Today I went to an All Souls Day Requiem mass. In an interesting coincidence, that mass opens with the Latin hymn “Dies Irae,” and my “exemplary poem” for Junior Poet, “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” draws its title from the hymn’s opening stanza: “Dies iræ! dies illa / Solvet sæclum in favilla / Teste David cum Sibylla!” Thus, I will endeavor to give a reading of it now, while the coincidence is still interesting.
The poem itself, by Gerard Manley Hopkins (full text here), is a fascinating look at three of the four last things: death, judgement, and hell. One of Hopkin’s darkest poems, it does not speak about heaven; the reasons given for this vary, among them that it is a pre-Christian poem in content, that it stemmed from an Ignatian meditation on hell, and that logically it ends by rejecting poetry while it is meant to aesthetically, through the music of the words, redeem poetry.
In any case, whatever caused Hopkins to write the poem, its substance is him confronting the fact that all life boils down to a choice between good and evil. The octave presents the world disintegrating, the image being one of the sun setting, the stars rising, and, while in the heavens the stars are fixed, stable, below on earth, everything succumbs to entropy. Here we find such great lines as “womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night” and “her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ‘ her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height / Waste”; these descriptions blend the distinction between symbol and what is symbolized, and we feel that the nightfall is the Apocalypse.
In the sestet Hopkins turns inward, seeing that now that the world has ended, the dappled and pied beauty of things is irrelevant. It begins with the cryptic but evocative line “Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ‘ damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,” going on to explain the threat implied there as one of morality: now that the world has come to an end, the only distinction that matters is “black, white; ‘ right, wrong.” Aesthetics no longer matter, Hopkins fears; even as he strives to assent to it. In a sense the poem is about poetry, and whether it is worthwhile to write beautiful poetry about the beauty of the world; Hopkins concludes that it is not, unless that beauty serves a moral purpose.
But of course that is what all of Hopkins’ poems are about – his nature sonnets all begin with observing the natural world and move up to God. Some people think “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” is somehow atypical of Hopkins; on the contrary, it perhaps best encapsulates his concerns: nature, the self, sin, and God. It is written in the Baroque style of earlier poems like “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and “The Windhover,” which he returned to with e.g. “That Nature is a Heraclitan Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection” (these four poems I would say are Hopkins’ most important), but its darkness ties it in to his later sonnets of desolation, which are written in a more plain style.
What I’ve left out so far from my explanation of the poem are the last two lines – and indeed, those who want to place the poem as an extremity, not an example, of Hopkins’ poetry look to those two lines to make their argument. They’re difficult lines; they’re also what first turned me on to the poem, as I at first grew frustrated with Hopkins for not making any sense and then slowly realized the brilliance of them. They describe the damned souls after the Last Judgment, and their difficult rhythm – it is almost painful to put the stresses where they are marked, rather than where they would naturally fall – makes them sound like a drumbeat out of Hell. They’re not unmusical; it’s just a terrifying sort of music. Nor is it hopeless terror; the poem is a prophecy and a warning. “Teste David cum sibylla.”
So that’s my exemplary poem. With any luck, I’ve convinced you at least that the poem is worth looking at. It’s really amazing, in sound and sense (Hopkins is a master of combining form and content). I get to do a practice presentation of it tomorrow morning, then my panel’s Friday the 13th; I hope writing this out in the last half hour will actually help me with those (and the paper we have to write in a month) rather than prove a hindrance. We’ll see.