Monthly Archives: October 2016

Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, writes:

Surely this beauty should be self-evident to all who are of sound mind. Then why does it not speak to everyone in the same way? Animals both small and large see it, but they cannot put a question about it. In them reason does not sit in judgement upon the deliverances of the senses. But human beings can put a question so that ‘the invisible things of God are understood and seen through the things which are made’ (Rom. 1: 20). Yet by love of created things they are subdued by them, and being thus made subject become incapable of exercising judgement. Moreover, created things do not answer those who question them if power to judge is lost. There is no alteration in the voice which is their beauty. If one person sees while another sees and questions, it is not that they appear one way to the first and another way to the second. It is rather that the created order speaks to all, but is understood by those who hear its outward voice and compare it with the truth within themselves. (Henry Chadwick, trans.; Oxford World Classics; p. 184)

Does the “created order” speak? What does it say? But first let me drop the loaded language, and speak only of the material world. I see no need to prejudge the matter. So: I have loved the material world, and I have loathed it and held it valueless, and in both states I have posed questions to it. Who are you?, I have asked, and I have found that while the material world is very noisy and full of clatter, it does not speak, but is ever silent, and goes about its cacophonous way. Nor am I much moved if I am told that I have never truly abandoned my love for it, never truly esteemed it nothing. For ‘no man knows the being of man except the spirit of man which is in him’ (1 Cor. 2: 11). To make such a suggestion is an epistemic scare tactic, a desperate defense of a conclusion dearly held. It is a maneuver that once moved me, but no longer: I have fortified my mind against it. Indeed, I may say that any God who endorses such reasoning—which may be used to justify anything at all—is unworthy of worship. If God put the truth within me, then he must rest content with the truth I find there: that speech is late-arrived, and parochial—that silence is the rule, and speech the exception.

A second question is pertinent. To love material things, must we become subject to them? Kierkegaard says that only two lives are possible, the life of the animal, which is the life of loving the material world, and the life of the spirit, which sees the task of life as death. He is correct, and if I reject the life of the spirit, then my life-work is therefore to live the best animal life I can discover. It is thus of great interest to me to know whether such a life is necessarily a kind of servitude. It is not. Augustine, blinkered by his embrace of the spirit, underestimates the diversity of love. One may love as underling, as equal, as superior; as friend or as foe; intimately or at a wary distance. Certainly I do not deny that much love of the material is a kind of servitude. I know such a condition only too well. But it is not the whole. It is characteristic of Christian rhetoric to reduce the animal life to what is worst in it, to gluttonous intemperance—but this is just rhetoric, and the self-respecting atheist need not be moved by it.

Poem: Spring and Fall
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Spring and Fall

to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Óver Góldengróve unléaving?
Leáves, líke the thíngs of mán, you
Wíth your frésh thoughts cáre for, cán you?
Áh! ás the héart grows ólder
Ít will cóme to súch sights cólder
Bý and bý, nor spáre a sígh
Though wórlds of wánwood léafmeal líe;
And yét you wíll weep ánd know whý.
Nów no mátter, chíld, the náme:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the sáme.
Nor móuth had, nó nor mínd, expréssed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It ís the blíght mán was bórn for,
It ís Márgarét you móurn for.

A young girl named Margaret weeps to see the falling leaves. Our poet watches, and speaks to her, or imagines himself speaking to her. Her tears for the leaves he sees as signifying a broader sympathy for “the things of man.” She is still young enough to weep for these, is not yet inured to it, deadened by familiarity: “as the heart grows older / It will come to such sights colder / by and by.” Or is she immune to this desensitization? “And yet you will weep and know why.”

She will still weep, but not over leaves, for it was never leaves that were the source of her weeping. “Sorrow’s springs are the same.” There is only one source of true lamentation, and if we appear to grieve over the intimation of winter, that is only an outward name we give to the one true sorrow, “the blight man was for”:

It is Margaret you mourn for.

The title is, of course, a pun: to spring, to leap, and then to fall. Spring: the “fresh thoughts” of the young child. Fall: the growing older, colder. Yet the spring of the child is meeting the fall, there is not spring followed by fall, but spring and fall intertwined and inextricable. And indeed the very fall is the source of “Sorrow’s springs.” The seasons change, but the fact is eternal; once again:

It is Margaret you mourn for.

Addendum (October 24, 2016)

After spending more time with this poem, it occurred to me that the above misses the essential fact: Margaret is not the true subject of this poem. It is rather the speaker whose tears we see most vividly. The key is the line:

And yet you will weep and know why.

How does he know that Margaret will weep, and that she will know her weeping’s cause? Only because he himself is weeping over himself, and knows it. In just the same way he knows that her heart will grow colder to the falling leaves. In both instances, he is projecting his own development onto her. We may even imagine he is totally wrong about Margaret, about her present and about her future. It does not matter: the question is why he thinks of her in this way. Once we think to ask that question, we, too, “know why.”

In a recent visit to the Carnegie Museum of Art, two paintings caught my eye: Robin, by Marsden Hartley, and Early Spring near Mantes, by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

Marsden Hartley, Robin


I found this painting strangely arresting. A dead bird on snow, off-center, only the snow seems not granular but liquid, as if it is flowing around the bird. The snow becomes most intensely white as it nears the bird—in the distance it is tinged with the brickish brown of earth. Meanwhile, the bird itself seems to merge with its shadow. At first it seems mere wing, suggesting a strangely twisted position. Only when you notice how it mirrors and magnifies the shape of the beak does it become apparent that it is the bird’s shadow, which it wears as if it were a cloak.

The beak points toward the ground, as if in mourning.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Early Spring near Mantes


The painting immediately gives an impression of wind, an unremarkable fact: so many painters have painted windy days. What is another? But look more closely. For the primary effect contributing to this impression is in fact quite strange: nearly all the tree branches point in the same direction. No normal wind could cause that. It is as if the trees grew under the pressure of a wind that for years did not relent, that still has not relented. On realizing this, the painting is lifted out of time: it does not capture a single day, but a perpetual reality. The bent figure laboring against this wind, we come to think, has never been able to walk upright.

Poem: [As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame]
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kíngfìshers cátch fìre, drágonflìes dráw fláme;
As túmbled óver rím in róundy wélls
Stónes rìng; like éach tùcked stríng tèlls, éach hùng béll’s
Bòw swúng fìnds tóngue to flíng òut bróad its náme;
Éach mòrtal thíng dòes óne thìng ánd the sáme:
Déals òut that béing índòors éach òne dwélls;
Sélves—gòes itsélf; mysélf it spéaks and spélls;
Crỳing Whát I dó is mé: for thát I cáme.

Í sày móre: the júst màn jústicés;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his góings gráces;
Ácts in Gód’s èye whát in Gód’s èye he ís—
Chríst—for Chríst pláys in tén thòusand pláces,
Lóvely in límbs, and lóvely in éyes nòt hís
To the Fáther thróugh the féatures óf mèn’s fáces.

This poem arouses in me a curious emotion, something like a nostalgia for Christianity, only it cannot be true nostalgia, for I have never been Christian. Nor indeed religious at all: though I grew up in a nominally Jewish household, I was an atheist from the moment I was competent to form my own opinions, and my “religious” growth from that point on was primarily a matter of coming to reject merely “cultural” Judaism as insipid, a walking, mocking skeleton of the faith that once invigorated it.

Yet there remains something in me—perhaps not the best part of me, perhaps it is only the nihilistic, world-weary, rest-seeking part of me—nonetheless there is some part of me that longs for a kind of Christianity, that longs to be able to acknowledge my wretchedness before the glory and mercy of God. Why, exactly, I should feel this, I do not know, but may guess. I suspect that it would allow me to view what I recognize as wretchedness and smallness as perversion of something purer, and not as all there is. Yet I know it is all there is; thus Christianity is closed to me. Whence the nostalgia.

As I said, it is only a part of me that knows this longing, because only a part of me views myself as wretched, and not necessarily the best part. It is only when that part is stirred that the nostalgia comes—and this poem stirs it.

The octet of this poem reads as a great affirmation of life, of a kind of self-reliance: “each hung bell’s / bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name.” The world expresses itself with inexhaustible beauty. And after all, is it not expression we want. Here Emerson:

For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.

The octet, taken by itself seems enough. But immediately it is shown not to be enough: “I say more.” And what is the more? Precisely that man does not merely express himself, but that he “acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is— / Christ—”. Now all this self-reliance of nature seems small, and seems small precisely because it is mere self-reliance. Thus it lacks in loveliness, the lovely flickering of Christ’s features like flame through our faces.

Here a word on the metrical side of this poem, which I have heretofore avoided, is requisite. The poem’s first line is perhaps the most perfect line in the history of English poetry, with its subtle interactions between the dipodic rhythm and alliteration (king/catch and drag/draw alliterating for primary stresses; fish/fire/flies alliterating on the secondary stresses) that are then carried upward by the line-ending clashing accents (draw flame), with “flame” picking up the alliteration of the secondary stresses and giving it completion. It is a line of unparalleled mastery, a miracle, the greatest advertisement imaginable for the expressive powers of sprung rhythm.

Yet in its own way the final line is equally a miracle. It is a miracle precisely because it violates the expectations of sprung rhythm. For, if sprung rhythm rests on one requirement, it is that a stress is a stress. Lines in sprung rhythm will happily require the demotion of normally stressed words to mere secondary stresses (e.g. “fire” in line one), but only rarely is a normally unstressed syllable heightened to take on a stress. Precisely this, however, occurs not once but twice in the final line of this poem. By the principles of pure sprung rhythm, the line should have only three primary stresses: Fath-/feat-/face-. But the poem demands that it have five stresses, so “through” and “of” must be promoted. The result is a line that is extraordinarily light, diaphanous, the opposite of the density at which Hopkins excelled. The first line tells us of kingfishers catching fire and dragonflies drawing flame, but it is only in this final line that we see the true flickering of the divine flame.

It is unbearably beautiful, so beautiful that the sestet makes the octet seem paltry, destroys all satisfaction it once gave. In so doing it reawakens the main anxiety I have about self-reliance in a world without God or natures. For even Emerson, in singing self-reliance, insists that what is found in the end is impersonal, even if we must tunnel into ourselves to find it. He does not call this impersonal by the name of “Christ,” but structurally his thought mirrors Hopkins’ in this poem. And next to this beautiful impersonal, this impersonal that lacks all the flaws and partialities of this wretched body I am, what joy is there in the now meager self-reliance of the kingfisher and dragonfly—a self-reliance, note, that is equally enjoyed by the lifeless stone? It is in this that brings to the fore my latent nostalgia.

I do not mean to endorse it, nor to reject it. It is an aspect of myself with which I am still coming to terms. This poem has done me the service of making it apparent.