Joy” by Ludwig van Beethoven

Is Beethoven greater than Mozart?  When you’re dealing with the greatest of the great of any artistic medium, it’s impossible to say one is greater than another.  It becomes a matter of preference.  At the catholic blog, Inebriate Me, Pascal-Immanuel Goby wrote a post titled “Beethoven > Mozart.”    The “>” symbol signifies “greater than.” 

I like Goby’s blog, though it can be more philosophical than my tastes run in reading about Catholicism.  But he’s got an interesting, out of the box, yet still traditional take on things.  I like his perspective on economics and Catholicism.  Most Catholic bloggers don’t understand economics, but Goby does.  I never refer to him in my head as Goby.  From writing literary essays I’m trained to use last names but the way I think of him is by the first half of his name, Pascal.  He seems to share a number of things with the famous Pascal: an intellectual Catholicism and that he’s French.  I know he lives in France, but he does write in English, so if he’s not French, then his parents were certainly Francophiles to name him Pascal.

In “Beethoven > Mozart” Goby wonders bemoans that theologians prefer Mozart as their favorite composer, while Goby clearly believes that Beethoven is the greatest.  Why this this preference for Mozart over Beethoven.  Here’s part of what he wrote:

We need more theologians who love Beethoven. (We need more theologians who love Led Zeppelin!)

I love Mozart. Truly. He had access to the Forms. However…

We have many theologians who love Mozart. Balthasar and Barth connected (in part) on their shared love of Mozart as the greatest composer in history. Ratzinger, as is well known, is a devotee of Mozart. All good.

But, but, but.

No, Mozart is not the greatest. Mozart is not the greatest, because for all his attempts to move beyond, all his pathos, he remains the classical composer par excellence. Mozart is the Parthenon. Mozart represents art understood as submission to, and fulfillment of, form.

No. This is not the full truth of art. The full truth of art must have as its primary impulse the expression of human subjectivity (an expression of subjectivity which only through its embrace of itself can then point to universality), even as it incorporates, uses, and in its fullness, transcends, aesthetic rules. And here we are talking about Beethoven. Mozart expressed the fullness of humanity within the classical rules. Beethoven expressed the fullness of humanity by transcending (through incorporating) the classical rules.

Beethoven is not afraid of being off-balance. Mozart raises the mind to contemplation, Beethoven grabs you by the throat. Mozart is Aquinas, wonderful Aquinas, building angelic cathedrals. Beethoven is Paul, frustratingly unsystematic, cajoling, browbeating, repudiating, pleading, ordering, crying on the page.

The comparison of Aquinas to Mozart, Beethoven to St. Paul is kind of apt.  But I don’t see why that would make Beethoven greater than Mozart.  Here’s my comment to his post.

Mozart is not the greatest because he died too young. Had lived another twenty years he would have been the greatest. I agree it would be great if more theologians loved Beethoven as they do Mozart (I'm surprised they don't) but I think you're being silly with Led Zeppelin. Bach is probably the greatest of them all. Where I disagree is with how you value aesthetics. It's not that Beethoven is greater because he is subjective in his art or because he is off balance. Neither of those makes art greater or lesser. They are just different approaches. Greatness comes from how well you create and how well your vision is represented aesthetically. We are still under the guiding force of Romanticism, so off balance appears to the general person to be of greater aesthetic quality. If and when we return to a neo-classical zeitgeist, Beethoven might appear to be ugly, or I should say uglier. Is Dante's Divine Comedy any lesser because of its balance and interconnectiveness and rational form? I would argue that Dante is closer to Mozart than Beethoven. And then perhaps one could say that Shakespeare might be closer to Beethoven than Mozart, though perhaps that's arguable. Dante and Shakespeare, as Mozart and Beethoven, have different approaches. It's not the approaches that make them greater or lesser.

Goby never replied to my comment; he usually does, but I sense he’s been busy lately.  Another person replied to me and we had an interesting conversation about Led Zeppelin, so you can go over to check that out if you wish.  Goby’s central thesis is that Christian theologians are too neo-classically oriented and lack the passion of Romanticism.  He does end his post with this summation: “We need, in other words, Appasionnata theology, we need Hymn to Joy theology, we need 5th and 6th symphony theology.”  The “Hymn to Joy” allusion is actually a reference to Beethoven’s concluding Ninth Symphony movement where Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” is set in a choral.  I’m sure people here know of it.  

And just a few days after reading the Goby post, I came across in almost divine guided happenstance a post written by Stephen Klugewitz at The Imaginative Conservative, titled “Did Mozart Write the “Ode to Joy”?”  Klugewitz’s claim is that Beethoven took the theme from Mozart.

Only a few pieces of music in the Western canon rival the fame of the “Ode to Joy” theme: the opening chords of Beethoven’s own Fifth Symphony, “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” the first notes of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, to name a few. The “Ode to Joy,” however, seems to stand above these, due to its hymn-like, sublime character and its elevated call to universal brotherhood. It will be forever associated with Beethoven’s name, and alone would ensure his legacy as one of the greatest composers—in the estimation of many, THE greatest composer—who ever lived.

The problem is that the “Ode to Joy” theme is not entirely Beethoven’s. He borrowed the main part of it from none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In 1775, at the age of nineteen, Mozart composed the “Misericordias Domini,” K. 222, a six-minute sacred work that is little recorded and seldom performed today, yet which constitutes a minor masterpiece. Mozart employs what became the germ of the “Ode to Joy” theme three times throughout the work

You can read the rest of Klugewitz’s thoughts there and here Mozart’s “Misericordias Domini” side by side to Beethoven’s fourth movement.  Tell me if they sound similar.  They do to my ear.  What Klugewitz doesn’t show is that Beethoven was aware of this little known Mozart piece.  It’s quite possible that it coincidental.  But after listening side by side I tend to agree; I think Beethoven stole it!  Even the arrangement is similar.

For Music Tuesday I offer Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” section of the fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony, here conducted by the late, great Leonard Bernstein.  The actual “Ode to Joy” theme starts at about 3:50; the chorus stats at 7:55.



Monday, August 25, 2014

Matthew Monday: The Bone-A-Tron

“Daddy, can we play doctor?”

“Uhmm, OK.”

“You have to lie down.”

“Alright, let’s go to my bed.”  I lay down on the bed by the edge and Matthew stands looking over me.  He’s about a foot taller than the height of the mattress, but occasionally he’ll step on the frame that holds the box spring, giving him another foot of height.

“OK.  What’s wrong?”

“I dropped something heavy on my toes and they may be broken” 

Matthew moves to the foot of the bed.  “You’ll have to take off your sock.”

I take my sock off my left foot and wiggle my exposed toes. 

“Now let me see.”  He clutches a few toes and jiggles them like they’re licorice sticks.  “I’m going to have to get something.  He runs out of the room and in less than a minute he comes back with a brass tube from who knows what. 

“What are you going to do?”

“I gotta take x-rays.”  He places the tube across the toes on the underside.  “Zap.”

Where did he learn that, I wonder.  “Are they broken?”

“I’m not sure yet.  I have to use my eye-a scope.”  He puts the tube to his right eye and looks through it as if he’s examining my toes under a microscope.

“Are they broken?”

“No.  They’re sprained.” 

“Oh, thank God.  I thought they were broken.”

Matthew then starts examining my knee. 

“What are you doing now?  There’s nothing wrong with my knee.”

“Oh yes there is.”

“What?”

“It’s sprained.”

“That too?”

“Yes.  Now let me check your head.”  He puts the tube against my temple. 

“What’s wrong there?”

“It’s sprained.”

“My head is sprained?”

“Yes.”

“Well, with all these sprains, my heart must be going crazy.  Can you listen to my heart?”

“OK.”  He puts one end of the tube to the center of my chest and the other end to his ear. 

“Well?”

“I think you’re dead.” 

“What?!”

“No.  I hear it.  It’s sprained.  It must be your elbow.”  He picks up my left arm and pressing the tube against the elbow.

“My elbow?  What’s my elbow have to do with my heart?”

“Wait right there.  I’ll be right back.”  He runs out of the room and is back in thirty seconds.

“What did you get?”

“I went to get the Bone-A-Tron?”  He makes a hand gesture to signify some large, invisible machine.

“The Bone-A-Tron?  What does a Bone-A-Tron do?”

“It takes out the bones from your body.”  And he places what one might conceive as a nozzle to my elbow.  He makes a vacuum cleaner sound, “Whoosh.” 

“Hey, what are you doing?” 

“Whoosh.  Your arm has no bones now.”

I drop my arm as if it has no functionality.  “Oh no.  What did you do?”

He jumps on the bed and goes to my right foot.  “I got to take your other sock off.”  And he peels it off.  “I got to use the Bone-A-Tron.”

“Why?”

“Because the bones have to come out.  Whoosh.  Now your toes have no bones.”

“Oh no.” 

Next he moves up to my face.  “I got to take your nose off.  Whoosh.  And now I got to take your chin out.  Whoosh.”

“Hey you’re taking all my bones out!”

Why does this feel like a skit from a Groucho Marx movie?


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Lines I Wish I’d Written: The Classification of Prose Style by Richard A, Lanham

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this year’s read on writing is Richard Lanham’s Style: An Anti Text Book.  It’s a rare person I guess that loves to understand the detailed nature of prose writing approaches.  I guess most people enjoy reading and accept a particular writer’s style, but I like to break it down: sentence structure, sentence sequence, paragraph development, rhetorical approaches.  It’s really the nuts and bolts of the writing craft.  And so I read at least one book on writing per year. 


I’m a third of the way through Lanham’s book, and though he irritated me with an overly extended gripe on how poorly schools teach writing, I think we share some fundamental approaches to writing that go contrary to what Lanham refers to as “the textbooks.”  And so, he subtitles his book, “An Anti Text Book.” 

I just enjoyed reading these two paragraphs opening his third chapter, titled, “The Opaque Style.  Just observe as he describes the nature of prose style, how he constructs his style for simple elegance.

Prose style knows but a single taxonomy: the classification into high, middle, and low.  That this has lasted with little protest from Cicero’s day to our own demonstrates its flexibility more than its precision, but any explanation of the Expository Prose Vision Moralized must pass through it to a more satisfactory categorization.  The threefold division emerges from an earlier one, earlier in logic as well as time: thought will demand one style, emotion another.  Thought will find a style that is logical, clear, unornamental, largely unpatterned.   Emotion will devise a different strategy, appealing through form and stock response rather than through clarity and logic.  An intermediate position pops up like a mushroom.  It will do something of both.  Argue with feeling, move with logic.

These three positions form the basis for several discriminations.  We discriminate by purposes: reason within the low style, move in the high, or “conciliate” (as Cicero calls it) by some combination.  Or we separate by subject: high style for serious subject, low for humble tasks of ordering life, middle for the mixed world between or small subject that promises greatly.  But neither purpose nor subject tells us about the style itself, the pattern of words.  Three additional specific criteria can animate the threefold division: syntax, diction, density of ornament.  The high style chooses specialized or unfamiliar or highly resonant words and puts them into careful patterns of balance, antithesis, and climax.  It allows itself the ornaments of sound (alliterations, assonance, rhyme), puns, the whole range of metaphor and simile, the pleasures of repetition and restatement.  The low style uses none of these; the middle style, some, but moderately and in moderate combination.


Every sentence is so finely constructed.  It progresses logically as one would expect, but it moves with a beating rhythm.  The one ornament is the mushroom simile in the first paragraph, and that enacts the very thing it describes, the muddle of the middle style.  I love how he uses the colon to separate appositive nouns.  Notice this graceful yet daring sentence: “The threefold division emerges from an earlier one, earlier in logic as well as time: thought will demand one style, emotion another.”  Have you ever seen a sentence with a right branching, free modifying participle phrase “earlier in logic as well as time” tack on a modifying independent clause (“thought will demand one style, emotion another”) connected by a full colon?  If I have, I’ve never noticed, but I don’t think so.  Even the most boring of subjects—the nature of prose writing—can be originally and beautifully written. 

UPDATE (Aug. 21):
I meant to add but I now realize I forgot to say that Lanham rejects the high, middle, and low classification of prose style.  I was focused above on Lanham’s writing and his own graceful style and not so much on completing Lanham’s thoughts.  After fully describing those categories he goes on to reject it.  A few pages later he states:

The trouble with the tripartite division is not that it is vague and thus inapplicable.  It is so vague it is nearly always applicable—especially so if you redefine it thoroughly, either morally or effectively.  You can even adapt it to the dictates of clarity and scientific prose.  The high style becomes bad, the middle good, and the low “colloquial.”  No, the trouble lurks in the tripartite division itself.  Because it renders comparison invidious, it introduces the dispute that invidious comparison inevitably brings.  It cannot just describe, it must evaluate.  Which purposes are best?  Which subjects most serious?  Who, what, most moral?  More than this, it has repeatedly proved itself tone-deaf.  It can tell you what was said and explain why it was said that way, but it seldom reveals the spirit in which it was said.  It defines badly the kind of agreement struck between writer and reader.  It forces us, finally, to take an attitude be formal (diction, syntax, density of figures), moral (as with [Northrop] Frye’s definition), or scientific.  It asks, in composition course, to teach things that cannot be taught.


There is  more of course and Lanham goes on to re-categorize style, but we’ll leave it here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Music Tuesday: How Deep is the Ocean by Ella Fitzgerald

Sometimes you come across an article that leaves your head scratching.  The title was certainly an eye catcher, especially for someone like me.  It came from the Wall Street Journal—the best newspaper in the country—from its Life and Culture section, and had both a musical and literary theme.  Here’s the title, “Shakespeare Expert Stephen Greenblatt on Irving Berlin: The author of 'Will in the World' sees a link to 'King Lear.'”    

Now I have said elsewhere that I hold King Lear to be the greatest play ever written.  Stephen Greenblatt is well known literary critic who among other places taught at Harvard.  Which doesn’t impress me because I’ve read some asinine essays by critics who teach at some of the most prestigious universities in the world.  Now as I checked Greenblatt’s bio I was surprised to find three interesting facts.  He was a co-editor to Norton’s Anthology of English Literature  which is probably the most widely used anthology of English Literature across colleges in the United States.  (Perhaps it’s used overseas as well, I just don’t know.)  Mr. Greenblatt was president of MLA, the Modern Language Association, the most prestigious literary/language affiliation in the country.  Those two facts alone put him in the major leagues of literary criticism.

And then there was the third fact, that he was one of the founders of NewHistoricism, a critical approach to literature that became popular in the 1990s and into the early 2000s.  I’m not going to go into it here, but suffice it to say that I strongly oppose the approach of the New Historicists.  I made myself stand out in my last college class in Grad school, where I strongly argued against it and its methodology, all the while as the professor pushed it upon the class.  In the end she respected my opinion, held me to be the best student in the class (she told me outside of class), and easily gave me an A.  You can read some of the opposition to New Historicism in that Wikipedia entry.  But even that doesn’t do the criticism justice.  For instance, New Historicism holds that every piece of text, no matter what its context, is of equal value.  So then, if we had Shakespeare’ laundry list, it would have equal literary value as his King Lear.  So why bother would King Lear?  That might be one of the more minor idiocies of New Historicism, but it’s one easy to articulate and grasp.  So much for professors that teach at Harvard.

So getting back to the Wall Street Journal article, what exactly is Greenblatt’s point?  He has a particular affection for an Irving Berlin  song, “How Deep Is the Ocean.”  Now I didn’t ever recall having heard the song, but when I checked on my itunes list, there it was sung by Dinah Washington.  Here’s what Greenblatt says of the song.

 "How Deep Is the Ocean" [by Irving Berlin] is an unusual love song. All of the lyrics are posed as questions, except for "I'll tell you no lie." Each question conveys emotional intensity—whether posed from parent to child or between two lovers: "How far would I travel, to be where you are? / How far is the journey, from here to a star?" The questions are meant to express love, but there's also anxiety in the song over the possibility of lost love and more than a hint of pressure on the recipient to reciprocate.

After now hearing close to a dozen versions of the song, I have to say the song is a classic.  Like so many of the Great American Songbook of songs, it’s so simple and heartfelt.  Greenblatt’s right, the questions coming one after another really does create a particular tension, the least of which is a circling toward the center of the emotion.  Here are the lyrics, minus the opening set of questions that most singers leave off.

How much do I love you?
 I'll tell you no lie
 How deep is the ocean?
 How high is the sky?

How many times a day
 Do I think of you?
 How many roses
 Are sprinkled with dew?

How far would I travel
 To be where you are?
 How far is the journey
 From here to a star?

And if I ever lost you
 How much would I cry?
 How deep is the ocean?
 How high is the sky?

So how, may you ask, does this relate to King Lear?  Mr. Greenblatt says:

Actually, Berlin's lyrics strike me as a strange, inverted version of Shakespeare's "King Lear." Early on, Lear asks his three daughters, "Which of you shall we say doth love us most?" "Lear" is built around an aging father's extortion of love. Two of his three daughters flatter him to get his estate, but the third, Cordelia, refuses to say what he wants to hear. When Lear asks her what more she has to say about her love for him, Cordelia replies, "Nothing." To which Lear says, "Nothing will come of nothing." Berlin's lyrics are less forthright but just as emotionally charged.

It took me a little while for me to get exactly what he was saying.  Drum roll, please.  What he is saying is that Lear’s question of “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?" is related to the song’s question, “How much do I love you?”  That’s it?  Yeah, that’s it.  How many questions with the word love in it have been articulated in history?  Probably millions.  Big deal that the questions are similar in a mirrored sort of way?   I doubt Berlin had Lear’s question on his mind when he wrote the song.  If anything, the BeeGees song, “How Deep is Your Love” echoes King Lear’s question than this song.  That’s my head scratching moment.  So much for Harvard professors. 

Nonetheless I really did enjoy the song, and I’m glad I got to learn it.  Greenblatt seems to particularly like the Billy Holiday version.  Personally I think she sings it too upbeat.  Dinah Washington’s version is probably closer to how Berlin intended.  But of all the versions I heard, I fell in love with Ella Fitzgerald’s version.  She slows it down, allowing each phrase to seem like it’s thought out at the moment and weighed inside the heart. 


Plus that tenor sax seems so sad and compliment Fitzgerald’s tone and lower register.  I love it!




Sunday, August 17, 2014

Poetry: “The Windhover” by Gerard Manly Hopkins, Part 2

In Part 1 I took you through a reading of the poem, but now I want to expand beyond a reading to an analysis.

Here is the poem in its entirety again so it’s easily before your eyes.

The Windhover

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.

Let’s first look at this from a language perspective.  Hopkins is known for replicating Anglo-Saxon rhythm and diction.  Certainly the frequent alliteration recalls early and middle English poetry.  And we get as expected from a Hopkins poem many Germanic rooted words: “dapple,” “dawn,” “drawn,” “morning,” “sheer,” “plod,” “plough,” “bleak,” “wimple,” “bow,” “kingdom,” and so on.  What I find remarkable, however, is how many Latinate, and more specifically, French rooted words Hopkins uses.  Notice how many: “minion,” “falcon,” “rein,” “brute,” “billion,” “dauphin,” “sillion,” “vermillion,” “air,” “dangerous,” “lovelier,” and, most conclusively, “chevalier.”  No doubt there is a conscious effort to create a dualistic contrast with diction.  It’s as if the two language roots are crashing together into that very same buckle that the wind and the falcon crash at the heart of the poem.  And what is interesting is how at the center of this is the word “buckle.”  Buckle to me sounds very Germanic/Anglo-Saxon, but when I looked up its etymology, I was surprised to find it comes from French.  The collapsing connotation of buckle comes from the middle French word, boucler, and coupling definition of buckle comes from the old French, bocle.  Not only is the drama of the falcon and wind meet at the word “buckle,” but so does the meeting of the two language groups.  So what is suggested here is an aesthetic of dualism.

Next let’s look at the sequence of metaphors:
1. The falcon as a servant (minion).
2. Falcon as a French aristocrat, a dauphin.
3. The daylight as a kingdom or territory.
4. Flying as if climbing unto a saddle, “rung upon the rein.”
5. Flying as skating on ice.
6. The collision of bird and wind as a joust and collapsing (buckling) of lances.
7. The meeting of bird and wind as a joining (buckled).
8. The collision of bird and wind causes dangerous fire.
9. The falcon as a knight (chevalier).
10. Hot broken embers form a gold shine.

I think those are the major metaphors.  The heart in hiding and stirring is more of a circumlocution than a fully developed metaphor.  So what does this all suggest?  Well, let’s set aside the metaphors that are merely there for descriptive purposes, numbers four, five and ten.  Numbers two and nine coordinate representing the falcon as an aristocratic, French knight.  Why a French knight?  I don’t see any particular reason why the knight needs to be French, but it allows Hopkins to bring in the French-rooted diction to collide with the Germanic/Anglo-Saxon diction.  Number three is a rather interesting metaphor, advancing light from the morning dawn as a territorial expansion, with the falcon then as sovereign.  But number one, in contrast to compared to a king, identifies the falcon as a servant (minion).  Number eight describes a metaphysical discharge from the buckling—in both senses of the word—bird and wind.  Numbers six and seven are the play on the word “buckle” as I outlined in the Part 1 post.

What does that all lead to?  It leads to a complex set of symbols, where the falcon stands for something beyond the mere surface of its being.  That shouldn’t surprise us.  Birds as symbols are a topos, a poetic meme that one frequently encounters.  Consider Keats’ nightingale, Poe’s raven, Stevens’ blackbird, Frosts’ oven bird, Shelley’s skylark, and so on.  Hopkins’ falcon is symbolic for Christ as servant and king, as knight and spirit, as prince of both the air and the dirt, of winged majesty and of humble plow.  Now we see why there is the aesthetic of duality.  It projects toward the double nature of Christ, man and God, flesh and spirit, king and servant, synthesized in His being.  And that brings us back to buckle, where two oppositions clash, discharge, and then couple.  Falcon and wind become one.  Nature, from air to dirt, becomes unified into wholeness, as the body of Christ brings all into unity.

Which brings me to a little controversy I mentioned in Part 1.  If you notice, there is a dedication underneath the title, “To Christ Our Lord.”  The dedication was not in the original writing of the poem, which occurred in 1877.  Hopkins added that seven years later in 1884, presumably because he felt this was his best work and he ought to offer it to our Lord.  According to some who read the poem as strictly a nature poem the suggestion of the falcon representing Christ only was inserted by the addition of the dedication.  Otherwise it’s a poem about a falcon and the hidden divine that is within the natural world, revealed by the energy of the falcon opposing the wind, the shiny, overturned soil, and the gold inside the cracked embers. 

Now the idea does have some merit.  It’s not one of those loony deconstructionist approaches.  It’s actually a New Criticism approach, which isn’t all that new.  It goes back to the 1940s.  Under New Criticism one rejects using the author’s background and the critic’s intuitive reductions and deals strictly with the poem’s text and structure.  Since Christ isn’t formally mentioned in the poem, one might be reading into the poem meaning that wasn’t there.  So was the dedication, the New Criticism critics might ask, added as an afterthought or to lead the reader to the meaning?

Oh I think it’s clear that the falcon symbolizes Christ.  Both servant and King can only suggest Christ.  Those that apply that restrictive a reading could never acknowledge any symbolism in any poetry.  I think the controversy is based on over intellectualizing.

I hope you now understand and appreciate this great poem.  It’s always beneficial to hear the poem read out loud by professional readers.  Here: