Today in my French class we learned how to describe imaginary situations in the past and their imaginary consequences in the present (i.e. the way things could have been, but were not, and therefore, are not), and I couldn’t help thinking that we were learning the tense of nostalgia. In French, the tense is known as L’irréel du passé, or “The Unreal of the Past” a name that when divorced from its strictly grammatical associations is abstract enough to be a vessel for my “tense of nostalgia,” and in a certain sense it is exactly that: one utilizes L’irréel du passé to talk about possibilities which existed in the past but which are no longer. So the tense is not just the Unreal of the Past, but the Unreal of the Present and the Future as well, since to change the past is to open whole realms of new (imaginary) possibilities.
Unfortunately, however, the tense loses most of its romance when you’re so bogged down in the nitty-gritty of grammar that your memory–the organ of (or at least the entrance to) nostalgia–is unable to function properly. It’s hard to get swept away by a rush of poignant, devastating memory when you’re busy trying to conjugate one verb in the plus-que-parfait, and the next in conditionnel passé, while simultaneously placing pronouns and worrying about conjunctions, liaisons and your horrid French accent.
However, while trying to come up with a suitable example phrase, I did get swept away enough to think a bit about how I came to love literature so much, and why I’ve chosen to study it, and how different my life might be if I hadn’t encountered the works of certain writers, or if (hard to imagine) I’d encountered them but somehow been indifferent to their beauty and their power. The first writer–or rather poet–that came to mind (followed by a slew of others…Woolf, Vonnegut, Shakespeare, L’Engle) was Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889, and as I’ve had lines from these poems running through my head since 11 o’clock this morning, I’ve decided to indulge in my nostalgia by posting two of my favorite Hopkins’ poems and imagining that maybe one of you will read them here for the first time and feel them speak to you the way they spoke to me when I was sixteen and found them in the middle of a tattered paperback anthology of British poets.
The Windhover: To Christ Our Lord
I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
Adom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
AOf 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,
AAs a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend the hurl and gliding
ARebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird — the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
ABuckle! 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
AShine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
~ Gerard Manley Hopkins
No worst, there is none.
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing –
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
-ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
~ Gerard Manley Hopkins
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/122/. [April 13 2010].