Hopkins Meditation 6

WaterfallIt was a hard thing to undo this knot.
The rainbow shines, but only in the thought
Of him that looks. Yet not in that alone,
For who makes rainbows by invention?
And many standing round a waterfall
See one bow each, yet not the same to all,
But each a hand’s breadth further than the next.
The sun on falling waters writes the text
Which yet is in the eye or in the thought.
It was a hard thing to undo this knot.

In this week’s poem meditation I’ve chosen “It was a hard thing to undo this knot,” a poem that is considered unfinished. While it doesn’t demonstrate the complexity of thought and form that is characteristic of Hopkins’s best poems, it is thought-provoking.

Upon first reading this short poem, you might be inclined to write it off as a simple nature poem about rainbows. “Rainbows are pretty,” you might think, and then, “Well, that was nice.” But for Hopkins, rainbows and how they are perceived causes a “knot,” as he mentions in the first and last lines.

We know rainbows are formed when light refracts and reflects through water. We see them because our eyes can observe the various colors of the spectrum refracted and reflected. But Hopkins isn’t so concerned about the science behind rainbows. He’s not so concerned with how they exist; he seems to be in wonder that they exist. “Who makes rainbows by invention?” Good question. Who thinks of something like a color arc that forms only when certain conditions exist? Rainbows are a wonder, but they only really “shine” when someone looks… and I think Hopkins would have us really look at them.

Still not really “seeing” what Hopkins is poking at? Consider the scenario he sets up: A group of people is gathered around a waterfall. They each see the water cascading down and they each see a rainbow formed as sunlight pours through the spray. Hopkins probes at the idea that each person is seeing a different rainbow; because the people are standing at different angles to the light penetrating the spray, each person’s rainbow is in a different place in the sky. So really, there are many rainbows scattered throughout the air around the waterfall, but each person only sees one.

This is some sort of “text,” written by the sun on the water–as if the water is some sort of paper or canvas perhaps. Or so the rainbows appear to be “written” on the water. They’re actually in the eye or thought of the viewer.

~~~*~~~
Yeah, okay. This is a relatively simple poem… in form. But what Hopkins is trying to grasp–and convey to any readers–is that this is a difficult knot to undo, to apprehend. But perhaps we can take what we can grasp of the poem, catch our breath and marvel at the intricacies of the countless rainbows and other wonders dancing through creation. We may all potentially “see” them, but we may see them a bit differently due to our angle and relationship to the writer of the wonders.

 

 

Kent_TravisIf you are enjoying Kent Travis’ teaching on reading poetry, then check out this short book, You Want Me To Read What?  It’s packed with helpful tips for enjoying poetry. I didn’t believe I could understand poetry until I read his book. It’s awesome!

Kent Travis is the Humanities Department Chair at the Brook Hill School.  

http://mkenttravis.com

https://twitter.com/MKentTravis

www.brookhill.org

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About Kent Travis

If you are enjoying Kent Travis' teaching on reading poetry, then check out this short book, You Want Me To Read What?  It's packed with helpful tips for enjoying poetry. I didn't believe I could understand poetry until I read his book. It's awesome!

Kent Travis is the Humanities Department Chair at the Brook Hill School.  

http://mkenttravis.com

https://twitter.com/MKentTravis

www.brookhill.org

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