27 April, 2008

"The Windhover"

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

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-vermillion.

The first half of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “The Windhover,” is composed of a rich, lingering description of a falcon’s early morning flight. At the sight the poet is caught up in a moment of awe similar to the falcon’s own high “ecstasy” (5). Yet the moment moves beyond the purely sensual experience to relate the grandeur of the falcon to the glory of Christ and the beauty the poet’s soul can achieve in following its divine master.

The imagery of the first half emphasizes the power and the mastery of the bird, which, paradoxically, is most conclusively proved when the creature allows itself to be swept along by a powerful gust of wind. On first appearing, the falcon is introduced as “daylight’s dauphin” – heir to the kingdom of the day – who strides the “steady air” effortlessly (2, 3). Then his motion changes: from his hovering poise over the earth, he now swings and plunges smoothly along a stray gust of air. The reader does not even discover the “big wind” which precipitates the action until after the poet has already depicted the falcon’s masterful plunge into it, and the omission serves to strengthen the sense of the bird’s invincibility. Though it allows itself to be overcome by the wind, this “defeat” only adds to its power in flight. The sight and stirring of the poet’s “heart in hiding” are drawn together into a single long instant in this stanza, as the feeling of timeless awe and quality of intensely present action are strengthened by the reiteration of words ending with the suffix “-ing” (7).

The transition from this vision to the poet’s reflection about it is clearly marked by a switch to a repeating b-c rhyme scheme. Describing the scene as indicating “brute beauty and valour and act,” the poet seems to enjoin his own assumed “airs” and “pride” to “buckle” – “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here / Buckle!” (9-10). The same injunction also serves as a continued description of the falcon’s victorious flight as the bird simultaneously “buckle[s]” down to grapple with the wind and conquers it by buckling under it. All the beauty of this single vision from nature draws the poet’s mind to Christ, as he joyfully proclaims that “the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion / Times told lovlier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!” (10-11). Like the falcon, Christ’s defeat of the power that assailed him – death – was completed only as he allowed himself to be momentarily defeated by it. In this act of submission, the true “dauphin” of light in the world revealed power and beauty beyond previous imagination (2).

Despite the brilliance of the falcon’s flight and the subsequent reverie, the poet observes that his conclusion is “no wonder” at all, really (12). By simply plodding along behind the plow of daily life, every soul can make the “plough down sillion / Shine” (12). Every person is called to sacrifice himself to the daily struggle of coming to life through dying to oneself. It is in imitating the falcon’s descent and Christ’s “fall” that any human can best imitate their mastery and intransient beauty, the poet concludes. Even the most apparently unprepossessing object, such as the “blue-bleak embers” which remain after the fire seems extinguished, gain infinite grandeur if they will “Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion” (14).

12 April, 2008

Paradise Lost continued...

Well, I'm much further along in Paradise Lost by now. My general impressions of the book are still quite similar to those outlined in the last post. However, some of my likes and dislikes in the work are now rather more specific.

Probably my favourite scene in the epic is Satan's temptation of Eve. Really it's one of the few that I've genuinely enjoyed a lot. Satan still seems very much to be the most successful character, in my opinion, although I don't quite comprehend how he could be interpreted as the hero of the epic. It's precisely the intenseness of his evil that makes him such a convincing character, not, I think any sympathy on the part of Milton. The temptation itself is marvelously subtle; so subtle in fact, that it hardly even comes off as unreasonable at first glance.

It starts with flattery, which given the tendency to vanity which Milton has already revealed in Eve (in her account of her first few moments of life), isn't a surprise. However, it very quickly moves beyond such initial superficiality and becomes much more nuanced. The main temptation is that Eve, the most breathtakingly beautiful creature on the earth, should become "a Goddess among Gods, ador'd and serv'd / By Angels numberless" (9.547-48). The bait is made more convincing by Satan's disguise as a serpent. He, whom Eve knows should be unable to speak, nonetheless approaches her, speaks to her, praises her vast superiority to him, and then slyly mentions that he knows how she could become even more worthy of admiration. Then he claims that he has been raised above the rest of the beasts to become "interior man" by virtue of a certain fruit - the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Eve's initial reluctance to eat the fruit which God has forbidden her is attenuated by the sight of a serpent whose (alleged) experience seems to hint that God has not been entirely open about the Tree. If a beast can be raised to manhood, why not a human to Godhead?

The argument is clever enough so far, but one last touch clinches the subtlety of its deceitfulness. Perhaps, the serpent suggests, the fruit is simply there as a test, not of your obedience, but of your courage. What if God has decreed death for those who eat of the tree only because He wished to see if you humans care more for life than for knowledge? If He is in earnest, on the other hand, what kind of God is it who forbids His creatures such a positive good? Surely not a just one. And "Not just, not God; not feard then, nor obeyd".

Considering the sinlessness of Adam and Eve before the fall, it's hard tp conceive of a temptation that might in fact be appealing. Not knowing and incapable of imagining how prelapsarian man would have thought, neither I nor Milton nor anyone would be able to say for certain whether an argument phrased similarly would at all have been convincing to the historical Adam and Eve. Nevertheless, in the context of the book, and the fact that here Milton must appeal to the imagination, it's a very successful depiction, in which the argument is presented in a way which we could at least imagine to be appealing to one who had no reason to wish to offend and no concupiscence to make offense particularly easy.

In an aside, I'm not sure exactly how much Milton even believed in concupiscence, and am unsure just how prelapsarian he considered Eve to be. But that's a subject for another post.