Maybe our touchstone now should be G. M. Hopkins, who made up his “own” set of formal constraints and then blew everyone’s footwear off from inside them.
— David Foster Wallace,
in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer 1993
I named this website Windhovering after the poem by the nineteenth century Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The poem (reproduced at the bottom of this page), as well as Hopkins’ life and artistic ambitions, capture the essence of what I hope to do with my writing.
The poem is dedicated “To Christ our Lord,” and initially exults in the graceful (and grace-full) flight of a windhover, a type of falcon known as a kestrel capable of hovering in mid-air. The windhover is servant (“minion”) of the morning, prince (“dauphin”) of the daylight, and master of the air: riding, reining, and rebuffing the wind as it hovers, and then dives.
The windhover, in all the beauty and power of its flight, is a symbol of Christ, and its action upon the air an image of Christ’s passion and resurrection: when the flight of the falcon “buckles” — when its “brute beauty and valour” and “pride” are released in order to dive toward the earth — then its true power breaks forth, “a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous.”
And yet this is “no wonder,” Hopkins asserts, because the “buckling” of Christ that reveals his glory is evident everywhere: in the plodding plow that breaks the earth in order to bring forth something green and alive, and even in the falling ember that, galled and gashed (like Christ on the cross) shines “gold-vermillion.” It is an eminently Catholic poem, spying the glory of Christ hidden (or incarnate) in the material world. As Saint Athanasius says, “The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension. . . . All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.”
The poem, which Hopkins considered his best work, is a densely coiled masterpiece, with its sprung rhythm, mysterious ambiguities, layers of meaning, and a horizon that opens onto infinity. This short sketch really doesn’t do it justice; to get a fuller sense of the poem, you can read commentators more eloquent then me, including this excellent analysis from Sparknotes, this article from the Guardian newspaper, this personal reflection at the Poetry Foundation website, and this line-by-line interlinear translation. The varying interpretations offered by these commentators is further evidence of the poem’s powerful complexity.
Hopkins practiced a kenosis (a Christological self-emptying for the sake of the good) in his life and career as a poet that echoes his masterpiece. Too many modern commentators regard his faith condescendingly (“look at what this Victorian poet was able to achieve despite his antique beliefs!”) or dismiss it entirely. Again and again, Hopkins chose to order his life to his spiritual strivings, often at great personal sacrifice. He converted to Roman Catholicism, alienating his Anglican friends and family; his decision to pursue the ascetic life of a Jesuit could only have compounded the offense. He repeatedly subverted his own desires to his vows, burning poems he considered too self-centered and not pursuing publication of the others (although he consented to posthumous publication). Most significantly for many modern critics (particularly those who regard self-fulfillment as an ultimate good), Hopkins steadfastly reined in his romantic and erotic impulses — not because romantic love is bad in itself, but because rebuffing his sexual desire allowed him to achieve a greater good…much like the windhover of his poem.
So, what does all this have to do with my own purpose and ambition?
For starters, The Windhover is a breathtaking piece of work. I first encountered the poem when I was seventeen and taking an English literature course. Even though I had no idea of the depth or meaning of the poem, the sheer beauty of the language enthralled me — not just the marvelous sprung rhythm, but the densely packed alliteration and internal rhyme, and the clever refusal of plain syntax. I will never write anything as beautiful as that, but every traveler ought to have a guiding star, and The Windhover is one of mine.
And then there is the question of Art. The epigraph above (“Maybe our touchstone now should be G. M. Hopkins…”) is taken from an interview with David Foster Wallace, the writer best known for his 1996 novel, Infinite Jest. I have to confess to reading Wallace backwards; I’ve barely dented Infinite Jest, but I’ve been steadily consuming his interviews and essays for his spot-on diagnosis of the ills of postmodern culture, and fiction in particular.
Wallace’s critique of modern fiction is a bit beyond me — this is a guy who was universally hailed as a literary genius for his 1,100-page novel, after all. Fortunately, I have Timothy Jacobs to thank for bailing me out with his 2001 article in Comparative Literature Studies, “American Touchstone: The Idea of Order in Gerard Manley Hopkins and David Foster Wallace.” In the discussion below, I’m drawing primarily on that article and the interview in the Review of Contemporary Fiction cited above.
For Wallace, the culture of irony bequeathed to us by the postmodernists has devolved into a purposeless fad — irony for irony’s sake — the central project of which is to deconstruct others’ attempts to convey beauty, meaning, or truth. Irony may serve a useful purpose, according to Wallace, by revealing and debunking the hypocrisy of prevailing orthodoxies. But having toppled towers and uprooted the old order, the postmodern ironists fail to provide a new order to fill the void. Wallace accuses them of being less concerned with achieving a transcendent transaction with the reader than with self-conscious exhibitionism. Like the class clown, much of postmodern fiction aims to call attention to its own cleverness (a condition Wallace diagnoses as “cleveritis”).
While the class clown may be entertaining, he ultimately has nothing to offer beyond a ruleless solipsism. (Confession: I had to look up “solipsism.” It refers to the philosophical idea that only the self exists; also, extreme egocentrism.) Rules are external to the artist, implying that art is not self-sufficient, but obtains meaning and value only in relation to the reality from which the rules derive. Rules imply that there is a whole world out there beyond the artifact, and that has a way of displacing the artist from center stage.
Experimental, rule-breaking art has its place, Wallace says, but he warns that completely ditching the rules runs the risk of producing art that is dead because it terminates in itself; it exists for its own sake, or worse, for the sake of the preening artist — not for the sake of the other.
Are you catching echoes of Hopkins here? Wallace proposes Hopkins as a touchstone because Hopkins creatively upended the rules and conventions of Victorian poetry, but he did so within a new set of rules — and that is precisely the source of his poetry’s vitality. Hopkins provides us with a new framework, a new window through which to access beauty, meaning, and truth. He breaks the rules not to show that he can, but for a greater purpose. As Wallace puts it:
We’ve seen that you can break any or all of the rules without getting laughed out of town, but we’ve also seen the toxicity that anarchy for its own sake can yield. It’s often useful to dispense with standard formulas, of course, but it’s just as often valuable and brave to see what can be done within a set of rules–which is why formal poetry’s so much more interesting to me than free verse. Maybe our touchstone now should be G. M. Hopkins, who made up his “own” set of formal constraints and then blew everyone’s footwear off from inside them. There’s something about free play within an ordered and disciplined structure that resonates for readers. And there’s something about complete caprice and flux that’s deadening.
Wallace is no doubt thinking primarily of the rules of poetic form that Hopkins invented for his poetry, but I would suggest that Hopkins’ vision was also enlivened by the “formal constraints” imposed by his devotion to Christ.
There is no quicker way to silence a book club discussion, or any discussion among intellectuals, than to raise the topic of religious belief in a credulous way, much less the name of Christ. People get glassy-eyed, afraid that you’re going to go all Fundy on them. The Christ they have in mind is intellectually constraining and creatively deadening, at best, and at worst, oppressive in an Inquisition/clerical-sex-abuse-scandal/colonial-hi-I’m-here-to-enlighten-you-while-exploiting-you kind of way.
The Christ I have in mind here is not the Christ of the Christian fundamentalist (whether liberal or conservative) who mistakes his own encounter with Jesus as the last word on the Word, and therefore tends to make Christ in his own narrow, myopic image. Nor, for that matter, is he the paper-tiger, grade-school-catechism Christ of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and their progeny. Rather, the Christ I propose as a creative source for what Wallace calls “real art” is the Christ of Milton and Dante and Hildegard and Pope and Joyce; of Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky and Chesterton and Greene and Lewis and Tolkien and Newman and Percy. He is the Christ of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the One clothed and disclosed in the order that emerges from the free play of the universe; he is the Christ of Flannery O’Connor, the One who rushes into the gap opened by sudden violence; he is the Christ of Annie Dillard, the One who awakens us from our slumber; he is the Christ of Kate DiCamillo, who enables us to see, really see, the world in all its wonder.
Skeptical? Listen to Wallace again, as he gropes toward a similar conclusion:
I’ve gotten convinced that there’s something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn’t have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent like Leyner’s or serious talent like Daitch’s. Talent’s just an instrument. … [B]ut it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved. I know this doesn’t sound hip at all. I don’t know. But it seems like one of the things really great fiction-writers do–from Carver to Chekhov to Flannery O’Connor, or like the Tolstoy of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” or the Pynchon of “Gravity’s Rainbow”–is “give” the reader something. The reader walks away from the real art heavier than she came into it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. … Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you really feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.
And so we come back to the themes of The Windhover, and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ life. We come back to kenotic self-abnegation: that generous giving up or dying to self for the sake of the other.
Maybe it sounds pretentious to hope for so much, or at least “unhip,” as Wallace puts it. Who hopes for the ecstasy of flight anymore? Better to keep our ambitions small and achievable. Flight is dangerous, after all. Better to stay earthbound than to risk the fall and the gash.
I’ll say it again: I am no Hopkins, or any of the other names I’ve dropped here. Still, I’d rather fail trying to follow their example than stay home watching television, and miss the show.
from Solitude Ridge
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
To Christ our Lord
I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, — the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.