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Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The Habit of Perfection"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Introduction and Text of "The Habit of Perfection"

The title, "The Habit of Perfection," of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem features a pun on the term "habit." As a monk, the poet had accepted the garb of the monastic, sometimes called a habit. Of course, the ordinary meaning of common routine also functions fully.

About the importance of silence, Paramahansa Yogananda has averred, "What joy awaits discovery in the silence behind the portals of your mind no human tongue can tell. Jesuit Priest Gerard Manley Hopkins completely concurs with the great guru's claim. Father Hopkins' poem dramatizes the bliss of silence in seven rimed quatrains, each with the rime scheme, ABAB, featuring his famous sprung rhythm and inscape techniques. The devotee/speaker commands each of his senses to cease their normal functioning, in order that his soul may meditate in holy silence and commune with the Divine.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Habit of Perfection

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

Reading of "The Habit of Perfection"

Commentary

Father Hopkins' poem, "The Habit of Perfection," dramatizes the importance of silencing and stilling each of the five senses in order to advance in the spiritual realm.

First Quatrain: Devotee of the Spiritual Path

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

The speaker reveals himself to be a devotee on the spiritual path, as he converses with "Elected Silence"; the devotee chooses silence as the place where inner awareness starts, remembering the biblical injunction, "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10 King James Version).

The speaker metaphorically likens his Elected Silence to music, capable of singing to him and beating upon his eardrum. This silence "pipe[s him] to pastures" in the mind which he wants to still. He, therefore, asks silence to be "the music that [he cares] to hear."

Second Quatrain: Commanding the Senses

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

As an adjunct to the auditory sense, speaking or moving the lips must cease as well as catching sounds with the ear; thus, the speaker bids his lips to remain "lovely-dumb." He tells his lips to form no sounds, stressing that the eloquent speech of the devotee is in his surrender to the Divine. The devotee must remain silent in order to hear the voice of Divinity.

Third Quatrain: Calming the Sense of Sight

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

The speaker then bids his eyes remain closed. He commands them to seek "double dark" beyond which they can encounter the "uncreated light." In their seeking, the eyes may experience flashes of unearthly light that "[c]oils, keeps, and teases simple sight." But the devotee's goal is to become so calm that the physical eyes cease to catch mere glimpses, while the spiritual eye becomes operational.

Fourth Quatrain: Calming the Sense of Taste

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

The speaker/devotee orders his sense of taste to cease its intrusion upon the soul. He specifically commands his taste buds not to crave wine. The sense of taste must be subdued by fasting, wherein the urge for food and drink become swallowed up in the bliss of Divine communion.

Fifth Quatrain: Calming the Sense of Smell

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

The sense of smell accompanies the act of breathing, and in meditation, breathing slows until it stops in deepest awareness of the Divine. The speaker commands his nose by asserting the premise that it functions through a sense of pride, which is damaging to the humbleness necessary for Divine awareness.

Sixth Quatrain: Calming the Sense of Touch

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

The speaker then promises his greedy hands and feet, which desire softness and comfort, that they will be rewarded to walk the golden street, if they cooperate in sacrificing their worldly comforts for heavenly ones.

Seventh Quatrain: Union of Soul and Divine

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

In the final quatrain, the speaker alludes to Jesus' command not to become overly conscious about one's clothes: "And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these" (Matthew 6:28-29 King James Version).

The speaker avers that taking Poverty as his bride, he will enjoy all the comforts of heaven. As a monastic, the speaker has taken a vow of poverty or simplicity because he is seeking treasures not afforded by the material world. As he silences and calms all the senses, his true marriage feast begins, his marriage or union with the Divine, in Whom all worthwhile treasures are acquired and all worthy goals are achieved.

The Life and Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins- Mr. Steve Ayers, Authenticum Lecture Series

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes