Poetic Evolution of G. M. Hopkins

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      G. M. Hopkins is an unique figure in the history of English poetry. His work was not generally available until 1918, when his friend Bridges published a slim volume of poems culled from his letters and manuscripts. But for Bridges, it is likely that this fine poetry, which Las exercised a great influence on later poets, would never have been known. Hopkins, a convert in his twenty-second year to Catholicism, is not only the first really great religious poet in English since Milton, but he was the creator of an original poetic medium so much his own that a major modern critic has doubted whether it can evaluate used by another writer. No modern poet has been the center of more contradiction or the cause of more misunderstanding.

His Poetry

      While still at school Hopkins was already writing poetry expressing his intense appreciation of natural beauty in a sensuous? Keatsian manner which has something of the rich vividness of his later work. At Oxford, where he was thrown into the midst of the religious conflicts of the 1860’s an ascetic streak in his make-up became more apparent, and the fragments of his Oxford verse which remain show a considerable chastening of his enthusiasm for the riches of nature. The controversies with which he was surrounded brought to a head his own inner conflict; the result was his conversion. In 1868, before joining the Jesuits, he burnt all the poems on which he could lay hands, feeling the sensuous writings of his youth and the very profession of the poet to be incompatible with the new disciplines he was about to accept. Such early poetry as we posses survived accidentally in manuscripts and diaries.

      In 1875, when his long training as a Jesuit was reaching its end, tie broke his self-imposed silence with The Wreck of the Deutsch land, a great ode occasioned by the sinking in a storm of the Deutschland, which had on board five nuns, refugees from religious persecution. The poem is wider in scope than the title suggests. It contains the crystallized religious experience of his seven years poetic silence, and has considerable autobiographical significance. In its eight-line stanzas, the typical Hopkins technique is seen for the first time, Spring-rhythm, counterpoint rhythm, alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, coinages, and unorthodox syntax give to the poem a revolutionary appearance which led the editor of the Jesuit organ Month to refuse to print it after originally accepting it. But, if it is difficult in thought and unconventional in technique, it is full of brilliant passages, and has an rustic and emotional unity of the highest order.

      Hopkins continued to write poetry until the end of his life, though his output was very small. From 1875 onward his writing was exclusively religious, and the ecstatic enjoyment of nature found in the sonnets of his early maturity is a sacramental experience. Nature in a manifestation of the beauty of God, a call to praise. Through his period of priesthood, in, among other places, Manchester and Liverpool, a growing concern with man is perceptible. The evils of the industrial system he saw as man’s falling-off from God, his rejection of the grace won for him by Christ. Felix Randal is typical of his warm sympathy with men and his concern with their souls. But the deepest and most intensely personal of his poems belongs to his Dublin period (1884-89). Whatever the cause, Hopkins then passed through a period of intense depression, which is movingly revealed in the sonnets of 1884-85. In their passionate, direct simplicity they stand apart from most of Hopkins’s work, and they have been described as his greatest poems. His defiant refusal to capitulate to this despair is to be seen in Carrion.

Features of His Poetry

      (a) His Love of Nature. A sensuous love of nature, based on a minute observation, is found in most of Hopkins’s poetry, especially before about 1878. His early struggle to reconcile his obvious enjoyment of natural beauty with the ascetic life, the Jesuit resolved in his sacramental view of natural beauty. His great delight lay in the discovery of the inscape, or inner pattern, which gave to each thing its distinctive beauty. His feelings at the perception of this inscape be described by the term instress.

      (b) His Use of Language. One of Hopkins’s most obvious idiosyncrasies is in his choice and use of language. He believed that poetry called for a language distinct from that of prose, a language rich in suggestion both to the senses and the intellect. His vocabulary is drawn from many sources, archaic, colloquial, and dialect words all being used. He had a particular fondness for compound epithets, such as “drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple cherry,” and for evocative coinages. A full appreciation of a word may well demand of the reader a knowledge of its derivation. At times the result is obscurity, and this is increased by his deliberate distortion of normal syntax, either to compel the reader’s attention, or to give to key words the stress they deserve. But, whatever the difficulties arising from vocabulary, syntax, or compression at thought, Hopkins is always precise in his use of words, and his poetry has the muscular vitality of expression of the tic Shakespearian tradition.

      (c) His Rhythmic Patterns. Hopkins’s most important experiment with sprung rhythm, which appeared first in The Wreck of Deutschland, and is based on the irregular verse of Samson Agonistes, The basic principle of this attempt to break away from strictly conventional patterns is that each foot contains one stress, possibly, but not necessarily, followed by any number of unstressed syllables: Hopkins felt it to be the least forced, the most rhetorical and emphatic of all possible rhythms” Counterpoint rhythm is the use in two consecutive feet of a reversal of the predominant rhythm of a line. Every rhythmic effect in Hopkins is the result of careful and deliberate workmanship, and so important did he consider a true understanding of his intentions that his manuscripts make use of some twenty symbols, rather like those of a musical score. Thus we have “or” to indicate heavy stresses.....to indicate reversed feet, as in counterpoint, and so on. Unfortunately, he was not consistent in the use of these symbols, and, to avoid confusion, Bridges omitted from the 1918 edition all but the most vital. After The Wreck of the Deutschland, he devoted much time to typically individual modifications of the sonnet form, which he used with the greatest freedom. A brief summary can do no more than indicate the nature of Hopkins’s experiments, but it is important to add that the full import of rhythm in his poetry can only be gathered if it is read aloud after close and delicately sensitive study of its orchestration.

      (d) His Imagery. His imagery is remarkable for its richness. His appreciation of nature, his reading of the great English poets, particularly, Shakespeare, and of the Bible, are all evident. Often he shows that blend of the emotional and intellectual which distinguishes the poetry of the seventeenth-century metaphysical. But, whatever their sources or affinities, the images of Hopkins’s poetry are distinctively his own—always precise and vitally illuminating, usually briefly expressed, and often suggesting more than one possible interpretation.

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