Christmas is a great time for name dropping, so here goes. Do you know that I am connected to Richard Burton by a mere two degrees of separation? I once spoke on the telephone with Elizabeth Taylor, who was married to Richard Burton - twice. So that’s a double-barreled name drop any way you look at it.
Some time ago a friend sent me a link to a recording of Richard Burton reciting a poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It was staggering to hear. Hopkins is not a poet I know much, or thought I had much time for. Then I heard Richard Burton read this poem... and it was sort of jaw dropping, to tell you the truth. But although I was staggered by Burton’s mellifluous recitation of the words, I had no idea what to do with the poem. I was captivated by Burton’s mastery of the language and bedazzled by the tempo at which he delivered the lines, which transformed them with a sense of urgency and significance. But, as I say, I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with the poem; I’m not sure I could have told you what the poem is about.
The poem in question is actually a pair of poems: “The Leaden Echo & The Golden Echo.” To be crass, I could say that they are a reflection on beauty, age, and despair, paired with a declaration of hope in divine providence, whence all beauty finds its origin and its final home. I guess.... Listen:
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age's evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death's worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
I wish you could hear Burton say these lines, which, on the page, do not look the way they sound when they are spoken by him. They just look like words on the page. But from his lips, the words sound like music. You should go home and listen to him deliver these lines. But not right now.
Anyway, you heard some of the despair from the first poem, “The Leaden Echo,” but the hope is in the second poem, “The Golden Echo.” Listen again:
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty's self and beauty's giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
... O why are we so haggard at the heart, so care-coiled, care-killed, so fagged, so fashed, so cogged, so cumbered,
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept.—Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where.—
Yonder.—What high as that! We follow, now we follow.—
Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,
I am no Richard Burton, and from my own mouth these lines sound like a cheap imitation of the poem he recites. Take my word for it. But I hope you will try to imagine the poem as the words tumble perfectly from his lips. It’s dazzling.
Every year, just days after Christmas, when we heard on Christmas morning the glorious first lines of John’s Gospel (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….") we repeat those dazzling lines, which tumble with a certain perfection from the pages of the Gospel, and we sit here, captivated for a while in the majesty of this mystery that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld its glory, full of grace and truth.” We can tell that the words themselves have a kind of urgency and significance, but I suspect that we haven’t the faintest idea of what to do with them. I’m not at all sure we know what these words are about. We only know that we find them beautiful. But as soon as we are out the door, we leave them behind, and return to the prosaic world where beauty is “vanishing away” (in Hopkins’ terms) and we are tempted to despair, despair, despair. Poetry evaporates into the air.
It turns out that Elizabeth Taylor had this pair of Hopkins’ poems read at her funeral. She must have loved the way Richard Burton read them, too. He probably practiced reciting them in front of her. When I think of how easily I can connect myself to Elizabeth Taylor, and (by only two degrees of separation) to Richard Burton and, therefore, to the way he recites these fabulous lines, …for some reason it makes me feel foolish for feeling so often, as though I am so far removed from God, and from the Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us. It makes it seem as though Christmas was already long ago. It makes it seem as though beauty is vanishing away.
Why are we so haggard at the heart? When the thing we freely forfeit is kept with fonder a care, yonder, where we now follow? Why do I sometimes feel that there are fewer degrees of separation between me and Richard Burton than there are between me and God? Why do I so freely forfeit the urgency and significance of the Word made flesh?
Without Richard Burton reciting those lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins, I’d have never thought twice about them. They’d have remained close to gibberish to me. But he made them present, real, important, and began to show me that they have real meaning.
Without God’s gift of his Son, I suppose the same would be true of the divine Word. No mere performer; no mere interpreter of God’s word, he is the Word itself made flesh. Because God knows how easily we dismiss him as gibberish. God knows that we have felt separated from him by too many degrees to count. So God speaks, so to speak, he speaks by sending us his incarnate Word. And the chasm between God and us is closed; the degree of separation between God and us is narrowed to only a tiny distance, a number of less than One.
I love the question that Hopkins poses in the second poem, “O why are we so haggard at the heart?” And it is ironic that I should invoke this poem, I suppose, in any way at all to refer to the good news of the incarnate Word, since Hopkins concludes that God keeps with “fonder care” “the thing we freely forfeit,” which is his Word, his Love, his Beauty, his Truth, I suppose, ... that God keeps all this “yonder, yonder, yonder,” far from us, where it is safe from our forfeiture. But “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth,” and we are always free to forfeit his Word, his Love, his Beauty, and his Truth.
O why are we so haggard at the heart, as though we had never heard, as though we had never known, as though we would freely forfeit, what once God kept to himself with fonder a care, fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder a care kept. - Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where…?
Not yonder, yonder, yonder; but the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.
Thanks be to God.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
30 December 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia