Some of my earliest memories are of my mother reading to me, and reading some of the same things that many, if not most, of us were read – nursery rhymes: Jack and Jill, Humpty Dumpty, Little Boy Blue, Little Bo Peep, Mary Had a Little Lamb. My mother read (and recited) them to me, and when it wasn’t nursery rhymes it was Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Without my realizing it, those readings defined how I understood poetry – a short story or song told in rhyme.
As I got older, my understanding of poetry grew more complex. In grammar school, I can remember poems like “Hiawatha,” “Evangeline,” and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” In high school, it included “Thanatopsis,” Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Eliot, Yeats, Vachel Lindsay, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Less Masters.
I read many of these same poets in college, in greater depth and breadth of their works. The poems that stick out include “Beowulf,” Malory’s “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” and Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (the emphasis on the English poets reflects my English literature courses).
What reading and studying poetry had the effect of accomplishing was helping me make sense of the world. For me, poetry and fiction did this in a way that non-fiction could not. This is likely why the reading of poetry and fiction (and now the writing of both) has remained an important part of my life.
In Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, Karen Swallow Prior notes this ability of poetry: “I had come to see that poetry was not a means of escape, but rather an art of reconciliation. For poetry is made in the discovery of resemblances. It seeks likeness, even amidst the strangeness of differences.”
This resonates strongly with me. What she calls “reconciliation” is what I call “making sense,” and they are the same thing. Literature affords the opportunity to understand how others understand the world and express truth, and to find the likeness for ourselves.
|Gerard Manley Hopkins|
Prior cites the example of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), the English poet who wasn’t known as a poet until after his death. During his lifetime, he was known as a Jesuit priest. He was also a man who struggled with his own demons, and he had actually burned all of the early poetry he had written and turned away from it. It was the Church, in this case, the Catholic Church, that convinced him to return to it.
His poetry had been out of fashion for a time, but it’s been making something of a comeback. Prior discusses his poem “Pied Beauty” and it’s a fine poem. My own favorite is “Myself Unholy:”
Myself unholy, from myself unholy
To the sweet living of my friends I look –
Eye-greeting doves bright-counter to the rook,
Fresh brooks to salt sand-teasing waters shoaly: --
And they are purer, but alas! not solely
The unquestion’d readings of a blotless book.
And so my trust, confused, struck, and shook
Yields to the sultry siege of melancholy.
He has a sin of mine, he its near brother;
Knowing them well I can but see the fall.
This fault in one I found, that in another:
And so, though each have one while I have all,
No better serves me now, save best; no other
Save Christ: to Christ I look, on Christ I call.
He’s speaking about reconciliation, about making sense of the world, and what he sees as his compass. That compass is how he finds direction.
We all have a compass, some kind of direction-finder that we use to seek understanding and reconciliation. The compass Hopkins used is also mine, which is likely why I’m drawn to his poetry again and again.
Over at The High Calling, Laura Boggess is leading a discussion of Booked each Monday in January. To see what others are saying, please visit The HighCalling.