The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared to the Air We Breathe – Gerard Manley Hopkins

vasnetsovvirgin1.jpg

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) was a Jesuit priest (a convert from Anglicanism) and perhaps the greatest modern (?) poet of the English Language (ok, he’s my favorite). My second daughter, Khouria Kathryn, made me aware of this poem. Hopkins is wonderfully sacramental in his poetry – God permeates his words and the world his words come from. Thank you Kathryn.

Wild air, world-mothering air,

Nestling me everywhere,

That each eyelash or hair

Girdles; goes home betwixt

The fleeciest, frailest-flixed

Snowflake; that ’s fairly mixed

With, riddles, and is rife

In every least thing’s life;

This needful, never spent,

And nursing element;

My more than meat and drink,

My meal at every wink;

This air, which, by life’s law,

My lung must draw and draw

Now but to breathe its praise,

Minds me in many ways

Of her who not only

Gave God’s infinity

Dwindled to infancy

Welcome in womb and breast,

Birth, milk, and all the rest

But mothers each new grace

That does now reach our race—

Mary Immaculate,

Merely a woman, yet

Whose presence, power is

Great as no goddess’s

Was deemèd, dreamèd; who

This one work has to do—

Let all God’s glory through,

God’s glory which would go

Through her and from her flow

Off, and no way but so.

I say that we are wound

With mercy round and round

As if with air: the same

Is Mary, more by name.

She, wild web, wondrous robe,

Mantles the guilty globe,

Since God has let dispense

Her prayers his providence:

Nay, more than almoner,

The sweet alms’ self is her

And men are meant to share

Her life as life does air.

If I have understood,

She holds high motherhood

Towards all our ghostly good

And plays in grace her part

About man’s beating heart,

Laying, like air’s fine flood,

The deathdance in his blood;

Yet no part but what will

Be Christ our Saviour still.

Of her flesh he took flesh:

He does take fresh and fresh,

Though much the mystery how,

Not flesh but spirit now

And makes, O marvellous!

New Nazareths in us,

Where she shall yet conceive

Him, morning, noon, and eve;

New Bethlems, and he born

There, evening, noon, and morn—

Bethlem or Nazareth,

Men here may draw like breath

More Christ and baffle death;

Who, born so, comes to be

New self and nobler me

In each one and each one

More makes, when all is done,

Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

Again, look overhead

How air is azurèd;

O how! nay do but stand

Where you can lift your hand

Skywards: rich, rich it laps

Round the four fingergaps.

Yet such a sapphire-shot,

Charged, steepèd sky will not

Stain light. Yea, mark you this:

It does no prejudice.

The glass-blue days are those

When every colour glows,

Each shape and shadow shows.

Blue be it: this blue heaven

The seven or seven times seven

Hued sunbeam will transmit

Perfect, not alter it.

Or if there does some soft,

On things aloof, aloft,

Bloom breathe, that one breath more

Earth is the fairer for.

Whereas did air not make

This bath of blue and slake

His fire, the sun would shake,

A blear and blinding ball

With blackness bound, and all

The thick stars round him roll

Flashing like flecks of coal,

Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,

In grimy vasty vault.

So God was god of old:

A mother came to mould

Those limbs like ours which are

What must make our daystar

Much dearer to mankind;

Whose glory bare would blind

Or less would win man’s mind.

Through her we may see him

Made sweeter, not made dim,

And her hand leaves his light

Sifted to suit our sight.

Be thou then, O thou dear

Mother, my atmosphere;

My happier world, wherein

To wend and meet no sin;

Above me, round me lie

Fronting my froward eye

With sweet and scarless sky;

Stir in my ears, speak there

Of God’s love, O live air,

Of patience, penance, prayer:

World-mothering air, air wild,

Wound with thee, in thee isled,

Fold home, fast fold thy child.

18 Responses to “The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared to the Air We Breathe – Gerard Manley Hopkins”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    The Icon is from the Apse at St. Vladimir’s Cathedral in Kiev. The artist was Vasnetsov.

  2. Mark Says:

    Beautiful.

    You know, it may be worth pursuing Hopkins’ notion of “inscape” and “instress” as corollaries to your one storey universe and the theology of blessing –

    http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hopkins/hopkins1.html

  3. Mimi Says:

    Father, bless,

    I’ve only read one or two poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins, but he is very good. Thank you!

  4. Damaris Says:

    Father Stephen — Hopkins is my favorite poet, too, and I’m thrilled to be introduced to an unfamiliar poem. What a gift poetry is. I come from a Protestant background and struggle with the role of Mary in our lives of faith. I have read and talked and argued and questioned — but I’ve understood more and better through one reading of this poem than through years of inquiry. Thank you for sharing it.

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    Damaris,

    Your experience reminds me of a friend who, still after her conversion to Orthodoxy, struggled with understanding the place of the Theotokos. Her priest (wiser than me) told her to go into the Church and just sit before her icon. She told me she did this and in about an hour her questions were resolved. I would have probably tried to talk her to the same place (always my first option). Frequently poems, icons, and other things can take us further and quicker than talk and well-reasoned theology. We certainly need theology, but there’s more than is dreamt of in our philosophy… as someone once said…

  6. Top English WP Blogs « Hành trang 8X Says:

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  7. Yvonne Says:

    Beautiful poem, but it seems to me to describe the role of the Holy Spirit as much as the Theotokos (though of course the Theotokos is a vessel, even a manifestation, of the Holy Spirit). In Judaism, the Holy Spirit is feminine – the Shekhinah (presence of God in Creation) or Ruach (breath of God). The Holy Spirit is the Comforter, and another of Hopkins’ poems refers to Her as a mother brooding on Creation (and so does the mystic, Julian of Norwich).

    I know that the Divine has no gender, but since we refer to part of the Godhead as the Father, wouldn’t it be helpful to view another part as the Mother?

    I am comforted by the hymn to the Theotokos from the Divine Liturgy, “More glorious than the Seraphim,” etc. But I struggle with the doctrine that she remained celibate after the birth of Christ.

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Yvonne,

    Hopkins writes here of Grace flowing through the Theotokos into the world (an idea more developed in Roman Catholic thought). Since we didn’t refer to part of the Godhead as Father (Christ revealed that to us) neither can we decide to add a gender name for balance sake. Orthodoxy is God’s revelation, not our plaything.

    The ever-virginity of Mary is utterly central to the entire doctrine of her as Theotokos. I can write more on it later.

  9. Yvonne Says:

    Er yes, sorry. I didn’t put that very well. If the Shekhinah and the Ruach are the same as the Holy Spirit, then the Comforter is feminine according to Jewish tradition, and since Jesus was speaking within Jewish tradition, it seems likely that he was referring to the Ruach when He spoke of the Holy Spirit. Also, apparently in the early Church, deaconesses were held to represent the Holy Spirit, whereas priests represented God the Father, which implies that the early Church believed the Holy Spirit to be feminine.

    I gather various early Church Fathers said that God has no gender – I assumed this also referred to God the Father? Did Jesus literally mean that the Father was male?

    Regarding Orthodoxy as God’s revelation – Bishop Kallistos says is a continuing and living revelation and not set in stone (though new revelation would need to be consistent with earlier revelation, I assume); and you said elsewhere that it was a struggle for consistency and coherence and unity. So how do we know that it is completely infallible? And how do we know that Jesus didn’t refer to the Holy Spirit as feminine?

    Thanks for your reply 🙂

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    That something is grammatically feminine is fairly inconsequential. There is not a significant strain within Orthodox thought that would make much of gender in any direction with regard to God. He is transcendant.

    Jesus does not mean that the Father is male, but he used Father as name, which is a very different matter. “Father” is how Christ named God.

    Orthodoxy is indeed a living revelation, but not in the sense that we learn something that contradicts what has already been given. We know infallibility as a matter of time and the Church’s acceptance of something. The 7 Councils have been an accepted part of revelation for many centuries now. They will not be changed. Many other matters may change slowly with time, but not in an essential way. The liturgy has had its changes, but nothing that effected it in an essential way. I think that a change such as who is ordained would be an essential change and is simply not going to happen. It’s not men versus women, most men are not ordained or eligible for ordination.

    Jesus doubtless used the grammar of his language – but we have no canonical teaching in which the gender of the Holy Spirit is of consequence. The heart of the Christian story is to be found in Pascha, not in gender. Even the meaning of marriage is to be found in Pascha.

    Look at my early articles on the Ecclesiology of the Cross. That series of postings largely lays out the Pascha shape of revelation.

  11. Yvonne Says:

    Sorry; coming from Paganism, I do get hung up on gender. I have to keep reminding myself that the Divine has no gender. But it’s difficult when gendered words of exclusively male gender are used to refer to the Divine. Thanks, I’ll look at those articles.

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    For what it’s worth…

    I wrote a fairly long and involved response to Yvonne earlier on paganism and gender, getting into some detail about the history of Judaeo-Christianity and its protections of women and children, etc. It used words that were not inappropriate, but probably more detailed than I would usually write. Interestingly, I clicked on the submit comment button and nothing happened. A half-hour later the comment showed up in my spam program – it obviously looks for anything that might be of a pruient nature. I rewrote my response and deleted the one that was blocked. Apparently the program is good enough to censor even the owner of the blog, and I appreciate it. Not that what I said was wrong, or across the line. But the program can only look for certain words. But it’s reassuring to me that there are programs within WordPress that ask me to think twice or perhaps to rewrite. Imagine, a world with boundaries!

  13. Kh.Kathryn Says:

    (Taking a moment to silently adore this poem………..)

    And also, a friend who knows how much I love Hopkins sent me this parody on his famous “Pied Beauty”……its called “Fried Beauty”

    Fried Beauty
    By R. S. Gwynn:

    Glory be to God for breaded things–
    Catfish, steak finger, pork chop, chicken thigh,
    Sliced green tomatoes, pots full to the brim
    With french fries, fritters, life-float onion rings,
    Hushpuppies, okra golden to the eye,
    That in all oils, corn or canola, swim
    Toward mastication’s maw (O molared mouth!);
    Whatever browns, is dumped to drain and dry
    On paper towels’ sleek translucent scrim,
    These greasy bounties of my battered South:
    Eat them.

    Hehe. As always, love you.
    k

  14. Fatherstephen Says:

    My sweetest daughter Khouria Kathryn,

    Again thank you for Hopkin’s poem, and now for a parody that is “finger-lickin'” good. I trust that all your eating will be as good down in the Bayou, and that you’ll keep sending me such excellent fare.

    There is a little something coming to you in the mail. Tell me what you think when you get it. It also involves a little poetry.

  15. Yvonne Says:

    I like the parody almost as much as the original.

    Fr Stephen, one of the reasons I am becoming a Christian is the care of widows and orphans, the respect for the body, and so forth. Also the understanding that God transcends gender (an understanding which is absent from much of contemporary Paganism). I’m sorry WordPress binned your comment as spam, it sounds interesting.

    Just wanted to add that the word for “Father” in Aramaic appears to mean something more subtle and gender-transcending: “Abwûn” which can be translated as “Oh Thou, from whom the breath of life comes”. The Lord’s Prayer is also related to the Kaddish. I don’t know how accurate the source I got this information from is, but it certainly sheds some light if it’s true.

  16. Iulia Says:

    I love this poem and Pied Beauty and many other Hopkins’ poems most of all: “That Nature Is A Heraclitean Fire And Of The Comfort Of The Resurrection”.
    I have recently returned to the Orthodox faith. Hopkins and his poetry has been a great help to me especially with the Theotokos. In this I was greatly helped by my Catholic friend setting a large collection of Hopkins’ poems to contemporary folk music. For me the setting of his poetry to music has increased my understanding of their meaning as well as enabling me to remember Hopkins’ poems by heart.
    As St John Chrysostom wrote:
    “Nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wings, sets it free from earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom and to condemn the things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm.”

  17. hannah Says:

    Might you tell me the name of the artist who created the image of the Madonna and Jesus on this page?

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    It is by the Russian painter, Vasnetsov.

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