Just for a week or two each year, at the end of April into early May, my Chiltern countryside is at its spring perfection, and once again I have been walking in Rushmore Wood, along the broad track speckled with the first fall of cherry petals, the wooded slope dropping away to my left, thick with bluebells: pools, lakes, rivers, waterfalls of blue cascading down the slope, and the misty Oxfordshire plain below, glimpsed through a light screen of young beech leaves. Housman, of course, was good on bluebells: ‘And like a skylit water stood/The bluebells in the azured wood’, but when it comes to the detail it is hard to beat Gerard Manley Hopkins. I sometimes feel that Hopkins is putting more of a strain on the language than it can readily bear, but you have to admire his sincerity and passion. Here he is in his journal engaging all his senses in an attempt to define the flower’s peculiar lovely ‘inscape’.
‘In the little wood opposite the light they stood in blackish spreads or sheddings like spots on a snake. The heads are then like thongs and solemn in grain and grape-colour. But in the clough through the light they come in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the ground with vein-blue, thickening at the double, vertical themselves and the young grass and brake-fern combed vertical, but the brake struck the upright of all this with winged transoms. It was a lovely sight. – The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense. If you draw your fingers through them they are lodged and struggle with a shock of wet heads; the long stalks rub and click and flatten to a fan on one another like your fingers themselves would when you passed the palms hard across one another, making a brittle rub and jostle like the noise of a hurdle strained by leaning against; then there is the faint honey smell and in the mouth the sweet gum when you bite them’.
There is also this quatrain in his poem ‘May Magnificat’:
‘And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
……And magic cuckoocall
……Caps, clears, and clinches all—‘
Sadly it is many years since I heard a cuckoo in these parts.
I sometimes feel that Hopkins is putting more of a strain on the language than it can readily bear – that’s a succinct way of putting it, David. We do sometimes feel that and yet we continue to love GMH. I think perhaps it is because there is such a wealth of meaning compressed into his regulated lines, so we know that this is far from laziness or self indulgence – and the meaning is always easily unpacked. By contrast with much poetry that has followed I would say.
Enjoy those bluebells by the way! We plan to take another look at the display in our own local woods tomorrow.