Imagery and symbolism in The Blessed Virgin Mary


The opening ‘wild air' is repeated at the end, giving a circular feel to the poem:

  • ‘Wild' here means ‘free', as in ‘in the wild', not fierce, stormy (also in l.38)
  • the air appears to be calm nearly all the time, there being no mention of wind as such, just as there is no mention of the Holy Spirit, often symbolised by a wind in the Bible
  • the air is all-encompassing, filling in all the spaces in our bodies as well as in the world outside, hence its omnipresence
  • because we need air to breathe and stay alive, it is also nurturing.

The comparisons are clearly signaled by words like: ‘Minds me' (i.e. ‘reminds') (16), ‘as if' (36); ‘like'(51,66); ‘So'(103).

Mary, the mother of Christ

The first comparison with Mary is the easiest and most obvious, her motherhood of Jesus Christ. In this, she is greater than all the Earth-goddesses (26, 27)

Mary, the channel of grace

However she also ‘mothers each new grace'. Mary is seen as a channel of grace, as she is later a channel of mercy through her role as an intercessor (‘Her prayers his providence').

  • There are two sections devoted to Mary's motherhood, the second being the more daring, as Hopkins talks of new Nazareths (Christ's boyhood home) and Bethlehems (Christ's birthplace) being born within individuals.
  • Partly the image is derived from the mass, in which, according to Catholic belief, the body of Christ comes to exist as a real presence (‘much the mystery how'). Thus, as the person eats the bread, Christ lives in them - a doctrine called transubstantiation. The New Testament contains several references to Christ living in people:

Mary, the channel of light

The third comparison is a paradox:

  • The air seems blue, the colour of the sky and is also the colour associated with Mary, yet it is transparent. More on Mary's colour association?
More on Mary's colour association: From medieval times onwards, painters have depicted the mother of Jesus in robes of blue. They chose this colour as it was derived from the semi precious lapiz lazuli stone, and was the most expensive pigment available to them. It was felt that the mother of Christ deserved the most costly adornment.
  • The paradox is that the bluer the sky, the more each colour seems itself (‘when every colour glows') - an important theme with Hopkins (see inscape)
  • Without the air, the rays of the sun would appear in a black sky, beating down mercilessly on us
  • So with Mary: the new way that God has shown himself, in Christ, through Mary, is a better way than the ‘god of old'. This contrast is echoed in the New Testament, where the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says:
‘You have not come to...darkness, gloom and storm ... (but) to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant' (Hebrews 12:18-24 TNIV)

The verse form is iambic trimeter couplets, an unusual form for Hopkins, though some lines are triplets, that is, three lines rhyming with each other.

Investigating The Blessed Virgin Mary
  • Work out the comparison concerning protection.
    • What does the air protect us from; what does Mary protect from?
  • How is Mary transparent?
  • Mary was, in Catholic teaching, born sinless.
    • How is this important for Hopkins in the poem?
  • Would you consider this a ‘devotional' poem or a clever play with words and images?
    • Consider the relationship of cleverness (or ‘wit' as the Metaphysical poets called it) and sincerity.
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