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Wednesday, 27 July 2011



Gerard Manley Hopkins:

'uniting avocation and vocation'

When GM Hopkins (1844-1889) began training to become a Jesuit, he burnt all the poems he had written up to then. But the urge to write proved too strong to resist, and before long he was composing poetry again. However, he never sought publication and he died unknown to the Victorian reading public. Hopkins saw his poetry as a means of praising God, ancillary to his priestly vocation. As such, he sought a truthfulness of expression that led to his developing radical notions of poetic perception and correspondingly radical innovations in prosody and style.

In regard to perception, Hopkins identified the principles of what he called "inscape" amd "instress." The first refers to the quiddity, or uniquely identifying quality, of things, particularly natural objects, and the second the dynamism whereby this inscape is communicated to, and realised by, the beholder. His journals abound with descriptions of such observations, eg. "I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it. Its inscape is mixed of strength and grace, like an ash tree." (He goes on describing the impression at length.)

Gerard Manley Hopkins

For the rhythm of his poetry Hopkins developed, from pre-Chaucerian Anglo-Saxon verse (such as "Beowulf"), a metrical form that he called "sprung rhythm". This avoided the conventional forms in which stressed and unstressed syllables alternated regularly. Instead, it was determined by stresses that could be followed by one or more syllables or none at all, according to the sense. Thus the third line of "Binzsley Poplars" reads, "All felled, felled, are all felled ;", with five stresses falling on the syllables "all" and "fell" and the virtual absence of unstressed syllables echoing the tragic falling of the trees one by one.

As respects style, Hopkins submitted the elements of language to the expressive demands of inscape and instress, adjusting diction, imagery, grammar, syntax etc. to this end. This is strikingly apparent in the opening of "The Windhover": "I caught this morning morning's minion, king- Dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding..." The abundant alliteration and assonance (also derived from Anglo Saxon poetry), the elliptical omission of "sight of" after "caught", the hyphenated compounding of adjectives, the placement of the participial phrase "rolling etc." before rather than after the qualified noun "air", all combine to capture the powerful impact made on the poet by his sighting of the kestrel, enabling us too to share in the admission, "My heart in hiding Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!".

Not surprisingly, natural beauty features a lot in Hopkins' poetry. This prompted TS Eliot to make what was probably his worst critical misjudgment by referring to Hopkins as a nature poet who had little else to offer. His so-called nature poetry is far from being thematically one-dimensional. Apart from demonstrating how the creation declares the glory of the Creator, it reflects intensely relevant social and metaphysical concerns. For example, "God's Grandeur" laments that while "the world is charged with the grandeur of God", man's indifference to God causes "all (to be) seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And (to) wear man's smudge and share man's smell." Yet the poem ends with the conviction that "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things."-surely a welcome reassurance in our modern context of earth-wide pollution. Again, in "Spring and Fall", the poet conveys to the child, who represents us all, that her sorrow at the autumnal denuding of the woods is a presentiment of her own transience. Beginning "Margaret, are you grieving Over Goldengrove unleaving?" the poem continues, "Now no matter child, the name: Sorrow's springs are the same", and ends "It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for."

More than anything else, though, Hopkins' poetry reflects the delicate balance between the twin urges of creativity and self-denial in the soul that is possessed of both imagination and spirituality, as most of us hope we possess. When achieved this balance gives rise to a deep joy, but when it fails it causes deep suffering. In Hopkins' particular experience his dual calling as priest and poet sharpened his sense of the need for such balance. In fact, the study of his poetry reveals his sustained effort to do what Robert Frost said in one of his poems: "My object in living is to unite My avocation and my vocation As my two eyes make one in sight." When Hopkins succeeds in this quest he sees his life of renunciation to be as beautiful as, if not more so than, natural splendour. Thus, after extolling the "brute beauty" of the windhover, he reflects that "sheer plod makes plough down sillion Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion."

However, the two eyes do not always make one in sight, and Hopkins' finest poems show him straining, even failing, to achieve this balance. "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves" is a technical tour de force which terrifyingly evokes the claustrophobic effect of evening darkening into "hearse-of-all" night. The "veined variety" of twilight (which holds the balance between day and night) gives way to the "bleak" silhouettes of nightfall where everything is reduced to "black, white" as creativity surrenders to abnegation. Was Hopkins here echoing Blake's words, "Priests in black gowns Are walking their rounds, And binding with briars My joys and desires."?

Then come the posthumous "terrible sonnets and a couple of others. A sampling must suffice to indicate how these half-dozen poems plumb the depths of despair in a way that no other poetry in English does, other than Shakespeare's in "King Lear."

"That night, that year Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God." "I cast for comfort I can no more get By groping round my comfortless..." "Why do sinners' ways prosper? And why must Disappointment all I endeavour end...? Birds build - but not I build; no, but strain, Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes."

However often we read these sonnets, we are struck, in the words of one of Eliot's poems, by "The notion of some infinitely gentle Infinitely suffering thing." Ultimately, Hopkins is to be seen as a tragic poet. Though unsung in his time he is, as Leavis calls him, the greatest of the Victorian poets and, as is now generally acknowledged, one of the greatest innovators of poetic technique and one of the greatest influences in modern poetry.



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