By Jake Willard-Crist
Spring is here. Certainly here in Ohio where I write. The forsythia’s twiggy blaze in the backyard and the daffodils poking up around the shed: it’s the bright scattering of yellow that makes me think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s description of spring as the time when thrush eggs make ‘little low heavens.’ I also think of the vernal metaphor for the starry sky he places at the conclusion of “The Starlight Night”:
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
Sallows are pussy willows, and Hopkins wants us to see constellations swaying with a bright powder of blossoms like cornmeal. And—one of my favorite moments in the poetry of Hopkins—the following two lines use rural puns to encase the divine presence. We are asked to identify the spread of stars as the walls of ‘the barn’, an image of the tabernacle. Behind the wall, inside, are stored the shocks—sheaves—of corn; within the tabernacle, the electrifying presence of God. In a second pun the stars are ‘piece-bright paling’, a paint-chipped fence enclosing Christ, Mary, and the saints. I love how the other sense of ‘paling’ chimes with ‘piece-bright’: both qualities of a dimmer radiance containing what is too shocking and bright for human senses.
And now the poet has leapt the paling to stand among the fixed stars. And like Hopkins throwing the barnyard into the heavens to help the reader’s eyes adjust to his enthralling vision, the poet introduces the eighth sphere with an extended natural metaphor. Beatrice is compared to a bird, which has shielded her young throughout the long night and now waits patiently on the branch for the light of dawn and the moment she can leave the nest to look for food. Perhaps this is one of the most startling aspects of The Paradiso: the conveyance of the world below, of bird and branch and dawn, the transport of mortal memory, into the luminous heights. The poet must use language, planked with memory, as a paling, piece-bright at its best, to house the shocks and hallows.
When the poet has seen—or rather been blinded by—the Radiant Substance, the vision of the triumphant Christ, his poetry again steers toward natural imagery. But it’s reflexive. The poet cannot describe what he sees, only what it does to him. His mind is likened to a thunderhead swelling with so much condensed light that it bursts and erupts bolts of lightning into the ether. And then, when he is conditioned by the radiant blast of Christ to see Beatrice’s smile for the first time, he cannot find the words to describe it. Only the poet’s inadequacy stirs up the metaphorical imagination, invoking Polyhymnia and the Muses, and those wonderful images of a traveler leaping a crevice, Atlas shouldering his burden, and the ardent prow of verse plowing the rough seas of the beatific. These waters are not for frail rafts but a craft that can leap when it wants to. It’s the old poetic coping: When words fail, word the failure.
After vaulting the ineffable the poet returns to his paling art, comparing, with the ‘feeble lids’ of memory and imagination, the array of hallows—saints or apostles—as a field of flowers struck by a cloud-breaking ray of sunlight. Again the perishable world is bootlegged into the imperishable. Even crowns and sapphires, though they glow ethereally, are earthly contraband, stashed under the poet’s robe to give him a hand with the brilliance of Mary and Gabriel.
In a journal entry for July 5, 1872, Hopkins relates this epiphany:
“Stepped into a barn of ours, a great shadowy barn, where the hay had been stacked on either side, and looking at the great rudely arched timberframe—principals (?) and tie-beams, which make them look like bold big A’s with the cross-bar high up—I thought how sadly beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people and yet how near at hand it was if they had eyes to see it and it could be called out everywhere again…”
While Hopkins sees dark alphas in the hayloft, the poet in paradise sees the hayloft in the Alpha. To me, the beauty of the Commedia, the perception of which is heightened as one ascends into the empyrean, is the poet’s method of reverse inscape. He doesn’t show heaven on earth, but earth in heaven, even if inadvertently. He’s not interested in writing about little low heavens or God’s grandeur deep down things. Brazenly situating himself in heaven, he finds the barn in the tabernacle and flowers in the firmament. Does he know that he’s smuggled a nest in with the angels?