World Mothering, Part I : Hopkins Sings of Our Atmosphere

Posted by Charlie Finn at

Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,

The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins begins his long song of praise for the air we breathe by immediately sounding the theme that this very atmosphere, by surrounding, protecting and enfolding us, is “world-mothering.” Scientists might smile indulgently at the metaphor, but how apt they and the rest of us might see it. While Hopkins is absolutely in earnest in this poem, he has fittingly chosen an airy, even playful, manner of conveying his delight in the maternal magic nestling us everywhere.

That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;

Perhaps not understanding every word (Hopkins seldom is an easy read), we nonetheless are carried by the musicality of his rhythm, rhyming and alliteration. He felt strongly that poetry is to be heard and not just read. If you merely scanned the above words with your eyes, go back and lend them your voice so your ears can hear them. Feel the difference sound makes in bringing life to the lines, carrying the contagion of Hopkins’ affection for the everywhere mothering air.

After venturing into the theological point of his poem, which will be addressed in Part II, Hopkins returns to his lyrical tribute to the air, this time accenting not only the rich blue of the sky—“sapphire- shot, charged, steeped”—but the richness of every other color because of it.

Again, look overhead
How air is azured; o how! Nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steeped sky will not
Stain light. Yes, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeams will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is fairer for.

None of this color display would be possible on Earth without our “blue heaven” mantle. Hopkins continues by emphasizing how inhospitable the sky would be without it, how impossible for life on Earth to exist without it. We extol the life-giving sun, but how deadly would be its rays without this filtering blue mantle.

Whereas did air not make
The bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt, in grimy vasty vault.

“A blear and blinding ball with blackness bound”—not only a rollicking alliterative riff but the actual scientific truth. Eighty years after Hopkins died in 1889, humankind walked on the airless, black-bound, sterile satellite that circles us, sending back spellbinding pictures of that dot in the distance not only shining but blue—imagine Hopkins’ ecstasy to have joined us in witnessing from afar the sapphire beauty of our home in the universe!

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