G. M. Hopkins: A Great Influential Poet

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Hopkins a Genius

      Hopkins was a major poet. The strength and subtlety of his imagery are proof of his genius. But Victorian Critics were not familiar with his qualities in the verse of their time. Hopkins delighted in the observation and grasping of nature. With the greatest delicacy, strength and intelligence he possessed his environment, making it the intimate vehicle for the passionate praises of his belief. Hopkins is likely to prove, for our time and the future, the only influential poet of the Victorian age. In 1949 the American critic Yvor Winters delivered two public lectures, in which he accused Hopkins of emotional over-emphasis and ‘violent assertiveness’. In his view too many of the poems were excited descriptions of landscapes of natural objects, with a perfunctory religious or moral sentiments tacked on. Hopkins ‘herbs miscellaneous images at his subject from all sides’. His violations of grammar much offended Vyor Winters, who also disputed his metrics. Donald Davie is another critic who has reservations about Hopkins, though he rates him far higher as a poet than Winters did. Davie examines Hopkins’ pronouncements on style, and concludes that they show ‘self-regarding ingenuity’ and an exaggerated regard for the systematic and the elaborate for their own sakes. There is substance in these charge. The singularity of Hopkins’s style is extreme and the liberties he took with the language are sometimes indefensible, though he never hesitated to defend them.

      Vyor winters has blamed Hopkins for his obscurity because of his ‘Romantic’ individualism. But he may equally well be blamed on something very different from Romanticism: Hopkins’s desire for an impersonal and esoteric discipline. His poems reveal a conflict between the priest and the poet as well as between the priest and the scholar. The Jesuit Order seemed to demand a sacrifice of everything that might have led to fame.

      In an early poem, called A vision of the Mermaids, Hopkins gives evidence
of a richness of sensuous imagination which reminds us of Keats:

His lusty hands, in gusts of scented wind
Swirling out bloom till the air is blind
With rosy foam and petting blossom and mists
Of driving vermeil rain.

      The young Hopkins however, beheld not only the sensuous richness of the world but also its spiritual emptiness. A remarkable poem, Nondum, written at Oxford, contains a vision of a universe from which spirit has been banished:

We see the glories of the earth
But not the hand that wrought them all.

The Habit of Perfection

      And he goes on to compare the universe to “a lighted empty hall”. Then there is a poem called The Habit of Perfection, written shortly before his conversion to Roman Catholicism. This poem expresses Hopkins’s deep conviction that only by a withdrawal from the outer world and a reconstruction of the inner life, can meaning and reality be given to sensuous experience. He helped to find in the inner life an “uncreated light” which would give meaning and shape to the “ruck and reel” of the material universe. It was there, certainly, that the rigorous ascetic discipline of the Jesuit training helped him. By his submission to that discipline, he both gained and lost as a poet. He gained the big advantage of a disciplined inner life, enabling him to escape the anarchic individualism of poets like Walt Whitman. And, at the same time, by becoming a Jesuit, he cut himself off from the mainstream of contemporary English life and thought. In the fifth stanza of The Wreck of the Deutschland the sensuous vision of the material world is transfigured by the “instress” of a divine “mystery” behind it :

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-with damson west:

      For the poet who wrote these lines an “answering voice” has come “from the skies”. Nature is not longer empty but filled with spiritual power.

      The picture of the Deutschland sailing into the snowstorm in the thirteenth stanza is a striking example of Hopkins new realism and his revolutionary use of language:

Into the snow she sweeps,
Hurling the haven behind,
The Deutschland, on Sunday; and so the sky keeps,
For the infinite air is unkind,
And the sea flint-fiak, black-backed in the regular blow,
Sitting East north-east, in cursed quarter, the wind;
Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind surveilled snow,
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unflattering deeps

      Alliteration, assonance and internal rhymes with new word formations and unusual word-order-all combine to make the reader not merely see the dim image of a ship in a storm, but feel the stress, the violence and the terror, and strange beauty of the storm Hopkins is here attempting to create a new art of language to rival music and painting in the immediacy of its sensuous effects and to achieve a perfect identification of matter and form.

      The opening autobiographical section is among Hopkins’s greatest and the Picture of the actual wreck is a triumph. There is grandeur too in the figure of the nun who called on the name of Christ and the magnificent image of the God who looked down on the martyrdom:

Thou Orion of light;
Thy unchancclling poising plasm
Were weighing the worth,
Thou martyr-master: in thy sight,
Storm flakes were scroll-leaved
Flowers, lily showers—sweet heaven was a strew in them.

      The flood of creative power released by the writing of the Deutschland Ode led Hopkins to produce his great Nature poems of 1877. He had found a powerful stimulus in the doctrine of the medieval scholastic philosopher, Duns Scotus. He was greatly pleased by Scotus’s “principle of individuation” and his conception of “this-ness” as the specific nature of a thing by virtue of which it differs from everything else and which he regards as the true bond between the creature and God. In this doctrine, Hopkins found a means of reconciling his intense delight in the beauty and “inscape” of material things and his equally intense religious experience. Thus he achieves a unity founded on a tension between opposites, and the apprehension of this unity fills him with joy of which the typical expression is to be found in the poem called Pied Beauty:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;....

      The universalism of this poem is concentrated and controlled by a philosophic principle.

      The poems written at this time are full of ecstatic joy in the richness of Nature and are brilliant with glowing light and color. They are written in diction which is neither the colorless standardized speech of urban, industrial England nor the affected archaism of Victorian “Parnassian” poetry. It is contemporary colloquial English heightened by the use of a vocabulary that includes dialect and technical words and numerous specially created compounds, a diction that is indeed sometimes odd and grotesque but always full of vitality and power. Hopkins, like the great Elizabethans, is here using the whole resources of the language and not merely a limited range of words and construction considered suitable for poetry.

      The representative poem of this phase of Hopkins’s development is the famous sonnet, the Windhover. The poet here sees a kestrel in flight; and the bird becomes for the poet a symbol of all-natural beauty which by a sudden and dramatic transition, is compared with the spiritual beauty of Christ’s sacrifice. At the same time, the bird’s flight seems to represent the poet’s artistic sensibility contrasted with and yet also linked to the austere self-sacrifice of the priestly life which he had chosen. Hopkins called this sonnet “the best thing” he had ever done. It achieves that combination of realism with lyrical passion which the Raphaelites sought both in their poetry and their painting. Here we have poetry from which discursive argument and prose connections are eliminated. It is an art which sets poetic images before the reader in their naked brilliance connected only by the logic of the imagination.

God’s Grandeur

      In the great sonnet, God’s Grandeur Hopkins embodies his vision of the drabness and dullness of the industrial age in four lines which contain a searching criticism of a whole civilization.

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

      Hopkins had deeply been moved by the ugliness and the injustice of the late Victorian England. In a letter written in 1871, he surprised and shocked Bridges by proclaiming that he was at heart a communist. “England has grown hugely wealthy”, he wrote, “but this wealth has not reached the working classes; I expect it has made their condition worse”.

The Windhover

      In the Nature-poems such as The Windhover, we find the tension between Hopkins the sensual artist and Hopkins the Christian ascetic. In certain poems, we find a reconciliation between Hopkins the communist with his burning sympathy for the toiling masses and Hopkins the priest with his ardent religious faith. These poems arise from his contact with working men in the course of his priestly duties. The most memorable of these poems is the sonnet, Felix Randal. Equally notable both as a technical experiment and as an expression of the poet’s intense sympathy with common humanity is the pictorial poem, Harry Ploughman with its unforgettable impression of the plowman at work:

He beans to it, harry bends, look.
Back, elbow, and liquid waist
In him, all quail to the wallowing
of the plough: ’s cheek crimson; curls
Wag or cross bridle in a wind lifted, windlaced-
See his wind—lily locks—laced.

      He had plans for poems on a grand scale. In 1881 he was meditating a “great ode” on Edmund Campion, the Elizabethan Jesuit, and he also planned tragedies on St. Winifred, the Welsh saint, and Margaret Clitheroe, an Elizabethan Catholic martyred in 1586. He wrote a few scattered stanzas of the Ode “something between the Deutschland and Alexander’s Feast ”. It had to be given up because the inspiration flagged on account of the tyranny of work imposed on him by his work in Liverpool and Glasgow. Of Margaret Chitheroe only two lyrical fragments survive but of the tragedy of St. Windfred’s Will there are three noble passages in alexandrine blank verse and a great ode to be sung by a chorus of maidens, The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo.

      The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo and That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire are Hopkins’s two most ambitious attempts to treat themes of cosmic vastness. The first-named poem is, perhaps his greatest technical achievement. He wrote of this poem to Dixon, “I have never done anything more musical”. He came nearer in this poem than in any of his works to using language as pure incantation. The music here is gentle and flowing and there are none of the abrupt transitions or violent contrasts so common in his poetry.

Heraclitean Fire

      The starting point in the poem, Heraclitean Fire, is the famous “flux” of Heraclitus, the early Greek philosopher, translated into terms of a stormy skyscape and landscape painted with a savage energy. Nowhere has Hopkins used language with such splendid richness and powers in this poem. The poem, after dwelling upon the power of death to blot out all the splendor of Nature, ends with a reference to the Resurrection which, coming with a sudden blare of music and blaze of light transforms death into glory, and man into the “immortal diamond” of Christ.

      Almost all the poems of Hopkins imply the presence of a God of infinite goodness and beauty in Nature and the deliverance of man from death by faith in Christ. All, indeed, are full of excited joy at the meaning and reality given to Nature by these religious concepts.

      Hopkins’ 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. One way which he found to be necessary to convey the “this-ness” of things or their individual essence was to coin new compound words and epithets. Another method he followed was to use two or three separate words as a single adjective. For instance, the Deutschland poem opens thus:

Thou mastering me
God !

Hopkins is Unique

      In the use of language Hopkins shows a great originality and a great daring in this poem, as he continued to show in his subsequent verse. It has rightly been pointed out that the originality of Hopkins’ method in this poem, and in everything that he subsequently wrote, is twofold: he uses a rhythm the like of which had never before been heard by Victorian ears; and he treats words with a freedom that is almost disconcerting even today. From the opening words the language of the poem shows a coiled energy. The vitality and flexibility of the language spring directly from a perception of divine energy at work on the human spirit. Throughout the poem Hopkins puts his great technical skill at the service of his deepest insights, and the packed richness of dramatic utterance in the poem is simply amazing. The lyric intensity of the poem is due to his fertility and originality in the spheres of languages, imagery and versification.

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