The Habit of Perfection: Summary & Analysis

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Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorled ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only make you eloquent.

Be shelled, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, our careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.


      The Habit of Perfection is one of the best poems of Hopkins. The poem was written in January 1866. This poem is the most enduring and verbally complex of all Hopkin’s early poems. The poem consists Hopkins’s stylistic characteristics of his mature poetry. The poem is a brilliant presentation of the poet’s remarkable skill, interesting formal variety and a memorable perception. While writing this poem the poet was very much influenced by John Keats. To quote W.H. Gardner, the poem indicates Hopkins’s desire to become a priest, “but the surrender to asceticism is made in term so delicately sensuous that the fusion of artist and neophyte is strangely tense and poignant.” The word Habit suggests both ‘robes’ and regularity of endeavor. There are some expression such as ‘lovely dumb”, “double dark”, “you unhouse”, “Poverty, be thou the bride” and so on which make the poem verbally complex and metaphorically rich.


      In the first stanza, the poet rejects the sounds, including any musical sound. To him, the music that cannot be heard is sweeter; because inaudible music create no disturbance and helps the mind to remain in a state of solitude, devoid from all sorts of chaos of the modem world.

      In the second stanza, the poet wants his lips dumb. When shut or closed, the lips look beautiful and lovely because it remain abstinent to take part in gossip, rhetorical or eloquent speeches. These are of no significance to the poet now as he wants to stay in the state of priest. So he rejects the normal function of lips.

      In the third stanza, The poet wants his eyes to remain closed. He merely wants to perceive “The creative energy of God’s mind”. He does not want to be confused by the different kinds of perplexed sights around him. His desire is only to see the vision of spiritual world.

      In the fourth stanza, the poet rejects his sense of taste. The poet resolves not to gratify his sense of taste with any luxurious food; he would rather like to observe fast to please God. To satisfy his hunger he would like to take dry bread and plain water or he would observe fasts, because fasts are a religious ritual which a devout Christian should observe to get peace of mind.

      In the fifth stanza, the poet addresses his organs of smell, the nostrils. He asks nostrils not to feed on rare and costly perfumes as they stir up and sustain pride. The poet intends that they should take pleasure in the sweetness of the incense that is burnt at church when holy ceremonies are performed. Moreover, he wants his nostrils to take pleasure in the sweetness and holy smell of the incense, burning at the altar. The incense may draw the worshipper to the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) at the altar. Exquisite scents and perfumes are generally worn by the proud ladies. So the poet wants to avoid all these things.

      In the sixth stanza, the poet refutes the natural human instinct to gratify the sensuous urge. Instead, he glorifies the cultivation of spiritual faculty that elevates human beings. He exhorts them to tread the golden path (i.e. way to church) to celebrate the holy rites at church and in this mean come more close to Lord (i.e. Jesus Christ) which is itself a sublime experience.

      Poverty in the seventh stanza has been personified and is presented as the bride of a devout Christian. The poet wants poverty to be his bride and he would not have to look for showy and costly clothes, instead, he wants to remain satisfied with simple clothes which like the lilies of the field involve no labor or toil. Ordinary dresses are compared to the lilies grow anywhere and it does not need any special care or extra-toil and it grows most ordinarily. Similarly, an ordinary dress also need no special labor or extraordinary cost.


Stanza 1

Line 1: Elected Silence: Silence of one’s choice. The poet chooses silence; he prefers it to sound or speech. The phrase suggests Hopkins’s decision to give up writing poetry and to dedicate himself to a life of religion. Hopkins stopped writing for seven years and after that he wrote the poem The Wreck of Deutschland.

Line 2: Whorled ear: ear having a whorl.

Line 3: Pipe: play on a pipe to produce a musical tune. It is an inaudible sound that the poet likes to hear. The poet prefers the music produced by silence.

Stanza 2

Line 1: Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb: The poet asks his lips to keep shut to be looked more beautiful; the poet thinks that shut lips look more beautiful than open lips.

Lines 2-4: The curfew sent.....eloquent: The poet means to say that his eloquence would lie in silence and not in speech. The word curfew means a prohibition upon speech. The poet must surrender his faculty of speech in order to lead the life of loneliness. The poet’s eloquence resides in his remaining dumb and silent.

Stanza 3

Line 1: Be shelled eyes: The poet also commands his eyes to remain closed as in the case of lips.

Be shelled....double dark: The poet intends to keep his eyes tight close so that nothing can be seen and thus darkness intensified.

Line 2: uncreated light: Let the poet’s eyes perceive only the creative energy of God’s mind. The reference is to Genesis 1 : 3.

Line 3: This ruck and reel: The different types of outward spectacle.

Line 4: Coils, keeps: That confuses. The poet here means to say that the observers are confused to see the worldly activities.

Stanza 4

Line 1: Palate: Taste

The hutch: The place where something is stored.

Tasty lust: desire to taste delicious foods or eatables.

Line 2: Desire not The poet tells his mouth not to feel a desire to taste delicious food and to express a desire for wine to wash or to swallow down those foods with wine.

Line 3: The crust: Dry bread

Lines 3-4: The crust....fasts divine: The ascetic must take dry bread with plain water. For a recluse dry bread is more enjoyable than rich food. Keeping a fast must be regarded as more enjoyable than the foods and wines—drink and rich and increase excitement. The poet in this line means to say that he wants to supress or control his emotion and passion so that he may be in a state of serenity and passivity.

Stanza 5

Line 1: Nostrils: The sense of smell

Line 2: Keep of Pride: The nourishment of pride.

Line 3: Censers: refers to the vessels in which incense is burnt for religious ceremonies.

relish: Appetising flavor.

Line 4: Sanctuary side: Church, altar or any sacred place.

Stanza 6

Line 1: feel-of-primrose hands: Feeling of softness. Primrose leaves are very soft. Hand’s softness has been compared with the softness of Primrose leaves. Hands seek softness of primroses.

Line 2: The yield: The grass is too soft to yield to the feet tread upon it.

Plushy sward: Plushy means velvety and sward means stretch of land covered with soft velvety green grass.

Line 3: The golden street: The street leading to the church.

Line 4: and you unhouse and house. The word ‘unhouse’ means to take away. The tabernacle of the altar in Roman Catholic churches is said to house the consecrated Host. ‘Host’ in the-present context means the bread consecrated in the Eucharist. The Eucharist refers to the Lord’s Supper or the consecrated elements, especially the bread. Through this line that poet refers to the performance of a sacred rite at church.

Stanza 7

Line 1: And, Poverty, be thou the bride: Poverty is personified here. The poet means to say that he wishes to lead a life of poverty and miseries than that of luxury and comfort.

Lines 3-4: Lily-coloured clothes: The bride will not wear any costly dress, but will wear lily-colored clothes, which is very simple and ordinary. The poet rejects costly dress as it arouses sensuousness. He wants to avoid sensuous pleasure and wants to lead a life of an ascetic.


      The poem The Habit of Perfection written in Hopkins’s student life contains the poet’s resolution to lead a life of religion and austerity and asceticism. The poet rejects the delights of all the senses. He would not like to hear the sweet strains of music, but would prefer a state of serenity. The poet rejects the delights of all the senses and resolves to control sensuousness. The reason behind it is that he intends to perceive God’s creative energy by looking inwards. He refuses to hear the sweet strains of music and rather prefers the silence of a meditative trance-like state. Like an ascetic he will deny himself the pleasures of the senses of smell, hearing, sight, taste and touch. He exhorts the sense of taste to deny itself the rich and delicious food and to find satisfaction in observing a fast or in eating dry bread to be swallowed down with plain water. He calls upon his nostrils to find pleasure in the sweetness of the incense that is burnt in the church and not to seek the scents and perfumes used by rich ladies. Nor will he allow his hands and feet to enjoy the pleasure of contact with things that are soft. He wishes poverty to be his wife and instead of fine robes his bride will be satisfied with the clothes of lily color.

      Thus the poem is one of complete self-denial. But the poem is rich in striking images.

      To quote a critic, “The choice of an ascetic rather than an aesthetic approach to life is codified by Hopkins in this self-instructional poem. Paradoxically however, it contains more memorable sensuous imagery than any other poem of these Oxford years. This problematic relationship between sensuous enjoyment and religious dedication was only resolved eleven years later in The Windhover and its companion Welsh sonnets”. According to W.H. Gardner: “This poem indicates Hopkins’s desire to become a priest; but the surrender to asceticism is made in terms so delicately sensuous that the fusion of the artist and neophyte (a beginner in some religious order) is strangely tense and poignant”.

      In this poem there are two kinds of images—one is sensuous another is religious; both type of images have been related to each other quite paradoxically. The images of ‘ruck and reel’ bring to our mind myriad sights. Hopkins compares ‘palate’ to a rabbit hutch, because one has to store food and wine in his stomach in order to satisfy his palate. The words ‘pastures still’ immediately bring to our mind ascetic silence and unheard spiritual music. The image ‘lily-coloured’ refers to the simple, ordinary clothes which the poet would like Poverty, his bride, to wear. The lilies grow in a field for which no much labor is necessary or required. Thus we see that the images used by the poet in this poem are really decorated gems which uplift the poem to a height of ascetic-aesthetic beauty.

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