G. M. Hopkins Poems are Full of Oddity and Obscurity

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      Hopkins was a man of rare character as well as intelligence. He writes; “The effect of studying masterpieces is to make me admire and do otherwise. So it must be one very 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. His prosodic account in terms of Logaoedic Rhythm, Counterpoint Rhythm, Sprung Rhythm, Rocking Feet and Outriders will help no one to read his verse—unless by giving the sense of being helped. Hopkins might have said about each one of his technical idiosyncrasies what he says about 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. 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.

The Wreck of the Deutschland

      In The Wreck of the Deutschland Hopkins deals with unfamiliar ideas. The language and imagery of the poem are also unusual. Apparently, there, does not seem to be only connection between the two parts; it is only with the help of the critics that we understand as to what is the connection between the two parts. Hopkins’s novel use of words, his coinages, his syntax, his omissions of necessary links and the description of strange spiritual experience, make the poem obscure.
God’s Grandeur, Hurrahing in Harvest, The windhover, duns Scotus Oxford, Felix Randal, Carrion Comfort are simple enough, but the language, the metaphors and the syntax create difficulties.

      One chief cause of obscurity in the poetry of Hopkins is his habitual omission of the relative pronouns. This grammatical liberty is apt to confuse the parts of speech. And this fault imposes on the readers a conscious effort of interpretation. But Bridges himself defends this fault in Hopkins. Hopkins omitted pronouns from his poetry not because of any carelessness—he had full skill and practice and scholarship in conventional forms—but because they were purely constructional syllables and took up room which he thought he could not afford them: he needed in his scheme all his space for his poetical words. For instance he writes “O Hero savest!” “O Hero that savest!”

      Hopkins’s contemporaries loved “a continuous literary decorum”. Such a decorum, like Good Forum, has its uses. The criticism against Hopkins assumes that poetry ought to be immediately comprehensible. But Hopkins felt no obligation to subscribe to that particular notion of Good Form. He aimed to get out of his words as much as possible unhampered by the rules of grammar, syntax and common usage. But to Robert Bridges and other contemporary poets, these rules were ends in themselves. Robert Bridges complains that in Hopkins one often has to determine the grammar by the meaning, “whereas the grammar should expose and enforce the meaning, not have to be determined by the meaning.”

      Hopkins’s use of language in his poetry was greatly influenced by his desire to express precisely the inscape of external things, and of his own mind as well. This new kind of word formation and use of language is another reason of the oddities and obscurities in his poems. The Windhover, a great poem though it is, suffers from the defects of oddity and a certain obscurity in the expression of ideas. In the first place, there is ambiguity in the phrase—“My heart in hiding”. Why “in hiding”! Several explanations have been offered by critics but none of them really seems to justify the expression “in hiding”. In this phrase the poet may be thinking of himself watching the bird from a place of hiding on the ground below; or of his heart hiding inside his body; or else of his situation as a man leading a life at St. Beuno’s College, hidden from others. Then it is riot clear to whom the sestet of this sonnet is addressed: whether to his own hear, to the falcon, or to Christ. At least one critic is of the view that Hopkins is addressing all the three, for they are inseparable: in achieving that state of correspondence where the bird is recognised as the mortal representation ol the divine presence the poet has achieved that perfect condition of “Christ being me and me being Christ. The three words “Here/Bucklel/And” have also been subjected by critics to a bewildering diversity of interpretation, the capitalization of And being rather mysterious. As for the oddities, the word “achieve” has been used to mean “achievement”; the word “act” has been used in the Aristotelian sense to mein “energeia” or force; the word “sillion” is most unusual; the word and “gash” used with embers would not easily be understood. And then there is the metre as well as the sense running from one line to another the word “kingdom” being split into “king” and “dom”: only in Hopkins could we find one line ending with half of a word and another line beginning with the other half of that word:

Line 1. I caught this morning
morning’s minion, king—
Line 2. dom of daylight’s dauphin,
dappled-dawn-drawn Falcon.

Variety in Hopkins’s Poetry

      Though this poem is undoubtedly an impressive poem in every respect, but the ordinary student of literature cannot but feel bewildered by the variety of interpretations the poem lends itself to. No doubt such variety is a proof of the richness and pregnancy of the poem, and yet the sheer complexity of the poem is forbidding. There can be no spontaneous response to such a poem from the reader who has to wrestle with it to find out what Hopkins means. The language in this poem has no doubt been handled in an original, novel manner, but where every word has to be explained by a scholar, originality can hardly please the reader.

      What Bridges calls ‘blemishes’ are essential to Hopkins’s aim and achievement. Hopkins himself wrote to Robert Bridges:

      “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, so 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.....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 Eurydice, 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 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 aware to it, but as Robert Bridges points out, Hopkins was not sufficiently aware of his obscurity. However, Hopkins was not prepared to admit the charge of obscurity against his poetry. He admitted that his poetry demanded a serious intellectual: effort from his readers. He tried to distinguish obscurity from want of clarity at first sight. The sacrifice of clarity at first sight was inevitable if a poet wanted to express a subtle and recondite way, with great felicity and perfection.

      According to F.R. Leavis: “Hopkins is really difficult and the difficulty is essential. If we could deceive ourselves into believing that we were reading easily his purpose would be defeated; for every word in one of his important poems is doing a great deal more work than almost any word in a poem of Robert Bridges.” Hopkins felt that his critics exaggerated the difficulty of his verse: “The sonnet (I say it snorting) aims at being intelligible”. He felt that with an that might be fairly demanded he could be understood.

University Questions

Hopkins is really difficult and the difficulty is essential to his poetry. Do you agree with this view of F.R. Leavis?
Robert Bridges charges that “Hopkins’s poems are full of oddity and obscurity”. Examine.
Would you on the basis of the poems you have read, say that Hopkins’s verse is both odd and obscure?

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