Thursday, November 4, 2010

Foot Follows Kind

The Lantern Out of Doors

Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
  That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
  I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With all down darkness wide, his wading light?

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
  In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
  They rain against our much-thick and marsh air.
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Death or distance soon comsumes them: wind
  What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.

Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
There, éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd,
Their ránsom, théir rescue, ánd first, fást, last friénd.

The way to read the interesting poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, is to take some time.
Read it to yourself, read it aloud. With paper and pencil, circle the inserted clauses and then untangle the syntax, then the meaning becomes clearer. After you’ve done all that work, then start afresh, read it again, now that you know what he’s done to tangle things up and you’ll see the artistry in the sounded rhythms of the lines.

For instance the lines “And who goes there?/ I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,/With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?”

Who goes there? I think
The words, “where from and bound, I wonder, where” explain what the poem’s speaker means in the question above and following.  He’s wondering about the person who is walking by at night with a lantern. What stops the reader is first all the w sounds, and next the commentary , I think, I wonder, stuck into the sentence.

But this commentary clues us into the fact that it is an introspective poem! So you can excuse the wordy poet… he’s dreaming and wondering.

The last line of that stanza must be read”
I wonder, where/With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?
Take out the all down darkness wide for a minute and you have I wonder where his wading light?  Where he’s going is implied, right?

Where’s he going with his wading light?

So that’s how you decipher Hopkins if it throws you at first.

But the w sounds all through this stanza are wicked and wonderful.
They give a sort of whooshing sound to the poem, like wind moving or water lapping.
And the poet compares the traveler’s light to one going through the water… “wading light.”
To me, this means that the darkness is dense as water, but not so dense as a wall or a stone. The traveler makes his way through it, the light itself slowed by the effort of wading. Something about the darkness makes it seem more than air, harder to move through, maybe a bit dangerous? Maybe symbolic of the passage of life through water as all life does go?

As good poets do, this one takes the initial, compelling image and asks a bigger question. The next stanza works on that idea and builds on the welded image of air and water.
Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, til death or distance buys them quite.

The things that make people special, as the poem defines it “beauty bright/ in mould or mind” meaning their form or their intellect. The words “what not else makes rare,” may seem hard to figure out, but if eased apart, are understandable. “What not else” means “what else” that’s all. So the lines mean to say that the poem’s speaker realizes that people pass him by, people with individual traits that distinguish them, “make rare.”

The poem highlights the importance of this idea that individual traits, “beauty bright” is like the lantern seen moving past in the darkness.  The rare and unique qualities of people are lights, “rich beams” in the dark condition of man “our much-thick and marsh air.”

Fabulous and interesting how Hopkins again portrays the air to be like water calling it “much thick and marsh” as anyone who has lived in Maryland knows the summer air to be.  But he’s not making a joke or a reference to weather, but rather, I think, making a sensory image of how difficult life’s passage is. Air is thick as water. It may be fun to wade in a brook or at the beach when the water is up to your ankles. It cools you down and splashing is fun, but try wading when the water is chest deep, or when you have a long distance and you’re holding a lantern up high. The portrayal of air as water is Hopkins palpable comment on man’s condition.

If we are made to realize in this poem that we walk through water, the mind might go to the biblical image of Christ walking on water. It’s a story so well-known that unusual people, gifted people are sarcastically called “water-walkers.” And certainly Hopkins, the devout and thinking priest, would have had this reference within his grasp. Whereas Christ, in his divinity, walked on water, we wade through it, holding the lantern “rich beams” of our gifts up, though to do so is a struggle.

The lines I like best follow:
“till death or distance buys them quite./Death or distance soon consumes them.”

Yes, these are depressing ideas, but I like the different sound. No more w sounds, but the definite d. I love the way that the author couples death and distance. The conditions are similar and intertwined. Distance is a picture of death—the separation of it, the ache. And death creates the unpassable distance. The poet’s skill in illuminating life’s truth stirs the heart, makes me understand more.

And I love the image of the poem’s speaker standing there watching, heart following, watching as long as she can, until the light is just speck in that liquid darkness, and then only a memory.

And these lines again speak to the situation we live. We see these beautiful people pass through our lives, we notice, celebrate, cherish, enjoy their “rich beams”—all that distinguishes them. But they move on and we cannot follow.

The poet ends with a stanza that is meant to offer comfort. We may not be able to continue to care for people, to watch to “avow or amend.” But the “first, last, fast friend” that is Christ can and does.

I like the ending image of Christ following the traveler with care and concern communicated in the actions the poem defines: He “éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kind.”

Besides the beautiful and memorable sound of the poetry, the idea that Christ wants to follow, to care, that Christ is kindred in the last action depicted “foot follows kind” where kind means the same type or in the same way, is a surprising and comforting notion. Especially for those of us who have to let loved ones go.

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