In celebration of Jewish Book Month, The Arty Semite is partnering with the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) and the Jewish Book Council to present “30 Days, 30 Texts,” a series of reflections by community leaders on the books that influenced their Jewish journeys. Today, Dan Friedman writes about the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Growing up as a progressive Jew in the North of England, I couldn’t decide whether God was an earnest Divinity of social justice or a Zeus-like Old Testament Man-With-a-Beard. Whichever it was, neither had any hold on me as an angst-y, angry adolescent fan of The Smiths, The Cure and The Wedding Present.
Toward the end of high school, though, I read the poems and “Dark Sonnets” of Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Their intense joy and anguish made theology a real living idea for me. It was eye-opening that the sheer beauty of “The Windhover” with its stunningly evocative: “I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple- dawn-drawn Falcon,” could co-exist with the despair of “No worst there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief, / More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.”
The deep feeling of wonder (yirat shamayim perhaps) that Hopkins felt also tortured him as potentially heretical, since he worried that his poetry was hubristic and his enjoyment of nature would see him burn in hell as a pantheist.
The lived intensity of a faith in constant question, the linguistic innovations — that nevertheless harked back to Old English stresses and Welsh cynghanedd — and the profound enjoyment of the natural world as a divine emanation meant that Hopkins spoiled for me those pale dilettantes the Romantic poets. He did, however, show me how the sinews of language might be used in the struggle to find a transcendent and immanent Jewish God active in the world.
Dan Friedman is the arts and culture editor of the Forward.