G. M. Hopkins: Theory of Inscape and Instress

Also Read


      Basically, “inscape” to Hopkins meant design or pattern. He writes, for instance: “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”.

      Art is the expression of the artist’s inner vision. As such art—in paint, words, stone etc.—bears the imprint of the artist’s vision. The painter must, for instance, shape his colours and perspectives to his inner vision, and must not be content with producing a copy of the surface material. According to Hopkins inscape is the very soul of art. “All the world is full of inscape”, wrote Hopkins in his journal at the age of 29 “and chance falls into an order”. In a letter to Bridges, he explained that by the word inscape he meant design or pattern.


      Inscape is a notion central to Hopkins’s thinking and a key-idea when one is trying to figure out what his poetic aims were, and what he was trying to do with language. The basic question is therefore: what relationship is there between the inscapes Hopkins saw in nature and the inscapes he created in language? Hopkins’s most significant experience in nature seems to have occurred during the ascetic years of his Jesuit training, notably the years 1874-77 when he enjoyed the rural peace and contemplation of his studies at St. Benno’s in North Wales, and where he encountered the writings of Duns Scotus. It was as if asceticism sharpened his senses and drew aside an obscuring screen, revealing a world ablaze with energy, pattern and color and all things falling into marvelouser.

      Hopkins saw nature from time to time. He wrote to Dixon, “Unless you refresh the mind from time to time, you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is”.

      The images he used to express these things are familiar: a world charged with the grandeur of God; the billion times told lovelier more dangerous fire of revelation born of the encounter with the falcon; the sense of enormous energies let loose in poems like Hurrahing in Harvest and the Heraclitean Fire; the glory given to God for the variety and ‘dapple’ of the world, where kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame, and each thing, just by being itself, seems to sing itself forth from the inner depths of its own identity.

      The transition from the inscapes Hopkins saw in nature to the inscapes he created in language bring us to the usual gulf between two things: the ultimately inexpressible ‘thisness’ of experience and series of noises of marks on-paper in which the ‘thinness’ is expressed, evoked and vicariously recreated in the symbolic medium of language. In his poetry he is not merely trying to reproduce in language his particular ‘escaped’ vision of nature; he is also trying to produce inscapes or patterns of speech-sound which can be contemplated for their own sakes, “Inscape is the soul of art,” he said, and art to him had nothing to do with the reproduction of surface reality. Art is the expression of the artist’s inner vision, as such art—in paint, words, stone, etc—bears the imprint of the artist’s vision. The painter must, for instance, shape his colors and perspectives to his inner vision, and must not be content with producing a copy of the surface material. So is the case with a poet.


      Poetry may be full of feeling, high thoughts, fine imagery and other virtues but its essentiality for Hopkins lies in inscape. The shape of the speech-sound is more important than the logical content. “Some matter or meaning is essential to it but only as an element necessary to support and employ the shape which is contemplated for its own sake,” he writes. Hopkins was greatly pre-occupied with rhythm, alliteration, assonance, and the whole art of what he called “lettering” the syllables. These are devices by which speech-sound is inscaped.


      Instress is the undercurrent of creative energy that supports and binds together the whole of the created world giving things shape, form and meaning to the eye of the beholder. According to Alison G. Sulloway:

      Here in nebulous form is another forerunner of Hopkins’s circular theory of religious art, which also postulates life-giving links between the soul, the established order of things’ and the ‘nobler elements in that order’; What Pater called the ‘established order of things’ Hopkins called inscape—the exact laws of natural things, their looks and their conduct. What Pater called the nobler elements in that order Hopkins frankly called divine, or the principle of ‘instress’. Hopkins used the term ‘instress to mean many things but its composite meaning encompasses God’s plan for the world as it is revealed in the looks and the conduct of natural things - as opposed merely to those things themselves; and instress also signifies man’s response to the divine plan as he praises it make copies of it in their art. The poem Hurrahing in Harvest describes a moment of ecstasy when the poet experiences the instress of Nature, the divine energy that fills all things:

These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wrings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

      Hopkins at times felt an ecstasy, because he realized that the hidden energy molding things into shapes, patterns and colors was the very energy of God Himself So in this sense all Nature was sacramental to Him the visible sign of an invisible intelligent and creative energy.


      In his sonnet as Kingfishers catch fire Hopkins embodies in a series of vivid and self-explanatory images, the experienced reality which underlies the terms inscape and instress, and goes on to give a direct and positive assertion of its meaning for him:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Solves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

      Hopkins is never content with merely telling us that something is there but must strive to dramatize its kinetic energy, its individual life, even if in doing so he makes the writing of poetry an extremely difficult task for himself. And this is not all, for he is convinced that all these objects of perception at the same time as they are completely and utterly individual, are connected with one another. Hopkins aspires to structure a unified and meaningful vision of a world which seems to have become disjointed and dissonant. And he gives us this unified vision without sacrificing the color, energy, and freshness that characterize his individual perceptions:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle freckled with soft, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers forth whose beauty is past change.
Praise him.

      Stanza 5 from The Wreck of the Deutschland allusively sums up both the objects of praise and the tools of praise, careful and loving scrutiny of things as they are and love of the maker of all this beauty whose mystery “must be instressed, stressed”:

I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-worth-damson west:
Since tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed.

      The poet sees not only the ‘splendor and wonder’ of these things and joyously acknowledges them that is, he ‘instresses stresses’ them, but he also acknowledges the divine mystery behind all that beauty at the very moment he is expressing his own delight and awe in the scene before his eyes.

      “The ideal of poetry must be to instress the inscapes without splintering the architecture of the universe and expressionally to make every word rich in a way compatible with a more than addictively rich total poetic structure. But Hopkins’ poems, the word, the phrase, the “local excitement” often pulls us away from the poem. And in the more ambitious pieces, the odes as we may call them there is felt a discrepancy between texture and structure; the copious, violent detail is matched by no corresponding intellectual or mythic vigor. Indeed, “The Wreck of the Deutschland" is an “Occasional” commissioned piece at which Hopkins works devotedly and craftily, like Dryden at his Annus mirabilis, but which, like Dryden’s poem, falls apart. Hopkins was not a story-teller and he was not able to turn his wrecks into myths of wreck; they remain historical events accompanied by commentary. “The Bugler Boy” and other poems suffer from the gap between the psychological naivete and the purely literary richness. To try prose paraphrases of the middle poems is invariably to show how thin the “thinking” is. Hopkins’s mind was first aesthetic and then technical: she reasoned closely upon metaphysical and prosodic matters. But his reflections upon beauty, man and nature—his humanistic thoughts—are not distinguished”.


      Hopkins ransacked all sources for devices for rhythm and sound. What brought his technique to a fine degree of complexity was the Welsh art of Cynghanded which he studied and mastered in his years at St. Beuno’s College, prior to his ordination in 1877. These are the years of such poems as The Wreck of the Deutschland, God’s Grandeur, The starlight Night, Pied beauty, Hurrahing in Harvest and The Caged skylark.

      Cynghanedd is a Welsh bardic tradition of great antiquity, consisting of a highly Sophisticated series of techniques for making intricate and beautiful patterns of speech sound - i.e. for ‘inscaping’ speech sound. Hopkins must have been delighted to find this ready made art, systematizing many patterns of alliteration and vowel sound.

      Hopkins makes patterns of vowel sounds mainly for the joy of it. Patterns of internal rhyme for instance: “Nothing is so beautiful as spring, when weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush”. He called this internal rhyming “vowelling on”, and used it constantly. Some of his shapes of sound achieved by this device have an exquisite interwoven intricacy that must have cost him hours of work. In the 26th stanza of The Wreck of the Deutschland the poet speaks of the sky, blue by day, glowing at sundown and radiant at night, symbolic of the glory of heaven:

Blue-beating and hoary-glow height; or night still higher,
With belled fire and the mouth-soft Milky way,
What by your measure is the heaven of desire,
The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed
What for the hearing?

      There are three sets of rhyming vowel sounds—height right, higher, fire, desire, moth, soft, got, was what, measure, treasure. The total effect is a rich vocalic chiming, a lovely ‘shape’ of sound.

      Using alliteration Hopkins also used the art of vowelling to create patterns for inscape of language. The first stanza of The wreck of the Deutschland may serve as an example, it is enough to suggest that the curious reader might separate such almost inevitably ‘poetic’ from those in which the intense apprehension of the subject provides two or more necessary words almost at the same time. ‘Thou has bound bones.....fastened me flesh’. It is as if the imagination, seeking for expression had found both verb and substantive at one rush had begun almost to say them at once and had separated them only because the intellect had reduced the original unity into divided but related sounds.

Previous Post Next Post