Here is another reprise -- I read this one in January 2010 but thought I'd give it another airing to celebrate MSRW.
They fought with God's cold --
And they could not and fell to the deck
(Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled
With the sea-romp over the wreck.
Night roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble,
The woman's wailing, the crying of child without check --
Till a lioness arose breasting the babble,
A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told.
Ah, touched in your bower of bone
Are you! turned for an exquisite smart,
Have you! make words break from me here all alone,
Do you! -- mother of being in me, heart.
O unteachably after evil, but uttering truth,
Why, tears! is it? tears; such a melting, a madrigal start!
Never-eldering revel and river of youth,
What can it be, this glee? the good you have there of your own?
Sister, a sister calling
A master, her master and mine! --
And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one;
Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine
Ears, and the call of the tall nun
To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm's brawling.
You are probably asking yourself why on earth I am quoting this poem in a review of Muriel Spark's celebrated novel, The Girls of Slender Means. If you have read the novel you will of course remember that it is one of the poems used by Joanna, an elocution teacher and one of the girls who lives in the May Teck Hostel where the story is set. But there's a bit more too it than that, though it will be hard to explain without giving too much away to anyone who has not yet read it.
Set in 1945, at the end of WW2, this great novel tells the story of a group of young women who live on very low incomes in this large Victorian house overlooking Kensington Gardens in London. They work in menial office jobs, scrounge for food and clothing coupons, gossip about boyfriends, and share one glorious Schiaparelli evening dress. There's beautiful Selina, who is sleeping with three men but keeping other, richer, ones dangling in the hope of marriage; Pauline, who seems normal but disappears out in the evening from time to time pretending she is going for dinner with the actor Jack Buchanan; Joanna, a clergyman's daughter, who has come to London to escape her tendency to fall in love with curates and is channelling all her passion into the poetry she uses in her elocution classes; and Jane, really the central character, who works for a seedy small-time publisher but is highly respected by the other girls for her work in what she refers to as "the world of books". Jane is fat -- not a politically correct term in this day and age but this is how she, and the other girls, think of her. As the novel begins Jane is falling in love with a moody intellectual author, Nicholas Farringdon, who strings her along but soon starts an affair with Selena. On his many visits to the hostel, however, it is Joanna who most fascinates Nicholas -- she can often be heard declaiming her favourite poems to her pupils, and the novel is studded with short extracts from poets like Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, and of course Hopkins.
The setting, in a London devastated by the war, is wonderfully evoked. All over the city are bombed out buildings, some still standing but with their sides torn away so that you can see each room, its wallpaper still intact, exposed to the elements. An unexploded bomb is indeed rumoured to be buried in the hostel garden but no one has ever succeeded in finding it. However this does have a bearing on the dramatic events at the end of the novel, during which Joanna is heard proclaiming from the Psalms in her wonderful, powerful voice. If you have read it you will see what I mean about the Hopkins poem and if you haven't read it you really should. During the course of the book we learn that after these events Nicholas has converted to Catholicism -- something Spark herself did -- and this too seems connected in some way with Joanna and with Hopkins. I'm sure someone has written a learned article or ten about all this. But don't let that put you off. This is an absolutely delightful, witty, perceptive, thought-provoking book and you will be glad you have read it.