Gerard Manley Hopkins
A nun takes the veil
I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.
Taking “heaven” and “haven” literally: the heavens are the skies, a haven is a sheltered port. The dash in the title suggests separation as much as linkage. Are we moving from a heaven in the first stanza to a haven in the second?
On that note, heaven and haven do seem to contrast. “I have desired to go” is very different from “I have asked to be.” The imagery of the first stanza seems almost exclusively about the temperature and violence of the air, whereas the second stanza is about the temperament and violence of the sea. (I’m assuming a “spring” fails when it freezes or dries out).
The “desire to go” sets up the eventual destination, whereas “asked to be” concerns the mode of transport. That crisscrossing of metaphor – “desire” usually sets things in motion, “being” usually determines where/how something is at rest, “in itself” – alerts us that the relation isn’t as simple as contrast, even though that can contribute to an interpretation. To see how heaven and haven compare, we note the two stanzas are linked not just by the title, but also by the last line of the first stanza and the first line of the second:
And a few lilies blow. / And I have asked to be
Lilies were preceded by “where springs not fail,” where water and life are eternal. Around the “springs” are “fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,” where physical pain and prejudice are gone. The good in the first stanza is defined by what it is not: the “veil” is implicit in the description. But there is one thing that stands in these fields which is not quite perfect: lilies. They are still moved by the wind, as they would be on earth. Their symbolism is still tinged with darkness.
In the next stanza, again, the good is mainly defined by what it is not: no storms come. But “the green swell is in the havens dumb” – the green swell is there, there is some battle between Chaos and Order, but our speaker is out of the “swing of the sea,” culminating in a third “And.” That last sentence is strange: the “green swell” is out of the “swing of the sea,” the haven somehow defangs the wave.
The poem leaves us, in meditating on the vows one makes in choosing the religious life, with two things that our speaker cannot negate: the “lilies” and the “green swell.” Our speaker sees that they are inescapably connected with her “desiring” and “being:” being is conceived in some relation to change (“green swell”). “Desiring” brings up the question of what we ultimately desire, the escape from failure and death.
Our speaker does not simply cast aside all earthly fallibility, though. The lilies are the memories we have of the dead. We hope they too remember us. Where she has desired to go is static in a fundamental sense, as only memories are still moving. Again, those memories are not of another realm. In where she asks to be, a “green swell” is perhaps sidestepped. One might link the lilies with the “green swell” and see Creation occurring within her. Again though, this is all a prayer. Her vows do not make her automatically holy because of the tension between “desiring” and “asking.” What she wants is not hers to have. Human beings do not live on “lilies” alone. What she wants can only be given; she is therefore in the most vulnerable of situations. The prayer is serene because the trust is complete.