A summary of ‘Moonrise’, a lesser-known poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins
‘Moonrise’ is subtitled ‘June 19 1876’. It’s not one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s best-known poems, and may have been left in fragment form; alternatively, it can be read as a short complete poem. We’re not sure what Hopkins himself intended to do with the poem, since, as we’ve revealed elsewhere, he didn’t see many of his own poems into print during his lifetime. Here is ‘Moonrise June 19 1876’, along with a few thoughts on it which might be considered ‘notes towards an analysis of the poem’.
I awoke in the Midsummer not to call night, in the white and the walk of the morning:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-nail held to the candle,
Or paring of paradisaïcal fruit, lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, of dark Maenefa the mountain;
A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, entangled him, not quit utterly.
This was the prized, the desirable sight, unsought, presented so easily,
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, eyelid and eyelid of slumber.
The poem is composed in the jaunty sprung rhythm which Hopkins invented, as a way of trying to return English verse to the older traditions of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English (Hopkins himself singled out Langland’s fourteenth-century Piers Plowman as a fine example of sprung rhythm). The long lines are unrhymed, but each concludes with an unstressed or weakly stressed syllable – what’s sometimes called a ‘feminine’ line ending. (‘Feminine’ lines end with words like ‘mountain’ or ‘morning’; ‘masculine’ lines might end with such words as ‘about’ or ‘terrain’, where the principal stress is on the final syllable of the word.)
Also, although the poem doesn’t rhyme it does utilise assonance, seen prominently in the second line: ‘dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-nail’.
The imagery is suffused with Christian connotations, as so often in the poems of Hopkins, who was a Jesuit. (Perhaps his most celebrated poem about God is ‘God’s Grandeur’, which we’ve also analysed.) The idea of the crescent moon being likened to a ‘fringe of a finger-nail’ is extremely modern, prefiguring the modernist comparisons in T. E. Hulme’s poetry or T. S. Eliot‘s surprising similes. The next image, that of the ‘paring of paradisaïcal fruit’, summons the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, which, although traditionally interpreted as an apple, is sometimes named as a banana (the additional fruity pun on ‘pear’ in ‘paring’ helps the image: rather than naming the fruit as a banana, Hopkins follows the Bible’s lead in leaving this open to interpretation).
Is there also an overturning of Shakespeare’s idyllic vision of love and life, his A Midsummer Night’s Dream? ‘I awoke in the Midsummer not to call night’. No time for dreaming. Maenefa, by the way, is a mountain in Wales, where Hopkins was living at the time.
We like ‘Moonrise’, and include it in our pick of the best short Victorian poems. If you enjoyed ‘Moonrise’, then do have a look at that selection for more Victorian poetic loveliness. For more Hopkins, check out our analysis of his fine poem ‘The Starlight Night’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: ‘Moonrise, Beaumaris’, painting by Clarice Beckett (1887-1935), Wikimedia Commons.