Vahni Capildeo

‘Rinse and Wring the Ear’: Reflections on being in long-distance conversation

Link to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘Spring’

Keywords: breathing, bodies, long-distance communication, praise

[Presentation script: the text that follows represents a working draft, which differs slightly from the talk delivered for the Telepoetics symposium; however, it may be read as an accompaniment to, or substitute for, the sound recording.

Full transcripts appearing online for the duration of Telepoetics (27 May – 5 June 2020) have been reduced to excerpts of approx. 750 words.]

In Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Petrarchan sonnet, ‘Spring’, there is a cycling echo and fade in the rhyme words, reminiscent of how the sound of bells on the wind carries the feeling of the physical shape, weight, and volume of the bell, even as the bell’s sound waves spread, changing the air until losing themselves in the air, like circles in water. The cycling echo and fade in the rhyme words also resembles how birdsong punctures the sense of nearness and distance, sharply following, emphasizing, and dying out after the movements of the bird –  which we may well not be able to see. The rhyme scheme of the opening octet, ABBA, which gives the listener ‘Spring’, ‘wring’, ‘sing’, and ‘fling’ on the A lines, seems to evolve, in a recycled, faded, active way, into the sestet’s CDCD rhyme scheme, with the D lines ‘beginning’, ‘sinning’, and ‘winning’.

‘Spring’, the name of the season, cannot help packing in a sense of springiness, movement, especially when Hopkins quickly describes ‘weeds, in wheels’ (l. 2). There’s an element of kinesis in the thrush-song, too, which does not ring with an ‘r-’. It wrings with a ‘wr-‘. It cleans and tussles our hearing, like handwashing, maybe energetic traditional beating and mangling of cloths in a river. Unlike ‘Spring’, there’s no ambiguity of word class in ‘wring’ – it is clearly a verb; it is, however, not just a pun, but disconcertingly synaesthetic and sensuous. With ‘wring’, our hearing is wetted and the soundscape becomes liquefied, dissolving.

The inner feeling of hearing the thrush ‘strikes like lightnings’ (l. 5): fire from heaven follows water, and in Hopkins’s religion, this is the movement of the Holy Spirit through creation that reflects the beauty of its creator, giving praise. Whether or not we share that religion, following up laundry – rinsing and wringing – with lightning, (laundry and lightning)! shakes up our sense of inner and outer, our sense of scale, our sense of agency, of propriety, of the actions we take to tend ourselves versus our sense of vulnerability, of what we might be struck by in our smallness. The image of lightning is accompanied by the thought of thunder, hence by the thought of rain. The thrush song, by extension, is not only a fire but a torrent through our inward apprehension.

The tiny bird has a vast effect; what enters by the ear saturates and transforms our whole person. Bells are unnamed by the poem, but they are ringing. Thunder and rain are unnamed, but they are dinning and falling.

The fullness of this poem arises from its ability to evoke the potentiality of everything that might be present in the natural environment, without needing to describe or itemize it. Similarly, through the one adjective ‘glassy’ (l. 6), we do not feel the poem as beginning in one season, spring, but as already being in movement, as having arisen out of winter. For winter, and the freezing fragility of snapped or snappable twigs, is almost as present as light through spring  flower petals in the lines ‘The glassy peartree blooms and leaves, they brush / The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush / With richness  […]’ – this quickening movement can be felt, whether or not we wish to read glass as imaging virginity or purity and the ‘descending blue’ as annunciatory – in terms of the choice of poetic image (ll. 6-8). Also in terms of the choice of poetic image, what is surprising is the relative fixity of a material like glass being applied to the organic burgeoning of the tree (glass is malleable, meltable, bendable, but we ordinarily deal with it in its fixed forms: windows, drinking vessels). With this glassiness, the tree appears more fixed and brittle than the blue of the sky, which breaks into the poem as something vertiginous, inescapable, almost in pursuit of our attention, till once again an overwhelming fullness is attained, our saturation and sensitization.

The rhymes ‘sing’ and ‘fling’, of a Hallmark-card ordinariness when listed like that, decontextualized from the poem, appear ecstatic, dancing with abandonment at the edges of the lines, when read feelingly in the context of the poem’s linguistic strategies for seizing and plunging us into its spring. It may be worth noting here that the rhymes in the sestet which, as you will recall, are ‘beginning’, ‘sinning’, ‘winning’, are non-finite verbal forms. Yes, and it seems more important to note that these verbal forms, these rhyme words, are prolonged into trisyllables, in contrast with the strong monosyllables of the octet’s rhyme words, than that their endings are unstressed. They participate in excess and in ringing.