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The Ascent of the Leaden Soul

March 4, 2024


One of my favorite poems is “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. As the Church walks perhaps somewhat wearily into this season of Lent, this poem bears the sobering reminder that we must be ready to give the things we love and hold dear back to God.

Like many of Hopkins’ poems, a narrative dances behind his array of alliterations and assonances. This poem is special in that it depicts a conversation—a friendship—between two speakers, “the Leaden Echo” and “the Golden Echo.” “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” gives, in my opinion, one of the strongest poetic accounts of Christian hope there is: that all good and beautiful things are preserved and loved by God, even though death and decay seem to pervade our world and seem to give us reason to despair. The two echoes within the poem reflect a journey that does not end in nihilistic silence, but rather in gratuitous attentiveness to God as the source and giver of all earthly beauty.

Beauty’s ephemerality is the lament of the Leaden Echo, and the reasons for her lament are indeed compelling: How can we keep beauty, or really anything we love and cherish, from vanishing away? The Leaden Echo bemoans beauty’s fleetingness, the unavoidable onset of old age, and the unrelenting grief earthly life seems to bring. In lines 1-4, the Leaden Echo asks whether it is possible to hold onto beauty forever:

How to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, / bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep / Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, . . . from vanishing away?1

We are meant to feel with the Leaden Echo the weight of her sorrow and despair at losing her health or youth and as she mourns the passage of time. And, by the end of her long lament, the Leaden Echo presumes that there is nothing left to do but despair the death and decay of our world:

Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair / . . . Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done / To keep at bay / Age and age’s evils, hoar hair, / Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay; / So be beginning, be beginning to despair. / O there’s none; no no no there’s none: / Be beginning to despair, to despair, / Despair, despair, despair despair.2

So, what does Hopkins want us to make of the Leaden Echo’s predicament? On some level, we might empathize with the Leaden Echo’s sorrow at the brokenness of the world. It is impossible to proceed through this life without being acquainted with loss or grief at the disorder of our society and souls.

Even when all beautiful things vanish or are taken away from us, God is the source to whom we must return . . .

And yet, Hopkins indicates that the Leaden Echo has gone too far in assuming ownership of beauty. There is a jadedness to the Leaden Echo’s mutterings that reveals the interior disorder of her soul; we might interpret this as Hopkin’s poetic rendering of sin as incurvatus in se, a turning in on oneself instead of to God and others. The Leaden Echo has succumbed to an inwardly focused life, holding that all earthly goods and beauties are hers alone. This self-centered gaze is reflected again in lines 11-12, where the speaker bemoans her “age and age’s evils,” her greying hair and wrinkly skin. And while old age is rarely kind to anyone, the Leaden Echo glosses over the good that can indeed arise out of one’s age: wisdom gained, friendships formed, a life well-lived.

Though the Leaden Echo does not realize it, her refrain of “despair” causes even more harm to her own soul. The “frowning of these wrinkles, ranked wrinkles deep” paints an ouroboric cycle of despairing old age that in turn hastens age’s onset—like lying in bed at night worrying about getting enough sleep, which only delays rest even more. A priest might diagnose the sickness of this soul as the sin of acedia; the Leaden Echo, instead of directing her sadness to God, ends up sulking around. Her refrain of “despair, despair, despair, despair” shows us that she has succumbed to the false belief that her lot is beyond the saving reach of God. 

Thankfully, Hopkins does not leave us at the doorstep of despair. The droning cacophony of the Leaden Echo’s “despair” is quite literally interrupted, caught, and transformed into a new word of hope: “spare!” at last breaks forth in line 17. The speaker of “The Golden Echo” will thus demonstrate not only the proper posture we must have towards earthly beauty, but also the right kind of questions we should be asking. The Golden Echo does not even consider the Leaden Echo’s question of whether earthly beauty can be kept forever, but rather reflects on where Everlasting Beauty is found:

Spare! / There ís one, yes I have one (Hush there!); / Only not within the seeing of the sun, / Not within the singeing of the strong sun, / Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air3

While the sun is the light by which we see and engage with reality, the sun is also “treacherous.” It singes, and it tinges. In other words, the Golden Echo’s concern is that earthly beauty can be treacherous and perilous when it lulls us to conclude that it is an end unto itself. She asserts that it is not within the “seeing of the sun” or the grasping of beautiful things that ultimately delivers us from the maws of despair, but rather in contemplation of God, from whom every good and perfect gift comes. This contemplation of heavenly things is demonstrated in the way the poem moves into a deep reflection on the everlasting source of beauty:

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Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maidengear, gallantry and gaiety and grace, / Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace— / Resign them, seal them, sign them, send them, motion them with breath, / And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs deliver / Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death / Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.4

The alliterative refrain emphasizes a posture of submission and gratitude to God, both for giving all good and beautiful things to us and for preserving that which he has taken away. Unlike the Leaden Echo’s feverish desire to keep back beauty, the tonal difference in the Golden Echo is one of abiding gratitude, even in the midst of great pain and loss, even as beauty eludes us once again. The echo in line 32 of “resign them, seal them, sign them, send them, motion them with breath” gives the poem’s world a second sense of direction, but this time as an outward energy of submission, beckoning the Leaden Echo to release everything to God, rather than hold it back. For the Golden Echo knows that everything in this life, every breath we take and heartbeat and crumb under the table, is a lavish gift from the hand of God. The Golden Echo reminds us that, even when all beautiful things vanish or are taken away from us, God is the source to whom we must return, for he is the only sure thing in this world of change. 

In the final lines of the poem, the Golden Echo sings of God’s tender care of all earthly goods and beauties, and that everything we believe to be lost finds its place in him. This, for the Golden Echo, is not cause for despair or haggardness of the heart, but of great, abiding peace and joy. She believes firmly that all good things are gifts that must not be greedily hoarded but given back to God in a posture of gratitude: 

O then, weary then whý should we tread? O why are / we so haggard at the heart, so care-coiled, care-killed, so fagged, so fashed, so cogged, so cumbered, / When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care, / Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept / Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) / finer, fonder / A care kept.—Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, / where.— / Yonder. What high as that! We follow, now we follow. / Yonder, yes yonder, yonder, / Yonder.5

The Golden Echo leads the Leaden Echo (and us) to see that earthly beauty can direct us to deeper contemplation of God, whereby we set our gaze “yonder, yonder.” This ascent, though arduous and purgative, is the journey the “leaden soul” must take if she is to be free and rightly ordered like the Golden Echo: that in giving back to God all we hold dear, even our very lives, the soul can gaze contentedly upon the everlasting Beauty that fashioned it and that wrought the world. We may not see the leaden echo’s transformation by the end of the poem, but we can hope that the leaden echo ascends with the golden echo’s prompting. This ascent within the poem constitutes a kind of metanoia, in which the Leaden Echo is reminded of our telos to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of [our] life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple,”6 as the Psalmist sings. The poem thus ends with an imperative, as we must continue our search and gaze yonder and learn to see Christ playing “in ten thousand places.”7

1 Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,” Everyman’s Library, pg. 80, ll. 1-3
Ibid, ll. 6, 9-16
Ibid, ll. 17-21
Ibid, ll. 30-35 (emphasis added).
Ibid, ll. 44-47
Psalm 27:4, KJV
Hopkins, “As kingfishers catch fire,” Everyman’s Library, ln. 10