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Poems 52: Heaven-haven (Gerald Manley Hopkins)

January 5, 2014

A nun takes the veil

I have asked 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 knew this was the first poem I wanted to memorize this year because I read it repeatedly when I last visited my father before he died. I had brought along a copy of The Rattle Bag, an anthology of poems that to this day gets packed if I am away for a night or more from home because it is almost a commonplace book of poets and there is always something in it at 4am while it rains.

I didn’t consciously try to memorize it then, just read it over and over until it was a polished touchstone. When I read it now, it has laid over the poem itself, silent cold mornings, standing in my parents’ garden and the sense of waiting for death and life.

I always think of island monasteries and nunneries here, and the question of retreat from the larger world to a quieter place being implied, but that Hopkins, as an often unhappy Jesuit, would have known, becoming a monk or a nun is not retreat from the world but instead taking on a more intense and in some ways much harder community. A priest I know liked to say that being a monk had meant all the commitment of marriage, but to thirty-odd other monks in your monastery, not just one person.

To me, the poem is about choosing the path of a nun towards the life beyond, not choosing life in a nunnery as a safer quieter option than the world.  Every time I read it, I wonder what she asks exactly, especially that first she asks to go, and then she asks to be, and for me the most opaque line – in the havens dumb. Why is the green swell silenced?

A couple of notes on some partial meanings:

  • A few lilies blow – the word blow is here the older form of bloom
  • The green swell is that quieter part of waves nearer the shore
  • havens being a safe port or refuge, as in the gray havens
  • the swing of the sea referring to the tides

And finally, on memorizing it: so much easier a little each day. Because it’s next to the sink, I ended up reading it over and over. I would close my eyes and attempt to recite it until I had it down, and now it’s pretty stuck.

I’m handwriting all of the 52 poems into a small notebook as my own commonplace anthology at the end of the year.

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