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Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 2

A Help to the Reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins

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A Help to the Reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Of the books mentioned I1 have read only the 3econd edition of the poems and the Letters to Bridges and the Correspondence with Dixon. The letters are a very great help in the understanding of Hopkins's personality and purpose in writing poetry. With a poet of such marked individuality every clue to the inner working of his mind is valuable. The simple and straightforward language of the letters is in striking contrast with the extreme concentration of the language of all his later poetry from The Wreck of the Deutschland to the end. Many of the poems were inspired by incidents in his life and it is not without interest to have his allusions to these.

Since 1918 many books and articles have been written on Hopkins's poetical achievement. A very recent book Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Critical Essay Towards the Understanding of his Poetry, by W. A. M. Peters, S.J., is particularly illuminating for any serious student of this great but very difficult poet. The aim of this book is to explain by a careful study of Hopkins's manner of viewing the world and of his poetical theory, that his style is a natural reflection of his personality and not just a more or less arbitrary trick. The core of the book is the meaning for Hopkins of two invented words, "inscape" and "instress."

Hopkins himself in one of his letters calls inscape "the very soul of art." The following is the explanation given by Peters. "For 'inscape is the unified complex of those sensible qualities of the object of perception that strike us as inseparably belonging to and most typical of it, so that through the knowledge of this unified complex of sense-data we may gain an insight into the individual essence of the object. We are ever inclined to compare and contrast objects and to put before us what is universal in them. Our minds turn unconsciously as it were and instinctively to what this object has in common with others; it needs special concentration of our faculties to bring before the mind an object's distinctiveness. Now Hopkins habitually looked at objects with the fixed determination to catch what was individually distinctive in them in order thus to arrive at some insight into their essence as individuals. To express this set of individuating characteristics in a suitable term he coined the word 'inscape." In the philosophical and theological studies of the Society of Jesus, Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas are the masters and they stress the universal; but Hopkins more and more felt himself akin to Duns Scotus, whose empriasis was on the particularity of things.

Poem 20 (2nd ed.), written 1879, the sonnet Duns Scotus's Oxford well expresses the poet's love and admiration of the old School-man; the octave of the sonnet is itself an individualized inscape of Oxford. May I say. before quoting it, that Hopkins again and again in his letters asks for his poetry to be read aloud, to be read and reread. What he was aiming at in his mature poetry was the rhythms of speech, to his mind more sincere and serious than the more artificial rhythms of orthodox poetry. It will be a help, too, if I say that in scanning Hopkins only the stressed syllables are significant.

Towery city and branchy between towers; Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed. lark-charmed, rook-racked, river-rounded;

1.1918 Poems, edited by Robert Bridges.

1930 Poems, second edition, with introduction by Charles Williams.

1948 Poems, third edition, Dr W. H. Gardner.

1935 The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, and the Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, edited by C. C. Abbott.

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The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did.
Once encounter in, here coped and poised powers;
Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there,sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping—folk, flocks, and flowers.
Yet ah! this air I gather and release
He lived on; these weeds and waters,
these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;
Of realty the rarest-veined unraveller; a not Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece; Who fired France for Mary without spot.

Notice the free use of compound adjectives and of alliteration, and the rich suggestiveness of "grounded" (1.6), placed as a castle or a manor-house in a park.

The great sonnet, Poem 12, The Windhover, of which Hopkins himself said (22nd June, 1879), that it was the best thing he ever wrote, repays the most careful study. The theme is a hawk in air, beautiful in repose but much more beautiful in motion, compared to a young prince mounted and about to gallop forth.

I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn. Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding.

The compound adjectives and alliteration here produce an extraordinary effect of ecstasy. In the metrical scheme, "in his riding," and "and striding" illustrate Hophins's use of extra syllables (outrides) not to be counted in the scansion. The poem as a whole is an expression of Hopkins's inscape of a falcon. Like a number of his greatest poems it is far from being completely intelligible. Hopkins seems often to have been surprised that his friends Robert Bridges and Canon Dixon found his meaning obscure, but on the other hand he does say in one of his letters something which indicates that he did not always expect that the reader would get out of a poem everything that had been in his mind when composing the poem.

Hopkins attached so much importance to the inscape of things, partly no doubt because of an individual idiosyncrasy but mainly because of his awareness of the actual presence of God in each individual thing. This is exemplified by Poem 7, 1877, written at Pantasaph, God's Grandeur.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
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. And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

* * *

Coming now to the second invented word, "instress," its original meaning is that stress or energy of being by which all things are upheld and strive after continued existence. In the act of perception the inscape is known first and in this grasp of the inscape is felt the stress of being behind it. As cause, in-stress is the core of being or inherent energy which is the actuality of the object; as effect, it is the specifically individual impression the object makes on man. "Take a few primroses in a glass and the instress of—brilliancy, sort of starriness: I have not the right word—so simple a flower gives is remarkable." (Note-books). The application of this is that in describing the distinctive aspect of an object Hopkins may either attempt to give us its inscape by an objective statement, or its in-stress in the sense of its effect on him—as in this stanza from Wreck of the Deutschland:

Flesh falls within sight of us, we though our flower the same,
Wave with the meadow, forget that there must The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.

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There are various aspects of Hopkins' life as reflected in his poetry that one might comment on; his extraordinary sensibility to country sights and sounds and the happiness of the poetry he wrote while studying at Saint Asaph in Wales; his deep sympathy for the poor and the terrible depression produced by his experience of the squalor and misery of Liverpool and Glasgow; the intensity of his religious life and the effect on his poetry of the subordination of his poetical to his priestly vocation; his deepening interest in music; his friendship with Robert Bridges, Canon Dixon, and Coventry Patmore.

Two of these aspects need added attention. His work as a parish priest in Liverpool and Glasgow brought him in close contact with the depressed poor. The nearest Hopkins and Bridges came to a quarrel was in connection with a letter from Hopkins in the early seventies in which, while condemning the excesses he expressed a good deal of sympathy with the grievances of the Communards of 1871. Hopkin's general attitude is well expressed in Poem 42, Tom's Garland, 1877. As both Bridges and Dixon asked for an explanation of the poem, we fortunately have a prose version by Hopkins himself.

The other point is the friendship of Hopkins with Bridges and Dixon, one of the most interesting in literary history. It is to Bridges's deep conviction of the poetic stature of his friend that we owe the preservation of the poems. Hopkins and Bridges were both men of the deepest sincerity but with very different religious religious philosophical beliefs. In the last resort Bridges gave his allegiance to the Platonic ideal of Beauty and Hopkins to the God of the Catholic Faith. For Bridges there was no higher vocation that that of the poet, for Hopkins that of the priest. On the other hand, it was the genuineness and sincerity of Dixon, Anglican priets, poet, and Church historian, that most attracted Hopkins. This made him inclined perhaps to overrate Dixon's purely literary significance. Remember, before 1918 many of the poems we have been discussing had been read by these two men only.