I have always found poetry intimidating. What if I can’t see the point of what the poet is trying to say? I persevere because my favourite poems are like magnifying glasses, revealing the beauty of daily life. And just as the beauty of a common flower under a magnifying glass can take my breath away, a good poem can give me eyes to see. And once I see the beauty, I am free to move from the anxiety of ‘not getting it’ to gratitude for the poet’s gift, and to praise for our generous Father who created both the poet and the poem’s inspiration. It is as if the poet’s creativity literally magnifies God: the details that might be lost to my eye are revealed through his craft. Learning to Magnify God delights our Blessed Mother Mary, she will teach us to see well and sing praise with the delight that a mother feels in coaxing out her child’s first words, we need not be intimidated.
I would like to share a favourite poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899), the “May Magnificat”. He studied Classics and threw his heart into writing poetry as an undergraduate at Oxford University. Through the beauty of other Christian poets’ work his conscience was touched and he was received into the Church by Bl. John Henry Newman in 1866, then ordained a Jesuit priest in 1877. Although he wrote in the Victorian era, his poetry is anything but prim and starched. His sprung and running rhythms were innovative and invigorating then and are just as fresh today. There is a plaque in his honour in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. I love to read this poem aloud and let the dancing words lure me outside to explore the renewal of spring. I think this poem can invite us to wonder at the way God continues to create each of us day by day.
Before you read it, be prepared to be playful. This is not an exercise in marching in time but in skipping with a child who has just learned how. Some words are ‘made-up’ just for the fun of providing a skipping rhyme. In lines 11 and 12 ‘opportunest’ is substituted for ‘most opportune’ (best suited) in order to rhyme with ‘soonest’. Lines 20 and 21 rush across the visual break between verses like a child breaking from a skip to a run when she sees a bird’s egg peeping from a nest in the tree ahead. Some words are given accents to slow us down like a child who stops skipping in order to balance along a log fallen across a stream. In line 40 we read ‘silver surfèd cherry’; all three words should be given two syllables, and the first syllable of all three words is stressed. ‘Surf’ here is the noun, waves breaking on a shore. By taking the time to give ‘surf-èd’ two syllables, we slow down to watch the waves of silver white petals ripple across the dark bark of branches. Just as we should slow down when we pass a Nanking cherry tree in full bloom: to truly see it, wondering at its beauty and giving thanks. And now, with the serious business of play in mind, try reading the poem aloud!
MAY is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—
Candlemas[ii], Lady Day[iii];
5 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?
10 Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?
Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
15 Growth in every thing—
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Throstle above her nested
20 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
25 Mary sees, sympathizing
With that world of good,
Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
30 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
35 To offering Mary May.
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
45 Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.
I love the final verse: we both look back in gratitude and forward in hope. Although we celebrated the first Christmas two thousand years ago, there is a sense in which Mary is still waiting ‘till Christ’s birth’ in each of us with ecstasy and mirth. She delights each time we take a wobbly step of praise, like a newborn fleecy lamb towards its mother, remembering to live each day joyfully magnifying the Lord.
[ii] Candlemas: February 2, marks the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple forty days after Christmas.
[iii] Lady Day: March 25th, marks the feast of the Annunciation nine months before Christmas.
[iv] Dapple: any of numerous usually cloudy and rounded spots or patches of a color or shade different from their background. Merriam Webster online dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dapple; Internet; accessed March 26 2018
[v]Thorp: (archaic) village or hamlet. Merriam Webster online dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/thorp; Internet; accessed March 26, 2018