Features, Poems

Jeffrey Harrison: “Custody of the Eyes”

I’ve loved Hopkins since I was in college, and over the years have often returned to his amazingly energetic poems and vivid journal entries. But it wasn’t until I was preparing to give a talk about him a few years ago that I read a biography (actually, two). I became fascinated by his pivotal years at Oxford, where he came under the influence of his teacher Walter Pater’s Aestheticism just as he was feeling the pull toward Catholicism. After his conversion, he gave up poetry, only returning to it after a seven-year struggle to resolve (partly through his theory of Inscape) the contradiction between his love of earthly beauty and the demands of his religious calling. (Obviously, more was at stake for him than for those of us writing poems today, who might feel at most a vague guilt at perhaps being too attached to the pleasures of description.) Some of this is in the poem, and some behind it, my main focus being the strange (to most of us) notion of one of the penances that Hopkins practiced during his training as a Jesuit. The actual trigger was the name of the penance, “custody of the eyes,” encountered in one of the biographies. The phrase took on a life of its own and, with its slightly surreal connotations, inhabited my brain for quite a while before I wrote the poem. (Jeffrey Harrison)

Custody Of The Eyes
(Hopkins)

To look at the world
with devotion,
giving all of himself
to what was given,
sometimes gave him
so much pleasure
he thought it must be
a sin, distracting him
from his devotion
to God. Therefore
the eyes for a while
had to be taken
into custody
like a pair of criminals,
kept in the flesh-and-
bone cell of the head,
their gaze cast down
in penitence,
the eyes themselves
watched over
to prevent them from
looking at anything
more than was needed
to get through the day.
For weeks or months
at a time, and once
for half a year,
he denied himself
the beauty he knew
more acutely than others,
as if reducing each thing—
flower, stone, bird—
to a single word,
stripping it of the
singularity
he loved to describe
in rushing phrases
that spilled down
his journal’s pages.
But when the penance
ended, his eyes
flew out
into the open sky
and over the fields,
innocently coming
to rest on each self-
expressing element
of creation
with such delight
and gratitude
he couldn’t keep
the words from
pouring out of him.

Jeffrey Harrison is the author of four full-length books of poems—most recently Incomplete Knowledge (Four Way Books), which was runner-up for the Poets’ Prize in 2008—as well as of The Names of Things (2006), a selection published by the Waywiser Press in the U.K. A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships, he has recent work in The New Republic, American Poetry Review, AGNI online, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. For more information, visit here.