Reading Hopkins' 'I am like a slip of comet' for New Year's, by Peter David Gross

 

Well, the Solar System keeps spinning. I'm sitting as still as I can, which means whirling about two million miles per hour through the universe, in wheels inside wheels, on and on. Right now we’re waiting for everyone to shoot fire in the sky for the start of a new year. We’ll reset the clocks and calendars. Reset everything. Ten nine eight seven six five four three two one zero. Tic. We’re at one again.

New Year's puts me in a funny mood. I can’t help but wonder how consequential or inconsequential things are. What's the deal? Why the celebration? What are we celebrating? That fire we shoot in the sky, if seen from the galaxy's center, doesn't brighten anything, does it? The Solar System just spins on.

Yet on New Year’s we all look forward, play fortune teller. We try to resolve our wishes into reality or our shames out of reality. And some people look back, remembering things that are about to be written up in those old brown record books and shelved with the other things called history. At the somewhat arbitrary stroke of a clock, while our planet corkscrews on, we practice those timeless disciplines: hope and recollection. And still the Preacher says, “All is vanity.” Still, with fireworks, lists, and kisses, we ask to differ, and try to control our fates.

What’s the point of resolutions in an expanse as vast as this, when even our celebrations seem meaningless?

 

 

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At the somewhat arbitrary stroke of a clock, while our planet corkscrews on, we practice those timeless disciplines: hope and recollection.

 

 

Each year, I look for a new poem or song or novel or movie or anything that matches this jumble of ideas. I need help managing it. And a few years ago, Gerard Manley Hopkins came to my aid, as he often does.

Hopkins lived a seemingly undesirable life, full of sickness and failure. No one would hope or resolve to have it. He was a poet who loved his craft, but whose poetry stayed unrecognized until he died. He was a churchman who wrestled to keep God first in his life. He was ill from birth, but nevertheless wore his body out in service to people or causes he cared for. He was deeply sensitive to human affection and beautiful friendships, but was disowned by his family and removed from his friends. He died young, in a place he didn't care for, unacknowledged by the people he respected, with the disintegration of his most-worked-on project in sight.

Halfway through that life, he wrote this poem:


--I am like a slip of comet,
Scarce worth discovery, in some corner seen
Bridging the slender difference of two stars,
Come out of space, or suddenly engender'd
By heady elements, for no man knows:
But when she sights the sun she grows and sizes
And spins her skirts out, while her central star
Shakes its cocooning mists; and so she comes
To fields of light; millions of traveling rays
Pierce her; she hangs upon the flame-cased sun,
And sucks the light as full as Gideon's fleece:
But then her tether calls her; she falls off,
And as she dwindles shreds her smock of gold
Amidst the sistering planets, till she comes
To single Saturn, last and solitary;
And then goes out into the cavernous dark.
So I go out: my little sweet is done:
I have drawn heat from this contagious sun:
To not ungentle death now forth I run.

 
 

He wrote it at twenty, with twenty-five years left to live. I think that's why it seems particularly important to me for New Year's. Halfway through his disappointing life, Hopkins gave a good, hard look at death, with the scale of space to help him. Such a living look toward death seems apt on New Year’s, while we mark time’s passage with explosions and cheers.

I love the last three lines. After modeling stars in our minds, shooting out rays, and painting them brightly, he applies that radiance to himself, saying:

...My little sweet is done:
I have drawn heat from this contagious sun:
To not ungentle death now forth I run.

I think that this combination of light and death that he describes inside himself hides a few keys to my questions about vanity, meaning, and scale. Let’s consider each of them in turn.

 

 

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What’s the point of resolutions in an expanse as vast as this, when even our celebrations seem meaningless?

 

 

1. My little sweet is done.

With this line, Hopkins meets my New Year’s mood. I'm asking, "What's consequential? What’s vanity? Why celebrate?" while I wait for fireworks to fly and think about how small we are. Hopkins says, “Yes, we are little. But we’re also sweet.”

Earlier in the poem, he described the magnificent, massive universe: its "fields of light," "millions of traveling rays," its "flame-cased sun." He gave us the universe that we're spinning through, the one that can make us seem inconsequential. But the relationship between this big universe and us wasn’t one of contrast or diminishment. Its size doesn’t remove our consequence. Instead of calling us vain or silly, he called us, like comets, "full" of the world we spin through. "As full as Gideon's fleece."

That changes my perspective. If he’s right, then the center of the galaxy needn’t negate or overwhelm our fireworks. Instead, our fireworks can be “full” of the flaming stars. The turn of this year can be “full” of the turning of the cosmos. That person there, across the room, can be “full” of God.

This insight does not eliminate our smallness. Hopkins remains a realist. Do people become God, or do fireworks become stars? No, of course not. But we're made sweet by them. We, and this world, and our lives, become “little sweets” when they fill with their vast, surrounding grandeur. The immensity of God's light is meant to be housed in us. In me and you. Holding God's glory, we become like a drop of honey on the tongue. His fire sweetens me.

2. I have drawn heat from this contagious sun.

"Heat" here is all that glory and beauty and life we've drawn in. But the line emphasizes an additional point: that the glory drawn inside us was given to us. We made no good and perfect thing that we hold. Each came from the Father above. You and I are made like comets are: to catch and hold what’s given.

And our glory-gaining game doesn't take much effort to play. For Hopkins, the sun is “contagious.” God longs to be caught, and he sends his rays out, tough to avoid. He places his light like an ember in this cosmos, and it’s liable to shoot out some sparks.

So, all life can resolve into gratitude. The glory is here and contagious. It doesn't depend on you, though you were made to house it. Hopkins could have said, "I have shone brightly and burned hot," and made us marvel at himself. But he knows better. He says, "I have drawn heat from this contagious sun." Pointing away from himself, he helps us wonder and weep. Have we lived in the knowledge of what we’ve been given?

3. To not ungentle death now forth I run.

Because we can be both “little” and “full,” and because our light is given by a “contagious” God, Hopkins can turn toward change and death as a friend. In a world of generously-given glory, we need fear no evil. Death, though dark, is “not ungentle.” The turn of this year is “not ungentle.” He can turn toward them, and run.

Remember: this good news was taught to us by a man who lived a disappointing, painful life by most measures. It is not trite. His pain puts him in a position to speak hope with gravity.

For, when you know that you're cared for, that you and your generous God have no end, then you can be sure that even deep darkness or shooting pain must be gentle medicine, a splinter softly pulled from the world's infant palm. Even when you “shred your smock of gold,” you'll find God gentle. Don't be afraid. Look up, with gratitude, and run into the dark.

 

 

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Because we can be both “little” and “full,” and because our light is given by a “contagious” God, Hopkins can turn toward change and death as a friend.

 

 

Happy New Year, friends. This little, sweet year is done. By grace we've drawn in glories and seen beautiful things. By grace, we’ve survived more pains. Remember them? Now run to the gentle black. We don't know, you and I, what next year holds, whether difficulty or ease, but, grateful and courageous, with reflection and hope, let's lay down our crowns and go.