How to read a poem

On “What is a Poem, Anyway?” I promised to tell you how I make friends with a new poem. I’m not sure any of you read that essay when I finally posted it and it’s highly likely no one out there could care less how I read a poem, but I promised, so here it is.


Myself unholy, from myself unholy
To the sweet living of my friends I look-
Eye greeting doves bright-counter to the rook,
Fresh brooks to salt sand-teasing waters shoaly:
And they are purer, but alas not solely
The unquestion’d readings of a blotless book.
And so my trust, confused, struck, and shook
Yields to the sultry siege of melancholy.
He has a sin of mine, he its near brother,
And partly I hate, partly condone that fall.
This fault in one I found, that in another:
And so, though each have one while I have all,
No better serves me now, save best; no other
Save Christ: to Christ I look, on Christ I call.

“You’re not quite sure what it means but the words are so beautiful you know it must be profound.” Terri Guillemets of

Terri could have been speaking of this poem (or almost any poem) by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In every poem Hopkins leads us into or through opaqueness so dense I find myself lost in an odd selection and arrangement of the most extraordinary adjectives he has coined (often by joining them like pop-beads), thinking–“Huh?” Still, I thoroughly enjoy his work.

To introduce you to how I, at least, read a poem, I picked one by Hopkins which I had never read: Myself Unholy. First, with any poem, I have to dial in the context. Hopkins lived a hundred years before me so I have to think “19th century.” This poem has 14 lines and the last words of each line rhyme (in a very particular way) so it’s a sonnet. Although it isn’t going to be the “playing without a net” of 20th century free verse or have the word order bouncing all over the place like cummings, his work paves the way for that. Hopkins is not a metronome. He may be a cleric but his meter is not straight-laced. He colors outside the lines even when he stays within the lines. He is often overwhelmed by the greatness of Christ to the point of bursting all constraints, so I won’t be surprised if this poem starting with his sense of personal unholiness leads us to Christ’s holiness.

First I read it through silently a couple of times, trying to get the gist. I’m immediately tripped by the title showing up twice in the first line!–but I keep going.

I “groom” the poem as I would a pet–as the poet undoubtedly did in writing it–brushing through its fur softly over and over, enjoying the process, giving the relationship a chance. I poke around in the mystery, looking for threads I recognize to lead me to meaning.

And I am seldom disappointed. Eventually it rolls over on its back and begins to purr.

I follow the punctuation. His meaning, more than those of some poets, is dependent on pauses at the end of lines or smooth slides through them to the period. You can’t stop at the end of the first line of this poem, you have to hurry on and so you find him looking from “I” to someone else, to plural someones.

“Sweet living.” Is this speaking of the manner friends live or how they earn money? Do they raise sugar beets, keep bees? Let it go.

“Eye-greeting doves bright-counter to the rook.” At this point, just appreciate the imagery and keep moving. “Fresh brooks to salt sand-teasing water shoaly:–” Whatever. Some contrast between two kinds of birds and (no doubt a parallel thought) two kinds of water. Don’t worry about what kinds.

They (birds, water–just try to find nouns and descriptors) are purer than something but not as pure as something else. And this leaves the poet “confused, struck, shook.” It makes him melancholy. Wow, the two of us have something in common. His poem is leaving me confused and melancholy.

Another pair of parallel thoughts: “He has a sin of mine, he its near brother.” Who is “he?” and Hmm, there must be more than one of them. The only plural people so far are in line 2, so maybe this refers back to those “friends.” Let’s start up there again, knowing this, and get some momentum going as we work back down through to where we were. There seem to be two friends. Knowing himself to be imperfect he looks to them, using analogies of “eye-greeting” birds and “fresh” brooks, for–role models? They’re purer (than he is, apparently) but each of them has a flaw, unmentioned other than to say they are similar to each other, flaws Hopkins also has. Could be pride and prejudice. Could be envy and jealousy. Hopkins isn’t telling us so it doesn’t matter; he doesn’t want us side-tracked. He just knows these sins well, knows that these two friends may be in for a fall, such as he has experienced.

These other guys each have one sin. Hopkins says he himself has–not just both those sins but “all.” He’s really down on himself but he’s looking for someone sinless, someone he can trust, as an example to follow. The “sweet living of my friends” he sees (line 2)  refers to their “kind lives,” maybe? I think by “serve” he has to mean (in light of the context) “serve as an example.”

They’re better (than he is), but they are fallible, too. Can’t lean on them. So who can he lean on, look to?

Who else? The One without sin, the one who is wholly trustworthy. No one but the best, no other “save” (don’t miss the double meaning) Christ.

A translation might be:

“I, from my imperfect self
look to two friends as patterns for my life.
They’re like bright-eyed doves compared to me (a crow),
fresh (dependable) water compared to my shifting waves
They’re purer (than me) but not as pure
as the reliable truths of an inerrant book (Bible? catechism?).
So I feel I can’t count on them either
and that depresses me.
They each have a flaw I have
and I can tell they will be tripped up by it, as I have been.
Although they each have one flaw and I have both,
I’d be safer not leaning on either of them.
They’re better than me but they’re not the best.
I can only depend on Christ.

Now you’ve broken the code, go back and re-read the poem a couple more times, enjoying how he says this. This is one of Hopkins’ earlier poems, we’re not quite soaring with falcons yet but it can be a satisfying poem for a Christian reader.

As I delight in his word choices, savor the overtones of those words and all their secondary and implied meanings as they ripple out to the horizon of the imagination, I find meat and depth and richness.

Tricia Lott Williford wrote on her blog, “Robb used to say he couldn’t enjoy barbecued ribs because they were ‘too much work for not enough meat.'” She added, “I might feel this way about poetry.” (“BBQ ribs and Poetry,” July 3, 2012)

To me (Jessica) it depends on the poetry. A savory poem always has enough meat to be worth the gnawing.

About Jessica Renshaw
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2 Responses to How to read a poem

  1. Well, you devoted a lot of time to teaching how to read a poem. I doubt that I’ve had even one student, well, maybe one or two, who would have paid any attention to the detail had I attempted to teach it this way. I do have two students who went on to teach in field of English/Speech but that is all. I mostly had “occupy the desk” kinds of students. Sigh. I admire your attention to detail. Great job.


  2. Not sure I would have started with Gerard Manley Hopkins, though. Hopkins (1844-1889) has a well-deserved reputation as being one of the most difficult and challenging (as well as one of the finest) poets in the English language. For those just putting their big toes in the poetic waters, I’d probably start with, say, Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) – just as magnificent, but less challenging, from the technical point of view.


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