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On Words

26 June, 2015 - 15:23

But there are other kinds of enjoyment as well. There is, for example, the enjoyment of words. Because we are so surrounded by words, we take them for granted, but we must remember that words and our ability to use them, to manipulate them, differentiate us from all other animals. As Philip Sidney says, the writer's ability to use words makes the writer like God. After all, the biblical story of creation shows God creating by using only words: God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light. And the Go spel According to John begins, In the beginning was the Word. In Hebrew, the same word, davar, means both word and thing. Words are things, and through words we understand and recreate our world. So, too, though in a more systematic away, does the writer. But the writer also plays with words.

One pleasure that we seem to have lost in the modern world comes from the sound of words. Back in the fourth century, St. Augustine mentioned how odd his teacher Ambrose was because he read silently to himself, without even moving his lips. Obviously for Augustine, who was himself well-read, reading meant reading out loud; and even today when religious Jews study the Talmud, they do so by chanting it softly but out loud. Overall, however, we discourage the practice of reading out loud, and we even make fun of those who move their lips when they read. What a sad development. When writers write, they hear the music of their words, and we do them a great disservice when we fail to hear that music. Of course, we live in a world that is always in a hurry (what happened to all that extra time that computers were supposed to give us?) and reading out loud takes more time, but reading literature is not an activity that should be done quickly. We should savor it. We would not rush through a Beethoven symphony or a Duke Ellington song just for the sake of finishing it, nor would we fast forward through a movie and then claim that we had watched it. Nor should we speed our way through a work of literature, and when we read poetry we should by all means read it out loud. That is how poetry is meant to be read.

Again, let me use a specific example to illustrate my point. Take a few minutes and read the following poem out loud, slowly and with expression:

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 wen
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.

I have chosen this poem very deliberately and for a number of reasons. One reason is that it is simply so beautiful in so many ways. Another reason is that it is by one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins. And another reason is that Hopkins was a Roman Catholic priest in late-nineteenth-century England and consequently wrote from a time, a culture, and a religion that were completely different from my own. Given those basic differences between us, realizing that I share relatively few of Hopkins' assumptions, why do I find Hopkins' poem so beautiful? Why do I take such pleasure in it?

Clearly one aspect of the poem that is beautiful is the way it reads. Why do men then now not reck his rod? What a wonderful line that is! Here we have nine one-syllable words, with all but the first two using short vowel sounds. The third and fourth words, "men then," use the same sound and rhyme with each other, while the fifth and sixth words, "now not," alliterate and use the same vowel sound but do not rhyme, and the seventh and ninth words, reck…rod, repeat those vowel sounds in the same order, separ ated by the new vowel sound of his. Put together, those seven sho rt vowels, introduced by the long vowels of "Why do," create a kind of music. So, too, in a strange way, do the words and all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil.

At this point Hopkins is bewailing the effects of industrialization on the natural world, so he is hardly trying to paint a beautiful picture. He wants us to see how nature has been blighted by what human beings have done to it. Nevertheless, in what may seem like a paradox, he describes this blight in a way that can only be described as beautiful, as the three rhyming adjectives seared…bleared…smeared, two of them alliterating, contrast with the two long-vowelled alliterating nouns trade...toil. Furthermore, those adjectives are not particularly pleasant sounding words. The whole poem is full of such playing with sounds.

Another effect that Hopkins achieves comes from the way the words he uses sound like what they are meant to describe. We can hear this point in those adjectives or in the lines

It will flame out like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Here Hopkins describes two ways in which what he calls the grandeur of God can be perceived. The first way is sudden and brilliant, like light reflecting off the multifaceted, shining surface of crumpled foil. Again we have not only the alliterations of flame and foil,shining and shook, but the words actually sound like what they describe, shining from shook foil. Similarly in the next line, which shows the grandeur of God not as a sudden and diffuse phenomenon but instead as something that gathers slowly in a single spot, Hopkins makes the sound o f his words reflect the meaning. There is, of course, more alliteration in the words gathers…greatness…ooze…oil, and that last phrase, like the ooze of oil is particularly effective in conveying the idea of a slow and deliberate gathering of that gran deur. Finally, the last word of the sentence, crushed, is postponed until the next line. All it means, literally, is that Hopkins is talking about the oil of crushed olives, plain old olive oil. But the effect of that word, the last word of the sentence occupying the first position on a new line, is, well, crushing. It changes the tone of what he has been saying from a description of the gra ndeur of God to the despair of Why do men then now not reck his rod? It is a brilliant transition because it is both jarring and harmonious, disturbing and appropriate. It is absolutely the right word in the right place, and there is something satisfying and pleasurable about that combination.

Hopkins, like other writers, creates similar pleasures by creating new phrases that show us things in new ways. Just as an artist might paint a portrait that reveals something new about a person or a composer might find a melodic or harmonic twist that makes us hear differently, so a writer, by using words in new combinations, can produce what Herman Melville called the shock of recognition. Suddenly we see something as we have never seen it before, at least not consciously. This effect is necessarily subjective; that is, different phrases will affect different people. For me, e very time I read Hopkins' line There lives the dearest freshness deep down things, I feel that shock of recognition. All he is saying is that nature constantly renews itself, that no matter what human beings do to it, there is something regenerative in nature. I know that. Everyone knows that. But what makes this line special is how Hopkins says it. There lives, there is something alive and organic, something that we cannot kill no matter how we try. And what is that something? It is the dearest freshness, a phrase that I could try to comment on for pages but that I would never surpass for concision and descriptiveness. For me, it is a phrase loaded with significance, and contemplating that phrase in its context, There lives the dearest freshness deep down things, as I consider the sounds, the words, the hopefulness, the promise of renewal, raise me above the mundane, the everyday problems that cloud our vision. And though Hopkins goes on to attribute this dearest freshness to his Christian, more specifically his Roman Catholic, view of God, I do not have to be Catholic to appreciate the poem. I can appreciate Hopkins' faith and the genius that allowed him to transform that faith into art.

Finally, I find great pleasure in the structure of the poem. Formally the poem is a sonnet, that is, basically, a fourteen-line poem. No one needs to know that it is a sonnet in order to enjoy it, but knowing that it is and knowing the many ways that sonnets have been used in the last seven centuries increases one's enjoyment of Hopkins' particular manipulation of the tradition. Seeing how skillfully he uses the first eight lines (the octet) to pose a problem and the last six lines (the sestet) to resolve the problem, and seeing how he uses the meter and rhyme scheme to reinforce that point make me enjoy the poem even more.

Perhaps what I am getting at here is that the poem, both in what it says and how it says it, is beautiful. I certainly am not foolhardy enough to try to define beauty, but I do know that there is not enough of it in our world. I once surprised a class—and myself—by asking what there was in their lives that was beautiful. When they did not seem to understand the question, I asked if the music they listened to or the pictures they looked at, the books they read, or the things that surrounded them were beautiful. They never did understand what I meant. Apparently no one, in all the years they had been in school, ever talked to them about the beauty of what they were studying, whether it was music or art, mathematics or biology. Students read poetry in school and are supposed to identify "themes" or define vocabulary words or distinguish between Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets. That's not how to read poetry. Sometimes the best initial reaction to reading a poem is simply "Wow!" And the next reaction is to read it again. Students often apologize for having had to reread poems—"I didn't get it the first time," they say. Of course they had to reread it! Poems are meant to be reread, many times. Each reading should bring new understanding and new pleasures, and no reading will ever be exhaustive, will ever reveal all the meaning that is in the poem. That inexhaustibility is also part of the pleasure, just the way that finding new aspects of a person one loves increases one's understanding and love. That inexhaustibility is why I have been teaching for forty-two years without getting tired of it.

What I hope to do in the following pages, then, is to introduce—or reintroduce—readers to some important works of literature. However, I have chosen these particular works not because they are "important" but because they are among my favorites and because I want to share my enjoyment of them with readers who might feel that one has to be a specialist to read them. While it is true that some of these works may be difficult and may require more concentration than other works, it is vital to remember that they were written to be enjoyed by people who were not specialists. What I want to do is demystify them so that people will feel free to read and enjoy them. I also want teachers to see how these works can be taught so that they can be enjoyed by ordinary students whose lives can be enriched by literary experiences. I will try to provide some background to the works and some idea of how to read them, as well as some idea of why one should read them. I will try not to simplify them (though almost all commentary, by narrowing the focus of the work it comments on, tends to simplify it somewhat), nor will I be writing chapters to replace reading the works themselves. Nothing can replace the experience of reading these works, and what I have to say about the works is meant only to make them seem less formidable.

I hope that this book will be useful to teachers, who face the daunting task of interesting their students in this kind of literature. We are led to believe that modern students are neither willing nor able to read good writing, and the implication is that in the nineteenth century, for instance, young people, without the distraction of television, videos, rock, and video games, spent most of their time reading Shakespeare or Virgil. That was most assuredly not the case. A taste for fine things has to be developed, whether we are talking about wine, cheese, or writing. No one is born liking Époisses de Bourgogne (a relatively smelly cheese that was reportedly a favorite of Napoleon's), and no one is born wanting to read Keats. Reading literature is challenging and difficult as well as enjoyable, and we have to stress all of those aspects; but we cannot get students to read by using gimmicks, like showing a movie of every book we read or by giving them "busy work" based on the texts. We have to communicate our love for the reading we do. That may be hard to do, but it is what we must do.

So please, read and enjoy these chapters, but do not deprive yourself of the pleasure of reading the stories, the poems, and the plays they introduce. There are worlds out there to explore, worlds that will not only enlighten your mind but that will reveal parts of your mind that you may not have known existed.Take a chance and challenge yourself.