Inspired by the Laudator’s exercise in paraphrasing Hopkins (the post for July 2, 2012), I decided to attempt my own, which ended up shading from paraphrase into interpretation. It’s a wonderfully rewarding exercise—similar to the experience of writing out (just for oneself) a translation of some passage of Latin or Greek: how one’s compelled to make unexpected and unexpectedly clarifying judgments about the particular meaning of each word and phrase in attempting to articulate just what relations between them the author intended to be primary. As soon as you begin to paraphrase you immediately become more aware of the individual shape and structure of the poem, its meaning comes into sharper focus, a concentration sets in, and you feel again something of its original freshness, hear its singular voice.
In The Well Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks writes about a poem’s “unparaphasable core” and the “heresy of paraphrase,” but his book’s own method of attentive reading also illustrates how one good way to get close to this core is to make paraphrases. The word really means “speak around”–and I think it can describe the kind of speech that moves in circles, indicating by spirals in and out the presence of a center that silently governs its orbits.
Here’s the poem:
Earth, sweet Earth, sweet landscape, with leavès throng
And louchèd low grass, heaven that dost appeal
To, with no tongue to plead, no heart to feel;
That canst but only be, but dost that long—
Thou canst but be, but that thou well dost; strong
Thy plea with him who dealt, nay does now deal,
Thy lovely dale down thus and thus bids reel
Thy river, and o’er gives all to rack or wrong.
And what is Earth’s eye, tongue, or heart else, where
Else, but in dear and dogged man?—Ah, the heir
To his own selfbent so bound, so tied to his turn,
To thriftless reave both our rich round world bare
And none reck of world after, this bids wear
Earth brows of such care, care and dear concern.
Here’s my paraphrase:
The landscape, earth of Ribblesdale with its crowds of leaves (poplar trees?) and bending grass by its very being—not by feeling or voice—appeals to God. It makes the kind of plea that moves him. Though this prayer-by-being is not deliberate or self-aware, it is durable—steadier and more constant than our outcries and bursts of feeling.
The rivered dale fulfills its task of being well—unlike us, it fills out its promised form. It’s plea is strong with God because it is what he bid it to be. Or rather, as the speaker corrects himself, it’s not that God can now turn and see that the dale is as he “dealt it” once, rather he is still now “dealing”/”dale-ing” it down, reeling out its river. Simultaneously, though, he “o’er gives all to rack and wrong.” God here in the countryside is deeply present to the microcosm, unreeling a river that responds to and pulls back on him—has moment by moment purchase on him—, and all the while he’s given the macrocosm over to the destructive & misguided ends that have possessed the world. I suppose it’s here that we get some of the content of earth’s “strong plea” with God.
The whole “prayer,” “plea,” “appeal” of earth, though, doesn’t really exist apart from man—who, though a mess, is, after all, dear (the crown of creation) and dogged (i.e. there’s some persistence of the stubborn earth in him, some entirely unselfconscious will-to-be-what-God-made-him). Only man can really give heart, eye, and tongue to make complete “the prayer” of earth, make it really a prayer. But man is committed to self-set, short-sighted purposes in pursuit of which he both wantonly ravages the earth’s “rich round world” and altogether dismisses from reckoning the world of the spirit. This ungrateful heir in his short-sightedness and neglect is the cause of earth’s trouble and concern—he “bids earth wear” etc.. It’s finally his own neglect of the material and spiritual grounds of his being that appeals to man so sharply from the troubled face of the earth, which primarily expresses not a communion with God from which he is alienated (5-8), nor a reality that waits to be given voice through him (9-10), nor an outcry against his abuses (11-12), but anxious concern for him (13-14).