Duns Scotus's Oxford: by G. M. Hopkins - Summary & Analysis

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Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped & poisèd powers;

Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural, rural keeping — folk, flocks, and flowers.

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;

Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.


      Hopkins’s poem Duns Scotus’s Oxford was written in March 1879. The poem was written when the poet returned to Oxford after completing his course of theology at St. Beuno’s college. According to Mackenzie, Hopkins had written sonnets to Oxford as an Anglican undergraduate. The poem is a eloquent and sincere tribute to the fourteenth-century Catholic teacher and philosopher Duns Scotus.

A Note on Duns Scotus

      Scotus the Franciscan philosopher was born in Scotland or northern England. He originated minority tradition in Scholastic thought. Scotus known as the ‘Subtle Doctor’ was unsurpassed in his thoughts. He was even unraveled for those trained in Scholastic philosophy. Scotus emphasized on the Incarnation of Christ as lying at the heart of Creation. He was a believer of the Immaculate conception. Hopkins was first acquainted with Duns Scotus in the summer of 1872 when he was browsing through the philosophy section of the Stonyhurat library and came across an early-sixteenth century work in two volumes. The poet expressed later in the present Sonnet Duns Scotus’s Oxford—“who of all men most sways my spirits to peace”. The poet’s ideas of creation being dependent on the Incarnation and his consequent high valuation and defense of the Virgin Mary clearly reveals Scotus’s influence on poet.


      Stanza 1. In the first stanza of the poem the city Oxford has been presented. The poet in this part of the poem reminisces the past glory of the city. The poet recaptures its natural beauty by saying that in the past the city was surrounded by the countryside, the trees between the towers provide a rural setting. In summer the university of Oxford echoes the notes of the cuckoo and the tolling church bells; it was charmed by the song of skylark and resounded with the noise of rocks. The city was encircled by the streams of the Thames and its tributary, the Cherwell river. In the river meadows below the city, there grow the dappleeared lilies, an emblem of chastity and an example of the “pied beauty” of Nature. In the former days, before the Industrial Revolution, the powers of the country and the town met each other, balancing each other or it may be said that the countryside and the town were matched and balanced against one another like the two armies poised against each other.

      Stanza 2. In the second stanza, Hopkins presents the urban setting of Oxford. The Industrial Revolution has replaced the natural beauty of the city by brickish structure. These buildings have now spilled the natural scenery which had so far been close neighbor to the city and the best background for its grey beauty. The urban setting of the city destroys its natural setting and gives it a look of dreariness and artificiality.

      Stanza 3. Duns Scotus once roamed about the weeds or water-lilies growing in Oxford and visited the waters of the river Cherwell flowing close by the walls of the city. Duns Scotus has an influence on Hopkins. His thought and conception restore Hopkins’s peace of mind. Hopkins gets a compensation for the loss of natural beauty in and around Oxford.

      Stanza 4. In the last stanza, the poet says that ‘Reality’ means that which is fixed and what is fixed is truth. The poet here describes the greatness of Duns Scotus and his contribution to philosophy and theology. Duns Scotus has explained many subtle and intricate aspects of reality. In theology, Scotus proved his insight by his famous doctrine of the Immaculate Conception at Paris University. He filled France with a new enthusiasm for the spotless Virgin Mary. The people at Paris were swayed by the doctrine and thus he “fired France for Mary without spot”. Duns Scotus was the scholar who revealed the true meaning of Virgin birth and was not matched. This insight of Duns Scotus was unique and unequaled even by the great thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome. Thus in this stanza, the poet praises the conception in theology of Duns Scotus. He admires Duns Scotus as his thought was the only source of relief when he was very much depressed to see the loss of natural beauty in the Oxford City.


Stanza 1

Line 1: Towery City and branchy between towers: The city which is full of towers of university buildings. There are trees also growing with their branches between the towers. It is to be noted that the towers represent the works of man, and the trees represent the work of Nature. Oxford is being presented as a village surrounded by the countryside.

Line 2: Cuckoo-echoing: In summer the city echoes the notes of the cuckoo.

lark-charmed: The Oxford city was enchanted by the singing of skylark.

rock-racked: The Oxford city is also echoed by the cawing of crows or rooks.

River-rounded: The Oxford city was encircled by the river Thames and its tributary, the Cherwell.

Line 3: The dappled-eared lily below thee: In the river-meadow bloomed the multicolored lilies.

Line 4: Coped and poised powers: The influences or atmospheres of the countryside and the city met each other. In Oxford, the country side and town were balanced against one another like two armies. The powers or atmospheres of Nature and man balanced each other and at the same time but emphasis to each other.

Stanza 2

Line 1: Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there: The poet continues to address the city of Oxford as he did in the first four lines. In the nineteenth century the Oxford city has become a city of ugly structures of bricks. The beauty of the countryside of the past did not exist any longer; the place of Nature has been replaced by huge structures which has made the city look quite mean and life less.

Sours: spoils the beauty of the Oxford city.

Line 2: That neighbor-nature thy grey beauty: The natural beauty of the Oxford city which increased the over all grandeur of the city is no more. The city is now full of buildings made of bricks. So the natural beauty of the city has totally been spoiled.

Line 3: Graceless growth: The recent growth, i.e. the growth of brickish building add no charm or grace to the city.

Thou: The poet here addresses to the new buildings or structures which are devoid of all grace.

Confounded: destroyed.

Line 4: Rural, rural keeping: The repetition of the word ‘rural’ expresses the tone of lament.

folk, flocks and flowers: folk means the real human beings who love the beauty of Nature and are not mechanical; the three words are intended to define the rural atmosphere or the rural tradition which consists in (1) people who are really human and not mechanical, (2) flocks of sheep and (3) lovely wild flowers.

      Flock means the flocks of sheep which represent the natural beauty of the countryside; and flowers refer to beautiful wild flowers, another aspect of rural beauty.

Stanza 3

Line 1: This air I gather....He lived on: The air of Oxford was once breathed by Duns Scotus.

Line 3: He haunted: Duns Scotus frequented these scenes and spots, and one may imagine that his spirit still haunts them. Duns Scotus visited again and again the dapple eared lilies, the waters of the river cherwell and the wall of the city.

Who all men most my spirits to peace: Here Hopkins pays a tribute to Duns Scotus and acknowledges his debt to him. Hopkins says that the philosophy of Duns Scotus has proved a source of comfort and satisfaction to him.

Stanza 4

Line 1: Of realty the rarest-veined unraveller: Scotus displayed remittable powers of explaining the veins of reality. Hopkins pays tribute to Duns Scotus and points out that he was great philosopher having an insight and penetrating power seldom found in human beings.

Lines 1-2: a not/Rivalled insight Greece: His insight into the mystery of the virgin birth was not matched by any other scholar of Europe, Greece or Italy. Even St. Thomas Aquinas, did not possess such penetrating powers.

Line 3: Who Duns Scotus established the fact that Mary was absolutely pure, ‘without spot’. It means Virgin Mary gave birth of Christ without having had a sexual contact with any man. Scotus had exceptional conception of Christ. He made the French people enthusiastic for the worship of Virgin Mary.

Fired: enthused kindled.

Mary without spot....Virgin Mary gave birth to Christ without having had a sexual contact with any man.


      The poem Duns Scotus’s Oxford is a lamentation of the past glory of Oxford city which has been destroyed by the contemporary society and by the industrial revolution. The poet laments that the balance of town and country has now been disturbed by the graceless growth of the brickish buildings. Despite the ugliness imparted to the city by the industrialized modem civilization the poet still draws inspiration from the university where Duns Scotus once lived and lectured. To quote Mackenzie: “But there was at least one angle from which Oxford remained unspoiled. Standing near the tree-canopied river Cherwell, and looking across Christchurch Meadow towards Mortora, here Duns Scotus is believed to have taught around the year 1300. Hopkins could not see some of the few walls which were certainly there in the time of Scotus.....As the sestet opens, the poet seems to be making a conscious effort (‘this air I gather and I release’) to fill lungs and spirit with the heavenly atmosphere on which Scotus lived during that long-past age; his mind was as subtle as air. Hopkins senses in the medieval philosopher a delight in the wild plants as God made them. Through his surviving works, his spirit haunts the poet, like a soothing breeze in the branches, swaying him into peace.” The octave depicts the city at its best. The city Oxford is a perfect meeting ground of town and country. As the sestet opens, the poet seems to be making a conscious effort to be optimistic. The present sonnet is a beautiful example of the qualities of Hopkins’s poetic style. There is his talent for coining original compound words in order to compress what he has to say in as short a space as possible. The whole of the first line illustrates this aspect of Hopkins’s poetry: “Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed, lark-charmed, rook-cracked, river rounded”. A critic comments on this line as — “A line at once melodious, yet jangling, inscaping the sight and sounds of Oxford”. In the following statement Hopkins’s effort to compress his meaning in the fewest possible words is illustrated quite brilliantly

That country and town did once encounter in, here coped and poised powers.

      The phrase “Here coped and poised powers” conveys the different atmospheres” conveys the different atmospheres or influences of the country and the town offsetting and complementing each other. Hopkins’s originality in handling of words and their meaning make us struck at every step. The rural setting is summed up in three words: “folk, flocks and flowers”. Hopkins’s genius for condensation and for the pregnant phrase is to be found in the last three lines which convey the greatness of Scotus through the phrases: “Of reality the rarest veined unraveller”, and “a not rivaled insight”, and with reference to Scotus’s electrifying defense in France of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Hopkin’s poem becomes quite obscure and incomprehensible due to this condensation. There are phrases like “branchy between towers”, “based and brickish skirt”, “graceless growth,” “of reality the rarest-veined untraveller” which reveal Hopkins’s habitual use of alliteration and assonance in the poem. Written in the sprung rhythm with many “outriding” for the poem truly reveals Hopkins’s real motive for writing this poem. The real motive for Hopkins’s writing this poem seems to be a desire to acknowledge his debt to Scotus. Hopkins says a great deal when referring to Scotus, he declares that Scotus “of all men most sways my spirits to peace”. Without Scotus’s corroboration and confirmation of Hopkins’s own ideas, Hopkins would have remained uncertain and uneasy as regards his philosophical position.

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