Friday, February 3, 2017

The Strangeness of English Romantic Naturalism

To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers...

There is great merit in quality over quantity; in literature no less than elsewhere. Returning to a good book will make us better than moving always onward to the next forgettable screed. Still, literary reserve is a two-edged sword. To go deeper in exploring our pool is a fine thing, unless we do so at the cost of missing the ocean. To discover something hitherto entirely unknown is a joy no less than to plumb the depths of familiar waters. In practice, things are never so clear, for what seems like the endless ocean horizon may well be an illusion. Who knows what really awaits yonder? A cliff? A waterfall? A pit? A waste of time?

We cannot know until we take the first unsure steps into a new realm - and in a sense those of us grown old with experience tend to prefer to think we know what we are talking about and therefore stay in our tried and true lane. Setting foot into the novel, even if it is of classical yet hitherto unknown variety, risks that we make ourselves look like what we are: fools masked by mature lines and gray hair. All of this is my very twisted way of excusing the fact that despite all attempts at being well-read, I seem never to have read Hopkins until very recently.

The  context within which this Jesuit was found is itself worth a word: the poor English romantics and naturalists - the Blakes, Coleridges and Wordsworths - are condemned to eternal life in the elementary stages of modern human education. Well, not quite. Nowadays, when all is chaos, when common culture has been replaced by Common Core, when the humanist teacher has been replaced by the inhumane educational administrator, Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth and the like have largely been overshadowed by paragraph 2, subsection 8, sentence 4 and the pedagogical handbook. Perhaps then, I am not helping things by lamenting the banality of these English poets who are largely unread by mature adults and fit for - if anything - introducing young minds to poetic sensitivity.

Or perhaps I am just cynical - or not at all an Englishman - and therefore cannot take seriously this preoccupation with pastures, meadows, the minutia of country life undisturbed by the tides of History. Wordsworth's worries that the world is too much with us, late, soon, getting spending, that "Little we see in Nature that is ours"  - these are so very English worries because they are divorced from the tides of History. Likewise Wordsworth's hopes are English hopes - the typical melancholy quest for the respectfully authentic - even if Pagan - as opposed to the banal (whether material or Christian). The preference for a Christianity as understood by the Pagan initiate rather than the material mind - as if all that happened in between were a matter of engineering entering an otherwise placid country life.

Happy are the English, for this - in a very real sense - is their lot. Polish sensibilities cannot fathom this; though Poles often admire it because it is so very different from their own experience. Yet the Polish romantics are little better; for they embrace the experience of Poland as if it were England and as if England were forever still Catholic. Perhaps because I am likewise German (and the German soul lives in a dark forest where the lichtung sometimes allows a sliver of Being to shine forth) - my preference is for writers accused of morbidity, but who I like to think of as simply realistic. Though in the end they too are distant. All of this together, quite possibly, brought me full circle to rest a weary mind on the words of a Jesuit muse for whom seeming the stranger was his life's lot; his life among strangers - a life so close to my own?

Hopkins from time to time engages in the naive romantics worthy of the English classics, but he is rescued from it by what appears to be the Jesuit penchant for realism. The romantic love of the moment is tempered because "...where I say/Hours I mean years, mean life." Hopkins can sing of the joys of Spring with the best of them, not unlike Coleridge's Answer to a Child's QuestionBoth men relish the thrush whether "the echoing timber does so rinse and wring/The ear" or "say, 'I love and I love!' ". It is Hopkins, however, who notes with Jesuit realism that Spring is but "A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning/In Eden garden. - Have, get, before it cloy."

"It cloy."

To my ear this not only signifies the surface sense of the word (to surfeit or - as the economists might say - to reach the point of diminishing marginal returns - to sour), but also the Old English rings clearly - to maim, as though with a nail in a horse shoe - or into the wrists of the Christ, who is Spring incarnate. These reminders of the reality of our lot in life make Hopkins' romantic naturalism far more refined than that of his fellows, more refined because more realistic. More realistic because more cognizant of human sin, of Man's Fallen Nature. Despite this penchant for realism, Hopkins muses with the best of the English romantics:

what would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

 Yet such adoration of nature is all the more poignant coming from a poet who notes elsewhere:

...We, life's pride and cared-for crown,
Have lost that cheer and  charm of earth's past prime:
Our make and making break, are breaking, down
To man's last dust, drain fast towards man's first slime.

Pierre Tielhard de Chardin could not have put it better - for if by Hours we mean years, mean life; then we mean cosmic life, we mean History not merely as Hegel meant it - as moral history, but as the history of star dust coming of age, learning to think; of the cosmos itself becoming sentient as a brilliant reflection of God Himself. It is not naturalism or romanticism as such that I cannot abide; it is English romance. Give me a biology book or a telescope with which to set my sight upon the meadows of the Milky Way. Give me the complex reality of sinews, genetics and biochemistry - all mysteries far more sublime than the surface appreciation of nature in this moment - and there I see a symphony of the Divine. What need have we for a remote language of poetry that hides only the details of semantics, when we have the remote language of science which hides the details of truth?

Why then do we return time and time again to the English romantics? The English naturalists? The sterilizers and sanitizes of wilderness, for whom Christ on the Cross does not suffer, for whom the State of Nature is on first reflection a state of spontaneous cooperation and only later becomes a state of war quickly remedied by Leviathan. This all suggests the English are lucky. No wonder then, that Hopkins felt a Stranger. In this respect, I share something with him I suppose - though his Victorian sensibilities are, to me, stranger still. So much for my first taste of this poet. Now, let his words rest dormant in the recesses of the mind where, perhaps, they will blossom or taint thoughts long simmering or else evaporate forever into the far reaches of subconscious.

Note: Photograph John Constable (1776-1837), Landscape and double rainbow, 1812, oil on paper laid on canvas. Museum no. 328-1888, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London as presented on the Victoria & Albert Museum website.

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