Fall’s Barbarous Beauty

From summer to school to the Savior via Gerard Manely Hopkins. /

My whole life I’ve heard that very soon schools will put an end to the traditional summer break. Gone are America’s agrarian days, when students needed summers off to help with the harvest. Now students use summers to engage in much less healthy and productive activities. (I remember concluding many summer days with bloodshot eyes, trying to earn another star in SimTower as I pierced my fourth or fifth juice box.)

Our agricultural past is further away than ever. As an English literature doctoral student in my 20th and final year of classes, I work like mad over the summers to make ends meet on a stipend. But classes still start at harvest time, just like they did when I stood at the end of our driveway, bleary eyed from sugar withdrawal, waiting for the bus to lurch into view and carry me off to another year of elementary school.

Year after year, even with farming no longer in the picture, why do we follow these rhythms?

There is something deep in the human psyche that wants to move with the seasons, to change when they do. It just feels right. You can call it the force of 20 years’ habit if you want, but it does feel right to start school in the fall. In a strange synesthesia, I associate the cold damp ground with the smell of newly sharpened pencils. As the color drains from the grass and leaves, I crave cafeteria food.

The fall seems uniquely suited to the kind of attention that learning requires. Maybe because it is rich with paradox. It is both an end and a beginning. It is the end of summer, the growing season, the end of harvest work. It is the end of long days and colorful blooms. But even as these steal away, suddenly—even at the same instant—other things begin. As chlorophyll drains, it reveals autumn colors. This end also signals the beginning of a new kind of production, traditionally that of things like canned goods, wine, spirits, and beer—the products that, instead of dying or rotting, last and often improve with age.

Fall is a time of subtle beauty. Summer’s beauty is bold and defiant, behaving as if it could last forever. It is showy. It commands our attention. It is all juice boxes; fall is wine. So it is fitting that school gets filed into place among these subtler forms of beauty, since it too is an acquired taste. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that most of us who liked school liked it because we were good at it. We were lucky if we developed a true taste for it, if learning became something to savor, and we developed a passionate curiosity all our own. But most of us wait a long time to develop it, and many of us wait too long.

How do we name that special beauty? How do we capture it?

I think the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins got it right when he called it “barbarous” beauty in Hurrahing in Harvest. The word “barbarous” has an etymology that couldn’t have escaped a student of Greek like Hopkins. The word comes from “barbarian,” which is what the ancient Greeks called anyone who was not Greek and therefore, in their minds at least, not civilized. It’s an onomatopoeia; they thought non-Greeks sounded like “babababa” when they spoke. So Hopkins uses this word as a way of getting at that rough or rude-looking grandeur we find only in the fall.

The specific image Hopkins has in mind is a field of “stooks,” or sheaves of fresh-cut wheat that are stood on end and point like arrows at the sky. In the stooks, Hopkins reads the message that the instant summer ends, something else is happening: “summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise around.” His eyes follow the arrows the stooks make, pointing upward into the sky, where he sees a cloudscape. Hopkins was a poet who never saw only clouds. In this case, he tells us he sees “silk-sack clouds” and “wind-walks” engaging in all kinds of “lovely behaviour.” He sees others as “meal-drift” that melts and moulds across the sky.

The stooks point not just to the clouds, but to the source and purpose of his very existence: God. He writes, “I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes, down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour.” He transposes the harvest scene onto the act of seeing and knowing God. “These things,” he writes, “these things were here and but the beholder wanting.” Hopkins himself becomes the harvester as he methodically gathers each blade of wheat into his sheaf.

Then we realize that this poem is the record and result of Hopkins’s gleaning or experiencing God. The same wonder that pulses through those lines can also help us see, propelling us to a sense of wonder about the world around us. Hopkins’s feat of attention drives our own, and we see in the fall the profound significance he also saw.

When you begin school, you don’t think about it taking 20 years. But after you get going, you’re surprised to find that it ever actually ends. Like fall, it sneaks up on you. It suddenly makes you ask about another kind of “end”—what it was all for, what it all meant. Now I have students of my own, and many of them are filled with a wonder that inspires me. But many of them have already begun to depart from the joy, the surprise, and the sense of discovery that learning once ignited for them. They are career-minded, and they’re looking for transferrable skills above all else.

Forget the conferences, the presentations, the papers; what I want most of all is to have learned just one thing by the time I leave the student side of the classroom for good, and that is to learn to glean from the stooks and from the clouds. I don’t want the easy beauty that fades. I want to learn to see the barbarous beauty that lasts and improves with age.

Brett Beasley studies and teaches at Loyola University Chicago. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Anne, and their dog, Bea.

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Also in this Issue

Issue 8 / October 30, 2014
  1. Editors’ Note
  2. Heavenly Minded and Earthly Good

    Spiritual transformation has a lot to do with the brain. /

  3. The Gospel in Your Pocket

    In some ways the best that is yet to come already is. /

  4. Hurrahing in Harvest

    How autumn can help us ‘glean our Savior.’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Links to amazing stuff

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