Posted by: Harold Knight | 04/04/2010

Easter; Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ; Irony; and Disbelief.

Recently I read the poem “The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins at the gathering of friends and family after the funeral of a remarkable woman, one of those people who left a trail of excitement, pleasure, love, and—yes—zaniness wherever she went, a friend with whom I shared a connection of reality as with very few other persons. Anne asked that I read the poem.

The world without Anne is hard to imagine.

Anne taught me to love (if hardly ever to understand) poetry. She brought me along well past Whitman, whose work my high school English teachers had taught me to dread because they never, of course, included the ravishing sexual imagery (and flat-out description) in any of his poems. The poems we read were carefully chosen to avoid that language. Anne helped me find it and love it.

A windhover is a bird (the kestrel), a large bird that has an ability to glide (to “hover”) on the wind and to soar in a dramatic way few other birds can. “The Windhover” is a poem of soaring, of flying without effort into the sun. Anne has soared without effort (finally, after putting all of her effort into battling leukemia for a year) into the sun.

I would rejoice at being able to write one paragraph without irony. No offence to Wayne C. Booth, but irony is not the only stuff of fiction (or of non-fiction, for that matter).

Last night I participated in the Great Vigil of Easter at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas. Yes, the Deacon sang the Exultet. The building that houses that congregation is huge. A perfect shoebox shaped hall with dramatic acoustics, an organ that does justice to any and every style of organ music (the organist played the Finale from the First Organ Symphony by Louis Vierne at the end of the service after an evening of exquisite Gregorian Chant, mostly German hymnody, and Renaissance English motets).

The music, not the theology or the religion is what drew me there.

Pure fasted faces draw unto this feast:
God comes in all sweetness to your Lenten lips

Hopkins means, of course, that the faithful have kept the Lenten fast and that God comes in all sweetness, in the bread and wine of communion, to the lips of those whose fast has been pure. This is not ironic. For anyone who observes a Lenten discipline (Hopkins, by the time he wrote this poem in 1867, had converted to Roman Catholicism and would, the following year, begin the process of becoming a Jesuit monk), the first communion of Easter, surrounded by all of the glorious trappings of the new season, is as “sweet” an experience as one can have.

For many years I experienced that, but, I think, always as an esthetic  exercise, not as a “religious” observance. I’m not, as my recent writing has tried to demonstrate, a “religious” person. Except in whatever way a person who is uncertain (becoming more uncertain daily) of the existence of God can be. The music, the drama, the ceremony is all. A truth rests in those ancient traditions (traditions, I believe, that have shaped Western civilization both at its core and at is periphery) that transcends both art and religion.

The world without Anne (and my late partner, and my late ex-wife, and my mother, and the one hundred men I knew who died of AIDS in the ‘80s, and. . . .) is hard to imagine, as is the world without the Easter Vigil. Hard. I do not mean “difficult.” I mean “distressing,” or “onerous.”

Hopkins wrote without irony. He wrote intensely, he wrote densely, he wrote without wasting a word—no, with such sparseness that most of us cannot easily understand his poetry. But without irony.

You striped in secret with breath-taking whips,
Those crooked rough-scored chequers may be pieced
To crosses meant for Jesus’. . . .

The words mean exactly what they say: You faithful who in secret have whipped yourselves (literally or figuratively?) so that your mind, or you spirit, or you body are checkered with stripes meant to be attached to the cross of Jesus.

I don’t quite know how to explain how those words are not ironic. The faithful are not playing at being penitent: they actually are. And now, you wearing the unraveled cloak of penitence (“rend your hearts, not your garments”), “breathe Easter.”  God will give back more “sweetness” and “strength” than your penitence took from you. No irony. A statement of faith.

Perhaps it is impossible for a depressive to understand how to live or how to believe without irony. Perhaps I am too fickle, too willful, too addicted to my depression, too enamored of the “post-post-post-modern” situation in which I find myself (there, Lyotard, put that in you smoke and pipe it). But I don’t get it.

And in the irony of disbelief, of skepticism, of apostasy, I wish everyone I know—and anyone who might stumble upon this confession of dubiety—an Easter of the joy for which you hope.

[1] Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Easter Comminion.” The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Norman H. MacKenzie. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.
[2] ibid.

Easter Communion, (Gerard Manley Hopkins )

Pure fasted faces draw unto this feast:
God comes all sweetness to your Lenten lips.
You striped in secret with breath-taking whips,
Those crooked rough-scored chequers may be pieced
To crosses meant for Jesu’s; you whom the East
With draught of thin and pursuant cold so nips
Breathe Easter now; you serged fellowships,
You vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,

God shall o’er-brim the measures you have spent
With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze
And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment
Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease.
Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent:
Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.


  1. and thank you. I wish the same for you.



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