Hope holds to Christ the mind’s own mirror out
To take His lovely likeness more and more.
It will not well, so she would bring about
An ever brighter burnish than before
And turns to wash it from her welling eyes
And breathes the blots off all with sighs on sighs.
Her glass is blest but she as good as blind
Holds till hand aches and wonders what is there;
Her glass drinks light, she darkles down behind,
All of her glorious gainings unaware.
I told you that she turned her mirror dim
Betweenwhiles, but she sees herself not Him.
Though the ins and outs of this poem’s meaning are elusive, we’ll briefly consider a few images which struck me. Hope personified (and thus nearly-identical with God, especially with the Spirit) holds a mirror belonging to the mind out to Christ, and image which (to me) tracks most closely with the patristic idea – see especially Gregory of Nyssa and, less directly, Augustine’s writings – that the mind is an image into which we can peer and see, however dimly, the image of Christ. In imaging Jesus with the mirror of our mind, Hope wishes to conform our image to his – glorification and unity with God are, after all, the final hope in much of traditional Christianity(with Hopkins, read: “traditional Catholic Christianity”). We are conformed to Christ’s image and find unity with it in an act of vision – hence the mirror analogy. The idea of sight, or the “ocular” metaphor, recurs throughout the poem.
Hope’s eyes in this case are welling – that is, she (again, think God/Holy Spirit) is crying. In view of our sufferings and continuing sin, the hopeful aspect of our own souls, which is the part of us which looks forward to the vision (Rev. 22:4) of and unity with God, actively grieves over the lack of such unity. In crying and sighing over our distance from God and all of creation’s subjection to futility, however, our vision actually begins to become clearer. The “blots” upon the soul’s mirror are “breathed” (again – Holy Spirit alert!) off with sighs. Our vision of God is clarified and the blots in it (Mt. 7:3) are cleansed by suffering. As backhanded as the movement of purification through suffering may seem, Hope’s “welling eyes” and “sighs upon sighs” are, in many ways, the most Christ-like aspects of our earthly existence. “The only hope”, as Eliot puts in in his Quartets, is “to be redeemed from fire by fire.” Even in this section by Eliot, the Holy Spirit aspect of this redemption is fascinating: Eliot first uses fire in that particular poem in reference to Pentecost.
Hopkins also links hope with its companions, Love and Faith. Love appears at the beginning, as Hope longs for us to have the vision of and unity with God. Faith appears in lines 7-8, where Hope is blessed but blind to its state of redemption and grace. The part of our soul kindled by the Spirit’s Hope cannot yet see clearly, but it can only hold on “till hand aches.” It is a painful process for hope – we have something to hold onto, but it seems to offer such little support – a comfort, but a thin one. Many of my most anguished prayers in hard times fit the description perfectly: holding on “till hand aches.”
“All of her glorious gainings unaware” – things do get better in our lives, our vision does get clearer, and yet to imagine we can measure it is naive and deluding. “Hope that is seen is not hope” (Rm 8:24), as Paul puts it, and this tracks well with Hopkins’s desperate, oblivious hand-holder. For him, hope is more a disposition of dependence during darkness; not a premature apprehension of the light. And so Hope is blind, and unaware of its gains.
The final two lines of the poem are the most important structurally, since they’re set off in a different strophe and are used to close the poem. Though her mirror of apprehending her own image of God and engaging in the vision of Him has dimmed, she instead sees herself. Which brings us to a point of ambiguity – here especially, the subject, or antecedent, of “she” and “her” is ambiguous. Is this Hope personified or the mind itself? Or, as elsewhere in the poem, is it the affective faculty of the human soul, the one which is kindled by the Holy Spirit in hope? My best guess here would be the final option, and perhaps it’s an idea pertaining to spiritual vision. Though we don’t see God yet, we do see the hope we have for Him and the Holy Spirit’s presence in the soul specifically as the object of our own hope and love, an idea with a long history in aesthetic or contemplative Catholic theology. This poem’s a tricky one, and that’s all I could pull out of its images – please comment with any additional thoughts.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.