"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Poetry: The May Magnificat by Gerard Manly Hopkins, Part 2

This is the second time I’m posting this poem.  I’ve never posted the same poem twice.  I posted this back in October of 2014 but I never provided any analysis.  We recently discussed a few of Hopkins’ poems over at Catholic Thought Book Club and this was included.  I provided my analysis, which I’ll share, and I’ll post some of the discussion.

First the poem:

The May Magnificat
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

May is Mary's month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—

Candlemas, Lady Day;
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?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
Throstle above her nested

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
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Nature's motherhood.

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
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
To offering Mary May.

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfèd cherry

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
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ's birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.

Let’s attempt to really understand this lovely poem.  There are twelve quatrain stanzas in the poem with an AA BB rhyme scheme and as far as I can tell an irregular rhythm.  Any particular line has anywhere from five to ten syllables and Hopkins irregularly varies the meter between iambic (unstressed/stressed), trochaic (stressed/unstressed), and spondaic (stressed/stressed).  You can read about meter hereI’m not sure there is any aesthetic connection between the irregularity and the theme of the poem, other than, perhaps, the natural flow of language seeks to emulate the irregularity of nature.  Perhaps the regularity of the stanzas suggest the consistent form of nature, while the irregularities of the line suggest the varieties of natural elements within its consistent form.  Perhaps I may be over intellectualizing that, but it’s there as a possibility.

The twelve stanzas perhaps are meant to recall the twelve stars in Mary’s crown as noted in Revelations 12:1: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”  The image of Mary in the poem emphasizes, I think holds in tension the mature enthroned Mary, Queen of Heaven as we look upon her and the youthful young lady of the Annunciation who is carrying the Christ child.

Let’s walk through the poem and try to get central theme.  The poem starts with the question, why is May the Blessed Virgin Mary’s month?  Is it just an opportunity to offer her flowers, as Hopkins muses in the third stanza?  So in the fourth stanza he asks her directly, and her reply is “Question: What is spring?—/Growth in everything.”  Stanzas five and six provide examples of the fecundity of the spring season, and are I think the most lyrical.

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.

There you go, irregularity of meter within the regularity of form.  Very few poets can make that work so beautifully.  So what does this growth have to do with the Blessed Mother?  Stanzas seven and eight answer.  “Mary sees, sympathizing/With that world of good.”  No, she is not some pagan-esk Mother Nature goddess directing nature but as she sees life arising, she is in sympathy with it, and just as her being magnifies the Lord— “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” Luke 1:46, (King James Version emphasizes it better)—Hopkins tells us her sympathy magnifies nature.  Her blessings augment the beauty of the blossoming spring.  That would be enough of an observation and connection, but Hopkins goes further.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring's universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.

Here we see it wasn’t Mary who controlled the spring, but the beauty and bliss of spring offers the month to her.  Why?  Because her joy at carrying the Lord in her womb brings her to overwhelming bliss.  Read the first lines of the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-49:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name…”

The lowly handmaid has been selected by God to carry the messiah.  How could one not be joyful?  And here she is with child, conception having occurred in March, growing within her as nature grows about her, and the two parallel growths further magnify each other.   Internal fecundity blesses external fecundity in a sort of synergy.  And that’s what is emphasized in the tenth, eleven, and twelfth stanzas.  And so, May is Mary’s month because nature and budding motherhood bless each other.

I have to admit there is one sentence in the poem which baffles me.  It comes in the first two lines of the tenth stanza: “When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple/Bloom lights the orchard-apple.”  I don’t get the reference to blood and foam.  Is that Christ’s blood and water coming from His side?  Doesn’t seem likely here, nor can I place it as a reference to some beautiful element of nature.  If anyone has thoughts on that, please respond. 

This is a beautiful poem though. 

Frances says:

Keeping this rhythm in mind, read the Hopkins' lines in question as phrases which build to a climax or conclusion. I'll type them out as if they are parts of sentences:

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple bloom lights the orchard-apple, and thicket and thorp are merry with silver-surfed cherry, and azuring-over greybell makes wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes, and magic cuckoo call caps, clears, and clinches all --

This ecstasy throughout nature speaks to Mary of the blood of Christ shed for human salvation. (Hopkins' final stanza, said plainly)

Does this make sense to you?

I respond:

Hi Frances. I would say that's as close to making sense as I've seen anywhere. I also just saw somewhere that the foam suggests the sea and Mary being Queen of the Seas or Star of the Seas. In Latin I believe it's Stella Maris. So perhaps a drop of blood for Christ, the foam of the seas for Mary dapple to bloom the apple trees. It's possible.

Leslie says:

I think he is alluding to the crucifixion and in metaphor, the tree of life with the reference to the apple orchard.

Kelly says:

Ah, I see what you mean. I guess I was only taking the words at face value. The drop of blood and foam, I was taking quite literally to mean the orchard blossom whose petals appear a pinkish/red tint on the outside and white when they open up. Thus their appearance of "blood" and "foam" brightens up the apple orchard with color and life.

I had not even considered that Hopkins was referring to an event in salvation history; very eye-opening! :) Maybe the "blood" red represents the seven sorrows of Our Lady and how Simeon had foretold "you yourself a sword will pierce" (Lk 2:35). Perhaps the white "foam" symbolizes her purity and the virginal birth of Christ. Both her sorrows and purity point to her Immaculate Heart.

I respond

Hey that's very possible Kelly. I like that. I guess we'll never know for sure, but now I lean toward your reading, some mixture of sorrow and purity.


  1. Would you mind elaborating what natural reference Hopkins is making at the beginning of stanza 11 in the phrase "azuring-over greyball makes"? I have no idea what a "greyball" is in nature and can't find anymore specifics on the internet. Any elucidation you can provide is very much appreciated.

    1. Thanks for reading and asking. That's a good question. I take that as a place name, "buehl" in German being a word for "hill." And "azure over graybell" seems to suggest a blue sky over a hill. This website might help:

      It's not conclusive but my suggestion sounds plausible. I hope that helps. Hope you find my blog of interest to you.

  2. Thank you for responding. In my Penguin Classics edition of GMH Poems and Prose, it says "greyball" -not "graybell," but I do find your reading plausible. I just thought I was missing some natural reference. I will check out your T.S. Eliot posts too eventually here. Such a great name for your blog from him. I'm working my way through Russell Kirk's Eliot and His Age (stopping to re-read Eliot's verse makes it a slow go). Before moving past "The Hollow Men" I finally read "Heart of Darkness" and was thoroughly gripped by Conrad's prose (I'd never read any Conrad before this - but am intrigued by the similarities with Dostoyevsky).