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.
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:
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.
Tacitus’ Annals make for a rather depressing read. They tell of wicked person after wicked person, of men and women consumed by lust for pleasure, power, and wealth, caring nothing for what is right. Private murders and murders through false legal cases abound. Those in authority are either corrupted in their own right or so weak, like the emperor Claudius, that they allow others to be the real rulers. Vice and greed seem to be the norm, from the imperial palace through Rome and out to the eastern provinces and subject states. I have recently read of very, very few upstanding figures in Tacitus, and they are far overshadowed by the bad ones. Oh, how fallen, how changed, the Rome of the Annals is from the Rome of Livy’s early History. Where is Horatius now? Where Mucius? Where Cloelia? Where Cincinnatus?
Livy’s history, indeed, has its dark spots as well as its light. His noble, brave, virtuous characters are needed because of base, cowardly, vice-filled actions. To Lucretia there is Sextus Tarquin; Brutus’ own children turn traitor; and I think there are few things more against the Roman honor and ideals than the young men going up into the capitol and leaving their aged and unnecessary fathers behind them to welcome the barbarians. But even in his darkest places, Livy gives us examples of virtue to love and rejoice over as well as examples of vice to abhor. Tacitus’ Rome, on the other hand, seems to be made up only of Tarquins and Tullias.
On Thursday morning, there was a great deal of smoke in the air—so much smoke that when the sun rose, we could look at it. Not just when the sun’s edge was a golden gem on the horizon, glittering through the trees: when it was half an hour up, we could still look at it, like a dull red light in the grey sky. It was small, strangely and almost frighteningly small, when it was revealed to be only the apparent size of the moon.
But it reminded me of the physiological impossibility Plato describes in the Allegory of the Cave. In this allegory, Plato tells of a people trapped inside a cave, able to see only shadows on the cave’s wall. One of these prisoners is freed, and forced to turn so that he can see the fire and puppets which were making the shadows. At first, though, he is dazzled by the fire, and does not believe that the puppets are half so real as the shadows he has known all his life. Yet despite his resistance, he is brought up out of the cave and into the daylight. Gradually, he is able to see the things of the upper world; shadows first, later things in moonlight, and at last the sunlit world. Then, says Plato,
Last of all, he would be able to look at the Sun and contemplate its nature, not as it appears when reflected in water or any alien medium, but as it is itself in its own domain.Plato, The Republic, Book VII, trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford
“Come in,” said the Bishop.Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, pages 85 and 86
The door opened. A singular and violent group made its appearance on the threshold. Three men were holding a fourth man by the collar. The three men were gendarmes; the other was Jean Valjean.
“Ah! here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”
Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.
Jean Valjean stole the bishop’s silver while the bishop’s guest. In the morning, he is arrested and brought back to the bishop. And before Valjean is even accused of stealing the silverware, the bishop gives the thief silver candlesticks as well.
This of the bishop’s is assuredly a very unjust act.
True, the Lord says: “But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:39-41). But isn’t this a direction for behavior in the face of adversity—not of restitution?
Most of us who have an idea of God offer thanksgiving to Him occasionally, whether when our blessings are brought unusually to our notice or when a prayer—for an opportunity, for a success, for the recovery of a loved one—is answered. But these thanksgivings can be few and far between; the Lord has told us through Scripture that He is honored by our thanksgiving, and we ought to make thanksgiving often. These frequent thanksgivings should be habitual in two ways—that we often have voluntary-involuntary liftings of the soul toward God in thanksgiving, and that at regular intervals we remember what we are thankful to Him for. We should remember that we all have many, many things to be thankful for: the gift of life and family, the gladness of work, whatever amount of health the Lord has given us, the pleasantness of our clothing. To go outside, even when we are in the city, should always be a joy to us, and we should thank God for it.
Praise, too, we should often offer to God—He has told us that He is pleased and honored by our praise, as the human artisan is honored and pleased by judicious praise of his work. The works of God for which we may offer praise are always before us, from the trees outside my window to the iPad I am writing this narration on—because God designed the world in which the human artisans could discover, the way of making the device. The wonders that the scientists show us of the universe are wonders by seeing which we can see more the wonders that God has wrought; and we should offer Him praise for them.