G. M. Hopkins as A Terrible Sonneter

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      G. M. Hopkins’s sonnets may be regarded as the culmination of a rich and long poetic tradition. The sonnet was introduced into England from Italy by Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey in the early years of the 16th century. It was at that time regarded as a form of love poetry, and almost every major poet of the Elizabethan Age produced not just one or two, but a whole series of sonnets in honour of some real or imaginary beloved. In Shakespeare’s hands, the form became a medium for profound reflections on human life and death, on time and immortality as seen through the experience of love. The religious tendency which was already implicit in the sonnets of Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare was further developed in Donne’s “Holy Sonnets”. From the “Holy Sonnets” the original motive of love entirely disappeared. The form became more personal and autobiographical. The combined influence of Shakespeare and Milton is particularly evident in the romantic sonnets of Wordsworth and Keats. In Hopkins’s sonnet all these varied elements or aspects of the sonnet tradition are fused in a new synthesis in the sonnets of Hopkins. Hopkins’s sonnets are at once personal, descriptive, religious and metaphysical. In his poetry we get natural imagery, religious fervor, character-portrayal intimate personal revelation, psychological analysis and other elements too.

      Hopkins’s sonnets show a considerable departure from the previous tradition. The intensity of his poetic feeling is likewise reflected in his original use of “sprung rhythm” which depends for effect not on the regular alteration of stressed and unstressed syllables but on regular number of stressed syllables in each line.


      It is worthy to note that Hopkins shows a distinct preference for the Italian structure of the sonnet form over the Shakespearean or English structure. The Italian structure has two divisions—the Octave consisting of eight lines and the sestet consisting of six lines. Hopkins said that the Italian sonnet was the sonnet proper though he called the Shakespearean sonnet, with its three quatrains and a couplet at the end, a very beautiful and effective species of composition, and yet he modifies the Italian structure too, by dividing the octave into two quatrains.

      Hopkins has used his own style and technique while writing the sonnets. The style of his sonnets is by turn dramatic and contemplative, strenuous and graceful. There is variety and originality in his imagery. In the urgency of feeling, he is emitting his sense perceptions in a quick-fire of metaphor. Hopkins’s sonnets can be grouped in two parts—the bright sonnets and the dark sonnets. In “bright” sonnets the poet celebrates the mysterious presence of God in the world’s splendor. In the dark or ‘terrible sonnets’, the poet expresses a sense of desolation. In these sonnets, the poet seems to be experiencing spiritual suffering.


      The bright sonnets belong to the earlier period of Hopkins’s poetic career. These sonnets were inspired by his experiences as a priest. These sonnets mainly deals with the idea of the value of sacrifice, the transience of ‘moral beauty’ and the need to give beauty back to God. In the ‘terrible sonnet’ the poet depicts the temporary loss of joy and hope which marks the recoil from a rigorous discipline.

      In ‘God’s Grandeur’ the poet expresses his happiness over the omnipresent grandeur of God. In ‘Pied beauty’—the poet’s adoration of Nature and his reverence for God are closely interwoven. The sonnet contains a catalog of dappled things each presenting a vivid image, in The Sea and the Skylark the poet’s joy in Nature, as represented by the sea and the skylark, is nullified by his disappointment with the way human beings lead their lives in a modern town. The sonnet abounds in compound adjectives and unusual use of words. In Hurrahing in Harvest, the poet describes an experience of union with Christ as seen in Nature. The poem is remarkable for its vivid imagery presented in an original manner.

      The sonnet Pied Beauty contains a whole catalog of dappled things, each presenting a vivid image. In addition, the poet refers also to the general qualities which he appreciates in dappled things swift and slow, sweet and sour, bright and dim, fickle and freckled. In a few lines, the poet covers a wide range of things, and their attributes, and also manages to pay his tribute to God at the end. His adoration of Nature and his reverence for God are here closely interwoven.

      In The Sea and the Skylark, the way human being lead their lives in a modem town is presented by the sea and the Skylark. The imagery in the octave is very vivid—the tide, the roar of the sea, the moon, the ascending skylark. Alliterative phrasing is one of the striking qualities of the style: “with a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar”. The whole octave is remarkable for its onomatopoeic effects. In the sonnet The Windhover the poet’s main idea is that the “brute beauty” of the falcon is only a faint flash of the splendor of Christ. The power and energy of Christ belong to a different order, and are a “billion times told lovelier, more dangerous”. The octave describes the bird, and the sestet begins by recognizing what the bird signifies. The sonnet is a masterpiece in its originality in the use of words, its striking imagery, and consonant and vowel chiming, it tends to obscurity when we come to “here buckle” which has been interpreted in various ways.

      The sonnets Carrion Comfort, I wake and feel the fell of dark, and Thou art indeed just are considered as belonging to the group of “terrible sonnets” or the “dark sonnets”. In Carrion Comfort the poet finds himself confronted with despair but he promptly declares his resolve to overcome it. The poet asks a question that why God is so cruel to him? The divine wrath against him, is intended to clean and purify him of his imperfections and faults. The thought in the poem develops in a logical manner and is expressed in a metaphorical style. In the sonnet wake and feel an experience of frustration and negation is described. The poet’s appeals for help bring no response from God who seems too far away. The poet is a scourge to himself as the souls in Hell are a scourge to themselves. The ideas, are expressed by the use of figurative language: “the fell of dark”, “gall” and “heart burn”; “dead’ letters”; etc. There are several examples of the use of alliteration which is an indispensable ingredient of Hopkins style.

      The sonnets Felix Randal and Duns Scotus’s Oxford belong to the middle group. In Felix Randal we find a deep personal involvement of the poet, and as regards style a casual seeming idiomatic compression takes up into itself common dialect phrases in tribute to the dead farrier. At the end of the poem, Hopkins moves from elegy to celebration, capturing in his rhythm and imagery the grandeur that for him runs through the farrier’s humdrum trade.

      Hopkins’s variety of themes impresses us greatly. Each of his sonnet is a separate entity possessing its own individual character, producing its own single effect, without any division of interest. The expression is condensed in his sonnets. His sonnets reflect a conflict between the poetic sensibility and religious commitment. The terrible sincerity of the process of Hopkins’s thinking inevitably led him to an originality of expression which rejected the ready-made techniques of contemporary poetics. His originality in this respect is both verbal and metrical. And perhaps the innovations he introduced into meter prevent more than anything else the appreciation of his poetry.


      The sonnet which resulted from Hopkins’s predicament are masterpiece of poetry. A critic thus sums up the merits of these poems: “In these Dublin sonnets, he treats of loneliness, frustration, self-loathing, and despair and yet manages to articulate them within artistic structures that are condensed, integrated and completely free of inflated rhetoric or emotional indulgence. The one note that is never struck in these poems is that of self-pitying self-love. For Hopkins’s indomitable courage refused to countenance any such comforting evasions at the same time as it refused to be crushed. He appears determined to probe to the depths of these sufferings of his poor self while at the same time shaping and giving them utterance through a masterly artistic control. Here, as in The Wreck of the Deutschland, trenchant diction and imagery couple with a forceful, masculine verse movement to make mental events almost physically present. As a result, tense spiritual states are described with a palpability and definiteness of outline rare in English poetry since the time of Donne and Herbert:

I am gall I am heartburn.
God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me.
(I wake and feel)

      Like all Hopkins’s best poems these sonnets fuse a passionate, apparently spontaneous rhythmic movement with the complex modulation a great verse-technician. On one hand they are, just as much as the joyful Welsh sonnets, though in a completely opposite mood, sudden unpremeditated outbursts of feeling which came “like inspirations unbidden and against my will”. On the other hand, the complex “bettering” of style is as evident as in the earlier poems; only here subtle patterns of alliteration and assonance no longer chime but are set against one another to convey a world where soul and self heaven and hell, jangle and clash against one another incessantly:

Wisest my heart breeds dark, heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began

      According to David Daiches: “Perhaps the most impressive and the most profoundly moving of Hopkins poems are his terrible sonnets, where he expresses his experience of the dark nights of the soul with extraordinary power. The most packed and powerful of all is the sonnet beginning “No worst, there is none, with its terrible sestet”.

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