Style and Techniques of G. M. Hopkins

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      The poetical language of an age, according to Hopkins, should be the current language heightened, to any degree 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 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 meaning; he cares little for the traditional syntax, putting words together regardless of their relative position vis-a-vis each other; he coins words of his own; he forms compound epithets and adjectives 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.


      Hopkins adopted the new meter “sprung rhythm” as a regular and permanent principle of scansion. Hopkins gives reasons for adopting the sprung rhythm by saying that it is the nearest to the rhythm of prose, to the native and natural rhythm of speech. He regards the sprung rhythm 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”. The Wreck of the Deutschland was Hopkins’s first experiment in the use of the sprung rhythm but he continued using it afterward, though he did not quite discard traditional prosody or what he called the “standard” rhythm.

      The new meter and new diction that Hopkins felt were required to ensure the distinguished quality of poetry. His diction was not to be archaic or obsolete like that of the 19th century “Parmassan” poetry descending from Milton and Dryden to Wordsworth and Tennyson.

      Hopkins found a tradition in English poetry which was older and stronger than the one in possession in his day. He found a rhythmic tradition which could cut under and around the “running” or “common” rhythm of the nineteenth century, not because his new rhythm was the ancient rhythm of English—this would be a fact of no value in itself but because it was a rhythm still inherent in the language and only suppressed by an artificially sustained tradition.

      Hopkins then, had found the tradition of a sense-stress rhythm, which we may call the declamatory rhythm or the interpretive rhythm of English—a rhythm inherited from old English as one of the bases of verse until the “reform” and “smoothing” of English numbers, principally under the influence of Edmund Spenser and his followers. Basically, this sense stress rhythm is a rhythm which grows not from the tendency of English to stress every second or third syllable, but from the tendency of each sense stress, especially in emotional utterances, to constitute itself a kind of rhythmic unit, either alone or together with a varying number of slack syllables which may precede or follow it.

      Hopkins was a champion and great master of epithet. He expected poetry, including his poetry, to catch and convey vividly what eye saw arid heartfelt. Vivid was a word he liked to use in his letters, and he used it often with imageiy, in praise. Hopkins’s most frequent adjectives, those he used ten times or more a piece in the fourteen hundred lines which the Oxford edition presents as completed work as distinguished from fragments, are adjectives of sense and lively response.


      Hopkins is the greatest master of his poetic compound word in English. In his coining and compounding, he goes back to primordial word-making processes. Usually, he prefers pure Anglo-Saxon roots as in fathers-forth, after-comers, sodden-wit-its-sorrowing heart, brown-as-dawning skinned.

      The variety, originality and organic function of his imagery is closely bound up with his diction and rhythm. Whether he is writing with, controlled intensity, or in the urgency of feeling is emitting his sense perceptions in a quick-fire of

      In Hopkins’s poetry there is the magic of diction, his superbly refurbishing and regrouping of the diverse elements is a richly composite and flexible language so as to make all new, ‘beautiful to individuation’, as he put it. His power of ‘forcibly and delicately, giving the essence of things in nature owed much to his intense feeling for words. He is surely the greatest master of his poetic compound word in English. In his coining and compounding, he goes back to primordial word-making processes. Usually, he prefers pure Anglo-Saxon roots, as in fathers-forth, after-comers, sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart’, brown-as-dawning-skinned. Many other compound words have the smack of old English poetry: bone-house (the body), man-wolf, haul ropes, wan wood. At the same time, Hopkins does not neglect the rich accretions of Romance origin. Much of the beauty of The windhover is due to the terms of French extraction: minion dauphin, rein, chevalier, sillion; and among the compound words in later poems we find churls grace, down dolphinry, and million-fueled.

      Hopkins adopts a well-known idiom or compound word for his immediate purpose, substituting a new element for an old one in such a way that the old lurks in the mind as an undertone, an extension of meaning. ‘In honour of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez’, ‘world without event’, by faintly recalling the liturgical ‘world without end’, underlines both the length and the monotony of the lay brother’s outwardly unheroic service. Similarly the ‘bloom fall’ of you in ‘The Bugler’s First Communion’ invites a contrast with the maggoty ‘windfall’ of age, and ‘treadmire toil’ in ‘That nature is a Heraclitean Fire’ exploits the unpleasant associations of the ‘treadmill’. In ‘the heart, being hard at bay’, two hackneyed phrases, ‘hard pressed’ and ‘at bay’ are effectively hammered into a new one which must remain ever fresh. Occasionally Hopkins forces a word into a new function: ‘Deals out that being indoors each one dwells’ (As kingfishers catch Fire); but doors as a preposition is so much richer in meaning than ‘inside’ that we accept the audacity.

      Hopkins frequently uses vowels for everyday onomatopoeic effects. He makes 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 song and lovely and lush’ (spring). He called this internal rhyming ‘vowelling on’, and he used it constantly. The opposite function to vowelling-on, is another aspect of the art of Cynghanedd which Hopkins called vowelling-off. This consists of making a shape of sound not by assonance or internal rhyme as with vowelling-on, but by employing contrasting vowel sounds or even running up or down a scale of vowels. Hopkins sometimes used vowelling of for onomatopoeic effects. As line such as ‘left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend’, from The Sea and the Skylark is to some extent onomatopoeic. The vowels, like the lark, seem to rise off the ground and go upwards.

      Hopkins criticized the style of his fellow poets. He confided to Dixon, “A perfect style must be of its age”, and by a perfect style, fit to mirror such a tumultuous age, Hopkins meant something fresh and startling, no matter how much it narrowed from the past, a style able to encompass a poet’ feeling and his beliefs, and much of the heterogeneous stuff of his own times. To be sure, Hopkins also asserted over and over the right of the artist to a highly personal style, capable of doing justice to the assertive self; and critics and literary historians have given him his due here, as he would have wished them to do. They have analyzed his sprung rhythm, his word coinings, and his alliterative techniques. They have recognized as well the role of the past in his rich prosody, from the classical, medieval and metaphysical strains to the pastoral lyricism of the Romantic poets. He fashioned his style according to his own critical canons. According to F.R. Leavis, Hopkins was one of the most remarkable technical inventors”. Leavis considers Hopkins to be an original poet. Hopkins demanded for poetry the colorful, descriptive elaborate, adjectival and in this demand agreed outstandingly with Spenser, Milton, Collins and Keats.

      Hopkins’s contemporaries loved “a continuous literary decorum”. Such a decorum, like Good Form, 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 a possible unhampered by the rules of grammar, syntax and common usage. But to Robert Bridges and other contemporary poets, these rules were end in themselves. Robert Bridges complains that in Hopkins one often has to determine the grammar by the meaning. “Where as the grammar should expose and enforce the meaning, not have to be determined by the meaning”.

      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 by 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 idio-synopsis 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.


      Hopkins’s style, diction and technique are quite appropriate for his feeling that he wanted to express. His invention in this respect has given him an outstanding position. According to F.R. Leavis: “Hopkins belongs with Shakespeare, Donne, Eliot and the later Yeats as opposed to Spenser, Milton and Tennyson. He departs very widely from current idiom but nevertheless, current idiom is as it were, the presiding spirit in his dialect, and he uses his medium not as a literary but as a spoken one. That is the significance of his repeated demand to be tested by reading aloud: “read it with the ears, as I always wish to be read, and my verse becomes all right”.

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