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Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great poem on motherhood

Wooden sculpture of Holy Family under palm tree.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Miracle of the Palm Tree on the Flight to Egypt, c. 1490-1510

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 08/13/23

Motherhood is so special because a mother is an instrument of magnification. The small is made large, the lowly are lifted up, and humility leads to greatness.

We celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary this week, which has me thinking about motherhood. The priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has a wonderful meditation on Mary in his poem “May Magnificat,” in which he describes her as the “mighty mother.” In it, he marvels at the greening of the world in springtime and considers why we are driven to create new life. To him, the beauty of motherhood symbolized by, say flowers in spring, isn’t a sign of weakness but, rather, of how mighty and strong mothers are.

Hopkins was known for taking long, meandering walks through rural fields and woods with his notebook and pencil in hand. While he roamed, he would write down what he saw, trying to examine everything down to the smallest details. What he spied one particular spring day was a tumble of creativity, a vast array of, “Flesh and fleece, fur and feather, / Grass and greenworld all together.”

Wooden sculpture of Holy Family under palm tree, detail
The Miracle of the Palm Tree on the Flight to Egypt, Detail, c. 1490-1510

He notes the maternal freshness to everything. He spies a mother bird, a star-eyed, strawberry-breasted throstle, sitting on a cluster of blue eggs all warm with life. He notices the swelling of the earth where plants are pushing out green shoots and, soon enough, blossoms of flowers. It’s the activity of motherhood writ into the details of nature itself.

Hopkins, being a good Catholic priest, believes that Mother Mary is the supreme mother over all this activity. She delights in it. Everywhere new life comes into being, wherever there is a brightening, she is there as mother.

A great song of motherhood

This is all well and good, but Hopkins doesn’t stop there. If he did, he would have written a delightful but simple lyric to motherhood. But remember, the poem is a magnificat. It’s a reference specifically to the great song of motherhood Mary sings when she discovers she is expecting a child. There’s something more going on in the poem. Hopkins has a particular insight he’s trying to share.

Motherhood is so special because a mother is an instrument of magnification. Through her, the small is made large, the lowly are lifted up, and humility leads to greatness. The maternal activities of the birds and the plants, Hopkins says, are the, “magnifying of each its kind.” The images he uses contain an upward motion. Motherhood creates conditions by which the flowers rise from the fields and baby birds fly from the nest. Motherhood is an offering of beauty lifted up to Heaven.

In the offering, in the sacrifice of consenting to pour life and love into that child, not only is a new, unique, and wonderful human being brought into existence, but also the greatness of the mother herself is revealed. Motherhood becomes part of the offering and her sacrifice is revealed to be beautiful.

Bringing out the best

Wooden sculpture of Holy Family under palm tree, detail
The Miracle of the Palm Tree on the Flight to Egypt, Detail, c. 1490-1510

Mary sympathizes with the maternal creativity of nature, Hopkins writes. Through her motherhood, she brings out its best and offers it to God as a gift. That gift is lifted up to heaven through her sacrifice, what Hopkins describes as a drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple bloom that lights up the apples on a tree. It’s an obscure reference, but he’s probably using the apple as a symbol for the Tree of Life in Eden. Motherhood brings the tree to bloom. The bloom, because it is partly blood red, symbolically contains sacrifice. Being a mother requires complete commitment. It’s a gift of self. At the same time, it is a joy. It’s the flowering that brings fruit.

Motherhood may seem to be a small thing. It doesn’t earn a massive salary or make a woman famous. It doesn’t come with a big corner office downtown or command a huge team of employees. Some might lament that motherhood means sacrificing other opportunities, but mothers know a secret. They know that the sacrifice is worth it, that a mother is like a magnifying glass by which the inner beauty and joy and strength of God’s creation is brought into focus. Truly, a mother is mighty.

Tags:
MaryMotherhoodPoetry
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