October 29, 2021 1 Comment
Bodfari from Moel y Gaer

Among the eleven ‘Welsh sonnets’ of Gerard Manley Hopkins are counted some of the outstanding poems written in English in the nineteenth century.  They include ‘God’s grandeur’, ‘Pied beauty’ and ‘The windhover’.

Hopkins came to live in St Beuno’s College near Tremeichion in the Vale of Clwyd in August 1874 to continue his extremely long preparation to become a Catholic priest.  He was thirty years old.  As a young man he’d written poems, but since his conversion to the Catholic church in 1866 he’d regarded writing poetry as incompatible with his austere faith.  But something happened when he reached Wales.  His self-moratorium was shattered, and he found that God and creative writing were, after all, reconcilable.  In December 1875 he began writing ‘The wreck of the Deutschland’, a long poem that combined astonishing word invention, ‘sprung rhythm’ and rapid swerves of thought.  He followed it with a series of shorter poems, sonnets that drew on the natural world he found during his wanderings on foot in the lanes of the Vale and on the Clwydian hills.

St Beuno’s College

While at St Beuno’s Hopkins wrote a few other poems, including one in Welsh, a cywydd.  He was a talented linguist and began learning Welsh soon after arriving, with the help of a local Catholic woman, Susannah Jones. Later he clearly attained some mastery of the written language.  He used elements of cynghanedd, though never systemically, both in ‘The wreck of the Deutschland’ and in later poems (the cywydd contains little true cynghanedd).

Another of the St Beuno poems is entitled ‘Moonrise: June 19, 1876’. 

I awoke in the Midsummer not-to-call night, | in the white and the walk of the morning:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe | of a finger-nail held to the candle,
Or paring of paradisaïcal fruit, | lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, | of dark Maenefa the mountain;
A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, | entangled him, not quit utterly.
This was the prized, the desirable sight, | unsought, presented so easily,
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, | eyelid and eyelid of slumber.

Moel y Parc to Bodfari

‘Moonrise’ clearly isn’t a sonnet.  It’s unclear whether it’s an abandoned fragment, or a complete poem: it was included in Robert Bridges’ first published edition of Hopkins’s poetry in 1918, in a section labelled ‘Unfinished poems and fragments.’  The mid-line breaks, dividing the beats into two groups of four and three, are Hopkins’s own.  ‘Moonrise’ is full of alliteration, but unlike the sonnets it’s unrhymed: each line has a ‘feminine’ ending, an unstressed or weakly stressed syllable, which suits the drowsy, nocturnal mood of the poem.

Earlier Hopkins had developed his related ideas about ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’.  Both words were his own coinages.  ‘Inscape’ was a concept he evolved from the ‘haeccitas’ (thisness) of the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus.  He used it to mean the intrinsic, unique individuality of a thing-in-nature – what underlies its variety or mutability.  ‘Instress’ is the process by which a person perceives and internalises that thing-in-nature, or rather the impulse that radiates from it to the senses of the perceiver.  ‘Moonrise’ is a poem that seems to show both inscape and instress in action: the moon, as it appears in all its ‘thisness’, interacts with its watcher.

Hopkins lies in his bed in College.  It’s night still – though it never gets completely dark at this time of year (‘not-to-call night’).  He catches sight through his window of the waning moon rising, ‘in the white and walk of the morning’.  Already in the poem, there’s a crossover between the object (the moon) and the watcher (Hopkins).  The moon is certainly white, and might be said to ‘walk’ through the sky – in ‘Hurrahing in harvest’ Hopkins writes of the ‘wind-walks’ of clouds – but the word can’t help suggesting the poet’s own walking (Hopkins was a keen pedestrian).

The moon’s crescent shape is likened to two very different things: ‘the fringe of a fingernail’ – a sort of reverse metaphor, since the white of a nail is called a ‘lunula’ or little moon – seen in the feeble light of a candle or nightlight, and a section of apple from the prelapsarian Garden of Eden (‘paradisaïcal fruit’). 

Moel Maenefa

With ‘lovely in waning but lustreless’ we’re back with the moon itself (unless there’s an echo of the fateful apple), shining above the profile of Maenefa or Moel Maenefa, the hill directly above St Beuno’s. (On it lie the remains of two Bronze Age tumuli or round barrows, mentioned in the poem.)  Hopkins will have been aware of the meaning of this placename, ‘rock of Eve’ – a certain echo of his apple in Eden.  Earlier he’d sent the manuscript of ‘The wreck of the Deutschland’ to the Catholic periodical The Month (the editor rejected it) under the pseudonym ‘Brân Maenefa’, the Crow of Maenefa.  He used the same name at the foot of the manuscript of his Welsh cywydd, dated 24 April 1876.

For a moment the moon, for all its wandering, appears fixed: ‘clasped’ by a cusp (the moon’s horn or point), ‘fanged’ – a dialect word meaning ‘held’ – by a fluke (an anchor’s barb), ‘entangled’, ‘not quit utterly’.  It’s this captured instant of a beauty of nature, ‘prized’ but ‘unsought’, that captures Hopkins’s heart.  Though actually it does something different, and more complicated, according the poem’s final, dazzling line:

Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, | eyelid and eyelid of slumber.

Foel Fenlli and Ruthin

The second half of the line might seem to suggest no more than crossing the borderline between sleep and waking.  But ‘parted me leaf from leaf’ – an image taken not, perhaps, from tree leaves, but from gently prising apart the pages of a new book – points instead to a kind of opening up, or splitting, of Hopkins’s perception, or even of his mind, in response to the moon’s epiphany.

Most of Hopkins’s Welsh sonnets, though they may start from a rapt and sensuous attention to the natural world, can’t end without making a link with the author of inscape and instress, God the maker.  ‘Moonrise’ is different.  Apart from the references to Eve and her apple, religion and the deity remain uninvoked.  Some readers might conclude that Hopkins would have supplied Him, if he’d finished the poem.  But I prefer to think of it as complete in itself, with its brilliant image of moon and watcher, and its striking, enigmatic final line.  ‘Moonrise’ is a poem of subtle magic, and deserves to be better known than it is.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

In many ways the three years Hopkins spent in Wales were the happiest and most fulfilled of his short life.  He often suffered from depression, alternating high and low moods, and occasionally a collapse of self-confidence.  Later, even his faith could begin to desert him.  In the so-called ‘terrible sonnets’, written in 1885-86, he could feel his sanity slipping:

Oh the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed

One of the sonnets begins with these words, about another awakening in the night-time – to encounter not the ‘lovely in waning’ moon and the familiar Welsh mountain, but a terrifying world of self-doubt and despair:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night!  What sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

Appendix 1: Gerard Manley Hopkins’s cywydd of 1876

Note: the autograph of this poem has errors in the Welsh and several corrections, which suggested to W.H. Gardner, who discovered and studied it in 1940, that the cywydd is Hopkins’s own, unaided work.  The name of the Bishop of Shrewsbury was actually James Brown.  The allusion to virgins in the final line, and a note in Hopkins’s archive, show that he was familiar with Tudur Aled’s cywydd Stori Gwenfrewy a’i ffynnon.

Annerch i’r tra parchedig D. Th. Brown, esgob yr Amwythig, wedi cyrraedd ohono ei bumed flwyddyn ar hugain, yr hon a elwir y Jwbil; a chwyno y mae’r bardd bod daear a dwr yn tystiolaeth yn fwy i hen grefydd Gwynedd nag y bydd dyn, a dywed hefyd y gobeithia fod hynny i’w gael ei gyfnewid o waith yr esgob.

Y mae’n llewyn yma’n llon
 ffrydiau llawer fynon,
Gweddill gwyn gadwyd i ni
Gan Beuno a Gwenfrewi.
Glaw neu wlith, ni chei wlad braidd
Tan rod sydd fal hon iraidd.
Gwan ddwfr a ddwg, nis dwg dyn,
Dyst ffyddlon am ein dyffryn;
Hen ddaear ddengys â’i gwedd
Ran dragwyddawl o rinwedd;
Ni ddiffyg ond naws ddynol,
Dyn sydd yn unig yn ôl.
Dad, o dy law di ela
Fardd a lif a’r hardd brif dda;
Tydi a ddygi trwy ffydd
Croyw feddygiaeth, maeth crefydd;
A gwela Gwalia’n awr hon
Gwir saint, glân i’r gwyryfon.

Brân Maenefa a’i cant

Ebrill y pedwerydd ar hugain 1876

Address to the Very Reverend D. Th. Brown, bishop of Shrewsbury, on reaching his twenty-fifth, Jubilee year; the poet complains that earth and water are better witness to the old religion of Gwynedd than man; he says too that he hopes that will be changed through the bishop’s work.

This place is glad and bright
With streams of many a well,
Blessed remains left to us
By Beuno and Gwenfrewi.
Rain or dew, you’ll hardly find
A land under heaven so fresh.
Not man, but weak water brings
True witness of our vale;
Ancient earth shows in its face,
Good’s eternal share;
Only man’s nature fails,
Only man falls behind.
Father, from your hand send
A poet, a flow, the fine, great Good;
You by faith bring sweet healing,
The nurture of religion.
And Wales will see now
The true saints, loved by the maidens.

Maenefa’s Crow sang this

24 April 1876

(My translation)

Appendix 2: A song setting of ‘Moonrise’

Ernst Křenek

In 1946-47 the Czech/Austrian/American composer Ernst Křenek made a fine song setting of ‘Moonrise’, for soprano and piano. It forms the final song in four settings of Hopkins poems (the others are ‘Peace’, ‘Patience’ and ‘On a piece of music’), entitled Vier lieder. The piano part is spare and nocturnal, while the astringent but expressive voice shadows perfectly the changing pace and feeling of Hopkins’s words.

Above Tremeirchion

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  1. Great! – especially love the line about God and creative writing, being after all, reconcilable…

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