Tag Archive | poetry

Poetic prelude to Laudato Si

Symphonic: this is the best way I can describe Laudato Si, the encyclical released by the Vatican yesterday. The structure and style of prose expression make this one of the most engaging Church texts (from my perspective, at least), promulgated in my lifetime. I don’t make a habit of reading encyclicals on the day of their release, but in this case, I made an exception: Pope Francis had a tweet fest yesterday, and my curiosity was piqued. Throughout the day, I saw tweets about the natural world, human dignity, work, interdependence, home, poverty, and more. How can it be that critics billed this encyclical ahead of time as too narrow in scope?

As I read Laudato Si last night, a particular poem kept coming to mind—and I suspect that Pope Francis would approve. His fellow Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), in awe of God’s transcendence in nature, penned this prescient poem, “God’s Grandeur”—a poem that, like his others, Hopkins never intended for publication. How fortunate for us that after Hopkins’ death, his friends decided to publish his poetry! “God’s Grandeur” is one of Hopkins’ responses to the Industrial Revolution (and I suspect that it’s a direct reply to William Wordsworth’s bemoaning of the condition of Industrial England). As a 21st-century reader of this sonnet, I find it significant that Hopkins so skillfully diagnoses the problems that industrialism had wrought, and that despite these ills, the prognosis he provides is excellent because of the renewal that the Holy Spirit offers. This is what Hopkins has to say:

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
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.

The Petrarchan sonnet form of this poem allows Hopkins to lay out the problem in the first eight lines (the octave) and to shift the direction of his comments and highlight the solution in the final six lines (the sestet). Despite the damage that humans, in their pursuit of wealth and dominance, have caused, Creation is constantly renewed through the protective love and constant presence of the Holy Spirit. This is a hopeful message: one that is still needed today.

Yet this poetic reassurance needs to be backed up by action on the part of humanity; belief and hope are primary, but we need a transformation in our attitude, rendering a shift in our actions. This is where Laudato Si picks up.

In the introductory passages of the encyclical, Pope Francis takes his readers on a tour de force, visiting and reflecting on prayers, letters, addresses, and exhortations by St. Francis of Assisi, St. John Paul II, Blessed Pope Paul VI, Pope Benedict, Patriarch Bartholomew, and others. While he is delivering a difficult message—reminding us that we must change our lifestyles in order to resume our proper place in creation—Pope Francis, like Hopkins, highlights hope: “The Creator does not abandon us; he never forgets his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home” (13).

Pope Francis does not shy away from specifics: he outlines the particular ways in which our collective habits and failed stewardship do harm not only to our planet but also to us. He pinpoints the past two centuries as the time in which we have been the least mindful of the way we treat the natural world (53). The Industrial Revolution, and its concomitant ways of life, are causes for our detachment from the order in which we were created; as Hopkins notes, our “foot [cannot] feel, being shod.”

While the magnitude of our current predicament is highlighted by the fact that we face, as Pope Francis explains, have created “one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (139), the interconnectedness of the elements of the problem points to a common solution. And the solution that Pope Francis proposes centers on mindfulness, humility, appreciation of beauty, gratitude, and community. Our globalizing society continually points us in the direction of interdependence, yet we, in our pride, resist. We should remove ourselves from our silos, attend to the world around us and the needs of others; in this community life, for which we were created, we can “respond to [God’s] grace at work in our hearts” (205). Through community—by sheltering together under the wing of the Spirit, as Hopkins suggests—we can hasten the return of the “morning, [which] at the brown brink, eastward springs.”

As Hopkins reveals poetically and Pope Francis demonstrates through a sweeping theological analysis that takes in elements of anthropology, economics, politics, and psychology, we collectively have taken centuries to create a difficult situation for ourselves; however, righting the ship is not merely possible but unavoidable if we pay attention to the generosity and presence of God. Laudato Si reaffirms and further draws out how the needed changes can come about, emphasizing the action of three persons of the Trinity:

The Father—“God created the world, writing into it an order and a dynamism that human beings have no right to ignore” (221).

The Son—In the Incarnation, “He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours….The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation” (236).

The Spirit—“The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and bringing new pathways” (238).

Somehow, I have a feeling that Hopkins is having a retweet fest in heaven today.

Holy Spirit window at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Absecon, NJ

Holy Spirit window at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Absecon, NJ


We remember on the 11th of November

Each year, we in the United States of America celebrate Veterans Day on November 11. Yes, this day (and the weekend closest to it) is very important to retailers who want to boost their pre-holiday sales. It is even more significant, though, for another reason: we take this day—or at least a moment of it—to recognize and pay tribute to all of the valorous men and women who have served our nation.

Although Veterans Day specifically marks the end of World War I on November 11, 1918, and was inspired by the bravery of those who fought in the Great War, this day is our opportunity to express gratitude to all veterans in our thoughts, words, deeds, and prayers.

As you observe this important holiday, I invite you to read with me The Poetry of World War I, compiled by the Poetry Foundation.
veterans day

Kiddie Lit?

When I was in grammar school at St. Cassian’s, we normally had our library class once per week. We’d go to the school library and have the option of checking out a book. Searching for a book to read for a book report, I checked out Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher—because it was short! My sixth-grade mind was a little bit unsettled by what it encountered between the covers of this book. Holy moly!

In seventh grade, we read Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” which I’m pretty sure was included in our reader. Another thing about which I’m pretty sure is that much of the macabre material in this work evaded my understanding. This gave me some measure of protection from the horror in it, although I did still find it pretty scary!

One of Poe’s works that I surprisingly did not find scary was “Annabel Lee.” From fifth through eighth grade, we had a really wonderful Language Arts teacher, Mrs. Jeanne Wiegel, who skillfully built our competency in grammar in writing, encouraged our creativity, and helped us to feel confident when approaching literary classics. One of her trademarks was having our class memorize and recite together all types of poetry. One such poem was “Annabel Lee.”

When I was twelve, I was struck by the hauntingly beautiful rhythm of the poem, which mimicked the ebbing tides at the seaside where the persona waits in vigil by his beloved’s grave. However, somehow I did not notice that his doing so was rather odd! When we studied the poem, I remember that Mrs. Wiegel told us that Poe was married to his younger cousin, Virginia Clemm; I think that this fact preoccupied me, so that I did not even pay attention to the weirdness of the poem’s persona’s confession about his unusual loitering.

Anyway, I will now recite for you “Annabel Lee.” Here we go…

Oh, wait…you can’t hear me, right? Here it is, recited for you by Basil Rathbone.

Miranda (The Tempest) by John William Waterhouse

Miranda (The Tempest) by John William Waterhouse

For its own sake

(National Poetry Month, Day 11)



As we continue to enjoy some poems about language and writing, let’s read a poem about poetry. I guess we could call it a meta-poem.


I admire Archibald MacLeish’s ability to conjure up a series of multi-sensory images, unrelated though they may seem, to convey the message that poetry is primarily meant to be appreciated, not analyzed. To me, as an English teacher, this idea is paradoxically both revolutionary and part of conventional wisdom. While I love to appreciate beautiful things, I also have a tendency to analyze and over-analyze.


What if I just appreciate the poem and analyze only my response to it? Maybe that’s what I’ll try.


Ars Poetica

by Archibald MacLeish


A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,


As old medallions to the thumb,


Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—


A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.




A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,


Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,


Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.




A poem should be equal to:
Not true.


For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.


For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—


A poem should not mean
But be.

A St. Patrick’s Day Gift for You!

st patrick at st patricks edited

In my neck of the woods, St. Patrick’s Month is in full swing. Parades have begun, the rush of Irish events is keeping all calendars full, and yes, the Harrington house is decked out for the big day.

Since St. Patrick’s Day is only two weeks away, I’d like to share with you an article about the legacy of St. Patrick’s spirituality in 20th century Irish poetry The Catholic Advocate in 2012. I know that it’s not specifically about writing, but it’s something that I wrote—so I hope that you don’t mind seeing it from the Graceful Grammarian. It’s my early St. Patrick’s Day gift to you.

Enjoy and share!

“Deciphering Poetry and Legacy that Traces Life of St. Patrick.”

Who would expect a young man who had not completed his education, was kidnapped by pirates, enslaved, and forced into years of servitude in a foreign and barbaric land to lead the charge in evangelizing a fiery people living on the edge of the known world? As St. Patrick would learn, and as he teaches us, God is full of surprises, and one of the lasting legacies of St. Patrick in our faith is to expect and gratefully welcome the unexpected as opportunities for us to be more fully human.

The man we now know as St. Patrick never dreamed that evangelizing the Irish would be his mission, but, when prompted, he undertook it with great zeal. Much of the little we know about the life of St. Patrick comes to us through his Confessio, one of his only two extant writings. Written to defend himself against charges (of what, we do not know), the Confessio tells us little about the events of St. Patrick’s life, but reveals much about his attitude of humility and awe. Certainly, while forced to herd sheep for years on the land of his slavemaster, the future St. Patrick had no designs on becoming one of the world’s best-loved saints; he must have been very concerned about surviving from day to day. Yet this time in solitude afforded him the chance to learn about God and about himself, and to appreciate life in a way that he never imagined. Instead of seeing his enslavement as a curse, St. Patrick welcomed his time to meditate, as it reawakened his Christian faith, which he had learned in childhood but had not yet fully taken as his own.

Further, his time to reflect heightened his awareness of what he called “the great acts of goodness and the great grace which the Lord generously gave me in the land of my captivity.” To St. Patrick, the mundane was anything but; all experiences, however quotidian, pointed him in the direction of God’s plan for him—and he listened. Seeing himself as “a stone that lies in deep mud” that God “raised…up and exalted…very high and placed…on top of the wall,” St. Patrick became attentive to the promptings of God in his life. For St. Patrick, this process was facilitated by God’s direct messages to him in dreams; from time to time, at crucial moments, God would let him know what to expect, and in what time frame. But more significantly, God’s addresses to St. Patrick not only reassured him but also challenged him, and motivated him to take action. They guided him on his escape from slavery and led him to return to Ireland to free the pre-Christian Irish from their enslavement to pagan beliefs.

While “The Breastplate of Saint Patrick,” one of the best-loved medieval Irish poems, was almost certainly not penned by the saint himself, it certainly is in his tradition of attending to and heeding the challenges issued by the transcendence of God in the visible world. Beginning most stanzas with “I arise today,” this poem reflects the call to action issued by our faith. The poem begins with theological reflections on God and articles of faith, and then a transition occurs. Upon brief reflection on the natural world: “light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendor of Fire, speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea, stability of Earth, firmness of Rock,” the persona (Patrick or the individual praying this prayer today) is emboldened to invoke the direct presence and participation of God in his own life, noting that he derives strength from God working to “pilot,” “guide,” “hear,” “guard,” protect,” and “secure” him. This sense of transcendent spirituality and the connection between the Trinity and the human experience comes through a reflection on the visible world: God surprises us through reaching us on our own level and bringing us to higher ground. Located between the pre-Christian Irish before him and the Christian Irish after him, St. Patrick is on a continuum of individuals who see not a wall between the natural and supernatural worlds, but a mist.

We could review tomes of poems, from “The Breastplate of St. Patrick” to today’s literature, in which we see the tradition of St. Patrick brought to life, again and again. Finding God in the unexpected, God’s promise giving hope, and the concept of retreat to make the unfamiliar familiar and vice versa figure prominently in Irish poetry and thought, and doubtless they sustained the Irish through years of hardship and uncertain temporal future. The fact that these themes have persisted through Irish literature of the modern period reveals the staying power of St. Patrick’s spirituality in the Irish imagination.

Two 20th-century Irish Catholic poets, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Patrick Kavanagh, demonstrate nicely the sacramental nature of the experience of the visible, hearable, tangible world, and the staying power of St. Patrick’s legacy of finding and appreciating God’s surprises for us.

Plunkett, a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, which touched off the War of Independence and led to a chain of events that established an Irish Republic (a seemingly very unlikely prospect after more than 700 years of foreign rule), was a sickly man who knew his days were numbered, even before he undertook his military maneuvers and was executed. His poems reveal great depth of emotion and his mystical spirituality, always connected to stimuli present to him in the natural world. For Plunkett, his love for Grace Gifford, whom he married in prison on the night prior to his execution, was a source of great inspiration, as were the wonders of the natural world. His most famous poem, “I See His Blood Upon the Rose,” reflects his self-imposed retreat upon his full experience of elements of nature, and provides him—and us—with an impetus to action. Cataloging natural things that reveal to him the presence and action of Christ, Plunkett mimics a common practice in love poetry. But this particular love poem, about agape, specifically, takes the reader by surprise right away with the unexpected take on the familiar image of the rose in a poem. The speaker sees echoes of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ everywhere he goes, to the point that he visualizes Christ’s blood when he sees a rose, “And in the stars the glory of his eyes.” While these are perhaps standard poetic images, the impetus behind the poem becomes stronger when the persona reveals that “carven by his power rocks are [Christ’s] written words.” The activity of God in the world and in human experience is highlighted in the image that “His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea.” The pulse behind all movement in the world stems from God. Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection have transformed Creation, to the extent that all elements of the visible world bear the indelible mark of the divine presence among us. How we respond to God’s personal message to each of us, revealed through our encounters with the everyday, is the challenge that both St. Patrick and Plunkett issue to us.

Writing during the mid-20th century, Patrick Kavanagh, a farmer by trade, further explored the Irish Catholic imagination in his poetry, reminding us in a rapidly secularizing world that Creation itself denies secularization, and that God’s surprises for us are around every corner. Using a refreshing mix of high poetic diction and simple, awe-inspired speech, Kavanagh begins his poem “The One”: “Green, blue, yellow and red – God is down in the swamps and marshes, / Sensational as April and almost incredible the flowering of our catharsis.” God’s presence springs forth from the unlikeliest of places; His renewing action is unfathomable and life-giving. And in Kavanagh’s schema, God’s outreach to us is not something that we should simply look at from afar; instead, it gives us life and cleanses us, allowing us to flower, in our new cleanness (catharsis): our rebirth. As St. Patrick experienced his conversion while, as a slave, tending sheep, in “The One” we read of God being present today in “A humble scene in a backward place / Where no one important ever looked.” In his reference in the poem to the “local farmers” who will be called out to witness God’s manifestation for them, Kavanagh emphasizes the humility tied to the appreciation “That beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God / Was breathing His love by a cut-away bog.” Even in an area in which the turf has been cut away, repeatedly, for generations, in order to create fuel, God regenerates life by means of his love, as demonstrated in the springtime of each year.

While we make the extraordinary ordinary by our lack of awareness and by our rushing through life, St. Patrick’s legacy invites us to take a step back: to appreciate the miracles that we witness every day. God is active in our world today, through the resiliency of nature, through our relationships with each other, and through the Sacraments; and He is active not so that we can merely admire him and move on with mundane existence, but so that He can call us into the action. As St. Patrick’s legacy teaches us, we should not limit ourselves by disbelief or worry about our inadequacy; instead, we should accept with gratitude God’s surprises for us.

As we honor the feast of this great saint with parades, family dinners, and other celebrations, let us keep in mind why we celebrate: because St. Patrick points us in the direction of Christ, whose Resurrection, which we will celebrate in just a few short weeks, is the greatest surprise gift of all.