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In the introduction to My Ántonia, we are told the (fictive) genesis of the book to follow: Jim Burden and an unnamed female acquaintance (a childhood friend) discuss a shared figure from their past: Ántonia Shimerda, and make plans to write about her. The woman never does, but Jim writes rather a lot, and it is this that constitutes the novel. The name is the name Jim gives it. Jim says:

“Of course, […] I should have to do it in a direct way, and say a great deal about myself. It’s through myself that I knew and felt her, and I’ve had no practice in any other form of presentation.” (p. 713; W. Cather, Early Novels and Stories, Library of America)

He is, as he self-consciously notes, giving only his version of Ántonia, and is a bit sheepish about it: he knows that his recollections cannot capture the whole of such an independent personality, but at best only a part. And this is reflected in the title he gives his notes:

He went into the next room, sat down at my desk and wrote on the pinkish face of the portfolio the word, “Ántonia.” He frowned at this a moment, then prefixed another word, making it “My Ántonia.” That seemed to satisfy him. (p. 714)

At first glance, this title seems to call for a stress on “my,” emphasizing the perspectival nature of the account to follow. But the title can’t be pronounced that way, because—as is stressed several times early on, ‘Ántonia’ takes a strong stress on its first syllable, next to which ‘my’ fades into insignificance. Even here, the force of Ántonia’s individuality shines through. And while I have not finished the novel, this has been true so far: Ántonia has not been contained by the limits of Jim’s memory. The meter of the title nicely foreshadows this.

 

Poem: [No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief]
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling–
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.


It is difficult to explain the genius of this poem, not because this genius is subtle or hidden, rather quite the opposite: it is so obvious, proclaims itself so loudly, that it is hard to see what there is to do besides point at it: “Look, just look!” But I shall try.

To begin with a formality, let us simply admire that this is a successful, wholly proper Italian sonnet, not an easy feat to pull off in English, certainly vastly more difficult than a Shakespearean sonnet. (This I know from experience: I have written many Shakespearean sonnets, but for both of the two Italian sonnets I have attempted, I have found I needed to bend the rules.)

A second reason to admire the poem is its sonic density (this indeed is among the major reasons to admire Hopkins in general). Hopkins was a master of alliteration. To alliterate is easy; to do so without sounding corny is difficult. Hopkins had a delicate ear for it, and every alliteration here is sounded perfectly. In the first two lines, we have: no/none; pitched/pitch/pangs; wilder wring. We also have a slight consonance with “grief/forepangs,” which carries over into the next line (comforter/comforting) and, more importantly, sets up later developments. This sort of alliteration continues throughout the poem, but comes to a fever pitch at the end of the octet, spilling over into the sestet:

………………………………Fury had shrieked ‘No ling–
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

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

Here both the ‘m’ and the ‘f’ alliterations are picked up: must/mind/mountains/man; Fury/fell/force/cliffs/fall/Frightful/fathomed. The density is amazing, and even more amazing in light of that density is the entirely unforced character of it.

How does Hopkins pull this off? I am not entirely sure, but I suspect that a major help comes from his use of rhythm. This poem is mostly in a standard iambic pentameter (though some lines make use of Hopkins’ notorious sprung rhythm, e.g. lines 5-6), but Hopkins pushes this pattern to the breaking point in a way that interacts with the alliterations. For instance, in the passage just quoted, though ‘fell’ and ‘force’ appear back to back, they are separated by a colon, giving a slight pause that makes the alliteration, for lack of a better word, quieter. This effect is enhanced by the fact that ‘force’ is the first syllable in an anapestic foot, and so is further diminished in emphasis since it must take a lighter stress than ‘must’.

Similarly, placing ‘fall’ and ‘frightful’ back to back is dangerous. Here, however, rather than mitigate the alliteration, Hopkins calls attention to it. They are separated by a line break, giving the sense of a fall. While in one sense this does separate the terms and so ought to have a similar effect as the colon between ‘fell’ and ‘force’, the actual effect is different. And here again a metrical substitution plays a role, in this case a line-opening trochee (‘Frightful’). This calls attention to the alliteration, making it inescapably obvious.

It works because this is the most heightened moment of the poem. The octet explaining (not in a detached, intellectual sense of ‘explain’) his painful mood has ended, and it seems the mood itself has ended (“Let me be fell: force I must be brief”). In this moment of mental clarity, Hopkins arrives at this terrible vision of the human mind and its “cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.” The heightened sonic and rhythmic effects are needed to give this vision its frightfulness. Hopkins succeeded: these are among the finest lines in English literature.

A similar modulation of the rhythm of the poem helps to explain the success of a different precarious technique Hopkins employs: the triple internal rhyme of line 12.

Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep

The line scans as two trochees (Durance deal with) followed by three iambs. The stressed syllable of each iamb rhymes, and little imagination is needed to realize how terribly wrong this could go. It is especially the third and final rhyme that is risky. How does Hopkins manage it? Not by a modulation of the meter—for it is a perfect iamb—but by a bold rhythmic modulation. By isolating “Here!” and punctuating it with an exclamation mark, Hopkins forces a tremendous stress on the word. It is further emphasized by the pause on either side of it, enforced by the punctuation. Thus, despite being only one word, it puts substantial distance between ‘steep’/’deep’ and creep’, and this distance makes the internal rhyme effective.

I began worried it would be difficult to explain the brilliance of this poem. But I have not found it hard. I have not found it hard precisely because I have mostly stayed away from the meaning of the poem, looking at it from a purely technical level. When I think about the meaning of it, I find myself again at a loss for how to articulate it. It describes a mood, and if you have ever been in it you will know that Hopkins describes it perfectly. The final lines characterize almost too well the feeling of being a wretch clinging to a wretched comfort: “all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”

It seems worth noting that the poem is not understood if this last line is taken to express a suicidal thought. Hopkins does not desire to die, but he is comforted by the fact that this existence is not permanent, that the recurrence of this mood shall one day come to end. It makes those recurrences before one does die, more bearable. Moreover, the line expresses two comforts, and this is the lesser of the two. The second comfort, that “each day dies with sleep,” is the main. Once again I must appeal to personal experience. When this mood comes, the day can feel lost, and the only comfort available is that when I wake the next morning it may be gone.

The basic genius of this poem is that Hopkins took a mood ugly and wrathful and made of it something of astonishing beauty. And with that, I have said what I can say. All that remains is some friendly advice: look, just look!