Gerard Manley Hopkins
"I am all at once what Christ is, /since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, /patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond."
Hopkins the nature poet
Hopkins, religion and the "dark night of the soul"
Click here for links to other Hopkins pages
Few poets appear at first glance as daunting as Hopkins; and few poets are as rewarding to those who persevere to discover the sensuous beauty in his poetry. In his poem "The Windhover", Hopkins moves from breathless admiration for the kestrel's "mastery" to an understanding that there is a glory beneath things that breaks out -
"blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion."
This is, I feel, the process of his poetry: the tension between the poem and the reader's focus on the poem allows the beauty to burst forth in an epiphany, perhaps not of full understanding, but of delight. (In short, maybe what I am saying is "Stick with it!")
As a Jesuit priest, a devout Christian, Hopkins was torn between his vocation (which could be seen to suggest that the beauty of the natural world is a distraction from the real beauty, that of God), his almost visionary perception of the beauty and wonder of the nature, and his creative impulse. Arguably, his individual voice was forged from this fiery tension - a tension that haunted him, and may have been partly responsible for his death at 45 in 1889. Keenly aware of the suspicion many of his superiors had for poetry, he never published his poetry. He submitted only one poem for publication - it was rejected - "The Wreck of the Deutschland", on the subject of the death of five Franciscan nuns in a shipwreck in 1875. It was Robert Bridges, his friend who had advised and encouraged him during his life, who first brought together Hopkins' poems in the anthology of 1918.
Hopkins’ poetry celebrates the glory and the beauty of nature:
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfèd cherry
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all…” (“The May Magnificat”)
His lexis is sensual – here we have sight, touch and hearing – and metaphorical. Note how the words “silver” and “azuring” (azure =gold) elevate his description of May, and also, to allow the reader fully to appreciate his ecstatic vision, how his images challenge our over-familiar preconceptions of the season: the cherry blossom becomes surf, a word Hopkins extends to become an adjective, “surfed”, and the woods become transformed into lakes.
Hopkins’ nature poems lead us on to an important concept, that of “inscape”. Hopkins coined the term to describe the individuality of things that can only be seen by an understanding and an appreciation of their physical appearance. This belief, perhaps begun by his study of the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, who argued that the world can only be understood by sense-impressions, which lead us to see the “haecceitas” – “this-ness” of objects, underpins his poetry. He explores this concept especially in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” – everything created has one purpose:
“myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.”
Another important and related term is “instress”. The characteristics that make up the inscape are held together by instress: but instress is also the faculty employed by the beholder to appreciate the inscape. So, in “The Windhover”, Hopkins describes the beauty of the kestrel, its inscape, and then when complete, the inscape reveals the instress – or does Hopkins use the powers of instress to deepen his vision? The individual features of the bird “buckle” – does this mean “come together”, like a belt being buckled, or buckle as in “fold and break”? –
“the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous”.
For Hopkins, the beauty of the created world is a reflection of the beauty of God.
“THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.” (“God’s Grandeur”)
The presence of God behind His creation is, perhaps, what forms the real “instress” that holds properties of objects together. In the same poem, Hopkins argues that, despite the evil that Man has brought into the world, beauty – “freshness” – is still underlying everything because “the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
However, Hopkins' relationship with God was not always an easy one: like many committed Christians, he suffered from what is often called “the dark night of the soul”, a term coined by St John of the Cross, a sixteenth century mystic. In “No worse, there is none”, Hopkins cries “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed”, and much of his poetry describes the torment his religious experience leads him to: “I am gall, I am heartburn.” (“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”) However, like St John, Hopkins also believes that this scourging has a purging effect, and is a necessary step to establish a stronger relationship with God. Indeed, even Christ on the cross cried “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” – “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In “Carrion Comfort”, Hopkins declares his refusal give in to despair, and concludes by celebrating both his own resistance and the God who tortured him during
“That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”
Hopkins is an important poet because of his individuality. One aspect of this individuality is his movement away from the accepted poetic forms and rhythms of his time – perhaps inspired by his love of the Welsh language with its song like cadences
“MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?” (“Spring and Fall”)
He looked back to earlier rhythms, that of Anglo-Saxon poetry, where line length was an irrelevance, and instead focus was on the number of strong stresses in each line. The pulse of the stresses helps to carry the poem along, in the same way perhaps that the Anglo-Saxon bards would punctuate their lines with chords from a musical instrument, but by divorcing the poem from the need to follow a regular rhythmical pattern Hopkins is also able to eject and immediacy into his poems: an immediacy close to the rhythm of speech.. Hopkins called this technique “sprung rhythm”, and it characterises his poetry.
Coming out of no clear literary tradition, and also with no clear literary forebears, Hopkins is an original whose poetic voice is still fresh and startling today. His poetry celebrates beauty, individuality, and the human quest for the divine.
"I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand."
The text of Robert Bridges 1918 collection of Hopkins' poetry.
The Victorian Web is one of the first points of call for Victorian Literature.
Peter Cash of Leicester University has in-depth and helpful analysis of Hopkins' sonnets with focus on instress.
Brother Anthony Joseph's article, "Fr Gerard Manley Hopkins: Priest and Poet" in the Angelus, is well worth exploring for insight into the interdependence of Hopkins' religion and creativity.
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Sixth Form Reading List
Comedy: an Introduction
Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
Chaucer: The Wife of Bath
Coleridge: Rime of the Ancient Mariner
John Donne: Selected Poems
Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Poems
Arthur Miller: The Death of a Salesman
Milton: Paradise Lost
Christina Rossetti Poems
Shakespeare: Measure for Measure
Shakespeare: Bradley and Leavis on Othello
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