My favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, was a Jesuit priest in England and Wales in the mid-19th century. That’s all anyone really needs to know about him; but I will add that Hopkins’ poems often initially present the reader with an image, usually something he has observed in the natural world—a bird, a field, a candle—or a person he has met in his work as a priest. No matter the subject, Hopkins always brings the poem back around to Christ and to the praise of our Creator.
Here is the text of Hopkins’ poem “The Lantern Out of Doors.” I encourage you to read it aloud, since his poems are best understood and appreciated when you can hear the rhythm of every word, the cadence of each verse:
Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?
Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.
Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.
Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
There, éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd,
Their ránsom, théir rescue, ánd first, fást, last friénd.
Here the image Hopkins presents us with is that of a lantern in the night. He lets us imagine what it is like to peer out of a window into the darkness and see someone’s lantern moving there. You cannot see the person, whoever it is that holds the lantern, but you follow him anyway with your eye as long as you can make out that flickering light “wading” through the dark. Watching the beam of the lantern out of doors, you have to wonder, as Hopkins does, who is that lantern-bearer? Where is he coming from? And where is he going?
Hopkins then compares the lantern out of doors to the men who “go by [him] whom either beauty bright in mould or mind or what not else makes rare”—those people whom you encounter on a daily basis, that draw the eye because they are striking in appearance or in intelligence or in some other aspect. This may be a stranger you pass on the street and notice and never see again; or she may be a friend with whom you spend your entire life. Hopkins reminds us that as human beings we are incapable of following these passing people all the way down the road of their existence, for “Death or distance soon consumes them…” He means that the stranger eventually turns that corner at the end of the street and is never seen again by you: however interesting you found him, you cannot know where life has and will lead him. That friend may move away, separated from you by distance; and, sadly, that friend must eventually be separated from you by death. We cannot follow these people after death—at least, not right away. As Hopkins puts it, “ be in at the end/ I cannot…”
Contrast this with what Christ can do: “Christ minds…/ éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd…” Christ is always there, from the beginning to the end. He ever watches over each of us; his heart desires to be with us, he cares for us, and he follows us all the days of our lives. What’s more, Christ does not just watch—as Hopkins puts it, he is “[Our] ránsom, [óur] rescue, ánd first, fast, last friend.” Christ is not only our great redeemer, he is our friend!
This raises the question of why—Why does Christ follow us, love us? Why is he our friend? We ask, in the words of Psalm 8:4, “What is man that you are mindful of him/ and the son of man that you care for him?”
This is the first in a three-part series exploring some of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Check back in next week to read the continuation of this series.
Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman is Operations Manager, Web Master, and Artistic Director for Cana Academy.
The header image of Gerard Manley Hopkins is public domain under PD-1923.