Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Habit of Perfection

We are pausing at the middle of The Wreck of the Deutschland to consider Hopkins’ vision of the response to the religious Call. And we have been taking a look at earlier poems on this theme—such as Heaven-haven and Halfway House.

And a third early poem comes to mind, while we contemplate the Tall Nun, and while we consider the mystery of The Wreck’s stanza 18—another hymn, perhaps, about a girl joining a convent or a young man joining the priesthood—“The Habit of Perfection.” It’s a gloss on St Augustine’s transfiguration of the senses in “Too late have I loved Thee, O Beauty ever ancient ever new, too late have I loved Thee.” In St Augustine’s beautiful paragraph, each of the five senses is given its full due—touching, hearing, seeing, tasting, even smelling—in full acceptance of the rich sensuous Beauty of the sensation, and then each of the five senses is drawn up towards the source of all Beauty, God. Hopkins’ gloss here is indeed full of the same old, new anarchy of images, of paradox, of contradiction, so fitting for a crux:

ELECTED Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

The “can” is the Tabernacle, by the way; the “crust” is the Blessed Sacrament, as in the much later poem, similarly a hymn to Beauty, “The Bugler’s First Communion”: “Forth Christ from cupboard fetched, how fain I of feet/To his youngster take his treat!” Back now to the poem, almost vulgarly to nose & toes:

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

Here I imagine Hopkins imagines himself a Priest who takes and puts the Blessed Sacrament into and out of the Tabernacle. And finally, total simplicity; abject simplicity—and here both Schubert’s Winterreise and Eliot’s Four Quartets can join in :

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

Re-read these three earlier poems—“Heaven-haven” and “The Half-way House” and “The Habit of Perfection”—as a study for the contemplation of The Deutschland’s contemplation of the Tall Nun and the mystery at the heart of its 18th stanza—and so much then becomes clear, indeed rich, indeed One and True and Good and Beautiful!


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