Thursday, September 19, 2013

Gash Gold Vermillion

I caught this morning morning’s minion Kingdom 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 swings smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, -- the achieve of, O 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: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold vermillion.

GM Hopkins, The Windhover: To Christ the Lord

Reflection – OK, so now I get to do something completely different. It’s my blog, after all, and sometimes I really just want to talk about poetry or literature or something nice. The blog is named from a Hopkins poem, so once in a while it’s good to have something by the man.

This sonnet is classic Hopkins, beautiful in expression and obscure in meaning. But it’s quite a meaning he’s got going on there, and worth digging for. Of course the great thing with Hopkins is that the language itself is so lovely that while hunting for what he’s trying to say one can enjoy the mere flow of the words: ‘gash gold vermillion… rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing… brute beauty and valour and act…’ and so forth. So many fine turns of rhythmic phrase and striking imagery.

But the literal minded among us will object: whassit about? Whassit mean? Or perhaps the literal minded don’t slur their words quite so much. What is he trying to say? Well, it’s at least a venial sin to ‘explain’ a poem, the meaning of which is supposed to emerge for the reader from the reading of it, but let me give me some pointers here.

The poem is about a bird, but dedicated ‘To Christ the Lord.’ That’s a clue. The bird is soaring in the morning sky, riding the wind, with great swoops and stridings and ecstasy. Hopkins, being a sensitive English poet guy, is enraptured at the sight.

But then comes this key word, the bird is swooping and soaring and riding the air, and then all his pride, plume here… buckle. Apparently this particular bird has a behavior of suddenly plummeting down from its height in free fall, rocketing down towards the earth, letting gravity have its way with him. And this, Hopkins says, is the loveliest of all, the most magnificent.

And so we have the final imagery of the clods of earth becoming luminous as they are trodden down and the embers of the fire, ‘blue bleak’ revealing their gold vermillion hearts only when they fall and gall themselves and are gashed.

To Christ the Lord… we just had the feast of the Triumph of the Cross last Saturday. ‘Why is the Cross the glory of God?’ someone asked at our lunch-time spiritual reading. The priest doing the reading chose not to answer that question directly, wisely knowing that words can only go so far here and the Spirit has to reveal this mystery to us all in His own way.

But this poem is really about the Triumph of the Cross and the manifestation of God’s glory. Jesus ‘fell’, or rather, Jesus plunged down from his glorious heights, his divine riding of the winds of heaven, the masterful striding and gliding of the Eternal Godhead in the heavenly realm (I understand precisely nothing of the words I just typed).

But we know He plunged, He plummeted, He descended. And in that descending, was gashed, was galled, was broken open. And this is the most glorious manifestation of God yet given to us. The windhover who rides the waves of the air and then plunges down to earth becomes a symbol of the Son of God who descends to the depths of the earth, the Living One who descends to death, the Mighty One who embraces suffering and helplessness.

And this is the great revelation of God’s glory. Glory is not best seen in power, in mastery, in dominance, but in suffering love. Beauty is not smooth perfection and a glossy, imperturbable sheen, but a man nailed to two pieces of wood, a man gasping and bleeding out his life because He loves us. The fire that breaks from Christ is one strong enough to set the whole world alight. It can even set me alight, if I want it to. So, does ‘my heart in hiding’ stir for this man, respond to that fire, desire that beauty and that kind of glory? It seems to me that this is the key question of faith.


  1. Well. I like your poem and everything.... But did you read America this morning? Incredible interview with Pope Francis.... Bless him.

    1. I'll look it up. I am tempted to just keep blogging about Pope Francis - he is so eminently quotable and lovely. But I do want to keep mixing it up around here... we'll see.

  2. I had to re-read it after your blog. The first time I thought it the precursor to the Incarnation.


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