One autumn day, after fishing in the Elwy River, Gerard Manley Hopkins walked home past the gathered sheaves (stooks, as he called them) beneath a sky of high, shifting clouds. The experience engendered “half an hour of extreme enthusiasm” that found expression in a sonnet called “Hurrahing in Harvest.” I love the first stanza:
Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?
A few lines later he writes,
These things, these things were here, and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet
The heart rears wings bold and bolder…
Friends, there is no shortage of beauties and wonders in this world where we live and move and have our being. But sometimes beholders are in short supply. We need people who will pay attention, then tell what they have seen. As Robert Farrar Capon said,
Man’s real work is to look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are. That is, after all, what God does, and man was not made in God’s image for nothing. The fruits of his attention can be seen in all the arts, crafts, and sciences. It can cost him time and effort, but it pays handsomely.
Capon isn’t talking specifically about writing there. He’s talking about a way of being in the world. But the two things–“life” and “the writing life”–aren’t really two things, as Thomas Merton suggested:
The work of writing can be, for me, or very close to, the simple job of being: by creative reflection and awareness to help life itself live in me…For to write is to love: it is to inquire and to praise, or to confess, or to appeal. This testimony of love remains necessary. Not to reassure myself that I am (“I write therefore I am”), but simply to pay my debt to life, to the world, to other men. To speak out with an open heart and say what seems to me to have meaning.
That’s the writer’s job in a nutshell. It’s everybody else’s job too.