23 March 2012

Poems for Lent (28): ‘Barnfloor and Winepress,’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Patrick Comerford

My choice of a Poem for Lent this morning is ‘Barnfloor and Winepress,’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889). Hopkins was an English Jesuit who spent much of his life in Dublin. He is counted among the leading Victorian poets, was a daring innovator in a period of largely traditional verse, and was a close contact of many of the leading poets, theologians and artists of the day.

Hopkins was born on 28 July 1844 in Stratford, east of London, the first of nine children to Manley and Catherine (Smith) Hopkins. His father, who was once the British consul general in Hawaii, was for a time the churchwarden at Saint John-at-Hampstead. He was also a published writer and reviewed poetry for The Times. Both parents were deeply religious High Church Anglicans.

The poet’s first ambitions were to be a painter, and he sketched throughout his life, inspired, as an adult, by the work of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites.

In 1852, the Hopkins family moved to Hampstead in 1852, and he was sent to Highgate School as a boarder. He went up to Oxford to study classics at Balliol College (1863–1867), and there he developed a life-long friendship with the future Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. As a student, Hopkins was deeply impressed with the work of Christina Rossetti, who became one of his greatest influences, and a follower of Henry Parry Liddon and Edward Pusey, the last member of the original Oxford Movement. There too he wrote this morning’s poem, ‘Barnfloor and Winepress,’ in 1865.

However, early in the following year (1866), he included poetry in the list of things he was giving up for Lent. That July, he decided to become a Roman Catholic, and John Henry Newman received him into the church on 21 October 1866. In 1868, he made a bonfire of his poems and gave up writing poetry almost entirely for seven years.

The decision to become a Roman Catholic estranged him from his family and many of his friends. After his graduation in 1867, Newman appointed him to a teaching post at the Oratory in Birmingham. There he felt a call to priesthood and decided to become a Jesuit. He began his Jesuit novitiate at Manresa House, Roehampton, in 1868 and moved to Saint Mary’s Hall, Stonyhurst, to study philosophy in 1870.

In 1874, he returned to Manresa House to teach classics. While he was studying theology at Saint Beuno’s near St Asaph in North Wales, he was asked by his religious superior to write a poem to mark the foundering of a German ship in a storm, and wrote a lengthy poem, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland,’ that displays both the religious concerns and some of the unusual meter and rhythms of his later poetry.

‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ was accepted for publication by a Jesuit journal, but was never published. This rejection fuelled his ambivalence about his poetry, and most of his poetry remained unpublished until after his death. On the other hand, he found an embracing welcome and inspiration in St Asaph (which received city status earlier this month).

Hopkins failed his final theology examination, and believed this would impede his progress among the Jesuits. He was ordained in 1877, the same year he wrote or completed ‘God’s Grandeur’ ‘The Starlight Night,’ ‘The Windhover,’ and ‘The Sea and the Skylark.’

Newman House, Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, where Gerard Manley Hopkins died (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

He began teaching at Mount Saint Mary’s College, Chesterfield, and served as a curate in London, Oxford, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, before going on to teach Greek and Latin at Mount Saint Mary’s College, Sheffield, and Stonyhurst College, Lancashire. He moved to Dublin in 1884, when he became Professor of Greek and Examiner in Classics at the Catholic University of Ireland (later the Royal University of Ireland and University College Dublin).

But he did not like living in Dublin, where he felt confined and dejected and that he had failed both his religious vocation and his poetic calling. After suffering ill health for several years, he died in Newman House on Saint Stephen’s Green on Saturday 8 June 1889, just short of his 45th birthday . After a funeral Mass in Saint Francis Xavier Church, Gardiner Street, he was buried in the Jesuit plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.

His last words on his deathbed were: “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.”

‘At morn we found the heavenly Bread’ ... fresh bread in Hindley’s Bakery in Tamworth Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Reading the poem

‘Barnfloor and Winepress’ was written in 1865, while Hopkins was an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford, and while he was still an Anglican. ‘Barnfloor and Winepress,’ which draws on George Herbert’s poems ‘Love’ and more especially ‘The Bunch of Grapes,’ points to the origins of the Church and its liturgy, Hopkins illustrates how the Great Sacrifice of Christ – the Bread of Life (John 6: 32-36), and “real vine” (John 15: 1) – comes to be the “firm foundation” (Matthew 7: 24-26) on which to build the true, everlasting covenant between God and humanity.

The poem paves the road for Hopkins’s subsequent acceptance of the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation. He focuses on the spatial realms of barnfloor and winepress – Church horizontals as it were – which, taking part in the true “joy of harvest,” are both directly involved in the Eucharistic processing of grain and grape, whose images (“bruised sore” and “scourged upon the threshing floor,” then “racked”) represent Christ’s body being first tortured and then crucified.

Thrown away, “leafless, lifeless, dry,” the “riv’n Vine” bore its “terrible fruit” on Easter morning, when it reappeared as “the Tree.” Not only did it spread over the whole world, but it became a new axis mundi, a vertical beam linking heaven and earth.

The Church, as God’s answer to humanity in need, is the sign of the invitation for “the weary” to “come into its shade” and a reminder of the strength and sustenance given in the Eucharist.

‘At morn we found the heavenly Bread’ ... fresh bread in a shop in Liverpool (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hopkins opens the poem by citing an Old Testament passage as an epigraph and includes several biblical phrases and images throughout the poem. Addressing the sinner and perhaps even the unbeliever, Hopkins, the Christian, announces the wonderful gifts that Christ purchased by means of his sacrifice:

Thou that on sin’s wages starvest
Behold we have the joy in harvest:
For us was gather’d the first-fruits,
For us was lifted from the roots,
Sheaved in cruel bands, bruised sore
Scourged upon the threshing-floor;
Where the upper mill-stone roof’d His head,
At morn we found the heavenly Bread
And, on a thousand altars laid,
Christ our sacrifice is made!

Hopkins binds together an extraordinarily complex range of biblical allusions, uniting them in a series of closely related paradoxes.

He cites the idea that the Eucharist, the “heavenly Bread,” came as the antetype of the Levitical “first-fruits.” He also alludes to Genesis 3: 15 when he mentions that Christ was “bruised sore.” But his central conceit is taken from the images of barnfloor and winepress that appear in the Bible, from the Book Numbers through to the Revelation of Saint John the Divine.

The poem’s epigraph comes from 2 Kings 6: 27: “And he said, If the Lord do not help thee, whence shall I help thee? Out of the barnfloor, or out of the winepress?” These lines telling the sinner that God is his only hope are taken from a rather grisly episode in the Bible. When the Syrians besieged Samaria, the people had nothing to eat:

Now as the king of Israel was walking on the city wall, a woman cried out to him, ‘Help, my lord king!’ He said, ‘No! Let the Lord help you. How can I help you? From the threshing-floor [barnfloor] or from the wine press?’ But then the king asked her, ‘What is your complaint?’ She answered, ‘This woman said to me, “Give up your son; we will eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.” So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, “Give up your son and we will eat him.” But she has hidden her son.’ When the king heard the words of the woman he tore his clothes (2 Kings 6: 26-30).

Hopkins serves several purposes by citing this grisly episode from biblical history in a poem about Christ’s sacrifice.

1, Firstly, this story of cannibalism illustrates forcefully our fallen nature and our need for a Saviour.

2, Secondly, this story of evil acts as a powerful contrast between the true and false sacrifice of a son to preserve life.

3, Thirdly, the allusion to the linked terms, “barnfloor and winepress,” evokes the many complex associations they have throughout the Bible.

In Numbers 18: 26-27, when God instructs Moses on the nature of the priestly office, he tells him that when the Levites receive a tithe from the people they must first offer up one-tenth of it as an offering before they can retain the rest: “It shall be reckoned to you as your gift, the same as the grain of the threshing-floor and the fullness of the wine press.” The priests retain nine-tenths of the tithe as “it is your payment for your service in the tent of meeting” (Numbers 18: 31).

This early Biblical linking of the images of the barnfloor (or “threshing-floor”) and the winepress have theological significance in several ways:

1, Firstly, the barnfloor and the winepress are the places where bread and wine begin to be made from wheat and grapes, and signify human sustenance from the work of human hands.

2, Secondly, since the barnfloor and the winepress call to mind bread and wine, they prefigure the Eucharist.

3, Thirdly, because this passage contains directions for priestly conduct, it prefigures Christian priesthood, tithing, and the relationship between priests and their congregation.

4, Fourthly, since it mentions a sacrifice taken as a type of Christ, the passage also refers to him and his sacrifice. This passage in the Book Numbers, like so many others in the Pentateuch, the first five Books of the Bible, is interpreted in terms of looking forward to Christ as both priest and sacrifice.

‘We shout with them that tread the grapes: / For us the Vine was fenced with thorn’ ...grapes on sale on a market stall in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

These images of the barnfloor and the winepress also suggest the ideas of the slave and the liberator, for in Deuteronomy 15: 13-14 God instructs the Israelites to free all Hebrew slaves every seven years: “And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing-floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you.”

This law is a reminder that God freed the people from slavery in Egypt and lead them to prosperity. This connection of barnfloor and winepress to political liberation appears again in the Book of Judges: “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian for seven years” (Judge 6: 1), and the Midianites stole or destroyed their crops. Gideon, who was threshing or “beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites” (Judges 6: 11), is told by an angel of the Lord to lead the people in battle, and they are victorious. Once again, they learn that falling away from God leads to punishment, defeat and privation. But, when the children of God are at their lowest and most in need, God sends someone to save them.

In Jeremiah 48: 33, God “stopped the wine from the wine presses; no one treads them with shouts of joy; the shouting is not the shout of joy.” Elsewhere, God punishes humanity by treading humanity in the winepress. In Lamentations 1: 15, “The Lord has rejected all my warriors in the midst of me; he proclaimed a time against me to crush my young men; the Lord has trodden as in a wine press the virgin daughter Judah.” Similarly, in Isaiah 63: 3, the Lord announces: “I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes.”

This passage prophesying divine punishment is then fulfilled in Revelation 14: 18-20, when the angel gathers the “vine of the earth” and throws it “into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.”

Hopkins draws on these readings and others to work through a number of paradoxes in ‘Barnfloor and Winepress’:

● Christ is both the sacrificing priest and the sacrificial victim.
●True, life-giving sustenance comes in feeding the soul with the Eucharist and not in feeding the body.
●Christ, who is both victim and conqueror, treads the winepress and is crushed by it.

One of Hopkins’s central organising ideas is that true beauty, true life and true victory are achieved only, as Christ has shown, by being bruised and crushed, and Christ triumphs over sin and death by giving himself to be bruised in the Crucifixion.

In ‘Barnfloor and Winepress,’ Hopkins emphasises how Christ, “Sheaved in cruel bands, bruised sore” brought humanity new life, the Tree of Life, by his sacrifice then and His continuing sacrifice now, which is the Eucharist:

For us by Calvary’s distress
The wine was racked from the press;
Now in our altar-vessels stored
Is the sweet Vintage of our Lord.

Emphasising the element of paradox that derives from Christ’s combination of being conquered and conqueror, Hopkins tells us that He was “Sheaved in cruel bands” and later, near the poem’s close, that Christ has saved all and “sheaved us in His sheaf.”

‘At morn we found the heavenly Bread’ ... fresh bread in a shop window in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Barnfloor and Winepress, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

‘And he said, If the Lord do not help thee, whence shall I help thee?
Out of the barnfloor, or out of the winepress?’
– 2 Kings 6: 27.

Thou that on sin’s wages starvest,
Behold we have the joy in harvest:
For us was gather’d the first-fruits
For us was lifted from the roots,
Sheaved in cruel bands, bruised sore,
Scourged upon the threshing-floor;
Where the upper mill-stone roof’d His head,
At morn we found the heavenly Bread,
And on a thousand Altars laid,
Christ our Sacrifice is made!

Those whose dry plot for moisture gapes,
We shout with them that tread the grapes:
For us the Vine was fenced with thorn,
Five ways the precious branches torn;
Terrible fruit was on the tree
In the acre of Gethsemane;
For us by Calvary’s distress
The wine was rackèd from the press;
Now in our altar-vessels stored
Is the sweet Vintage of our Lord.

In Joseph’s garden they threw by
The riv’n Vine, leafless, lifeless, dry:
On Easter morn the Tree was forth,
In forty days reach’d Heaven from earth;
Soon the whole world is overspread;
Ye weary, come into the shade.

The field where he has planted us
Shall shake her fruit as Libanus,
When He has sheaved us in His sheaf,
When he has made us bear His leaf.—
We scarcely call that banquet food,
But even our Saviour’s and our blood,
We are so grafted on His wood.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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