This is the seventh in my series meant to introduce or reintroduce major poets through presenting a few of their best-known works with some details of their lives but without footnotes.
Much poetry today in the USA is written in vernacular conversational American English. Recoiling with horror from rhetoric which had long been the science of the artful use of language, writers seek to sound like the guy next door. Those who employ highly stylized, “artificial” language are viewed with suspicion, though more thoroughly dehumanized word collections are acceptable in avant-garde contexts. Yet poetry has always been, among other things, about beautiful, melodious language, artfully distinguished from everyday usage. And few writers could construct verbal music like Gerard Manley Hopkins. His sprung rhythm worked quite wonderfully for him (though imitators fail) and his orthodox Catholicism glitters with sufficient mysticism to make it not just universal but exciting.
Born to an affluent, educated, and pious High Church Anglican family, Hopkins admired the pre-Raphaelites and studied art. Yet spirituality claimed always his first allegiance. Even in secondary school he pursued experiments in asceticism, on one occasion consuming no drink until he collapsed. While a classics student at Oxford he met Newman and converted to Roman Catholicism, eventually becoming a Jesuit.
Acceptance of Roman Catholic orthodoxy did not bring him resolution and the study of Ignatian discernment left him still conflicted. His poetry reflects his lifelong ambivalence, passionately embracing life yet feeling that self-denial is inherently superior. This contradiction led him to give up poetry for Lent, to destroy much of his poetry when he was ordained (declaring that he meant to write no more except by order of his superiors, and to ask that his largely unpublished body of work be burned after his death. The contradiction between his delight in the world and his aspiration to leave the physical behind reached crisis in his homosexuality, most clearly expressed in his youthful infatuation with Digby Dolben whom he had met at Eton.
One concept through which Hopkins sought to harmonize his joyful celebration of the creation with his taste for self-denial was “inscape,” a notion he derived from Duns Scotus' haecceity or “thisness.” Hopkins would have agreed with the author of the Gospel of Thomas whose Christ says “Split the stick and I am there” (not to mention Zen practitioners and others to whom a gaze sufficiently deep into any object will lead to the divine).
In “Pied Beauty,” a shortened (or curtal) sonnet, Hopkins focuses not on the unity but the variety in which he finds the numinous. His afflatus carries the reader with ease through his idiosyncratic syntax and insistent alliteration.
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Yet his sense of the presence of the divine did not bring Hopkins serenity. Toward the end of his rather short life, he suffered from ill health, his duties that seemed sometimes onerous, and he found himself living in a sort of exile in Dublin. Combined with his lifelong depressive tendency and the fierce inner conflicts in which it manifested, he experienced what since St. John of the Cross has been called “the dark night of the soul.” His “terrible sonnets” or “sonnets of desolation,” dramatize the suffering he felt at his failure to connect with God. He tastes the mood of the damned and confesses the “selfyeast” of original sin. The deity is “away;” his worst “scourge” is simply “to be.”
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.
I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
Hopkins was doubtless strikingly original, but few today feel as his first editor Robert Bridges did, a need to apologize for the poet’s “Oddity” and “Obscurity.” One need not enter into Hopkin’s elaborately devised and even more meticulously executed ideas on meter, derived in part from his knowledge of Old English and Classical poets, to relish his lines as pure sensual experiences. Stylistically unique they may remain, but their abstruseness generally vanishes with reading out loud while their music is thereby intensified.
The accent marks in “Spring and Fall” might seem mannered and recherché at first, but they lead the read to such melody that their role is clear to most readers.
Spring and Fall
to a young child
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Though this poem has little of the wondrously inventive descriptive imagery of “Pied Beauty” (apart from “wanwood leafmeal”), it has instead the eloquent elegance and simple profundity of sentiments like this passionate couplet:
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder.
And the concluding two lines are sufficiently pregnant that Christianity itself might be largely reconstructed as a commentary. Though Hopkins himself may have felt self-indulgent in his art and insufficiently devout in his spiritual practice, to most readers his work is profoundly satisfying in both its aesthetics and religion. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his racking himself with doubt, his work is outstanding in conveying the jouissance of both the pure beauty of sound and the mystical celebration of the world.