In 31 Songs, Nick Hornby talks about listening to a song over and again, the need to solve it, to listen until it’s given up its mysteries. And then what? It gets old, worn out? This doesn’t seem to worry Paul McCartney, who still turns up every Queen’s birthday to close the proceedings with an extended “Hey Jude”. If you’re going to say you like The Beatles, and I do, you should maybe talk about “Revolution Number 9” more than “A Hard Day’s Night”, if you want to seem culturally engaged, rather than out for easy (and so, meaningless?) monophonic gratification. For certain, some songs give up their mysteries less readily than others, and “Revolution Number 9” remains unresolved for me. But “A Hard Day’s Night” – that perfect polished nugget of pure pop in two-and-a-half minutes – retains some mystery, doesn’t it? The opening chord, its twangy dissonance, has generated decades of debate, from 12-string conspiracy theories to mathematical analysis. It’s one of the most recognizable sounds in pop history, and although I’ve heard other songs open similarly, I don’t remember what they’re called or who they’re by (Pixies aside). They’re only memorable for not being “A Hard Day’s Night”.
“Glory be to God for dappled things” has always struck me as one of the most memorable opening lines around. I think it’s to do with the pomp and glee of “Glory be to God”, against the earthiness of “dappled things”. It’s almost funny, isn’t it? Except Gerard Manley Hopkins’s line doesn’t make me laugh; it makes me happy. I’d say the line loudly, whenever I was out running on Rivelin Valley Road and starting to feel my legs getting tired. It perked me right up. Or when I’m worrying about life, the universe and everything, it works then, too. Mindfulness is all the rage these days, and as with anything en trend, has had a whole money-making industry grow up around it. But mindfulness is free, and this seems as good an approach as any. It takes my mind out of myself and throws it at the dappled stuff in front of me. Sometimes there are skies of couple-colour. There’s rarely a brinded cow, however.
That contrast within the opening line embodies the whole idea of “dappled”. It sets the poem up as an example of its subject, and is an ode to the nature of beauty, as much as to God. These two themes are inseparable for Hopkins, but praising God gives me the willies, in case the lapsed Catholic in me bursts into hymn. You can insert whatever does it for you, if God isn’t your thing, and still get the thrill of it. Beauty is for everyone, and Hopkins is pretty good on the topic. In his On the Origin of Beauty: A Platonic Dialogue, an Oxford professor talks about a sycamore leaf; that the beauty of it isn’t in the symmetry of its shape (so when you fold it lengthways, one side answers the other), or the asymmetry of the diametrically opposed leaves (big leaves diametrically opposite small leaves), but in the relation of one aspect to the other. I had some trouble picturing this, and, to my shame, had to Google “sycamore leaf”. But the next day, I went for a run round Endcliffe Park, and guess what I noticed all over the path, not to mention “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls”.
Those compounds of his are special, like he wants you to experience everything about a thing all at once. The compounds and the rhymes woven through the poem create this tight, coherent whole in ten and a bit lines – or two-and-a-half minutes in pop terms. Perhaps its own coherence and memorability, its relative accessibility, undermines itself. Perhaps there’s more mystery to solve in “Wreck of the Deutschland”? But “Pied Beauty” still retains mystery for me. Reading it now, I notice that I’ve never thought about “fathers-forth”, but I’ve an image of God shimmying to the front of stage (looking like Ted Neeley from Jesus Christ Superstar), as he presents all of creation with a ta-da!
And then those brackets in the eighth line: “Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)”. I’m generally suspicious of brackets in a poem; they seem to lack conviction by their own parenthetic nature. For a long time, I wanted to ignore the aside, like when you go to a reading and the poet interrupts themselves to qualify the bit they just read with a shrug or anecdote. Maybe it jars because the “I” is barely present elsewhere – but I’m starting to think that’s the point. Self-effacement is in keeping with Hopkins’s Jesuit doctrine, but I think he’s so fired up about his subject, he’s (accidentally?) bubbled over onto the page. I might love him for this, and even though I’ve been ignoring him, in effect, that human intervention is probably why I keep going back to the poem. It stops it being just a psalm to God or nature, and makes it about the man, how he negotiates his relationship with them, which is such an abiding experience: how can it get old?