In my recent work, a self portrait of mixed textile media, titled LOL, SMR RAIN, I quoted the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, Just indeed thou art.
Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur?
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
In recent analyses of early diaries it was found that the young GMH wrote a list of his sins, including among them, masturbation, but it was listed with a Latin descriptor: (scelus onanis) or abbreviation (“O.H.” – old habits).
It is a curious feature of the Roman Catholic ritual of the confessional, that the priest ends the encounter with the advice “go in peace & sin no more”. This fits perfectly with neurotic Irish sexual practices, where one might sin all week, be absolved on Saturday evening, hopefully resist temptation on party night, receive communion on Sunday morning conspicuously in public, then continue to sin the following week.
Sadly, Hopkins was prone to exaggerated sensitivity in this area & even accepted blame for involuntary nocturnal emissions. Clearly though, an adult continuing to experience involuntary orgasms during sleep speaks of tremendous sexual abstinence.
Looking at the poem in this context delivers new insights: firstly he describes a moral backdrop, that of the prospering of “evil men”. They are not identified. H then describes his own lapse: “the sots & thralls of lust”. Other writers have sought to discover evidence of H’s sexual energy in his “sprung rhythm”. Here, the alphabetical sequencing of S & T, like systole & diastole, describe the up & down stroke of masturbation, the motion blurring into a field of pleasure the solitary practitioner yields to.
They are itemised in opposition to his own [legitimate] efforts, almost at arm’s length; it’s as if he’s viewing his dick from a distance; one almost expects him to give it a name.
Given Hopkins’ lifelong meditation upon nature, the complaint that his creator has thwarted him by piling up the sots & thralls of lust, lead to the wry & inevitable conclusion that lust however classified as a sin by the church, is nonetheless, a thing of nature, a weed of the waste places.
There is little that can be added to this solitary insight: Christopher Hitchens: “religion poisons everything”, or David Bowie: “you’re watching yourself but y’re too unfair, cause y’re WONDERFUL”.
Indeed, H relinquishes his involvement with ethics, morality and theology for an inhibited enjoyment of nature: “the fretted chervil”. Tho, even here, his observations of nature form part of his self-criticism as “Time’s eunuch”. GMH was to die months after writing this work. In spite of the unfairness with which he judged his achievement, he left a legacy of unique poetry, possibly the one component that single-handedly rescued English poetry from mawkish Victorianism. He influenced other autodidacts like Dylan Thomas, who, it might well be argued, translated GMH’s unique voice, then went on to express his own “inscape, instress”. Hart Crane in the USA could not have created his poetry without the example of GMH. As Julia Gillard said of her place in history recently, “it will be easier for the next woman, and the woman after her”. GMH left a legacy as well for gay men, isolated by culture, time & place, to fully self-express. Whether, as the divine Chrissie Amphlett sings, “they touch themselves”, is entirely their own concern. VALE, GMH.
Thou, Lord of Life, send his roots rain.