Gerard Manley Hopkins – Heaven Haven

I HAVE desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

I wonder how many of us feel like this? I am not alone, surely?

The sub-title is “A Nun Takes the Veil” and although, even in these gender neutral days, I would be hard pushed to do that, I have often envied the quiet of a monastic garden. Peace and plenty, a place where the water does not dry up. Stillness and calm, safety from the storms of the sea. Beauty: a field where a few lilies bloom.

Yes, I would like all of that. A place with no hailstorms. A haven where the terrifying green swell of a rough sea holds no sway.

One would guess that is what the poet yearned for as well, diagnosed as he has been, albeit posthumously and speculatively, with bi-polar disorder. Tragically, he never achieved heaven on earth, but then perhaps as a Jesuit priest, he did not expect to. Christians have ever been “jam tomorrow” people who, apparently, find contentment (or at least fulfillment?) in being as miserable as hell on earth since they are so certain that better is to come after their deaths.

How damaging are such views, not so far removed from those of the Jihadist. How much more satisfying to make a heaven on earth and to achieve happiness in the here and now, rather than gamble on an uncertain and improbable future.

I have reached a deeply satisfactory understanding, very recently, of the part that poetry can play in soothing the mind. It seems to have its part to play in making a better place of the here and now. It leads me on a dream, a pleasant and beautiful mind wander. Reading Heaven-Haven fills me with warmth; it puts me in such a place as Hopkins describes, where water does not fail and where lilies bloom.

We live only partly in “reality” if at all. In a very real sense “reality” is what we make it. Think comforting and beautiful thoughts and in some sense those thoughts become your reality. Perhaps I am thinking of the extraordinary Dietrich Bonhoeffer who argued that Christians should act in the world rather than retreat from it, and who maintained calm and equanimity throughout his terrible treatment and eventual death at the hands of the Nazis.

I strongly disagree with the necessity of sharing “in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world” but Bonhoeffer’s stoicism was remarkable.

I am, alas, an escapist. I seek Heaven-Haven in the here and now and a poem like this somehow points the way, in a tantalizing and not quite properly defined fashion. In some sense I am deeply affected and moved by religious thought.

And yet I do not believe we have to surrender ourselves to an unproven deity. I do not believe we have to resign ourselves to hell on earth,

I do believe that this life, this here, this now could become what man has sought over the eons. I do believe, very strongly, that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It will take a combination of philosophy and science. It is in our hands to solve pain and hunger and to replace it with joy and plenty, not for the few but for the many.

Gerard Manly Hopkins soothes my often troubled mind. I want that field where lilies bloom and somehow, reading this poem, I can almost touch it.

Image: Tate Gallery

Music:Heaven Haven by Alexander Campkin, sung by the Fulham Camerata,


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