It’s not what it looks like

gods grandeur.JPG
The Shook Foil of the World’s Grandeur,  Portugal 2014
Graham Ward’s book Unbelievable: why we believe and why we don’t has made me think,  for several days now, about the ways in which I can understand the word ‘belief’  and so I thought it might be worth looking the word up in my old favourite The Online Etymological Dictionary:

belief (n.) late 12c., bileave, replacing Old English geleafa “belief, faith,” from West Germanic *ga-laubon “to hold dear, esteem, trust” (source also of Old Saxon gilobo, Middle Dutch gelove, Old High German giloubo, German Glaube), from *galaub- “dear, esteemed,” from intensive prefix *ga- + *leubh- “to care, desire, like, love” (see love (v.)). The prefix was altered on analogy of the verb believe. The distinction of the final consonant from that of believe developed 15c.

The be-, which is not a natural prefix of nouns, was prefixed on the analogy of the vb. (where it is naturally an intensive) …. [OED]

Belief used to mean “trust in God,” while faith meant “loyalty to a person based on promise or duty” (a sense preserved in keep one’s faith, in good (or bad) faith and in common usage of faithful, faithless, which contain no notion of divinity). But faith, as cognate of Latin fides, took on the religious sense beginning in 14c. translations, and belief had by 16c. become limited to “mental acceptance of something as true,” from the religious use in the sense of “things held to be true as a matter of religious doctrine” (a sense attested from early 13c.).

I was particularly surprised by  the connection to love and trust. Can I accept this: that what I believe is what I trust to be true ? But also esteem seems a vital element – what I hold in high regard, what I believe to be of value. Perhaps what I believe is what I trust or value to be true, to be  valuable.

Feel as if there are two types of worlds – one material, the other mental. The material world is vast and huge but I believe limited ( I mean limited on this planet, not talking about the entire universe here). The mental world, the world we can think seems, though I’ve no proof, feels unlimited. The two worlds, modes, interlock  (or sometimes, jarringly, don’t). World of  roads, rocks, work, journey, food and water. World of belief, outlook, understanding. World of  the physical planet and my physical presence on it. World of my emotions, feelings, interpretations. The warp and weft of  being in both worlds locks the two together, the strands  of each becoming the fabric of  my experience, my existence. Literature is a transitional object.

These rough thoughts have been linked to some others about poetry. While reading Intimations of Immortality this last week, and  trying to re-think what  such a poem is, I’ve been thinking there are different types of poem:  (don’t know why, or if, this matters) poem that is mainly  story   – The Lady of Shallot, The Canterbury Tales  – though of course many of these are also thoughts.  A poem that is mainly thought or feeling experience – I’d count  Intimations as  one of these, and Four Quartets. There are also lyrics, poems  that are more like songs: My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose and those may also have thought in them but will put a lot of energy, and meaning,  into rhythm and form. I’ve been thinking too about what makes a poem different to a story,   even when the poem is a story, and I think it is to do with thought or feeling or belief and the way the poem asks its reader to follow, mentally, and perhaps physiologically, its thought patterns.  A story feels a lot  further off. But when I am reading a poem – but that’s dead language.  That doesn’t describe the experience.  It’s not like that. The  experience is one of immersion, of flow (see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi much-watched Ted talk here). Once you go in and immerse – it is no longer ‘reading literature’ but experiencing the movements,  the shape, the liveness  of someone else’s mind.

Because I’ve spent a lot of time out-of-doors this week, this poem has been in my mind. Don’t be put off by ‘God’ ! if you don’t like the word, or don’t understand it, just cross it out and replace with an ‘x’. The rest of the poem’s language will  fill in the blank.

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I have read Hopkins’ poetry since I first encountered it at ‘A’ level when I was a half-hearted student at Liverpool City College in the late 1970s.  I had little belief in myself as a student, and none in the world’s offer to me, so education, though it held a vague sort of theoretical promise, also felt unlikely to yield much for me. Aged  22, 23, 24 I dabbled in it.  Time and money on drink and drugs and weyhey! might be a better bet? But when, through the A level syllabus, I met The Wreck of The Deutschland, I knew I had  bumped into something powerful that  I wanted to  comprehend. I wanted to make what Hopkins had part of me. I would learn it! In fact I learned the whole poem off by heart. How very odd, to be  so much moved by something which apparently had no relation to me – I did not  share any of Hopkins’ ‘beliefs’. Or did I?

But back to the poem.  First, the verb ‘charged’ : it’s about energy, pulsing, ready to burn. But it is also ‘charged’ as in ‘charged with’ = has the task of, perhaps even more strongly than that, carries the burden of…yes, the world cannot do other than pulse with this fullness of energy.  That is its load. ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.’ I leave  the second half of that line for now, because  though I like the word ‘grandeur’, I don’t know about ‘God’.  I pass over it. The world is charged with something.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

Ah yes, this is why I love Hopkins, always the surprise, the ‘think harder’, the ‘picture it’.  what does the pronoun ‘it’ refer to? The  grandeur? the charge? God? the world? all of the above? And then ‘ like shining from shook foil’ !!! Go on, see it!  a live active verb, ‘shining’, but it is  becoming a noun even as we see it happen, and a second verb, ‘shook’. the functional shift of ‘shining’ has  sent my brain activity soaring! Feel the world is crackling with live energy. I am excited! He keeps the pressure up, with his gathering ‘to a greatness’, and I’m rolling with it, until I get to the oil. What?  I have to go back and read all the first four lines together;

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

I feel the oil – though charged with the same iridescence as the foil, and rhyming with it – slows things down, maybe it is the ‘ooze’ doing the slowing. But I find it hard to  make an image here. Maybe I see one drop of oil,  shimmering, in psychedelic close-up, but I can see beyond the line ending and know ‘crushed’ is coming. And the full stop. Something’s going wrong!

And surely for Hopkins, it is; ‘Why do men then now not reck his rod?’ (= Why don’t people these days take notice of  god’s power? there’s an edge, too, of fear, I think , in ‘rod’  it’s a weapon, a club, a beating stick, and it is also probably  ‘rood’ = old english ‘cross’ Why don’t people now take notice of God’s suffering for us?). Well,  I am one of them, but as I read, I don’t count myself so, because I have partly become Hopkins, but also partly because I stand off from the criticism and feel  I do ‘reck’ some of the ‘rod’ because I do believe in everything in this poem up to the word ‘oil’. There I stop.

‘Crushed’  – a bit like ‘god’ at the beginning, I ignore. Don’t want to feel I am crushing, spoiling, breaking up that shook out grandeur of the opening lines.

Ah, time’s up. More tomorrow. That was  like a very refreshing swim. I climb dripping out of the water and back into air.  Breakfast!



2 thoughts on “It’s not what it looks like

  1. Ruth April 14, 2017 / 11:50 pm

    I find Hopkins’ poetry feels so very Welsh, I hear it in my head in Richard Burton’s voice. It’s the rhythm and inflections. In welsh it’s called ‘cynghanedd’.

    • drjanedavis April 15, 2017 / 1:43 pm

      That’s made made me think about the ‘voice’ I hear it in – think it is only my own! I know he lived in Wales for a few years but don’t know if he learned to speak any Welsh… agree there is fine rhythm in all his work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s