In English poetry the genre of the georgic is historically the genre of cultivation. The title georgic comes from georgos, the Greek word for farmer, so the setting for georgic poems is the fields and bushes—in green spaces. But these green spaces are distinct from the pastoral genre. Pastoral poetry is set in the quiet lush fields in resplendent plenty. The pastoral’s bucolic fields are greenery at rest where the poet is lead to song and dance or quiet reflection while passively watching sheep graze. The pastoral is the mode of leisure. The georgic genre, meanwhile, explores the contours of the tenuous relationship between labor and growth, specifically human labor in conjunction with (or perhaps in strain against) the natural environment to produce a yield. David Fairer has cataloged a wide range of georgic activities: tilling, sweating, celebrating harvest, anticipating disaster, praising ingenuity and honoring care especially when the work is painstaking and painful. As a genre dedicated to work, it is acutely aware of the poem at work in which words and images are raw materials offering seemingly limitless opportunities for productive combination…and endless possibilities for failure.
The best way to borrow strength from a poetic genre like the georgic is not only to talk about its features (as C.S. Lewis would say “look at it”), but also to jump head first into a georgic poem: to “look along it” at the world of sweat, toil, fruit, futility, hope, hope deferred. Today I want to walk with you through nineteenth-century sonnet that is metaphorically georgic: i.e. the poem talks about cultivating the virtue of patience as though patience actually were a vegetable or a fruit.
So first, the poem itself:
Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.
Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.
We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.
This sonnet titled by its first line “Patience, hard thing! The hard thing but to pray” considers the possibility of cultivating patience. Written by Gerard Manley Hopkins in the 1880s during a rather dark time in his short life, the sonnet combines the argument from James 1: “Count it all joy, my brothers when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience…” with Galatians 5, and Paul’s account of the Fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. These two passages offer Hopkins the conditions of the georgic: production and fruits. According to James, patience comes from two other elements combined under specific conditions: faith tested under trial over time. The raw materials of trial and faith produce a new virtue: patience. If patience is simultaneously described in Paul as a fruit, Hopkins’s takes advantage of James’s description of patience’s production to consider the cultivation of patience. The poem asks, “How do you grow this darn thing?”
And the difficulty of the poem to read aloud suggests that patience isn’t going to be an easy thing to harvest. The poem flips its sentences inside out. Predicate adjectives and direct objects lead the sentences. The first stanza is awful between the wrenched syntax, the alliterated piling of misery, and the leading trochees. If we paraphrase the argument of the first stanza, Hopkins argues that patience is a hard thing, not to pray for but in the aftermath of asking because those who ask for patience can expect war, wounds, and weariness. This is, of course, Hopkins way of saying, “If you dare to pray for patience, and you will inevitably lock your keys in your car, and end up with a flat tire on your way home, making you late for daughter’s final soccer practice.” But for Hopkins, this isn’t a sarcastic, spiritual joke; war, wounds, weariness all grind at the bones. The reader’s movement through the first stanza is agonizingly slow, like breaking up rock-hard earth. Hard thing. Hard earth. The reader hacks through phrases to find the subject and the verb, loaded down by alliterative barriers, rebuffed.
The only redemptive tethers in the first stanza are in the rhyme: prays and obeys. Surely some good must come from the disciplines of prayer and obedience. Indeed, much good. Hopkins is teaching us the kind of soil patience grows in: it is a strange, miserable soil—not unlike the wine grapes grown in the rocky soil at my husband’s family homestead in Northern California. Hopkins is warning his readers—a harvest of patience won’t likely require endurance in trial, it necessitates it. It is the ONLY place patience grows: “Rare patience roots in these, and these away, / nowhere.” The announcement is discouraging—devastating perhaps, but Hopkins draws his readers on towards endurance by reminding us of the fruit. He offers us patience’s berries by the end of line: “there she basks / purple eyes.”
After the reprieve and encouragement of stanza 2, the third stanza wrenches the syntax again, and we learn that the hardest soil is not war, wound, want, but the last of Hopkins’s w’s: the will itself: “Yet the rebellious wills / of us we do bid God bend to him even so.” The prayer for patience is a prayer for God to bend our wills, calculating honestly that the breaking of this soil will bruise our very hearts.
Finally in the fourth stanza, at the end of the sonnet’s sestet we finally see an organic alchemy: one thing becomes another. If patience is a fruit, in the fourth stanza it is finally distilled into kindness like grapes into wine. The production comes with a question: where is he? This distiller? Hopkins deflects his own question: the question “where” is answered with a statement of character: God himself is patience. According to Hopkins, God has a plenitude of this rare patience: patience “fills / his crisp combs”: honey spilling out and running down.
How can God have such a store of patience? The answer in the final line is cryptic. Hopkins tells us “we know.” Such an answer assumes God to be the source of all good and, therefore, of all spiritual fruit, but Hopkins’s answer is also deeply Christocentric; it gestures also towards Christ’s suffering in the humiliation of the incarnation and passion of the crucifixion. After all, Hopkins’s poem is one long argument that patience grows only in the soil of suffering, petty or painful. Christ is distiller (he give us patience) and exemplar (he models patience for us). This is the poem’s final encouragements: our own cultivation of patience is under the generous hand of yet another better Georgos who will, with utmost patience, give us “more and more.” We have Christ. Christ offers us himself—a harvest of much honey indeed. Under this reality, Hopkins’s skepticism folds, and the poem pivots towards a sober, weighty hope. In hard things, Christ is at work in us, cultivating in us a very precious thing—patience.
Professor Betsy Howard
Assistant Professor of Literature
- Praise the Lord for a fruitful time away for the staff and faculty as they launch into the new school year.
- Pray for the new students who are moving here, settling in, and participating in orientation next week.
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