How to Keep Beauty from Vanishing Away

Sandro Botticelli, "Ideal Portrait of a Lady”

Sandro Botticelli, “Ideal Portrait of a Lady”

Spiritual Sunday

The first poem I shared with the woman who would become my wife was a very Lentenesque lyric by Gerard Manley Hopkins, although I didn’t think of it in those terms at the time. At the time, I also had no idea that Julia and I would become close, much less married.

Julia was a good friend of my college roommate and, when visiting him one day, invited me to her poetry club. I showed up and belted out the Hopkins poem, which I had memorized. Because of its sprung rhythm, “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” makes for a very dramatic reading and apparently I made quite an impression on Julia. The following trimester we started dating and we were engaged by the end of the year.

Perhaps there are no accidents when it comes to the literature we are drawn to. Looking back at the poem now, I can see it mirroring my love life that year. In the fall of 1971 I was reeling from a very painful break-up (my own leaden echo). By March of 1972, I was ecstatically in love. I realize that this isn’t exactly what Hopkins has in mind, focused as he is on a more spiritual awakening. Then again, much of Hopkins’ power lies in the way that he uses images of natural beauty to capture the joy he feels in the presence of the divine.

In the “Leaden Echo” half of the poem, Hopkins laments that there is nothing to “keep back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away.” Ultimately good looks will yield to “ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay.” Like Lear’s “never, never, never, never, never” following the death of Cordelia, Hopkins concludes part I with “to despair, to despair,/Despair, despair, despair, despair.”

Then, miraculously, the poem turns around. “Despair” shifts to “Spare!” signaling the Easter promise. Yes, there is a key to keeping beauty from vanishing away, the poet assures us. The beauty Hopkins now has in mind is the beauty of the human soul. Lent understands that sometimes we have to be stripped down to our despairing ashes to see it.

The poet acknowledges that this is not a rational hope (reason is symbolized by the “singeing” sun), but the beauty of his images and the ecstatic rhythm of his words signal his conviction. When Hopkins speaks of “beauty-in-the-ghost,” he has in mind the Holy Ghost. God, who numbers every hair on our head (Luke 12:7), will see to it that none of this beauty is lost. God created earth’s beauty, God revels in earth’s beauty, and God will receive earth’s beauty back.

Our job is to both celebrate God’s beauty and to “freely forfeit” it. We are not to make an idol of beauty and therefore should not mourn when fair faces give way to “these wrinkles, rankéd wrinkles deep.” After all, when we enter the realm of “yonder,” we will find that nothing has been lost.

The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Leaden Echo

HOW to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep 
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away? 
Ó is there no frowning of these wrinkles, rankéd wrinkles deep, 
Dówn? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?  
No there ’s none, there ’s none, O no there ’s none, 
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair,       
Do what you may do, what, do what you may,    
And wisdom is early to despair:           
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done   
To keep at bay       
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay; 
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.           
O there ’s none; no no no there ’s none: 
Be beginning to despair, to despair,                   
Despair, despair, despair, despair.           

The Golden Echo

There ís one, yes I have one (Hush there!); 
Only not within seeing of the sun,       
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,      
Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air,      
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,     
Oné. Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,   
Where whatever’s prized and passes of us, everything that’s fresh and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,  
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet  
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matchèd face,  
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets móre, fastened with the tenderest truth 
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an everlastingness of, O it is an all youth! 
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace—     
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath, 
And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs deliver 
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death    
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.  
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair        
Is, hair of the head, numbered.      
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould    
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold    
What while we, while we slumbered.      
O then, weary then why         
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,    
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept     
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder 
A care kept. — Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where. —
Yonder. — What high as that! We follow, now we follow. — Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,

Yonder, incidentally, is not only life after death but a different way of living life now. After 42 years of marriage, I can report that Julia remains the beautiful girl I saw when I first met her. Ruck and wrinkle have become irrelevant.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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