Critical Analysis of G. M. Hopkins Poetry

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Hopkins’s Sonnet

      Hopkins’s sonnets are at once personal, descriptive, religious and metaphysical. We have in them natural imagery, religio is fervor, character portrayal, intimate personal revelation, psychological analysis. The only thing missing from sonnets of Hopkins is romantic love which we find in the sonnets of Spenser and Shakespeare, because Hopkins was a religious poet and was not interested in romantic love.

      Hopkins’s sonnets are different from the sonnets of other poets in the sense that he uses language and imagery to create inscapes of nature. Again the intensity of his poetic feeling is reflected in his original use of ‘sprung rhythm. Hopkins showed his preference for the Italian structure; his sonnets have two part division, the octave consisting of eight lines and the sestet consisting of six lines. However, he modifies the Italian structure by dividing the Octave into two quatrains.

      Moreover, in Hopkins, we have ‘curtal’ or curtailed form sonnet, such as Pied Beauty and Peace. In a curtal sonnet, the division of the octave and the sestet is replaced by that of a sestet and a quatrain followed by a short line. In this case, there are 11 lines instead of 14. Again, Hopkins prolongs the sonnet form as in ‘Spelt From Siby’s Leaves’ with its eight stresses per line. In ‘Tom’s Garland’ and ‘Heracliteam Fire’ we have a coda attached to fourteen lines. Thus we find Hopkins making all sorts of experiments with the technique of the sonnet.

      The sonnets of Hopkins’s are dramatic and graceful. The originality and variety in imagery are bound up with the diction and rhythm of his sonnets makes them worthy of applause. His images are simple, childlike, dynamic, tense and vivid.

      Hopkins’s sonnets can be grouped in two parts—the bright sonnets and the dark sonnets. In ‘bright’ sonnets the poet celebrates the mysterious presence of God in the world’s splendor.

Hopkins’s Dark Sonnets

      In the dark or ‘terrible sonnets’, the poet expresses a sense of desolation. In these sonnets, the poet seems to be experiencing spiritual suffering. The bright sonnets which belong to the earlier period of Hopkins’s poetic career were inspired by his experiences as a priest. Many of these sonnets elaborate his central themes the value of sacrifice; the transience of ‘mortal beauty’ and the need to give beauty back to God; the spiritual well-being of the young, and his desire for the regeneration of ‘dear and dogged man’, on whom the ultimate redemption of all nature depends. In the ‘terrible sonnet’ the poet depicts the temporary loss of joy and hope which marks the recoil from a rigorous discipline: at worst, the feeling, of total separation from God.

      In God’s grandeur, the poet expresses his happiness over the omnipresent grandeur of God. The two similes “like shining from shook foil” and “like the ooze of oil crushed” — are original and unusual. The language of this sonnet is forceful, the imagery powerful and words alliterative. In The sea and the Skylark the poet’s joy in nature, as represented by the sea and the skylark, is nullified by his disappointment with the way human beings lead their lives in a modern town. The sonnet has beautiful images. In The Windhover the falcon becomes a symbol of Christ. This is one of the most important sonnets of Hopkins and has been widely discussed and analyzed. The sonnet is full of compound adjectives and unusual use of words. The poem is an example of the original use of words, and at places, the poem tends to be obscure. In ‘Pied Beauty’—a curtal sonnet— the poet’s adoration of Nature and his reverence for God are closely interwoven. The sonnet contains a catalog of dappled things, each presenting a vivid image In The Sea and the Skylark the poet’s joy in Nature, as represented by the sea and the skylark, is nullified by his disappointment with the way human beings lead their lives in a modern town. In 'Hurrahing in Harvest' the poet describes an experience of union with Christ as seen in Nature. The poem is remarkable for its vivid imagery presented in an original manner. The originality of the simile comparing Christ to a stallion and a violet is noteworthy. The sonnet contains some of the most beautiful image and phrases: such as “silk-sack clouds”, “the azurous hung hills”, “world-wielding shoulder”, etc.

Hopkins’s Style

      The style of Hopkins’s sonnets is by turns, dramatic and contemplative, strenuous and graceful. In his sonnets conversation and incantation mingle and blend without dissonance. In his imagery, there is variety and originality, which is closely bound up with his diction and rhythm. Whether he is writing with controlled intensity, or in the urgency of feeling, he is emitting his sense-perceptions in a quick-fire of metaphor. His images may be simple or childlike — “Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens”—dynamic and tense, or a vivid inscaping of natural forces—“wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swiveled snow”—now delicate and fanciful—“That, dandled a sandalled/shadow”—now cosmic and transcendental—“Dress his/days to a dexterous and starlight order”—now profoundly metaphysical—I am soft sift/In an hourglass”.

      The “curtal or “curtailed” form sonnet is found in Hopkins. For example in Pied Beauty and Peace. In a curtal sonnet, the division of the octave and sestet is replaced by that of a sestet and a quantum followed by a short line. In this case there are 11 lines instead 14. Again, Hopkins prolongs the sonnet form as in ‘Spelt From Sibyl's Leaves’ with its eight stresses per line. In ‘Tom’s Garland’ and ‘Heraclitean hire’ we have a coda attached to fourteen lines. Thus we find Hopkins making all sorts of experiments with the technique of the sonnet.

R. Bridges and other Critics on Hopkins

      Robert Bridges first brought out the edition of Hopkins’s poems and called his poems odd and obscure. He described The Wreck of the Deutschland: “a great dragon folded in the gate, to forbid all entrance” Richardson analyzed The Windhover and pointed out the tensions in Hopkins’s poetry and the fusion of intellect with passion. Later on William Empson taked of seven types of ambiguity in Hopkins’s poetry. Laura Riding and Robert Grave. in their Survey of Modernist Poetry contended that any true poet is obliged to break down stock responses and cliche-ridden diction.

      In 1930 the second edition of the poems appeared with an appreciative introduction by Charles Williams. In the same year, Father G.F. Lahev’s biographical account of Hopkins was published. In the thirties, Hopkins emerged decisively as a poet of major importance. His manner was being imitated by some of the poets of Auden’s generation. F.R Leavis (in 1932) praised Hopkins for bringing poetry closer to living speech than any other Victorian had done. W.H. Gardner’s criticism on Hopkins still remains a landmark.

      In 1945, an entire issue of The Kenyoon Review was devoted to Hopkins. These essays constitute a brilliant collective tribute. Among the critical studies written from a theologically informed standpoint may be mentioned those of the Jesuits W.A.M. Peters, D.A. Downes and R. Boyle. None of these books is easy reading; each is well-documented and closely argued; and all demonstrate how vitally important it is in any interpretation of Hopkins, to be aware of the religious presuppositions on which most of his poetry rests.

      In 1949 the American critic Yvor Winters delivered two public lectures, in which he accused Hopkins of emotional over-emphasis and violent assertiveness. In his view, too many of the poems are excited descriptions of landscapes or natural objects, with a perfunctory religious or moral sentiments tacked on. Hopkins hurls miscellaneous images at his subject from all sides. His violations of grammar much offended Vyor Winters, who also disputed his metrics. Donald Davie is another critic who has reservations about Hopkins, though he rates him for higher as a poet than Winters did. Davie examines Hopkins’s pronouncements on style, and concludes that they show ‘self-regarding ingenuity’ and an exaggerated regard for the systematic and the elaborate for their own sakes. There is substance in these charges. The singularity of Hopkins’s style is extreme, and the liberties he took with the language are sometimes indefensible, though he never hesitated to defend them.

      Hopkins was like Whitman in his ingenuous delight in the variegated surface of daily existence. Moreover, writing during the days of the French Commune, he said, must tell you I am always thinking of the Communist future....I am afraid some great revolution is not far off. Horrible to say, in a manner I am a Communist”. For he could see that their ideal was just. “I do not mean the means of getting to it are. But it is a dreadful thing for the greatest and most necessary part of a very rich nation to live a hard life without dignity, knowledge comforts, delight, or hopes in the midst of plenty—which plenty they make. They profess that they do not care what they wreck and burn, the old civilization and order must be destroyed. This is a dreadful look out but what has the old civilization done for them?”

      However in as much as Hopkins’s most matured poems are so subtle and recondite as to require repeated reading, and even then some of them might still be imperfectly comprehensible without his own prose arguments, it is obvious that as the author of a popular style he fell even farther short than Whitman. Yet they both were insistent on the centrality of man. You would expect as one of Whitman’s key declarations: “In the center of all, and object of all, stands the human being, towards whose heroic and spiritual evolution poems and everything directly or indirectly end, Old World or New”. It might appear much less likely than an isolated Jesuit priest would declare, in a sonnet called “To what serves mortal beauty?”

To man, that needs would worship block or barren stone,
Our law says: Love what are love’s worthiest, were all known
World’s loveliest—men’s selves.

      Some early critics, not realizing the connection between the poet and the priest, or between the man and his times, tended to suggest a battle between poetry and religion, or between the modern Hopkins and his Victorian contemporaries. Without denying that real and deep tensions existed, most modern critics have been stressing the interaction between Hopkins’s life, religion, and art, and between his sensibility, and the culture of Victorian England. The interaction of religious vocation and poetry was first studied at length by John Pick in his book, Gerard Manley Hopkins: Priest and Poet. This work was followed up by several Jesuits, notably W.A.M. Petrers (on the relation between the poet’s outlook and the philosophy of Duns Scotus) in Gerard Manley Hopkins: a Critical Essay towards the Understanding of His Poetry, and later by Alfred Thomas on the actual nature of his Jesuit training in Hopkins the Jesuit; the Years of Training. A broader perspective has been provided by J. Hillis Miller’ book, The Disappearance of God. R.W. Dixon had unshakable faith in Hopkins’s talent and originality. He gave to Hopkins’s poems the only fill-blooded praise they received during Hopkins’s lifetime. Dixon wrote to him: “I have your poems and have read them I cannot say with delight, astonishment, and admiration. They are among the most extraordinary! ever read”.

      During the twenties and thirties of this century, Hopkins’s poetry gained considerable appreciation, largely owing to Bridge’s meticulous reservation of Hopkins’s work. Many of the traits of Hopkins’s poetry endeared it to a generation weary of Victorian rhetoric and Georgian miniaturism. These traits included modernity of idiom, obscence of poeticism, rhythmic energy and experimentation, and freshly-minted imagery. The critical work of I.A. Richards, William Empson, and F.R. Leavis concentrate on this rich linguistic texture of Hopkms’ poetry, on the ability to fuse sensuous imagery, strong emotion, and complex thought in the manner of the metaphysical poets.

Hopkins’s Views on God and Christ in The Wreck of Deutschland

      Hopkins’s poem The Wreck of the Deutschland was composed at St. Beuno’s College, North Wales, during his study of theology, between December 1875 and about the following April or May. It is Hopkins’s major poem, though not his best. It was occasioned by the wreck in the mouth of the river Thames of a German ship called “The Deutschland”. Among the casualties were five Franciscan nuns, exiled from Germany under the Falck Laws, who were drowned. Hopkins was greatly touched by the disaster and on receiving a hint from his rector, wrote this poem on the subject. In the poem, Hopkins got an opportunity not only to try out “a new rhythm” (to which he gave the name of “sprung Rhythm”) but also to express many ideas which were occupying his mind.

      In December 1875, a German steamship, the ‘Deutschland’ taking emigrants from Bremen to Canada, ran in a snowstorm and was wrecked on a shoal in the Thames estuary. The ship took more than twenty-four hours to break up and sink, whilst a storm raged. Over sixty people were drowned, among them five Franciscan nuns exiled from Germany. There were full and harrowing reports of the wreck first in the Times and then in the Illustrated London news, the latter accompanied by drawings.

      This shipwreck was not just a wreck for Hopkins. He told his mother that the accident had made a deep impression on him. He saw in it two central and balancing movements which continually occupied his thoughts: first, God’s moving towards man or showing Himself to man; second, man’s response to God. Each of these has its own balancing and contrasting sides: God shows Himself to man both in the beautiful and the terrifying aspect; man’s response may be acceptable, especially saying yes to him at a moment of crisis, or it may be refusal of God, His works and His workers.

      Five Franciscan nuns, exiled from their Westphalian convent in December 1876, lost their lives in a shipwreck near the mouth of the Thames.

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