G. M. Hopkins Technical Innovation in Poetry

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Hopkins’s Poetical Language

      The poetical language of an age, according to Hopkins, should be the current language heightened, to any degree heightened and unlike itself, but not an absolute one. That is, the basis of the diction of poetry must be contemporary speech, but this speech must be heightened and even transformed out of all recognition. Hopkins’s handling of the language is one of the most remarkable facts about his poetry. In an effort to convey exactly what he has in mind, to give us the inscape of a thing, he uses words in their unusual meanings; he cares little for traditional syntax, putting words together regardless of their relative positions vis-a-vis each other; he coins words of his own; he forms compound epithets and objectives using them in a way that often baffles the reader; he makes abundant use of alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, repetition etc. in order to reinforce the meaning by means of an appeal to the ear as distinct from the appeal to the mind or the intelligence.

      Fine imagery, melodiousness, apt rhythmical flow were not so important in his opinion as “inscape” which implied seriousness, truth, sincerity, etc. Thus Hopkins’s poetry, though very obscure and perplexing, is neither insincere nor affected nor frigid. The poetic revolution that Hopkins sought to bring about related chiefly to meter, diction, and imagery, and the innovations that he introduced were based on his theory of “inscape”. In his view, “inscape” was the true aim and end of poetry. By the “inscape” of an object he meant the individual essence of that object, its “this-ness”; and by the “inscape” of a poet or any other person he meant the individually distinctive characteristics of the poet or any other person. It was necessary for a poet to be earnest, sincere, and honest towards things to express the inscape of an object and towards himself. False feelings or affection and artificiality of expression must be avoided. For this reason, Hopkins felt that a new meter and a diction were required. The diction was not be archaic or obsolete like that of the 19th century “Parnassian” poetry descending from Milton and Dryden to Wordsworth and Tennyson.

      Hopkins adopted the new meter that he called “sprung rhythm”. He gives reasons for adopting the sprung rhythm as a regular and permanent principle of scansion by saying that it is the nearest to the rhythm of prose, to the native and natural rhythm of speech. He regards it as the least forced, the most rhetorical and emphatic of all possible rhythms combining in his opinion, opposite and seemingly incompatible excellences—“markedness of rhythm and naturalness of expression”. Hopkins first experimented the use of sprung rhythm in The Wreck of the Deutschland. He continued using it afterward though he did not quite discard traditional prosody or what he called the “standard” rhythm. Thus God’s Grandeur is written in “standard rhythm counterpointed”: The Sea and the Skylark has “standard rhythm, in parts sprung and in parts counterpointed”; Pied Beauty has “sprung paconic rhythm”; Hurrahing in Harvest is in “spring and outriding rhythm”; The windhover has “falling paconic rhythm, sprung and outriding”; and so on.

Hopkins’s Imagery

      To Hopkins imagery was inseparable from the true poetic experience; every image in a poem was a vital part of the poem. Hopkins insisted on the exact truth in case of imagery. He did not look upon imagery as something imposed upon the poetry. It follows therefore that imagery as mere ornament or as superfluous illustration was not at all acceptable to him. He did never look upon imagery as something imposed upon the poetry. To illustrate all these points Hopkins’s poem God's Grandeur can be taken as instance. In this poem, we have two similes intended to convey (1) the sudden revelation of God and (2) the gradual manifestation of God. The two similes are images “Shining from shook foil” and “the ooze of oil crushed”—which we feel are indispensable to express the thought. The repetition of “have trod”, have trod, have trod” serves to convey the weary routine of life, like Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”. The onomatopoeic words “seared, bleared, meare” with their internal rhyming vividly express the effects of the toil and trade of human beings on Nature. The alliteration in the phrases containing the two similes and in the last line is also noteworthy: “World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings”. The use of the exclamatory “ah”! is another of Hopkins’s ways of “heightening” the current language.

      However, it is noteworthy that the alliteration aids the meaning once it has been explained to us. Alliteration is, of course, a feature of almost every line: “How ring right out our sordid turbid time.” Hopkins was quite fond of consonantal “chiming”. Hopkins had himself to explain to Bridges in prose what he meant by the lines “His rash-fresh reminded new skeined score/In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl”.

The Windhover

      In the poem, The Windhover Hopkins succeeds in giving us the “inscape” of the subject chosen by him for treatment, namely a falcon. The poem is regarded as one of Hopkins’s masterpieces and it certainly deserves to be so regarded. The poem illustrates Hopkins’s daring use of language. In this poem more strikingly than elsewhere, Hopkins succeeds in giving us the “inscape” of the subject chosen by him for treatment, namely a falcon. He describes the bird as “kingdom of daylights’ dauphin” and as “dappled dawn drawn,” using in the first case three words as a single objective, and coining a compound adjective in the second case. Both these phrases could have been used only by Hopkins, and they would surely startle the reader who has not previously read The Wreck of Deutschland and become acquainted with “past all grasp god” and “sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart. The alliterative repetition of the sound “d” in these phrases lends then a greater force. Furthermore, Hopkins speaks of the bird in terms of medieval chivalry and French royalty and spells “Falcon” with a capital “F” as though to indicate a personal, and even divine, significance. Developing the metaphor of Chivalry, he sees the bird as bestriding the air beneath him like a skillful horseman controlling his horse. Then comes the comparisons with, and images of a trainer “ringing on the rein” of a wild horse and a skater cutting a figure of eight on the ice. The “words” “hurl” and “gliding” are next used to indicate respectively strong self-propulsion and full utilization of the wind’s force. The skill of the bird thus seems to “rebuff the big wind” as in a triumph of mind over matter. It is this which inwardly stirs the heart of the poet. The manner in which the falcon, its majesty its triumphant flight, its feeling of ecstasy are imaged in this sonnet is the supreme illustration of Hopkins’s poetic theory with its characteristic emphasis on the “inscape” of Nature, and the “instress” of things. And the poet’s own reaction to the bird’s flight is depicted with an equally striking success: “The achieve of the mastery of the thing”. The shining of the plow and the inner fire in the blue bleak embers—are by themselves outstanding. There are no doubt difficulties and ambiguities but that was an inevitable consequence of Hopkins’s emphasis on truth and exactness.

The Pied Beauty

      The imagery and the diction in Pied beauty seem almost inseparable. A number of “dappled things” are mentioned in the octave in phrases characterized by a repetition of consonantal sounds: “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls;” “fold, fallow and plough”. In the sestet the attributes of these things are indicated with single words: “fickle”, “freckled”, “swift”, “slow” etc. And the conclusion is naturally drawn at the end. There is nothing contrived in the close of this curtal sonnet:

He fathers forth whose beauty is past change;
Praise him.

      The transition of thought is not sudden in view of the way the poem opens: “glory be to god”. In the poem Hurrahing in Harvest the emotion is authentic. The poet’s sincerity is unquestionable and the words and phrases seem to come spontaneously and effortlessly from the poet though the reader has to exert himself to get from the language all that the poet puts into it. To convey the precise quality of the clouds, Hopkins coins the phrase “silk-sack” meaning that the clouds combine the contrary qualities of silk-like delicacy and sack cloth roughness. The movement of the clouds is described by means of a question the phrasing of which needs attention:

Has wilder wilful-wavier,
Meal-drift moulded ever and
matter across skies?

      What is noteworthy here is not only the compound adjective in its comparative degree (“wilful-wavier”) but also the metaphor employed. Clouds drift over the sky like white meal or flour, successively molding and melting, forming and dissolving. The image is indeed vivid and realistic, provided the readers understand the meaning of “meal-drift”, a compound word in which the sense has been condensed and packed. Then we have such adjectives as “azurous hung”, “world-wielding” shoulders, and “very violet-sweet”. The usual alliteration is there, of course: “barbarous in beauty”; “wind-walls”, “stalion stalwart”. The last line contains a bold image of the poet pushing off or thrusting away the earth from under his feet and leaping up to heaven:

      “O half hurls earth for him off under his feet”. The exclamatory “O” serves its function of conveying the poet’s feeling of enthusiasm and elation.

      From amongst the “terrible” sonnets, we might choose Carrion Comfort for treatment. The alliteration may here be noted at the very outset: “slack they may be—these last strands”; “wring-world right foot rock”; “bruised bones” etc. Internal rhyming may be seen in “sheer and clear”; “that oil, that coil;” etc. The difficulties of getting the meaning may be witnessed in the line: “can something hope, wish day come not choose not to be”. The syntax in the following lines:

Why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock?

      “Fan” in line 7 is used in an unusual way to convey the idea of “winnow” (because the poet compares himself to a heap of corn to be threshed). The poem is written in a metaphorical style: “Carrion comfort, Despair”; “lay a lion limb against me”; “in turns of tempest”; “me heaped there”; etc. In spite of some of the difficulties noticed above, Carrion Comfort remains a great poem: it has a starkness, and a clarity of a sort. It is a great tragic utterance showing the agonizing conflict of the priest Hopkins, and showing the verbal resources of the poet Hopkins to give a body to that conflict and thus to give us the “inscape” of his own mind.

Human Individual in Hopkins’s Poem

      Hopkins gives us the inscape of a human individual. The farrier is physically portrayed by means of the phrase. “Big-boned and hardy-handsome”. We are given glimpses into the mind of the man when we are told that “impatient he cursed at first, but mended being anointed.” A “heaventier heart” began in the man after the sacrament of the Eucharist was administered to him. A still more vivid picture of him is given in the last two lines where he is shown as playing his trade at his forge, manufacturing horseshoes. In these two lines, the edition is singularly apt and striking. The forge is “random” in the sense that it is built of irregularly shaped stones. “Random” implies also the thoughtless, carefree labor of the farrier himself. The word “fettle” here has the meaning “to prepare to make ready”, but it also implies that both the farrier and the horse are “in fine fettle” (that is, fit and sound and healthy). The horseshoe is described as a “sandal” that is “bright” in its new appearance and “battering” in its heavy, clattering sound upon the road. The alliteration in the phrasing of the whole poem goes of course, without saying. The words, the sounds, the rhythm, the imagery, all combine to give us a remarkable poem.

      All these above considered poems are written in diction which is neither the colorless standardized speech of urban, industrial England nor the affected archaism of Victorian “Parnassian” poetry: It is a diction that is indeed sometimes odd and grotesque but always full of vitality and power. The innovations Hopkins made related chiefly to meter, diction and imagery, and his theory of inscape. He believed that ‘inscape’ was the true aim and end of poetry. The word ‘inscape’ is of Hopkins’s coinage, and is presumably modeled on ‘landscape’. Inscape stands for any kind of formed or focused view, any pattern discerned in the natural world. According to W.H. Gardner: “In his vivid descriptions of skies, cloud formations, trees, waves breaking, flowers opening and withering and other phenomena, Hopkins is mainly fascinated by those aspects of a thing or group of things, which constitute its individual and ‘especial’ unity of being, its ‘individually-distinctive beauty’, or (if ‘beauty’ is not involved) the very essence of its nature. For this unified pattern of essential attributes (often made up of various sense-data) he coined the word ‘inscape’. Defending himself against Bridges’s complaint that his verse erred ‘on the side of oddness’ Hopkins replied that just as he recognized each composer by his distinctive melodies and each painter by his own characteristic designs, so design, pattern or what I am in the habit of calling ‘inscape’ is what I above all aim at in poetry”.

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