Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Sailor & The Nun

In stanza 16, “One stirred”, a brave, generous-hearted sailor tries to save the women, is blown and thrown off the ship, and is swung by a rope in the storm. The horror of the remaining passengers “could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro.” Perhaps a type of Christ, not that he saved them (because he didn’t) but that he sacrifices himself trying to.

The rhetoric of stanza 17 reminds me of “A voice cries out in Rama—Rachel weeping for her children—and she could not be consoled—because they were not.” That’s the effect, in sound and meaning, of fighting with God’s cold, “and they could not and fell to the deck”, and “crushed them” and “drowned them” and “the crying of child without check”.

All this till a brave Tall Nun, a Franciscan, daughter of St Clare, rises up in the darkness of the night, out of this cinematic storm!

“Till a lioness arose breasting the babble/A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told.”

One can almost hear music at this moment: we are not at first aware that the heroine now is the Nun. I suppose we are presumed to know the story already: but nowadays no one does except readers of Hopkins’ poem. It’s like those moments in Titanic when well-known incidents are suggested (the husband & wife drowning, willingly, in bed together, for example). But either way, we’ll know she’s a Nun soon enough. More than enough for now, we see “a lioness” . . .”a prophetess” . . .a tower . . .and “a virginal tongue told”.

Thus suggested too are the Virgin Mary, Judith, Esther, Deborah. In fact, is it not amazing that the figure of Woman in the biblical tradition is not ever a priestess but rather a Judge, a Warrior, a Prophetess, as a figure of the People of Israel?!? In fact, the whole Litany of the Virgin Mary, with its Tower and City and Queen, is in praise of this heroic Woman.

And up she rises, this Tall Nun, this Tower, this Lioness . . .and now, time will stop for several stanzas as we meditate on this Woman.

One stirred from the rigging to save
The wild woman-kind below,
With a rope’s end round the man, handy and brave—
He was pitched to his death at a blow,
For all his dreadnought breast and braids of thew:
They could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro
Through the cobbled foam-fleece, what could he do
With the burl of the fountains of air, buck and the flood of the wave?

They fought with God’s cold—
And they could not and fell to the deck
(Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled
With the sea-romp over the wreck.
Night roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble,
The woman’s wailing, the crying of child without check—
Till a lioness arose breasting the babble,
A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told.

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