In my first semester of college I was plunged into a deep and chilling pool of scholastic endeavor. It was called English 1A, First Year Reading And Comprehension. It was the Fall of 1963 at San Diego State. I was 18 years old.
On the first day of class the course outline and required reading list were handed out. The primary text-book was, “Theme And Form, An Introduction To Literature” by Beardsley, Daniel and Leggett, 2nd edition 1962. But that was only the first entry in a daunting list. Of course, I had to purchase a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, for counteracting the notoriously trite and banal vocabulary of the typical college student. The dictionary I was required to purchase was two and a half inches thick. Even though it was a Webster’s “Collegiate” dictionary, it provided better information than most on-line dictionaries today.
I don’t recall the entire reading list for that class. I believe it included the complete works of William Shakespeare. But one entry stood out to me at that time, and still impresses me today. It was the Bible. I indignantly wondered how I could be expected to read the entire Bible in just one semester. As the professor explained to us, the whole of English literature was molded by the Bible. Not only did authors liberally quote from Scripture, but even if they didn’t, their world view — the very perspective from which they wrote — was a product of a society which embraced long-established Biblical values. The development of Western classical institutions of education began as the religious study of Scripture.
Back then I wasn’t a Christian, but I had a copy of the Revised Standard Version which had been awarded to me upon completion of Sunday School when I was in the third grade. I had avoided making a habit of referring to the Bible. I found looking up quotations a challenge. The table of contents was basically a list of the books. I didn’t readily grasp the numbering of chapters and verses, and even when I actually found a particular verse, I discovered the wording in the Revised Standard Version was different from that of the King James Version, which is the version one generally finds in literature. At that point I had no interest in examining Scripture. It was enough for me to acknowledge that the Bible had been “revised” and I had no desire to explore it any further.
However, because English literature is so thoroughly permeated by a Biblical presence, there was no way I could avoid sensing it, tasting it and even savoring it while taking this class. I recall one assignment in particular that made a lasting impression on me… well, actually two impressions — one literary, another spiritual. The assignment was to read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “The Windhover”, be prepared to discuss it in class, and then write a report about it. Since it isn’t a long poem, I thought this assignment shouldn’t be too difficult. Here is the poem:
To Christ Our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird — the the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
(Hopkins lived from 1844 to 1889, but The Windhover was published posthumously in 1918. For those who are not poetically or analytically inclined, a good exposition of this poem may be found at http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/hopkins/section2.rhtml)
More than any other single piece of literature, The Windhover forever changed how I look at the written word. The very first time I read it, I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what it meant. It didn’t seem to follow the rules of writing I had grown up with. I had to look up the definitions of a lot of the words, and even then, it took some explanation by our professor before I began to grasp the intended applications and connotations of those words. Some words — like wimpling and sillion — Hopkins simply made up, but beautifully and effectively so. Even his use of accents lifts the base meaning of sheer plod. There is no loss of dignity due to his creative divergence from convention. In fact, just the opposite is true. This poem has the solemnity of a prayer and exudes the creative freedom of its author.
That brings me to the second impression this poem made on me. When I first read it, and even when we discussed it in class, I didn’t understand the significance of the subtitle, “To Christ Our Lord”. Again, the professor had to explain it was about a bird, and by watching that bird, the poet was reminded of Christ. For a person who doesn’t know Christ, and doesn’t know the passion of loving Christ, this isn’t easy to understand. The unbeliever may only grasp it symbolically or intellectually, while missing out on the intense experience of worshipful recognition when God’s invisible attributes are observed in his created world. But even though I did not understand the passion that drives The Windhover, I felt it. I saw that there was something I didn’t know; a connection I hadn’t made.
On a few occasions during my student years I had watched hawks riding on air currents. About an hour’s drive east of San Diego, Mount Laguna rises above the Anza-Borrego desert. From the Pacific Crest Trail the panorama of a dramatic drop-down from the mountains to the desert floor is at once inspiring and calming. The warm air rising from the desert provided the birds with a perfect support for their soaring. Sometimes they would suddenly dive at prey, but most of the time they just seemed to be soaring on the currents for the sheer joy of it. Watching such a scene would stir my heart also. But unlike Hopkins, I only had the most vague, abstract notions that it somehow involved God. Seeing the beauty and wonder of God’s creation, I may have acknowledged God, but I did not know his love. I did not feel his love.
In the years that followed, my appreciation for literature and interest in writing continued to grow. And then, some 13 years after studying the Windhover, I received Christ. It was only then that I truly understood the heartfelt joy and faith that had led Gerard Manley Hopkins to pen The Windhover.
The rich, organic link between classic English literature and Biblical Christianity is a product of the origins of scholarly education in Western civilization. Sadly, this link is largely ignored in our colleges and universities today. And many young graduates now reject the Bible, classical literature and even Western civilization itself, as antiquated, obsolete, irrelevant and something that needs to be “changed” or replaced by more relative, diverse and “reinvented” cultural values.
But if I can learn, anyone can learn. It takes time and openness and willingness to grow, which is the best change of all. I value our cultural roots because my very identity is inexorably tied to them. What we read and learn now is vital to our future. The world we build tomorrow rests on what we read today. Examine the foundation before you build. Read the Bible and study what it has to say… not just to your mind, but to your very soul and spirit.