Some time ago, when I tried to argue for the memorization of poetry, one reason I gave was that when we memorize poetry, we can contemplate it and come to understand it better. This weekend, I’d like to illustrate that argument with a brief reflection on three meanings I’ve seen in one simple word in the first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur”—meanings I don’t suppose I’d ever have noticed if I hadn’t memorized the poem and thus, almost perforce, reflected on it.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God, the priest-poet writes.
Charged. Like a battery charged full of electricity, the world pulses with God’s energy, by which alone it can have life; for in Him we live and move and have our being.
Charged. Like a heraldic banner charged with the sign of its lord, we and all the world bear the blazonry of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords; we who are made in His image and likeness and walk daily under the heavens which proclaim His glory.
Charged. As messengers charged with the greatest mission of all, we are given His glory as a task, sent out to know, love, and serve Him; sent out to be always ready to account for the hope that is in us; sent out to baptize all nations in His name.
For thousands of years—perhaps for as long as the human race has existed—men have loved to tell tales of heroism. But man’s beliefs change concerning good and evil, honor and shame, piety and impiety; and as his ideas about the universe and his place in it shift, so do the stories he tells. So in The Iliad, Homer tells of a world filled with “The mere endless up and down, the constant aimless alternations of glory and misery, which make up the terrible phenomenon called a Heroic Age.” (Lewis 29-30.) But Virgil, seeing the rise of Augustus and the order of the young Empire, can write a poem in which the world moves from disorder to order, and his hero is filled with more purpose than Achilles could ever have known. Beowulf, however, is in another Heroic Age. From its beginning, Heorot stands “awaiting / a barbarous burning.” (Beowulf lines 82-3), and on Beowulf’s death his lordless people expect slaughter and slavery. But though Beowulf’s time has less earthly security than Virgil’s, something has changed: Christianity has come. Beowulf can be freer than Achilles, freer even than Aeneas; for Beowulf is an essentially Christian hero, with his actions informed by many circumstances around him, but acting with total free will.
Martyrdom: a word with two very different common settings. All those who have died for Christ, from St. Stephen to St. Thomas à Becket to St. Maximilian Kolbe, are martyrs. The title is also reasonably applied to those who die for their countries, friends, or families; to all those who give up their lives because something greater can be gained by the purchase, whether it’s the safety of others, or the lasting of a truth, or because, in the last toss-up, the life of the eternal soul is a better bargain than the life of the mortal-anyways body. So that is one connotation that springs to mind. Another is that Islamic terrorists on suicide missions call themselves martyrs.
These are very different—and I don’t mean in differences of religion, but in the fundamental meaning of their act. But why? What makes the great difference between these two groups of people who lost their lives when they could have kept them? While I know nothing more of it than a few sentences, a story I read in Nightwatch almost two years ago helped me to see some of that great difference. So here is the story; and afterward the sonnet I have written in reflection on it.
What shall I do? Why shall I do it? These are questions which human beings have been asking for thousands of years, and many have believed that some choices are right and others wrong. In the early twentieth century, however, the biologist Jacques Loeb argued against right and wrong as motivators for our actions:
If our existence is based on the play of blind forces and only a matter of chance; if we ourselves are only chemical mechanisms, how can there be an ethics for us? The answer is that our instincts are the root of our ethics and that the instincts are just as hereditary as is the form of our body. We eat, drink and reproduce not because mankind has reached an agreement that this is desirable, but because, machine-like, we are compelled to do so. The mother loves and cares for her children not because metaphysics had the idea that this was desirable, but because the instinct of taking care of the young is inherited. We struggle for justice and truth since we are instinctively compelled to see our fellow beings happy.Jacques Loeb, quoted on page 11 of Life Itself, by Boyce Rensberger
An Apple Pencil and a Victorian Jesuit poet: they don’t seem a very likely combination, do they? But Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur” is one of my favorite sonnets; so I used the freedom of the digital medium to pair Hopkin’s poem with a picture I took last summer in the beautiful Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, and tried to suit my lettering to the meaning and feel of the poetry. Here’s the result:
I love memorizing poetry, from Shakespeare to Luci Shaw, from Donne to Chesterton, and so I thought I’d share a post with some of reasons for I love poetry—and, of course, plenty of excerpts from what I’ve memorized!
In a time when we casually associate memorizing things with drudgery, I want to point out first of all that memorizing and reciting worthy poetry can be a joy. I know that memorizing is a tough skill to learn; I used to be very bad at it. It was years before I really appreciated Psalm 23, one of my early memorywork pieces. But my mom persevered and made me keep on working on memorizing, and now I’m memorizing on my own, choosing poetry and working on it. Memorizing and reciting poetry is probably my best consciously-developed habit, and mostly I do it for joy. I just love the words, love reading them and memorizing them and reciting them. It’s truly a wonderful thing to have some of the great heights of the English language kept always with you, almost made a part of you, like having mighty genii ready at your call. It is beautiful and joyful to memorize these words combined by skill and the gift of God into forms that can choke up your throat and make your heart go differently and your eyes feel odd when you recite them.
Death, be not proud, though some have called theeJohn Donne, “Holy Sonnet X”
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so…
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Well, it has been a while, hasn’t it? Alas, I have moral and rational objections to excuse-making, and so can but apologize for my online indiligence. Having returned, I will tell you that I plan to be more returned, with this summer’s posting plans including, perhaps, some short fiction and excerpts from my 11th grade exam. Yes: 11th grad exam. Good gracious! I have only one more year of homeschool between me and college… oh dear, oh dear, oh dearie dear.
But no more dithering. Here is one of my Literature exam compositions, fruit of probably the most successful forty minutes in my exam, with its prompt:
- Write a note to a friend to encourage them to attempt the challenge of reading Les Miserables.
My dear friend,
Thanks be to God: it was not all lost. But yes. Notre Dame burned yesterday; it was with a voice near tears that Mom told it to us over breakfast. After that, with the queer, helpless, sick feeling that one has about a tragedy one feels deeply but cannot do anything about, a tragedy furthermore which is developing, and which one can learn about the progress of, but cannot predict or affect, we read and looked and followed the news and tried to comprehend it. Before lunch, I think, the spire and roof fell. In the afternoon, we were warned that the cathedral might not be saved at all. One of the two great rectangular towers had caught fire. After dinner, we read with relief that the cathedral was saved. The fire is out now.
Yet it still does not seem real. It seems out of place, out of proportion. Notre Dame has seen so much, has been through so much. It seemed thirty-six hours ago as if Notre Dame had been around for ever so long, and would be around for ever so long: one, five, ten, twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred years from now, we or our children could simply go and see it. It would be there. But yesterday—yesterday we faced the very real possibility that it might not be there. That this beautiful work of man’s subcreation, raised to the glory and the worship of God, might no longer be more than a heap of blackened rubbish. It was a strange and horrifying thought, a reminder of our mortality and the mortality of all earthly things.
Seven is an important number. There are seven sacraments, seven deadly sins, seven virtues, seven gifts of the holy spirit, seven days of the week… and as of this month, it’s been seven years since I wrote my first fantasy story. Covering six sheets of lined paper in a big, messy handwriting, and dated 4/17/12, this fairytale never properly had a name. (I find “Prince Gabriel” the handiest thing to call it.) I could say that this is the foundational work of all my later writing, the first full story that I wrote, and that it was a remarkable achievement for a ten-year-old—but I’d rather say that I now find it very amusing.
Photo credit: Grandma Dianne
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Today at least, these lines of Donne’s are profoundly countercultural. Our idea of freedom is to be ourselves; and quite rightly. But our idea of being ourselves is to eat, drink, play, live, and love however we want, no matter what anyone else or any of their rules tell us to do. We are to follow our hearts, which, too often, turns out to mean whatever impulse we are under at the moment. We are, in short, free to enslave ourselves however we want. But while wrong freedom means bondage, the right bondage means freedom.