Though J. R. R. Tolkien and Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in different eras and genres, they were brothers in thought and art. Tolkien was an English professor and myth-maker, while Hopkins was a Jesuit priest and Victorian poet, but they had much in common, such as their use of the sound of words and Anglo-Saxon writing techniques. However, what really unites them is a common theme. It is a threefold theme, three ideas bound into one: the beauty of this world, the sorrow of this world, and the hope of the next. I mean to fully explore this theme in due time, but for now I am only interested in the first part — the beauty of this world and the love of nature.
Hopkins has written many poems on nature, most of which are so deep and masterful that I have no right to speak about them. In Hopkins’s writing, every word tells. Not even years of re-reading can reveal all that is said. However, I think I have begun to figure out “The Sea and the Skylark”:
On ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.1
In these four lines, Hopkins has captured the essence of the sea. He has chosen words whose f sounds and l sounds echo the sound of water, and when we read it out loud, we can almost hear the waves singing with “a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar.” He goes on to remind us that this sea-song has been sung since before history began, and that it will be sung “while moon shall wear and wend.” When we think of something so nearly eternal, an awe falls upon us, and with it, the stillness of wild things.
I wish I could tell you of all the natural wonders that Hopkins praises and how he praises them. In the second stanza of “The Sea and the Skylark,” he snares the song of the lark in all its wild, rippling joy. In “Spring and Fall” he writes of autumn woods, of golden leaves that fade and fall.2 In “The Starlight Night,” he says,
Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!3
What glorious metaphors! But Tolkien has a tale that can rival them. He says that the morning star is a hero sailing a bright ship through the heavens, bearing a sacred stone.4
Tolkien seemed to have a special love for stars — stars and trees. At any rate, many of his characters did. In The Lord of the Rings, Legolas can almost talk to the trees. When about to enter the dangerous forest of Fangorn, while the others are afraid, he stands “alone in the open, looking towards the profound shadow of the wood, leaning forward, as one who listens to voices calling from a distance.”5 But Gimli the Dwarf loves mountains and stone, loves them with his whole being. He waxes eloquent about the caves of Aglarond:
. . . Legolas, when the torches are kindled and men walk on the sandy floors under the echoing domes, ah! then, Legolas, gems and crystals and veins of precious ore glint in the polished walls; and the light glows through folded marbles shell-like, translucent as the living hands of Queen Galadriel. There are columns of white and saffron and dawn-rose, Legolas, fluted and twisted into dreamlike forms . . . Still lakes mirror them: a glimmering world looks up from dark pools covered with clear glass . . . And plink! a silver drop falls, and the round wrinkles in the glass make all the towers bend and waver like weeds and corals in a grotto of the sea. Then evening comes: they fade and twinkle out; the torches pass into another chamber and another dream.6
Tolkien has filled The Lord of the Rings with powerful word-paintings such as this. Like Hopkins’s poetry, they tune the reader’s heart to the silence of wild things. With Frodo, he discovers that “never before had he been so suddenly aware of the feel and texture of a tree’s skin and of the life within it. He felt a delight in wood and the touch of it, neither as a forester or a carpenter; it was the delight of the living tree itself.”
Now this delight is not the disordered, pagan love of nature that is attributed to the Romantic poets. No, this is the love of nature under God. The shepherd loves his sheep because it is his duty as a steward. The psalmist loves the stars because they proclaim the Lord’s handiwork.8 So Hopkins and Tolkien loved the beauty of this world because it reflects something Higher, because it is “charged with the grandeur of God.”9
- Read all of “The Sea and the Skylark” here.
- Read “Spring and Fall” here.
- Read all of “The Starlight Night” here.
- This hero is Eärendil, the father of Elrond. His story can be read in chapter 24 of The Silmarillion. A briefer, poetic version by Bilbo Baggins can be found in The Fellowship of the Ring, “Many Meetings.”
- The Two Towers, “The Riders of Rohan.”
- The Two Towers, “The Road to Isengard.”
- The Fellowship of the Ring, “Lothlórien.”
- The Holy Bible, Psalm 19:1.
- Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur.”