World Mothering, Part II : Hopkins Sings of Our Lady

Posted by Charlie Finn at

The object of Hopkins’ lyrical poem, however, was not Earth’s blue mantle. Rather it was Mary’s blue mantle, Mary’s mantle of mercy—hence his choice of “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe” for the poem’s title. To the bafflement and dismay of his family and friends, Hopkins not only converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism while studying at Oxford but soon after entered the Society of Jesus, feeling called to become a Jesuit priest. Remembering the hostility to Catholics in general and Jesuits in particular in England after the Reformation can help us imagine the shock this engendered. When Hopkins resumed his poetry (after initially feeling it incompatible with his vocation), he couldn’t help but sing in his poems of his new-found Catholic faith—the spiritual air he now breathed. And in this poem it was the part of his faith relating to Mary that he sung.

This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest

Having begun with Mary’s role in Jesus’ Nativity, familiar to all thanks to Christmas pageantry based on the gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke, Hopkins then moved into the Catholic teaching less familiar to those not Catholic but crucial for understanding  Mary’s exalted place in Catholic doctrine and, as a consequence, in Catholic hearts.  Not only was Jesus, as Son of God, believed to be exempt from the stain of sin all humans are heir to, but so, too, the vessel chosen to give Him birth. The Immaculate Conception, non-Catholics may think, refers to the conception of Jesus, but in fact it refers to Mary’s! Her exaltation, however, goes even further.

But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemed, dreamed; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

Those who are Catholic have no trouble here. What these words illumine well is the Catholic teaching across centuries that as Mary birthed Jesus in flesh, so now she births us in grace, standing literally as the Mediator to us of her Son’s mercy and grace.

I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God his let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.

She is that vital to us, as vital as the everpresent air is to our physical existence. He goes on to show how instead of rivaling or diminishing our bond with Christ, Mary enhances it. Thanks to her mediation, Hopkins sings, there can keep springing forth new Bethlehems and Nazareths.

If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part of what will
Be Christ our Savious still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvelous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlem, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

Swinging back to the poem’s central comparison, just as the atmosphere softens rather than diminishes the sun for us, so Mary’s hand leaves God’s light “sifted to suit our sight.”

So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

Hopkins brings to a close his love-poem about Mary with his own prayer to Mary. Could there be a tenderer, more loving heart-cry to his mother from a child?

Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with me, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.


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