Esmeralda Santiago Marvels at Hopkins's Mastery
It was the end of a long day running after my young children. Baths taken, stories
read, foreheads kissed, monsters banished, they had finally fallen asleep clutching
their raggedy, much-loved stuffed animals. My husband and I had settled on our
sides of the bed, under our personal reading lamps, he with a novel and I with
Norton Anthology of Poetry.
I have never fixed a moment of literary discovery so clearly in my mind. It
was early spring but unusually warm. The windows were open. The slider to the
deck of our rented house gave out to a narrow lawn and beyond it, overgrown
woods. A bosky smell wafted into the room in waves pushed by a quiet breeze
that proved winter was not quite over. Frank closed the sliding door, and I
settled back against the pillows, my legs under the down comforter I would not
relinquish until the temperature was consistently over seventy degrees.
Haxton was then a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, and I was a student
in his prosody course. We were learning how to read, and hopefully someday write,
sonnets. For the next class he had assigned "The Windhover" by Gerard
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
By the time my eyes reached "a wimpling wing" I had to take in air because
I had expelled it all in one sharp sigh of wonder. How does anyone have the
courage to use language this way? How is it possible that a poem, dedicated
"To Christ Our Lord" made me tingle the same way I had the first time I was
touched by an unfamiliar, urgent hand?
I was a novice writer when I first read "The Windhover." After thirty-five
years of speaking English I still asked myself if I knew enough of it to fill
a whole book. Gerard Manley Hopkins's sonnet was a revelation of what language
could do, how language was more than words, more than grammatically coherent
phrases and sentences.
Over the next few years I read everything I could find about Hopkins, including
encyclopedia entries. I bought a copy of The
Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Fourth Revision, Revised and Enlarged, Oxford)
and the excellent biography by Robert
Bernard Martin (Putnam). Whenever I had a few hours, I sat at the New York
Public Library on Fifth Avenue, poring over The Poetical Works of Gerard
Manley Hopkins by Norman H. MacKenzie (Oxford), wishing I could afford to
spend $175 for a book.
The more I read about Hopkins, the wider the gap between his life and experience
and mine seemed to get. And yet, I could not read a line of his without feeling
a peculiar sense of recognition, as if it were I who had written those words,
or at least, had thought them.
We are leafwhelmed somewhere with the hood
Of some branchy bunchy bushybowered wood
Wasn't that the way I felt on my walks through the nature preserve near my
Suspicious of rhyme, I savor lines that from a lesser hand would have been
trite, and chew on them as if they were candy:
The vex'd elm-heads are pale with the view
Of a mastering heaven utterly blue;
Swoll'n is the wind that in argent billows
Rolls across the labouring willows;
"A Windy Day in Summer"
His descriptions of nature are so startling, that I am forced to open my eyes
wider. I look at willows and see their silvery glow and ask myself why, until
that stanza, they had always been merely green.
All these many years later, my children grown, six books with my name on them,
I keep the now dog-eared and marked up Poems
of Gerard Manley Hopkins on my desk, where I can reach it at any time and
open to a random page and read. No matter how often I read the same poem ("Carrion
Comfort" is a favorite), I am renewed as a writer, amazed, inspired. And
every time I marvel at "the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!"
Esmeralda Santiago lives in Westchester County, New York. Born in Puerto Rico, she moved to Brooklyn with her ten siblings and unmarried mother, who supported them all. Her amazing life is chronicled in her memoirs, one volume of which, Almost a Woman, was made into a film for PBS's Masterpiece Theater.