Literary Influences on G. M. Hopkins

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      Poetry often seemed to Hopkins a luxury for which he could not always afford time separately from what he thought of as his religious duties. Poetry was never disconnected from his religious ideas. “I cannot in conscience spend time on poetry; he wrote in a letter, “neither have I the inducements and inspirations that make others compose”. In a case like this, the commitment to religion would naturally tend to swamp the artistic sensibility.

      The central point to note about the life of Hopkins, R.K. Thorntorn tells us, is Hopkins’s commitment to religion before literature, a commitment which Hopkins himself frequently emphasized. Where he did take time to consider literature, it was usually because he was teaching it rather than writing, as one can see from his final years as Professor of Greek or from his earlier years at Roehampton. He wished to sacrifice his life to the service of God; and if he wished to dedicate his life to God’s service, he also wished every part of it not excluding his poetry, to be dedicated to the same end.

      In the temperament of Hopkins, there were two powerful strains. These two strains were completely opposed to each other. These two strains—ascetic and aesthetic—manifested themselves 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 the Deutschland (1875) and closes with Tom's Garland and harry Ploughman, both written in 1885, is the period of experiment. Hopkins’s motifs in the middle period are the Ritualist Movement, Aestheticism, Linguistic renovation, England the Catholic church.

Four Influences on Hopkins

      Hopkins’s mind was shaped by four persons. They are Walter Pater, Ruskin, Newman, and Duns Scotus. 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 neo-classical grandeur of generality praised by Johnson. The influence of Ruskin—art medievalist, devout student of clouds, mountains, trees—is pervasive in Hopkins poetry and sketches. Like Ruskin, he was able to recover the medieval and Franciscan joy in God’s creation. And, like Ruskin, he protested against an England which is seared with trade....and wears man’s smudge”. To Newman, Hopkins wrote upon deciding to become a Roman Catholic. This conversion is important because it throws some more light on the conflict we are discussing. Hopkins felt intellectually convinced of the logical validity of Catholic arguments. At the same time there was in him a deep-seated hunger for absolute obedience to strong authority, and his hunger could be satisfied only in the Roman Catholic Church of the time. At about the same time (1866) at his conversion he wrote a poem The Habit of Perfection which indicated his desire to become a priest but which is most remarkable in the context of the conflict in his nature. In this poem Hopkins rejects the pleasures of the senses in favor of an ascetic life, and yet the poem is richly sensuous. This poem shows the conflict between his poetic sensibility and his religious commitment.

      Hopkins was influenced by the great medieval thinker Duns Scotus. Scotus
insisted that each individual has a distinctive “form, a haecceitas or thisness” After having discovered this medieval Franciscan, Hopkins, upon “any inscape of sky or sea”, thought of Scotus.

      Hopkins suffered a sense of desolation in the later period of his life. This Melancholy was further deepened by ill-health and heavy duties. He gave vent to his sense of desolation in ‘terrible sonnets’. A year before his death he wrote to Bridges: “All impulse fails me. I can give myself no sufficient reason for going on. Nothing comes; I am a eunuch-but it is for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” There is no doubt that his agony and sense of desolation was due to the crippling of his poetic sensibility caused by his excessive concern for the kingdom of heaven. For this, we cannot blame the Jesuit Order. The Jesuit order is severe but not inhuman Hopkins himself was a fanatic for duty from his earlier days and suffered deeply because of this. The ‘terrible sonnets’ give us an idea of the kind of conflict and temperament Hopkins was afflicted with.

      The central conflict of the ‘terrible’ sonnets is a clash between impulses within the poet. He is caught between his desire to reach spiritual fulfillment and his reluctance to surrender human identity. Perhaps it was the loss of physical vitality which caused the depression and inner conflict of Hopkins last years; perhaps the basis was primarily psychological. Out of the gloom of those final years, Hopkins created six intensely introspective sonnets, the most important of which is the ‘Carrion Comfort’, and ‘I wake and Feel the Fell of Dark’.

      In 1885 Hopkins’ depression and spiritual desolation reached a new pitch of crisis. He later described it to Bridges as a state “When my spirits were so crushed that madness seemed to be making approaches—and nobody was to blame, except myself partly for not managing myself better and contriving a change”. One result of this crisis was to make Hopkins start writing poetry again after two years of silence. In May he told Bridges he had written two sonnets: “if ever anything was written in blood one of these was.” This according to Bridges, was Carrion Comfort? By September, Hopkins told Bridges that he had “five or more” sonnets ready to send him. These poems cannot be identified with absolute certainty, but it is most probably that they comprise the group known as the “terrible sonnets”, Nos. 64 to 69, in the fourth edition of Hopkins’s Poems.

Hopkins’s Originality

      These poems can be seen in the first instance, as expressions both of Hopkins’ crisis and of his efforts to surmount it. Christian readers will see in these poems an expression of a very traditional theme in spiritual writing: the soul’s sense of being rejected and left desolate by God. But the poems also, on another level, indicate a remarkable intensity of self-knowledge and self-encounter. These ‘terrible sonnets’ are countries of a man to his tortured consciousness. By degrees, Hopkins learns that a finite being must become infinitesimal before it can partake of the infinite. Therefore, it is not surprising that Hopkins gave expression to his feeling of terrible nothingness of self.

Carrion Comfort

      In the poem, Carrion Comfort Hopkins is fighting his own self-pity. Refusing to indulge in despair, the comfort of decaying flesh, the poet chooses the assert himself but what can he do? He can something, hope, wish day, come, not choose not to be’.

      Hopkins took pride in the invincible human spirit and is coming dangerously close to denying man’s dependence on God; for it is not man’s place to choose to be: man is made to serve, not to govern. Man was made to give God glory; “to praise God freely, willingly to reverence him, gladly to serve him.” But contrast, not choosing not to be is an ungodly answer: it is rooted in human pride rather than Christ-like humility; and because the poet suggests this as a possible way of asserting himself, he encounters a divine enemy.

      Significantly, God, the Son is the combatant described in images of rapacious mastery. He is a ‘lion-lamb’ with ‘devouring eyes’ who menacingly seans the poet's ‘bruised bones’. The poet is eager to avoid Him. God the Son is a constant reminder to Hopkins of divine self-sacrifice. Moreover, Christ, the perfect manifestation of God’s spirit on earth, serves as a model for human behavior. In Carrion Comfort, therefore, Hopkins is battling an enemy who compels him to face his own inadequacy; and Christ, perfect in His selflessness, is trying to overpower the poet by force of divine example.

      But the question remains: why does Christ want to vanquish the poet? In the sestet, Hopkins recognizes his enemy’s truly unselfish motive. The battle is waged, the poet reasons, so that waged, ‘my chaff might fly; my grain be, sheer and clear’. If one acknowledges Christ as the poet’s adversary, it becomes clear that the motive and result of the conflict is the divine gift of grace. Hopkins has sensed the presence of divine stress throughout the conflict; is the divine gift of grace.

      Hopkins has sensed the presence of divine stress throughout the conflict; for, paradoxically, ‘in all that toil’ there have been moments of happiness when he ‘lapped strength, stole ‘joy’ from his enemy; and he has even felt the need to laugh to ‘cheer’ someone. He cheers himself as also Christ, because the process of giving and receiving grace is as if man said: “That is Christ playing at me playing at Christ, only that it is no play at all but truth; That is Christ being me and me being Christ.”

      The note of agony is keener in another terrible sonnet, “I wake and Feel the Fell of Dark”. The poet thinks that perhaps he will continue in the state of separation from God for years. His cries to God for help are unheard. But still, the poet feels no indignation towards God, and calls Him as his ‘dearest’. The poet generalizes his affliction in terms of his human sinfulness. He compares his plight with that of the damned souls in hell. There is no reconciliation, no resolution of the conflict. But there is no defiance of God in spite of all these.

      With all these influences Hopkins possesses originality of his own. He shows a great capacity for capturing complex spiritual states in vividly symbolic pictures, as he does in the following stanza:

I am soft sift
In an hourglass

      His poems are full of variety and richness as he has used the language in an original, novel manner. This has made Hopkins’ poem difficult for the ordinary student of literature.

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