Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

26 September 2012

Reading "The Wreck," Stanzas 2-3

Our consideration of "The Wreck of the Deutschland" continues with the second stanza:

I did say yes
            O at lightning and lashed rod;        10
        Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
            Thy terror, O Christ, O God;
    Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:
    The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
        Hard down with a horror of height:        15
And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.

Hopkins recalls his conversion to Catholicism as a tumultuous event ("lightning and lashed rod," "terror," an event that set his heart reeling.  Its effects were physical; he was apparently "bent out of shape."  Swoon, sweep and hurl suggest the violence of a shipwreck, to which the reader will be treated in due time.

"I did say yes"; "Thou heardst me"; "Thou knowest": While in the throes of a difficult time one may look back trustingly or ruefully at the moment of decision--whether the exchange of marital vows, the ordination candidate's folded hands inside those of his ordaining prelate, or whatever may apply.  Hopkins reaffirms his conversion, calling upon God to witness to the truth of his offering.

There seems to be a tension between the forcefulness of God's action within Hopkins and the freedom in which Hopkins assented to that action.  As ever, the Catholic "both/and" stance is the way to go.  At no point would one imagine Hopkins (or any convert/"revert") claiming to be forced into it.  The impulse to respond in concert with the Holy Spirit is strong, yet never assertive beyond one's ability to refuse.  "You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped" (Jer 20:7).

Stanza three:

 The frown of his face
            Before me, the hurtle of hell
        Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?
            I whirled out wings that spell        20
    And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
    My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
        Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.

I can imagine this act of faith taking place during nocturnal Eucharistic Adoration ("altar and hour and night," st. 2), where the worshipper is drawn, moth-like, toward the "Living Flame of Love" of which St. John of the Cross sang.

Hopkins stammers to acknowledge his "Catch-22" situation, in which neither fight nor flight suffice.
"I whirled out wings that spell": read during that spell (the fretful time in which he considers himself trapped by "the frown of his [God's] face before" and "the hurtle of hell behind" him).  Like his mentor John Henry Newman, he is not simply fleeing from Anglicanism, but flying to Catholicism.

He describes his surrender as "a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host."  This description of his conversion is not as dramatic as stanza 2 with its talk of a "midriff astrain."  With the swift determination of a carrier pigeon or a dove, he instinctively pursued his Pursuer.

"From the flame to the flame": I do not know if there is any literary dependence or homage in this observation, but fellow Anglican Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) seemed to draw upon several of Hopkins' images in the fourth section of "Little Gidding" (1942), the last of Eliot's Four Quartets:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
intolerable shirt of flame
human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

"Pyre or pyre"--As for Hopkins, so for Eliot and for all of us: what choice does there seem to be?  A monumental one.  The fire of heaven or the fire of hell; and if heaven, even the way-station Purgatory is traditionally described as flagrant.  This befits the human heart, made for experiencing depth and intensity.

So if we are looking to escape the fire of purification and transformation, there is no "place" ahead or behind for us to go.  There is only inward.  Perhaps we can think of divine love as an inevitable, "intolerable shirt of flame" that we wear on the inside, that we can comfortably remove no more than our own skin.  Our heart, also on the inside, knows where to go: to the heart of the Host (the hostia is the "victim," the Whole-Burnt Offering for our salvation).

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