Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Harry Ploughman”

languagepoetry

Hard as hurdle arms, with a broth of goldfish flue
Breathed round; the rack of ribs; the scooped flank; lank
Rope-over thigh; knee-nave; and barrelled shank –
Head and foot, shoulder and shank –
By a grey eye’s heed steered well, one crew, fall to;
Stand at stress. Each limb’s barrowy brawn, his threw
That onewhere curdled, onewhere sucked or sank –
Soared or sank -,
Though as a beechbole firm, finds his, as at a rollcall, rank
And features, in flesh, what deed he each must do –
His sinew-service where do.
He leans to it, Harry bends, look. Back, elbow, and liquid waist
In him, all quail to the wallowing o’ the plough. ‘S cheek crimsons; curls
Wag or crossbridle, in a wind lifted, windlaced –
Wind-lilylocks-laced;
Churlsgrace too, child of Amansstrength, how it hangs or hurls
Them – broad in bluff hide his frowning feet lashed! raced
With, along them, cragiron under and cold furls –
With-a-fountain’s shining-shot furls.

– – –

Wow. What an incredible poem. I recently picked up a book of Hopkins’ complete poetry. There isn’t much of it, owing to an incident early in his life where he tossed a great volume of his work into a fireplace. What we’re left with is a strange collection of poetry, a haphazard mix of poetry fragments, translations, long poems in Latin (untranslated, thank-you-very-much Oxford Press! We can’t all read Latin, you guys.), prayers and hymns, ballads in the traditional English style, and verses like “Harry Ploughman,” featuring the meter and language Hopkins is most famous for. Hopkins is the original language poet, a great experimenter long before his time. It’s hard to say what this poem is about, not that poems need to be about anything. The poem is a representation of Ploughman (an everyman-type character) in verse, not so much a story about him, but rather a portrait of him in rough consonants and earthy vowels. This poem gives (or attempts to give) an understanding of the character entirely in the abstract, contained in strings of nearly nonsensical words (“onewhere”?) and half-images. At the risk of sounding too enigmatic, it’s precisely the tongue-twisting nature of this poem that contains its meaning. Like I said, though, the poem doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s simply damn fun to read and play with.

More on G.M. Hopkins here.

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