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Poems of Gerard Manly Hopkins > The May Magnificat

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message 1: by Manny (last edited Jun 24, 2018 08:14PM) (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 4206 comments Mod
The May Magnificat
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

May is Mary's month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—

Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?

Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Nature's motherhood.

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring's universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfèd cherry

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—

This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ's birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.


message 2: by Kelly Rose (new)

Kelly Rose | 5 comments This is one of my favorite poems! The imagery and symbolism are beautiful. I nearly memorized the whole of it in high school. To this day I sometimes find myself reciting the first two stanzas out of no where. :)


message 3: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 4206 comments Mod
Kelly wrote: "This is one of my favorite poems! The imagery and symbolism are beautiful. I nearly memorized the whole of it in high school. To this day I sometimes find myself reciting the first two stanzas out ..."

I'm so glad I picked this for you Kelly. It is a lovely poem. I'll have more to say as I get some free time this week.


message 4: by Irene (last edited Jun 27, 2018 10:31AM) (new)

Irene | 909 comments I love the mouth feel of the words, the use of rhyme, illiteration and assonance,and similar techniques of sound.


message 5: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 4206 comments Mod
Let’s attempt to really understand this lovely poem. There are twelve quatrain stanzas in the poem with an AA BB rhyme scheme and as far as I can tell an irregular rhythm. Any particular line has anywhere from five to ten syllables and Hopkins irregularly varies the meter between iambic (unstressed/stressed), trochaic (stressed/unstressed), and spondaic (stressed/stressed). You can read about meter here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metre_(... I’m not sure there is any aesthetic connection between the irregularity and the theme of the poem, other than, perhaps, the natural flow of language seeks to emulate the irregularity of nature. Perhaps the regularity of the stanzas suggest the consistent form of nature, while the irregularities of the line suggest the varieties of natural elements within its consistent form. Perhaps I may be over intellectualizing that, but it’s there as a possibility.

The twelve stanzas perhaps are meant to recall the twelve stars in Mary’s crown as noted in Revelations 12:1: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” The image of Mary in the poem emphasizes, I think holds in tension the mature enthroned Mary, Queen of Heaven as we look upon her and the youthful young lady of the Annunciation who is carrying the Christ child.

Let’s walk through the poem and try to get central theme. The poem starts with the question, why is May the Blessed Virgin Mary’s month? Is it just an opportunity to offer her flowers, as Hopkins muses in the third stanza? So in the fourth stanza he asks her directly, and her reply is “Question: What is spring?—/Growth in everything.” Stanzas five and six provide examples of the fecundity of the spring season, and are I think the most lyrical.

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.


There you go, irregularity of meter within the regularity of form. Very few poets can make that work so beautifully. So what does this growth have to do with the Blessed Mother? Stanzas seven and eight answer. “Mary sees, sympathizing/With that world of good.” No, she is not some pagan-esk Mother Nature goddess directing nature but as she sees life arising, she is in sympathy with it, and just as her being magnifies the Lord— “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” Luke 1:46, (King James Version emphasizes it better)—Hopkins tells us her sympathy magnifies nature. Her blessings augment the beauty of the blossoming spring. That would be enough of an observation and connection, but Hopkins goes further.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring's universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.


Here we see it wasn’t Mary who controlled the spring, but the beauty and bliss of spring offers the month to her. Why? Because her joy at carrying the Lord in her womb brings her to overwhelming bliss. Read the first lines of the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-49:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name…”


The lowly handmaid has been selected by God to carry the messiah. How could one not be joyful? And here she is with child, conception having occurred in March, growing within her as nature grows about her, and the two parallel growths further magnify each other. Internal fecundity blesses external fecundity in a sort of synergy. And that’s what is emphasized in the tenth, eleven, and twelfth stanzas. And so, May is Mary’s month because nature and budding motherhood bless each other.

I have to admit there is one sentence in the poem which baffles me. It comes in the first two lines of the tenth stanza: “When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple/Bloom lights the orchard-apple.” I don’t get the reference to blood and foam. Is that Christ’s blood and water coming from His side? Doesn’t seem likely here, nor can I place it as a reference to some beautiful element of nature. If anyone has thoughts on that, please respond.

This is a beautiful poem though.


message 6: by Kelly Rose (new)

Kelly Rose | 5 comments Thanks for posting, very insightful!

I have always thought that, in the tenth stanza, the poet illustrates maternal happiness through visible motions expressed during the pregnancy of nature in springtime which show forth light and warmth. The “orchard-apple” becomes brighter from the blooming fruits while the lush plant life expresses its merriment by the blossoming colors of spring. These signals indicate a human mother’s excitement during pregnancy as she glows with happiness and maternal care. The colorful flower blossoms and berries growing on trees and plants in the countryside and around the village are nature's smiles. Although, maybe there is a deeper or alternate interpretation?

Another point of interest:
In the eleventh stanza, I have wondered about the sound of birds alluded to here. Could these joyous chirps represent Mary's cousin, Saint Elizabeth, when she became filled with the Holy Spirit and rejoiced in Mary and her Child as the birds rejoice over the life and growth of spring? The song of these ecstatic birds sounds throughout nature and through the ages as Elizabeth’s words are heard still today in prayer to the Blessed Mother, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (RSV Luke 1:42).
Or, belonging to nature, are they meant to represent Mary and her joy?


message 7: by Manny (last edited Jul 03, 2018 09:04PM) (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 4206 comments Mod
I agree with all that Kelly. My problem is more focused on the clause, “When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple." That's a "when" adverbial clause. When clauses locate a time. When do blood and foam dapple? Spring time? At Christ's crucifixion? At the Annunciation? At the Visitation? Nothing really makes sense. I just don't get the reference.


message 8: by Frances (new)

Frances Richardson | 641 comments Manny, how does this work (and will the non-English majors among us please excuse this?)

I was taught to read Hopkins like we read Chaucer, going from strong beat to strong beat. So, The Canterbury Tales begins:
What that Aprill with his shoures (showers) soote
The drought of March hath perced to the roote, . . .

Then longen folk to go on pilgrimages, . . .

Keeping this rhythm in mind, read the Hopkins' lines in question as phrases which build to a climax or conclusion. I'll type them out as if they are parts of sentences:

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple bloom lights the orchard-apple, and thicket and thorp are merry with silver-surfed cherry, and azuring-over greybell makes wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes, and magic cuckoo call caps, clears, and clinches all --

This ecstasy throughout nature speaks to Mary of the blood of Christ shed for human salvation. (Hopkins' final stanza, said plainly)

Does this make sense to you?


message 9: by Frances (new)

Frances Richardson | 641 comments My computer wanted to correct the old English of Chaucer's day. The Canterbury Tales begin:
When (not What), but I can't overcome the artificial intelligence that takes over my typing. The first word, typed correctly is. "W h a n," meaning "When." Can't type it the way Chaucer wrote it, though!


message 10: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 4206 comments Mod
Hi Frances. I would say that's as close to making sense as I've seen anywhere. I also just saw somewhere that the foam suggests the sea and Mary being Queen of the Seas or Star of the Seas. In Latin I believe it's Stella Maris. So perhaps a drop of blood for Christ, the foam of the seas for Mary dapple to bloom the apple trees. It's possible.

As to the rhythmic similarities between Chaucer and Hopkins, I would say they are different. From what I remember Chaucer writes in iambic meter while Hopkins strives for this irregular meter which he calls "sprung rhythm." I'll try to describe sprung rhythm when I say something about "The Windhover."


message 11: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 4206 comments Mod
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Notice how consistently iambic Chaucer's first four lines are and how consistently pentameter, that is five feet per line. Hopkins is never so consistent in either rhythm or syllabic line length.


message 12: by Frances (new)

Frances Richardson | 641 comments Isn't Hopkins' work rich with meaning? One could probably mine his words endlessly for deep, abundant meaning.

My reference to Chaucer was intended to illustrate how the poet rises to a crescendo by piling phrase upon phrase. Sorry, I wasn't clearer.

And however did you get your computer to type: "W h a n?" Mine will not do it!


message 13: by Leslie (last edited Jul 04, 2018 05:45AM) (new)

Leslie | 359 comments I think he is alluding to the crucifixion and in metaphor, the tree of life with the reference to the apple orchard.


message 14: by Kelly Rose (new)

Kelly Rose | 5 comments Ah, I see what you mean. I guess I was only taking the words at face value. The drop of blood and foam, I was taking quite literally to mean the orchard blossom whose petals appear a pinkish/red tint on the outside and white when they open up. Thus their appearance of "blood" and "foam" brightens up the apple orchard with color and life.

I had not even considered that Hopkins was referring to an event in salvation history; very eye-opening! :) Maybe the "blood" red represents the seven sorrows of Our Lady and how Simeon had foretold "you yourself a sword will pierce" (Lk 2:35). Perhaps the white "foam" symbolizes her purity and the virginal birth of Christ. Both her sorrows and purity point to her Immaculate Heart.


message 15: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 4206 comments Mod
Kelly wrote: "Ah, I see what you mean. I guess I was only taking the words at face value. The drop of blood and foam, I was taking quite literally to mean the orchard blossom whose petals appear a pinkish/red ti..."

Hey that's very possible Kelly. I like that. I guess we'll never know for sure, but now I lean toward your reading, some mixture of sorrow and purity.


message 16: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 1556 comments Mod
The word "orchard" alludes to a garden or something deliberately planted - the Garden of Eden and by extension Creation itself. The exuberance and superabundance of life and joy are so beautifully captured by Hopkins.

(Visible) blood points to danger and loss of life. Apples allude to the fall. With the fall death entered the world.
When looking at the uses of the word "foam", the one that makes sense here to me is "foaming with rage." God isn't exactly pleased when he discovers what Adam and Eve had done. He threw them out of Eden!

Put all together, Mary was necessary to reverse the deed of Eve. She is the one who by her fiat participates in bringing us from death to life, a spring-like re-birth. I am reminded of the line in the prayer Alma Redemptoris Mater
"To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator"



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