The BOOKPRESS December 1998

Apples of the Eye


David Weiss

 
I don’t know what it is about these phrases—every beast of the field, every fowl of the air, everything that creepeth upon the ground, the fish of the sea—that fills me with a covert exultation, a momentary buoyancy. It is hard to know exactly what moves us when we are moved unaccountably, especially by things that germinated in those tropics of our own personal pleistocene. To mouth these words of creation to myself, and everything that creepeth upon the ground, was and, if I can catch myself off-guard, still is—to restock the earth, to make it teem with nervy, muscled life. It’s as if Sir Philip Sidney’s idea about the singularity of poets were true: Though their will be infected, their "erected wit maketh [them] know what perfection is." By perfection, Sidney has in mind the prelapsarian, as though by means of the poet’s words we could pass beneath the flaming, angelic swords back through the gates into Paradise.

I have often tried to isolate the spring mechanism which catapults me into that reverie (as awe-inducing and brief as a shooting star). For a time I thought it was the preposition of and that discredited poetic use of the possessive: fowl of the air. The lean no-nonsense of air’s fowl or sea’s fish has nothing effervescent or giddy-making about it. For a time I thought there was perhaps something talismanic about the redundance: Of course fish of the sea are of the sea. Where else would they be of? Was the author of Genesis, or the King James committee, making a distinction between salmon and smelt, or between trout and tree skippers by using that canny of? No, but maybe the sense of plenty, of cornucopia, comes from this uneconomical usage, as though the redundant were an expression of the prolific, the unnecessary a form of the fecund and generative. "Fowles in the frith/ Fishes in the flood" a middle English lyric starts off, echoing Genesis, perhaps, envious of things in their element, a condition the poet is exiled from. "Much sorwe I walke with," he laments, in felt contrast.

In those prepositions, there is clearly something joyous; I can almost recollect seeing in the mind’s aquarium the fish of the sea leaping or breaching as if that preposition, of, had inspired them to it. As I think of it, though, I am unsure now if this glimmer of Paradise flashed from the words themselves or from pictures in books (I half-suspect that the illustrations from Edward Lear’s Scroobious Pip might be the source of the leaping, swarming images I half-recall), or from films (the pre-historic world in a film like "Lost Continent," say) or from my simply having crawled about in the grass beneath one of those woodslatted concrete benches on which my mother used to rest between perambulations in St. James Park in the Bronx.

And maybe it’s not solely the prepositions; maybe, against the grain of that poetic injunction to shun generality, it’s that beast, fowl, fish, however generic, remain, nevertheless, potent and concrete, as though these Linnaean categoricals carried with them all their instances, the entire tribe of creatures. Milton’s conjurings of creation in Paradise Lost don’t suffer from such broad strokes.

Good poetry or bad, those phrases cast a long shadow, or the opposite of a shadow. They gave or restored something to me, I don’t know which. In any case, it amounts to little more than a kind of dream, a memory trace from the collective imagination that permits us to grasp what we have hardly experienced. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if some part of me doesn’t still consider this glimmer as having more actuality than the materia of daily life.

And I shouldn’t have been surprised when, in early October, I took my daughter to a local orchard where we often go to pick cherries or plums or apples, sometimes just to test the ripening fruit and stroll the laden rows. It’s a steep, beautiful place. This time we were going there to talk specifically about a part of Genesis, the portion of the Pentateuch she had to give a talk on to the congregation as part of her Bat Mitzvah rite. In the apple-y air, she would talk, I would take notes. We sat with our backs to a stand of corn and squinted across a small meadow toward a gaudy field of flowers you could pick by the hand- or armful, clippers hanging from a nail on a low post for the purpose. Sun made the distant hills to the east hazy. We chewed on sharp-juicy, pale-flavored, not-quite-ready Macintoshes, so firm they made with each bite a sound like wood splitting.

As I see it, she said, creation’s made to look like we’re getting a God’s eye view of it, but we’re not. I mean, behold, it was good, it keeps saying as though God’s thinking it. But what’s good mean? Good for whom? I think it means good for us. Like it only mentions cattle when it mentions the animal world. Well, cattle. That says it all. They’re just creatures created for our benefit. So, basically, creation is, like, for us, for our use, not for its own sake. As if that’s the criteria. Well, we’re not the center of the earth, and the earth is not the center of the universe.

Smart kid, I thought. But I was disturbed. Isn’t there anything pleasing, anything you like about creation? I asked her.

No, she said after a moment. She nibbled around the core of her apple and tossed it into a row of heavy-headed sunflowers. Such a yellow yellow, I thought. Not really, she went on, it all just seems so egocentric.

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the feld and every fowl of the air, I mumbled to myself, not knowing what to say to this. "And bears man’s smudge and wears man’s smell," I thought, too, not because I breathe poetry but because I teach it. It was odd to feel a need to defend the beauty of the earth against a twelve-year-old, with everything around us so evidently brimming. But the earth, more often now called the planet, was to her despoiled, polluted, at risk, finite, never mentioned in school or in books without a sober reminder of looming ecological disaster if we don’t wise up fast. The earth, the planet, was something you couldn’t take for granted any longer like a mother’s utter but unremarkable there-ness, for example. She thought of it as a child—neglected, mistreated, fragile, and lonely as she herself must sometimes feel. And so, how against this rage, this outrage, can beauty hold a plea?

You can’t argue or beg or prod a person into pleasure; I couldn’t even coax. I remembered how as a boy my own dark feelings and moods had been made fun of and trivialized to get me to seem happier, to snap me out of them. Now I understood the desperation that could lead one to plead for even a simulated innocence; yet it felt underhanded, like cheating.

. . . And every beast of the feld, every fowl of the air, everything that creepeth upon the ground, and the fish of the sea, I intoned, getting, again, that little frisson she seemed so immune to. Next to her, I watched the clouds which I thought of stupidly as mashed potatoes gliding across a slippery blue Formica table top of sky. I couldn’t cast a spell for her. Besides, I was against spells, just then. And what spell could be greater than this very day, which she clearly was not insensible to, and might always remember as exquisite, archetypically, in a special daughter-father sort of way? But which, however charged, would be set for her in a frail and struggling, not a glorious, Nature. I began, guiltily, to curse the murderers of delight, not knowing just where to cast my stones.

I recalled then where Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet whose line had jumped into my head, had set the blame, and how Hopkins got the delight back in, though delight might have seemed to him too tepid a word, an effect, rather than a source.

He, like my daughter, felt a horror at the earth’s ruination and condemned its cause: "all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil"—strong stuff. She would certainly go for his "all," though she wouldn’t yet identify the problem twinned this way as "trade" and "toil," commerce and soul-deadening labor. The latter my daughter hasn’t seen yet or experienced herself, though chores for her are a chore. But the former, trade, has so completely attained in her short life the status of the only quo she knows that no alternative really obtains. Nothing seems, these days, to exist outside an economic framework. Who hasn’t repeatedly stamped his child’s efforts with the approving, "Good job!"? As if basic developmental skills were acquired at an hourly wage. I wonder if my daughter’s dream of universal humane treatment for all animals partly issues from this fact: that the utopian—and the dystopian, too, for that matter—is a symptom of not being able to envision a plausible alternative. Her heart is wholly with the underground animal rights activists.

Hopkins’ picture is grim: "Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;/ And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;/ And wears man’s smudge and bears man’s smell." No pulled punches. The verbal repetition, the excessive internal rhyme and alliteration are meant to make it feel unbearable and call to mind Blake’s "dark, satanic mills." Yet the word "toil" is rooted in the Latin tudicare and from that comes tudicula, a machine used to crush the oil from olives; from tudicula the word toil derives. The etymology points to a more gratifying model of labor, which Hopkins has in mind. Earlier in the poem, he contrasts the Dickensian and industrial smear of toil, unproductive and repetitive, to the grandeur of God that "gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil/ Crushed." The problem for Hopkins lies not in a Marxist analysis of the forces of production, but in the barriers that trade and toil erect to perceiving "the dearest freshness deep down things." I wonder if my daughter feels, in spite of all, that freshness. Is it even possible to feel it without an apprehension that there is a "deep down" to things? And especially if, unlike Hopkins, she feels that nature is spent? Nature’s deepest nuance may lie in our sensation of its inexhaustibility. Without it, we may well be nearing the end of nature, which takes its revenge by diminishing us as we diminish it. It makes me panicky, the thought of this mutual contraction.

I’m beginning to understand something about Hopkins’ insight into our situation. When Hopkins gives us his version of our plight, "generations have trod," etc., he does so without metaphoric language. For Hopkins, the world’s essential horror is that it does not allow for, and destroys, imagination. It’s a literal-minded place, and a literal-mind-making place. Trade and toil, or "getting and spending" in Wordsworth’s phrase, insidiously blunt our ability to apprehend what is being destroyed, to feel as a loss what is being lost. In his like-minded sonnet, Wordsworth groans, "we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon;" Hopkins similarly laments, "the soil/ is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod." Yet when Hopkins turns to the evidence of God’s presence, and Wordsworth to nature, both poets erupt metaphorically: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God./ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil," Hopkins proclaims. "This sea that bares her bosom to the moon/ The winds that will be howling at all hours/ and are upgathered now like sleeping flowers," says Wordsworth tenderly. In the presence of nature and in the presence of the signs of God in nature, a quantum change occurs. Without those presences, the metaphoric mind becomes quiescent; too long without them, it might even molder.

No one is without a metaphoric mind, my daughter least of all. Yet alarm over her elegiac unresponsiveness sounds in me. Whatever inspiration is, it clearly comes from outside of us; we must take it into ourselves, literally breathe it in, be sensible of it. Hopkins worries that it has become inaccessible to us. His verbs, sear, blear, smear, and smudge, say that nature is illegible. When "the world is too much with us," we can only distort the natural. If we suffuse it with our "smell," how will be able to sense its spirit or be suffused by it? When we are "out of tune" with nature, Wordsworth cries out, "it moves us not."

Just here, I think, is where the murderers of pleasure have overstepped with their good intentions and their responsible, somber indignation over what’s been done to our good earth. No discussion of rivers, songbirds or forests seems to occur without "consciousness raising" around the sad, ugly facts of degradation and loss. No breath of air can be taken without smoke from fires in the rainforest in it, without the taste of acid rain; no beam of sun warms the forehead without our awareness of the depletion of the ozone layer and the dangers of ultraviolet radiation. How often I have insisted on a thorough application of sunblock while my daughters begged, Can’t we go into the water yet? Ozone depletion: the HIV of summer fun, sunblock its latex condom. A love of nature seems impossible to express without attaching a cautionary footnote, as though the nature of love inherently requires that we express qualification. Whereas the nature of love may be to think metaphorically.

1, too, am one of these joy-binders whose parental sobriety and truthtelling, so it seems to me, helps keep my daughter from unalloyed pleasure. I hold out more hope for her, less for me; jailers can be more pathetic than the jailed. Yet it does seem we are all doomed to be shadowed by the tenuous fragility of things, to feel it always near like the seeds inside an apple which my daughter and I have been spitting at each other as we pluck near-ripe Jonagolds, going down a long row. It’s a comfort that thought’s hard work can so quickly devolve into slapstick. Seeds have slipped down inside my shirt; hers, too, I hope.

But it remains to be said that neither Hopkins nor Wordsworth thought the metaphoric mind the most desirable or significant one. Hopkins was goaded into writing his sonnet, I think, by Wordsworth’s remark in his earlier sonnet that he’d "rather be a pagan" if being a Christian meant being out of tune with nature. Hopkins’s bone to pick with Wordsworth was not with his solution but with his tepid faith.

There is in Wordsworth’s poem something troubling, though not, to my mind, in its threatened renunciation of Christianity. The trouble lies in the way that his metaphoric imagination "shares man’s smell." Personification helps us to know the non-human world, perhaps even to establish our relation to it. Wordsworth’s "sea that bares its bosom to the moon," though possibly an erotic image, strikes me as a maternal one. It provides an alternative to "lay[ing] waste our powers" just as Hopkins "ooze of oil crushed" provides an alternative to "toil." These figures of thought imply that Nature, attended to, can tutor us in right relations. Yet with those winds likened to "sleeping flowers," Wordsworth’s scene feels too Disneyfied, too gentled. As it will turn out, this evocation of nature is inadequate for Wordsworth; it can’t provide enough resistance to the too-much-with-us world.

Even this day and place, gravid with patient cultivation as my daughter and I amble along stopping to decorticate a stalk of Brussels sprouts, wouldn’t be sufficient for Wordsworth, at least in the mood of his poem. He wants something less comfortable than his own sweet, domesticating imagination. He’s feeling lonely, bereft, "forlorn," as he puts it (and as Keats does after him) in solid Romantic fashion. He wants not just to resonate with nature; he wants a glimpse, a vision of the gods: "Proteus rising from the sea, or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn." He wants sea and wind infused with divinities. More than a metaphoric mind, he craves a mythical one. Not to humanize the natural but to divinize it is his wish, not to liken but to transform. The closest he’ll get, however, is his own conditional projection of it, only the hypothesis of a solution.

A desperate poem takes desperate imaginative measures, maybe ultimate ones. But I’m out of sorts with it right now. Put this stalk of Brussels sprouts in Wordsworth’s hand to use as a walking stick, as I’m doing, and he’d feel better about things. My daughter and I are surely less forlorn, me with this stalk, she chucking windfall Northern Spies down the rows, the two of us amidst the fruits of the earth, companionable. Wordsworth in his poem and Hopkins in his are solitary. In the presence of divinity, real or wished for, there may be little room for others.

What can call forth our fullest capacity for delight? Hopkins felt he knew. And he also knew that to prove his truth to Wordsworth he’d have to exceed him in mythical imagination; he’d have to demonstrate it. For poems are demonstrations, seldom arguments. You have to turn them on and see that they work. Yet Hopkins concurred with Wordsworth on the power source needed to run their sublime linguistic gadgets: the mythical or religious imagination, a higher order than the metaphoric. It’s not enough to characterize the stilled winds as upgathered as sleeping flowers, or God’s grandeur as flaming out like shining from shook foil, or to call the trees God’s thoughts, as Jung did, though that is arresting with its wonderful animism. Something greater is needed, something more highly "charged."

Here is how Hopkins switches over from 110 to 220 volts after his assertion, "there lives the dearest freshness deep down things" (as strong an undemonstrated assertion as can be made): "And though the last lights off the black West went/ Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs—/ Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings." Where Wordsworth’s vision is subjunctive, speculative—"so might I, standing on some pleasant lea have visions that would make me less forlorn"—Hopkins is all immediacy, pure present indicative.

It’s always seemed strange to me that Hopkins refuses to call the sun the sun here. That "ah!", after all, is the moment of sunrise, just as "oh" is the less exclamatory figure for daybreak. When I teach this poem, students tend not to realize at first that the image has to do with the sun at all. It’s not that Hopkins refuses to say "the sun;" he’s choosing instead to name what for him it is a symbol of. Really, it’s more than that, even. The sun isn’t the sun. It is the Holy Ghost. That is what he literally sees.

This poem, like Wordsworth’s, is about quantum states of imagination. The literal mind sees only a reflection of itself in what it sees. "Odd how a thing is most itself when likened," says the metaphoric mind (in the voice of Richard Wilbur). The mythic mind (in the voice of William Blake) retorts, when we "see not with the eye but through it," we see most truly; through the eye, Hopkins sees not the sun but the Holy Ghost, which he likens, maternally, to a bird nesting on its egg, the earth. This is an image of birth, of dawn as rebirth, renewal: the mythological mind in full feather. Hopkins has gone Wordsworth one better: not god in nature, but god as nature — the literal sublime. Through Hopkins we are witnessing what is really there.

If you are susceptible to linguistic legerdemain, then Hopkins has made it happen right before your eyes. You catch a ride on the mythic mind and see through the poet’s eyes. Though a poem may not be real, we live it in our reading as if it were. Whatever a poem can demonstrate acquires, in our experience of it, the status of a truth.

The trouble now is that the earth, the planet, can sustain us neither in the manner to which we have accustomed ourselves nor in our mythological imagination. To feel the requisite awe, he have to resort to the scales of the infinite and the infinitesimal: black holes, the accelerating universe, quarks, and neutrinos. Delight we have always regarded as a lesser thing than terror and awe. We’re more impressed by death than living. We are, when not in love, increasingly literal-minded. For me, the mythological imagination, perhaps now an endangered species, can be most often chanced upon in the preserve of literature and art, in which none of the animals is kept behind bars or restrained by enclosure. Sometimes, like today, however, some manage to escape into this recurring evanescence we mark off on the calendar as another day.

Maybe I’ve got my daughter all wrong. Words as emissaries, as messengers, may come later. For now, there is still this animal life from which the mythological imagination may arise. Side by side, leaning against a warm stone slab as wind gusts over us and takes some leaves with it, we scan the patternless patchwork of autumnal colors across the valley, as though observing its change. A watched tree never changes color, my daughter says, deadpan. I ask her what else she’s going to talk about in her speech. After all, the beginning of Genesis has so many great stories.

The story of Adam and Eve and their leaving the garden, she says. That’s what this whole thing is like for me, leaving the garden. I think it’s a sign that God thinks they’re responsible enough to go live on their own. That’s how I feel sometimes about turning thirteen.

The Macs were too tart but the Jonamacs we’ve found are ready. We fill a grocery bag with them and pay as we leave. My daughter sits on the roof of the van as I drive us slowly out to the entrance. At the main road, she climbs back in.

Do you remember me and my friends picking cherries from up on the roof a few years ago? There were so many cherries on those trees that whenever you’d pull forward to a new spot it felt just like passing through a meteor shower. She puts her face out the window and her hair flies back.

Passing through a meteor shower, she says into the wind. Now that would be very cool.

David Weiss teaches English at Hobart and Willliam Smith Colleges.

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