Literary Career of G. M. Hopkins

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      Herbert Read classifies the poetic work of Hopkins into three categories: (1) poems which are the direct expression of religious beliefs; (2) poems which have no direct or casual relation to any such beliefs at all; and (3) poems which are not so much the expression of belief in any strict sense but more precisely of doubt.


      The second and third categories are immensely superior to the first in poetic value. Indeed, he considers strictly religious poems to be altogether inferior work mentioning pointedly Bornfloor and Winepress, Nondum, Easier, Ad Mariam and Rosa Mystica to illustrate the point, but also admitting that one or two poems of positive beliefs—Heaven-Heaven and The Habit of Perfection—are certainly exquisite. As for The Wreck of the Deutschland, the long poem which Hopkins himself held in high regard, this critic considers to be the poem of contribution, of fear and submission rather than of the love of God.

      To the second category, in this critic’s opinion, belong such poems as Panmean Pool, The Starlight Night, Spring, The Sea and the Skylark. The Windhover, Pied Beauty, Hurrahing in Harvest, The Caged Skylark, Invernaid, Harry Ploughman and the two Echoes. The poetic force of these poems comes from a vital awareness of the objective beauty of the world. That awareness — Robert Bridges called it “sensualism” is best revealed in Original metaphors such as “mealed-with-yellow sallows,” “piece-bright palling,” “daylight’s dauphin”, “a stallion stalwart very violet-sweet” in which the poet re-forges worlds to match the shape and sharpness of his feelings. Robert Bridges speaks of the naked encounter of sensualism and asceticism which hurts The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, but this critic, while admiring the magnificent sensualism of this poem, finds no asceticism here in the ordinary meaning of the word. But that in general there was a conflict of this kind in Hopkins is beyond doubt. Hopkins believed that the poet is by natures dreamer and a sensualist, and that he should raise himself to greatness by Concerning himself with great causes like liberty and religion. In the poem, Pied Beauty Hopkins sublimates his poetic power in an obvious manner. In Hurrahing Harvest again, we have an extended metaphor: the senses glean Christ in all the beauty of summer’s end. The Windhover is completely objective in its senseful catalogs: but Hopkins dedicates the poem “to Christ our Lord.” The dedication does not, however, after the naked sensualism of the poem; and there is no asceticism in this poem nor essentially in any of the other poems of this group. They are tributes to God’s glory, as all poetry must be; but they are tributes of the senses.

      The poems of the third group consist of the final sonnets of Hopkins. These all dates from the last years of his life. Even earlier poems express at least despair: in Spring and Fall, for instance, the poet speaks of the blight man was born for; and in Sibyl’s leaves he speaks of the self-wrung rack where thoughts against thoughts grind. But the final sonnets are complete in their gloom and awful in their anguish. Hopkins’s biographer, Father Lahey, is of the opinion that much of the sorrow of these sonnets arose from causes which have their origin in true mysticism. With the fine uncompromising courage of his initial conversion, Hopkins pursued his never-ending quest after spiritual perfection.

      Hopkins’s The Wreck of the Dentschland represented a new direction, an entirely new set of possibilities and techniques for English poetry. In a letter to Dixon, Hopkins thus describes the occasion for the writing of this poem:

In the winter of 1875, the Deutschland was wrecked in the mouth of the Thames and five Franciscan nuns, exiled from Germany, aboard of her were drowned. I was affected by the account and happening to say so to my rector, he said that he wished someone would write a poem on the subject. On this hint, I set to work and, though my hand was out at first, produced one. For how long, haunting my ear, the echo of a new rhythm, which I now realized on paper....I do not say the idea is altogether new...but no one has professedly used it and made it the principle throughout, that I know of.....However, I had to mark the stresses and a great many more oddnesses could not but dismay an editor’s eye, so mat when I offered it to our magazine the Mouth.... they.... dared not print it.

      Though Hopkins had been a fine traditional poet and an interesting and cautiously experimental writer before The Wreck of the Deutschland, it is with this poem that he is first seen complete in the curious, breathtakingly original form which has since come to be identified as ‘Hopkinsian’. Here for the first time came fully together his linguistic and prosodic experiments—of which the most famous and influential in the conscious employment of what the poet called ‘sprung rhythm’, wherein only the stresses of a line are counted, and the line is allowed to have any number of unstressed syllables—the piety and agony of his Jesuitical faith, his personal suffering over the actuality and meaning of pain and death, and his personal researches into nature. His world, his work, are tight and compressed like a spring. One cannot read too much of Hopkins at a time, for one cannot match his intensity. The poem the wreck of the Deutschland introduced into the English literary tradition the idea of a total poetry.

      Within a few months Hopkins wrote some important and best-loved poems, such as God’s Grandeur, The Starlight, Night, Spring, The windhover, Pied Beauty, Hurrahing in Harvest and The Lantern out of Doors among others. They are fervent expressions of joy in the beauty of nature and a world charged with the grandeur of God. They express in a more formal and concentrated way the insights that Hopkins had long been recording in his journal, and are pure and memorable statements of his sacramental vision. They also remind one, in a directly autobiographical way, of Hopkins’s happiness during his years in North Wales, despite the pressure of his studies.

      In God's Grandeur (1877) Hopkins embodies his vision of the drabness and dullness of the industrial age. The Windhover was the best thing he had ever written. It is a magnificent poem where Hopkins writes with unparalleled assurance and boldness. The poet here sees a falcon 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. The poem has provoked a great deal of argument, not so much concerned with the refinements of interpretation as with establishing the basic sense of the words.

      The poem Pied Beauty honors the truth of Chiarosenro or diatonic (proceeding by the tones and intervals of the natural scale in music) beauty, generic plentitude and specific creation, the sacrament of energy, the theory of universal paradoxes, and the Christian artist’s proper role as an exultant imitator of nature’s infinite variety.

      Duns Scotus’s Oxford indicates Hopkins’s enthusiasm for Oxford. The sonnet is an eloquent and sincere tribute not only to Oxford but to the medieval British philosopher, Duns Scotus. The poem begins almost in a rapturous mood, referring to the most striking aspects of the city of Oxford—its towers and trees, its cuckoos and church bells, its rivers and lilies. In the sestet the poet’s enthusiasm becomes even greater when he recalls Duns Scotus’s association with this university.

      Felix Randel is the most memorable poem which shows the poet’s intense sympathy with the common humanity. In this poem we find a reconciliation between Hopkins the communist with his sympathy for the toiling masses and Hopkins the priest with his ardent religious faith.

      The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo is Hopkins’s greatest technical achievement. “I have never done anything more musical”. Hopkins wrote of this poem to Dixon: The poem is full of melody and harmony and an attempt to treat themes of cosmic vastness. The famous poems—Carrion Comfort, No worst, there is none, To seem the stranger lies my lot, I wake and feel the fell of dark, patience hard thing and My own heart let me more have pity on have a critical interest far beyond their autobiographical significance. Hopkins’s crisis and his efforts to surmount the crisis is expressed in these poems. Language is strained and stressed almost to breaking point in enacting this struggle.

      In Tom s Garland and Hany ploughman Hopkins shows himself as formidable a critic of his own work as of others. Hopkins interprets Tom’s Garland and refers to the traditional idea that everyone in society even the lowest should be part of the commonwealth and share in the common wealth.

      Harry Ploughman is a study of a working man with a less complicated program underlying it. It is a simple descriptive verse.

      That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection is an extraordinary poem. In its opening, it returns in spirit to the joyful nature poems of Hopkins’s last year in Wales but the joy is fleeting. Nature is as beautiful as ever in its changing and glittering appearances. Yet underneath all is flux, nothing is stable, and the achievements of man do not endure in the darkness. But in the end, the Resurrection sends its “eternal beam” and the poet and mankind, “This jack, joke, poor potsherd” can say: “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am”.

      Hopkins wrote poetry of a very different kind in the last years of his life. His poetry now expresses misery and despair instead of hope and joy. He is still a sincere believer but he no longer exists in the presence of God in Nature or in man’s deliverance from mortality by divine aid. In these poems God is shown as indifferent to the poet’s sufferings:

But ah, but O thou terrible, why
Wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock?
Lay a lion limb against me?
With darksome devouring eyes my bruised
bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there
me frantic to avoid thee and flee?


      Hopkins had a dual personality. He was both a poet and an ascetic type of devout Christian. These two strains—ascetic and aesthetic—manifested themselves early early in Hopkins’s life. The early Hopkins follows Keats. The aesthetic strain is visible in The vision of the Mermaids (written in 1862) which is a piece of unrestrained sensuous luxury. The latest Hopkins, who wrote the sonnets of desolation, was a poet of tense austerity. The middle period, which opens with The wreck of Deutschland (1875) and closes with Tom’s Garland and Harry Ploughman both written in 1885, is the period of experiment. Middle Hopkins startles us by its dense rich world. The motifs of middle Hopkins are the Ritualist movement—aestheticism, linguistic renovation, England, the Catholic church.

      There were four persons who shaped the mind of Hopkins. They are Walter Pater, Ruskin, Newman and Duns Scouts. Pater, who remained his friend, was one of his tutors. Hopkins was much attracted to Walter Pater who taught a religion of beauty and who appealed to him greatly by his advocacy of the search for the ‘intense moment’ of experience. With Ruskin, Hopkins revolted against the neoclassical grandeur of generality praised by Johnson. The influence of Ruskin—art medievalist, devout student of clouds, mountains, trees—is pervasive in Hopkins's poetry and sketches. The great medieval thinker Duns Scotus influenced Hopkins a great deal. Scotus insisted that each individual has a distinctive ‘form’ a haecceity, or thisness. After having discovered this medieval Franciscan, Hopkins, upon “any inscape of sky or sea”, thought of Scotus.

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