Eccentricity, Oddity, Obscurity in G. M. Hopkins Poetry

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      The extravagances are impertinent in the poet’s style. They may be called Oddity and obscurity; since the first may provoke laughter when a writer is serious, while the latter must prevent him from being understood, it may be assumed that they were not a part of his intention. Something of what the poet thought on this subject may be seen in the following extracts from his letters. In February 1879, he wrote: “All therefore that I think of doing is to keep my verses together in one place—at present I have not even correct copies—, that if any-one should like, they might be published after my death. And that again is unlikely, as well as remote....No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness. I hope in time to have a more balanced and Miltonic style. But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, see design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling inscape is what I above all aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer. This vice I cannot have escaped”. And again two months later: “Moreover the oddness may make them repulsive at first and yet Lang might have liked them on a second reading. Indeed when, on somebody returning me the Enrydice, I opened and read some lines, as one commonly reads whether prose or verse, with the eyes, so to say, only, it struck me aghast with a kind of raw nakedness and unmitigated violence I was unprepared for: but take breath and read it with the ears, as I always wish to be read, and my verse becomes all right.”


      As regards Oddity then, it is plain that the poet was himself fully alive to it, but he was not sufficiently aware of his obscurity, and could not understand why his friends found his sentences so difficult: he would never have believed that, among all the ellipses and liberties of his grammar, the one chief cause is his habitual omission of the relative pronoun; and yet this is so, and the examination of a simple example or two may serve a general purpose. This grammatical liberty though it is a common convenience in conversation and has therefore its proper place in good writing, is apt to confuse the parts of speech and to reduce a normal sequence of words to mere jargon. Writers who carelessly rely on their elliptical speech-forms to govern the elaborate sentences of their literary composition little know what a conscious effort of interpretation they often impose on their readers.

      Hopkins had full skill and practice and scholarship in conventional forms, and it is easy to see that he banished these purely constructional syllables from his verse because they took up room which he thought he could not afford them: he needed in his scheme all his space for his poetical words, and he wished those to crowd out every merely grammatical colorless or toneless element; and so when he had got into the habit of doing without these relative pronouns—though he must, I suppose, have supplied them in his thought,—he abuses the license beyond precedent, as when he writes “O Hero savest!” for “O hero that savest”.


      The source of poet’s obscurity is that in aiming at condensation he neglects the need that there is for care in the placing of words that are grammatically ambiguous. English swarms with words that have one identical form for substantive, adjective and verb; and such a world should never be so placed as to allow of any doubt as to what part of speech it is used for; because such ambiguity or momentary uncertainty destroys the force of the sentence. Now our author not only neglects this essential propriety but he would seem even to welcome and seek artistic effect in the consequent confusion; and he will sometimes so arrange such words that a reader looking for a verb may find that he has two or three ambiguous monosyllables from which to select, and must be in doubt as to which promises best to give any meaning that he can welcome; and then, after his choice is made, he may be left with some homeless monosyllable still on his hands. Nor is our author apparently sensitive to the irrelevant suggestions that our numerous homophones cause; and he will provoke further ambiguities or obscurities by straining the meaning of these unfortunate words.

      Robert Bridges pointed out that Hopkins’s early verse showed a mastery of Keatsian sweetness but that Hopkins soon developed a very different sort of style of his own, his poems are full of experiments in rhythm and diction. Most of his poems are religious and marked with Catholic theology and almost all are injured by a natural eccentricity, a love for subtlety and uncommonness. Though Hopkins poems could never be popular but they interest poets and critics. There are faults of style in his writing. According to Bridges, llicse faults are oddity and obscurity. Oddity is a fault which may provoke laughter when a writer is serious (and Mopkins is always serious); while obscurity prevents a writer from being understood (and Hopkins has always something to say).

      To Bridges Hopkins writes: “No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness. I hope in lime (o have a more halaneed and Miltonic style”.

      Where Hopkins is simple and straightforward in his rhyme he is master of it, but where the indulgence is in freaks, his childishness is amazing. The rhyme to "communion" in "The Bugler" is hideous: “he on”. In the Loss of the Eurydice eternal is made to rhyme with “burn all”. In Felix Randal we have “and some” rhyming with “hand-some”. Such rhyming is disagreeable or comic.


      According to one critic Hopkins had the same arrogant disregard for the native qualities of the English language as his favorite poet, Milton showed. Hopkins’s poetry and criticism “proceed from the single assumption that the function of poetry is to express a human individuality in its most wilfully uncompromising and provocative form”. Singularity is extreme in Hopkins styleee. Hopkins took with the language source indefensible liberties. For example the opening of the sonnet, Henry Purcell

Have fair fallen O far, have fallen, so dear to me.....

      Remains thoroughly unidiomatic even when we have been told by the poet that “Have” is a singular imperative of the past, “a thing possible and actual both in logic and grammar, but naturally a very rare one”.

      Hopkins was criticized for being obscure and affected in his diction. The first charge Hopkins was prepared to admit; the second he denied emphatically saying: “obscurity I do and will try to avoid so far as is consistent with excellences higher than clearness at a first reading. As for affectation, I do not believe I am guilty of it; you should point out instances, but as long as mere novelty and boldness strike you as affectation, your criticism strikes me as—as water of the Lower Issi”. Hopkins is literally an inimitable poet. He is a poet who makes great demands on the intelligence of his readers. His originality, his passionate sincerity his brilliant craftsmanship have earned him a permanent place among the finest English poets.

      To quote Margaret Bottrall: “It is not surprising that the poems of Hopkins have attracted a vast amount of exegesis and comment. The un-orthodoxy of his language is only one element in their difficulty but it is of course this feature that immediately challenges the newcomer, who often simply cannot construct the syntax or make out what the words mean — “To-fro tender tram-beams truckle at the eye”, or “leaves me a lonely began”. He met with incomprehension from his friend's Bridges and Patmore, both of whom were established poets with a real interest in innovatory techniques; and the encouragement, which Canon Dixon gave him was often tinged with bewilderment. To meet their objections, Hopkins went so far as to suggest providing prose arguments to explain his more impenetrable poems. He did write a general introduction to his poems, which was designed to explain his metrical experiments. Nor did he ever denied that his poetry demanded sustained intellectual effort from his readers, though he repeatedly stressed his conviction that if the verse were read aloud in a declamatory manner most of the difficulties would vanish.

      The most intractable difficulty in the poetry of Hopkins is not so much a matter of language as of unfamiliar ideas, presented with an intense concentration of feeling and intellectual passion.” Hopkins himself stated the problem by admitting that sometimes he was endeavoring “to express a subtle and recondite thought on a subtle and recondite subject in a subtle and recondite way and with great felicity and perfection,” and he was of the opinion that “something must be sacrificed, with so trying a task, in the process”. The intricacy of his poetry still remains a challenge to critics.

      F.R. Leavis calls Hopkins an original poet. “He was a man of a rare character as well as intelligence. He writes in reply one can guess what kind of suggestion: The effect of studying masterpieces is to make me admire and do otherwise. So it must be on every original artist to some degree, on me to a marked degree. Perhaps then more reading would only refine my singularity which is not what you want’—self-sureness of that kind is genius”.

      Hopkins’s originality was radical and uncompromising. “For the peculiarities of his technique appeal for sanction to the spirit of the language; his innovations accentuate and developments it exhibits in living use and above all, in the writings of the greatest master whoever used it. Hopkins might have said about each one of his technical idiosyncrasies what he says about the rhythm of The Wreck of the Deutschland: the idea was not altogether new, but no one had professedly used it and made it a principle throughout as he had. Paradoxical as it may sound to say so his strength was that he brought poetry much closer to living speech. How badly some such regeneration was needed may be judged from the inability of critics avowedly interested in him, as Bridges and Dixon were, to appreciate his significance: the habits and conventions he defeated were so strong.”

      Hopkins’s originality, his passionate sincerity, his brilliant craftsmanship, have earned him a permanent place among the finest English poets.

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