PRAYERCAzT: Vespers – Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BrevRom)

No frills vespers from the Breviarium Romanum, though I sing the hymn Ave maris stella.

The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1918

Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that ‘s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race–
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do–
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.
     I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.

    If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn–
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

    Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.

    So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

    Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. shadowlands says:

    That is so beautiful.

  2. Maltese says:

    Incredible poem (and poet)! What makes Hopkins so amazing, and an enigma, is that his poems were truly worked-out in his heart, without ego, and without guile. He lived in poverty (as a Priest) and died very young, with almost no recognition of his poetic genius. Yet he is a great, if not THE Greatest, nineteenth century poet. Contemporary beyond his time, yet traditional to the Traditions of the Church, he would have then, and now, been better acclaimed but for the fact that he was a Catholic, and a priest at that!

    If you haven’t read Exiles by Ron Hansen, it is well worth a look. It chronicles Hopkins’ poetic look at the the wreck of the Deutschland, where nuns died heroically solacing slowly-drowning passengers. Hansen is a gifted writer in his own right, and the combination of a gifted writer writing about a gifted writer is a treat!

    Hopkins was early taken from this life like Mary’s Son, and those courageous nuns, yet all those tears are dried in heaven…

  3. marthawrites says:

    I love GMH because I love those Anglo Saxon word couplings and the skewered sentence structures and the endlessly complex images and…and…When I was in college, the president of the school never gave a talk w/o quoting GMH. Now,what is the name of the painting of Mary Our Queen? I may have to look at that every day for the rest of my life!

  4. AnAmericanMother says:

    Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece.

  5. AnAmericanMother says:

    I find Hopkins very difficult but worth the work. One has to read a poem 3-4 times before it settles in, and if you leave it for awhile it’s all to do over again. But beautiful!

  6. Maltese says:

    For any of you who like American literature, Hansen wrote, in my humble opinion (Btw: though I have a B.A. in English Lit. from the University of Michigan, I was never trained in the classics, but was force-fed such fare as “Writing down the bones” by, for instance, teaching-assistant feminists, who were not even really qualified to teach, so I’m having to re-train myself) one of the great American short-stories: Nebraska

    If you ever get to read this short story (it’s not available on-line) it truly is a masterwork.

  7. Rachel says:

    This poem convinced me that the sky is blue because of Mary, that it’s an image of her just as human marriage is an image of the union between Christ and His Church.

    Here’s a CD of a guy reading Hopkins’ poems. It’s very well done and includes “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air we Breathe”.

  8. J Kusske says:

    When I was in college I was exposed to Hopkins when my choir did a piece by Benjamin Britten, a setting of “God’s Grandeur.” One may or may not appreciate the music (I’m of mixed mind), but the imagery and the music of the poetry itself struck me. I’m happy to see such a lovely and lengthy offering here, the second great poem (third I should say!) Father Z has offered in the past couple of days. Who compared this website to a feast certainly spoke well–the painting above is also sublimely beautiful.

  9. AnAmericanMother says:

    Well, I certainly wouldn’t start with that Britten! (it wasn’t published or performed in his lifetime). The “Ceremony of Carols” or “Rejoice in the Lamb” are much more accessible.

  10. doanli says:

    Beautiful words, beautiful picture! Looks like a photograph!

  11. Jack Hughes says:

    how can we ever thank God for such a Beautiful mother?

  12. J Kusske says:

    Accesibility is all well and good, but the more seriously-inclined music schools want to teach hoi polloi about True Musical Art. That and it made a nice change of pace from some more approachable and lighter fare. (I can’t recall if we did it as part of Christmas Fest or somewhere else, but I do remember doing another Britten piece for that from “The World of the Spirit”; it was supposed to be a North American premiere at the time. At least I never had to do any Herbert Howell or his ilk, unlike some others at my school!) I would love to have the chance to do the other Britten mentioned above; actually I did one snippet already, “This Little Babe” from the Ceremony of Carols, but that was outside of college.

  13. AnAmericanMother says:

    Oh, bah! There’s plenty of good music around without resorting to a composer’s discards (my theory is that if he never finished it, never published it, and never performed it, he thought there was something wrong with it). Wastebasket-rifling, whether for composers or writers, seems to me to betray their intentions.

    As a former Anglican I have no problem with Howells (“Like as the hart” is one we sing pretty regularly – it’s very good although a bit difficult to get exactly right, and your men had better have a good top end for the first phrase.) We generally pair it with the Palestrina “Sicut Cervus” on whatever Sunday Psalm 42 comes around. Although Howell’s not in the first rank he’s perfectly o.k. There is a place for music that’s not quite as difficult as Britten can be, because your average parish choir is going to break its teeth on some of his stuff. A music school can have a higher standard.

    My personal favorite of Britten’s is the “Agnus Dei” from his War Requiem — fierce, beautiful, dissonant in places but always resolving. You need a very good tenor but you also need a choir that can handle weird intervals and cross-relations without falling to pieces. We fortunately were able to handle it in my old Anglican choir — have never done it in our Catholic parish because it isn’t really suitable for liturgical use (a poem by Wilfred Owen is superimposed on the Agnus Dei), but we have an excellent tenor and I think staff could carry everybody else through. But our tenor is going to Juilliard . . . . and good big tenors don’t grow on every bush.

  14. J Kusske says:

    I tend to concur with the author having the ability to decide what to keep and what to cast off, though when I hear stories of him burning his earlier work near the end of his life the archivist in me feels almost like it’s burning one’s child. I hear that Hopkins (to return to the theme) did that with much of his earlier work when he felt it was leading him away from his priestly duties, and much of what has survived was what he’d sent to others. But I can’t speak to that, it’s what I saw poking about online. Oh, I had the chance to attend the War Requiem a number of years ago when it was at Orchestra Hall (in the Twin Cities), and I recall it being quite an experience, but it’s so long I don’t remember anything in particular. I will have to listen to it again the next opportunity I get. You are far more well-versed in British music from your Anglican upbringing than I am, AmericanMother! Thanks for sharing your experience; mine is more the Lutheran tradition (though I’m a cradle Catholic)–I went to St. Olaf and there are plenty of other great Lutheran choirs all over my native area.

  15. AnAmericanMother says:

    I understand the feeling of loss . . . historians want everything. I’m sure we lost some good work of Hopkins’s . . . but I can’t fault him for doing what he thought was right, especially if he felt it was distracting him from his work. The type of general record-burning that’s occasionally ordered via will (or done by somebody’s surviving spouse) is the sort that really annoys me! At least we have his later and presumably more mature work . . . if we had more of his early, more conventional, poems and had lost the later ones, we would have lost something far more valuable.

    The Lutherans need not defer to anybody in the matter of sacred music . . . cough . . . cough . . . Johann Sebastian . . . cough . . . cough . . . not to mention Praetorius, Schein or Scheidt.

    I studied German for 10 years so naturally I had a lot of exposure. Also, our choir director is a Swede from New York State and doesn’t hesitate to raid the Lutherans on a regular basis.

  16. irishgirl says:

    I thought Gerard Manley Hopkins died in the 19th, not the 20th century….and he died rather young for a Jesuit.

    Beautiful poem, though-and I love that painting of Our Lady from the ‘Ghent Altarpiece’!

  17. J Kusske says:

    He did. The date is from the publication, not the time of composition.

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