Gerard Manley Hopkins Poetry: British Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5681

In 1875, a number of Roman Catholic religious people had been driven out of Germany by the Falck Laws. In the winter of that year, five exiled nuns took passage on the Deutschland , which ran aground in a snowstorm near the Kentish shore of England. The ship gradually broke...

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In 1875, a number of Roman Catholic religious people had been driven out of Germany by the Falck Laws. In the winter of that year, five exiled nuns took passage on the Deutschland, which ran aground in a snowstorm near the Kentish shore of England. The ship gradually broke up in the high seas and many lives were lost, including those of the nuns. Their bodies were brought to England for solemn funeral ceremonies and the whole affair was widely reported in the newspapers. At this time, Gerard Manley Hopkins was studying theology at St. Bueno’s College in Wales. He read the reports in the press, and many details in his poem reflect the newspapers’ accounts. He seems especially to have noticed the report that, as passengers were being swept off the deck into the icy seas by towering waves, the tallest of the five nuns rose up above the others just before her death and cried out for Christ to come quickly to her. Hopkins discussed this fearful catastrophe with his rector, who suggested that someone should write a poem about it. Taking that hint as a command, Hopkins broke his self-imposed poetic silence and began to write again. The experience of the tall nun at her moment of death captured his imagination. How frightening and cruel it must have been to be on the deck of the shattered ship! Yet she was a faithful Catholic servant of God. How could God torment her so? What did she mean when she cried out for Christ to come to her as the fatal waves beat down on her?

“The Wreck of the Deutschland”

“The Wreck of the Deutschland” is a very difficult poem. Unlike the smooth sentences of Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850), for example, Hopkins’s elegy is contorted, broken, sometimes opaque. When Robert Bridges published the first volume of Hopkins’s poems in 1918, he warned readers that “The Wreck of the Deutschland” was like a great dragon lying at the gate to discourage readers from going on to other, more accessible poems by Hopkins. The thread of the occasion, however, can be traced in the text. The dedication of the poem to the memory of five Franciscan nuns exiled by the Falck Laws drowned between midnight and morning of December 7, 1875, gives the reader a point of reference. If readers skip to stanza 12, the story goes ahead, following newspaper accounts of the events reasonably clearly. Stanza 12 relates that some two hundred passengers sailed from Bremen bound for the United States, never guessing that a fourth of them would drown. Stanza 13 explains how the Deutschland sailed into the wintry storm. Stanzas 14 and 15 tell how the ship hit a sandbank and people began to drown. Stanza 16 depicts an act of heroism in which a sailor tries to rescue a woman, but is killed; his body dangles on a rope for hours before the eyes of the sufferers. Stanzas 17 through 23 are about the tall nun. In stanza 24, the poet contrasts his own comfortable setting under a safe roof in Wales with that of the nuns who were in their death struggle on the stormy sea. He has no pain, no trial, but the tall nun is dying at that very moment. Rising up in the midst of death and destruction, she calls, “O Christ, Christ, come quickly.” Stanzas 25 through 35 contemplate that scene and ask, “What did she mean?” when she called out. What was the total meaning of her agony and life? The poem therefore can be divided into three sections: Stanzas 1 to 10 constitute a prologue or invocation, stanzas 11 through 25 depict the agony of the shipwreck and the tall nun, and stanzas 25 through 35 contemplate the meaning of that event. The middle section, describing the shipwreck and the tall nun’s cry, is reasonably clear. Difficult details in this section are mostly explained in the notes to the revised fourth edition of Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. There are some additional perspectives, however, which are helpful in grasping the total work.

“The Wreck of the Deutschland” is related to the Jesuit contemplative “composition of place” and “application of the senses.” As a member of the Society of Jesus, Hopkins’s daily life and devotions were shaped by the Ejercicios espirituales (1548; The Spiritual Exercises, 1736) of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Moreover, at certain times in his career, he withdrew from the world to perform the spiritual exercises in month-long retreats of an extremely rigorous nature. One objective of the spiritual exercises is to induce an immediate, overwhelming sense of the presence of divinity in our world. The contemplative is directed by the Spiritual Exercises to employ the technique of “composition.” For example, to get a sharper sense of the divine presence, one might contemplate the birth of Christ. First one must imagine, or compose, the scene of the Nativity in all possible detail and precision. When Christ was born, how large was the room; what animals were in the stable; where was the holy family; were they seated or standing; what was the manger like? The imagination embodies or composes the scene. The contemplative then applies his five senses systematically to the composition. What did it look like, sound like, smell like, feel like, and taste like? Such a projection of the contemplative into the very situation induces a very powerful awareness of the religious experience. “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is similar to such a contemplative exercise. Hopkins is trying to experience the religious truth of the nuns’s sacrifice. The middle of his poem is a composition of the scene where the tall nun died. It is constructed systematically to apply the five senses. Stanza 28 depicts the struggle of the poet to put himself in the nun’s place, to feel what she felt, to suffer as she suffered, to believe as she believed. At her death, she saw her Master, Christ the King. The poet tries to participate in her experience. The poem should be read in comparison with other poems of the religious meditative tradition—for example, the poetry of George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughan. Louis L. Martz in The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (1962) is the best introduction to this aspect of Hopkins’s work.

Complexities of sprung rhythm

In addition to the religious complexities of the poem, there are aesthetic complexities. Hopkins claimed to have discovered a new poetic form, “sprung rhythm,” which he employed in “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Despite intense scholarly investigation of Hopkins’s metrics, there is no clear agreement as to what he means by “sprung rhythm.” “The Wreck of the Deutschland” contains thirty-five stanzas, each with eight lines of varying length. If one counts the syllables in each line, or if one counts only the accented syllables in each line, there is a rough agreement in the length of a particular line in each of the stanzas. For example, line 1 has four or five syllables in almost all stanzas. Line 8 is much longer than line 1 in all stanzas. What makes lines of varying length metrical?

It is sometimes thought that Hopkins was isolated in the Jesuit order and did not know what he was doing when he created unusual poetic forms. That is absurd, for he was a professor of classical literature and in correspondence with leading literary scholars. The best way to look at sprung rhythm is to see what Hopkins’s associates thought about meter. Robert Bridges, his college friend and lifelong correspondent, studied the iambic pentameter of Milton and wrote a major book on the prosody of Milton. Bridges thought that Milton built his lines out of iambic feet, units of two syllables with the second syllable pronounced more loudly than the first. An iambic pentameter line therefore had five iambic feet, or ten syllables with the even-positioned syllables stressed more loudly than the odd-positioned ones. Lines in Miltonic pentameter that do not fit this pattern follow a few simple variations defined by Bridges. Bridges’s study appears to be accurate for Milton, but clearly Hopkins is not writing poetry of this sort. The number of unstressed syllables differs widely in his lines, a condition that Bridges shows never occurs in Milton.

Another of Hopkins’s correspondents, Coventry Patmore, was a leading popular Catholic poet who wrote a study of English metrics based on time, similar to the prosody of hymns. Hopkins’s sprung rhythm seems more consistent with such a musical time-based pattern than with the accentual-syllabic pattern of Milton as defined by Bridges. Hopkins, as a professor of classical languages, knew the advanced linguistic work going on in that area. Greek poetry was thought to be quantitative, based on the length of vowel sounds. As a schoolboy, Hopkins had to practice translating an English passage first into Latin, then into Greek poetry, arranging the long and short vowels into acceptable feet. (Some of his Latin and Greek poetry is collected in Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.) Modern readers are not often trained to understand these models in classical languages and so do not appreciate how important they are to Hopkins’s patterns in English verse. In Hopkins’s unpublished papers, there are lines of Greek poetry interlined by drafts of his English poems, sometimes with arrows and doodles matching up the English and Greek phrases. It seems possible that Hopkins based his distinctive rhythms on Greek models, especially the odes of Pindar. Essentially, however, the key to sprung rhythm remains to be discovered.

Priest vs. poet

“The Wreck of the Deutschland” was submitted to the Jesuit magazine The Month and, after some delay, rejected for publication. Hopkins said that they “dared not” print it, although there is no need to imagine a dark conspiracy among the Jesuit authorities to silence Hopkins. It is likely that the editors of The Month simply found “The Wreck of the Deutschland” baffling in form and content. The rejection dramatizes, however, a peculiar condition in Hopkins’s life. His unquestionable genius for poetry found almost no encouragement in his immediate surroundings as a Jesuit priest. His poetry is, of course, shaped by Roman Catholic imagery and is mainly devotional in nature. Without his Church and his priestly calling, he never could have written his poems. On the other hand, what he wrote was largely unappreciated by his closest associates. Ironically, this highly religious poet became famous in the twentieth century because of the praise of readers who were frequently anti-Roman Catholic. There was a central anguish in Hopkins’s life, a conflict between his priestly duties and his artistic creativity. Many scholars have tried to explain how Hopkins’s poetry and his priesthood fit together. Roman Catholic critics usually tend to say that the Catholic faith made Hopkins a great writer. Readers who are hostile to Catholicism tend to think that Hopkins was a serious writer in spite of extreme discouragements and restraints placed on him by his faith. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. If Hopkins had not been severely troubled, he would have had little motivation to write. His poems show all the commonplaces of religious imagery found in much less powerful Catholic poets, such as his friend Coventry Patmore. Hopkins rises above the average religious versifier because of his origial genius, yet this originality is what the Jesuit editors of The Month did not understand.

“The Windhover”

Stung by the criticism of his major poem, not only by the Jesuit editors but also by his friend Robert Bridges, Hopkins never again tried to write something so long and elaborate. He retreated into the most traditional form in English prosody, the sonnet. After “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” Hopkins’s most famous work is the sonnet “The Windhover.” More has been written about these fourteen lines than about any other piece of poetry of comparable length in English. All of Hopkins’s sonnets are related to the Petrarchan model, but he alters the tradition to fit his peculiar genius. The poem employs line-end rhymes abba abba cdcdcd. In addition to the repetition of sound at the end of each line, there is also thickly interwoven alliteration and assonance within each line. This internal rhyme is related to the cynghanedd or consonant chime of Welsh poetry. Hopkins tried to learn Welsh when he was a student at St. Bueno’s College in Wales and he actually wrote a bit of Welsh poetry in the form called cywydd. The meter of “The Windhover” is the so-called sprung rhythm, allowing great variation in the length of lines. The Petrarchan sonnet uses its rhyme scheme to define two parts of the poem: abba abba is the octave or exposition in the opening eight lines, cdcdcd is the sestet or commentary in the concluding six lines. Hopkins explained in his letters that the essence of a sonnet is balance and proportion. The octave asserts a situation or condition and then a surprising commentary comes back in the sestet to reply to the octave. Since the sestet has only six lines, it must be correspondingly “sharper” or more forceful if it is to balance the initial statement. The key to the sonnet is this proportion. Hopkins wrote some sonnets longer than the usual fourteen lines and a few shorter, “curtail” or cut-short, sonnets. In all his sonnets, however, he maintains the proportion of octave to sestet, eight to six, and forces the shorter conclusion to a higher pitch of intensity.

In its octave, “The Windhover” describes the flight of a hawk of a kind commonly used in falconry or hunting circling against the dawn sky. The sestet begins with the description of the hawk diving, plummeting earthward, as it “buckles.” The sure, steady circling of the hawk in the octave is astonishing, but the sudden buckling downward is even more thrilling. It is beautiful and breathtaking. In the sestet, the increased beauty of the hawk as it dives is compared to a plough made to shine as it is driven through sandy soil, and to an ember coated with ashes that sparkles when it falls and breaks.

“The Windhover” illustrates one of the key terms in Hopkins’s aesthetic vocabulary: “inscape,” a word he coined for the inner nature of a thing that distinguishes it from everything else in creation. Hopkins’s reading of Franciscan philosopher John Duns Scotus is pertinent to his concept of inscape. Qualis in Latin means “what.” When people look at the qualities of things, they examine what these things have in common with other members of their class. The qualities of a good racing horse are those features that it has in common with other good horses. Duns Scotus imagines that there is an opposite to quality. Haec means “this” in Latin. Duns Scotus coins the word haecceitas, the “thisness” of a thing, which sets it apart from everything else, making it unique and different—the principle of individuation. Hopkins frequently celebrates the rare, unusual, or unique in nature. He turns away from the universal quality and toward the individual. The octave of “The Windhover” can be seen as the poet’s description of a natural event: the flight and dive of a falcon. In that movement, he seeks to find the inscape, the innermost shape as evidence of God’s presence in the created world. He tries to see into the form of the thing, to find what makes it original, unique, special, strange, striking. Like the sacrifice of the tall nun in “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” the act of the hawk is “composed” so as to be the object for a religious meditation.

Paradoxically, the only way to grasp the unique inscape of a thing is to compare it with something else. The tension of this paradox is evident in the striking, surprising comparisons that Hopkins employs in “The Windhover,” comparing the dive of a hawk with a plough shining in use and a burning coal sparkling as it collapses. The poem says that these three events are comparable or analogous in that in each case when the object buckles it becomes brighter and more glorious. When the hawk buckles in its dive, it is a thousandfold more lovely than in its stately circling. When the rusty plough buckles to its work, the abrasion of the sandy soil makes the ploughshare shine in use. When the ash crumbles or buckles, its inner brightness shows through the gray, outer ash-coating. Hopkins gave “The Windhover” the dedication, “To Christ Our Lord.” The Jesuit order sees itself as the chivalry or the Knights of Christ. Ignatius advises the novice to buckle on the armor of Christ. To become a Jesuit, to buckle on the armor of a true Christian knight, is the proper and glorious activity of a man who would follow his nature, or unique calling. In like manner, a hawk follows its true nature, it is what it was made to be, when it sails in the wind and dives. A plough was made to work the earth, a coal to burn, and these things do what they were intended to do when they buckle. The activity of buckling may be painful or dangerous, but it produces glory, brilliance, grace, and beauty. The discipline of accepting the vows of the Jesuits may be painful in some earthly way, but it brings the glory of Christ’s service. Christ, too, accepted the pain and duty of his earthly incarnation. He was buckled to the cross. He did what he had to do and so was brought to glory through pain and humiliation. The structure of “The Windhover” appears to be a set of analogies or comparisons all coming together in the word “buckle.” Such a strucure is also to be found in the odes of the Greek poet Pindar, which Hopkins studied intensely in school. Pindar’s poems praise a great athlete or hero by linking together a series of seeming digressions in one key image or figure, sometimes called a “constellation,” such as the “golden lyre,” a “beacon fire,” a “horse,” or a “tree.” Hopkins’s poetry unites the Christian tradition of anagogical interpretation of the created world and the classical Greek tradition of the Pindaric ode.

The sonnet form

Most of Hopkins’s shorter poems are sonnets, yet within the confines of this form, Hopkins displays great originality in his metrical structure, his repetition of sound in alliteration and internal rhyme, and his changes in the length of the sonnet while maintaining the crucial eight-to-six proportion of the octave/sestet division. Like the form of the sonnet, the subjects of most of Hopkins’s poems are extremely traditional: elation at the sight of some particular bit of nature; personal dejection, desolation, and despair; celebration of the inner worth of an outwardly ordinary human being. These three topics are commonplaces of Romantic and post-Romantic literature. Hopkins’s originality lies in treating these subjects with unusual power and perception. Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley often looked at nature and said that they felt their hearts leap up to behold the beauty of spring or autumn. For Hopkins, every little corner of nature was evidence of the divine presence of God. His Christianity reinforces the Romantic sentiment. The confluence of the Romantic and the Christian tradition produces unusually powerful statements.

Consider, for example, the sonnet “Hurrahing in Harvest.” Like “The Windhover,” this poem is an Italian sonnet, rhymed abba abba cdcdcd. Lines 6 and 7 end with an unusual rhyme device. “Saviour” is rhymed with the next line, but in order to hear the complete rhyme, one must continue to the “r” sound that begins line eight: “gave you a/ Rapturous.” This extended rhyme is common in Hopkins and illustrates his predilection for unusual twists within the framework of rigid traditional expectations. The subjects of “The Windhover” and “Hurrahing in Harvest” are also similar. In both poems, the speaker looks up at the sky and finds nature breathtakingly beautiful. “Hurrahing in Harvest” declares that the summer is now ending. The stooks, or shocks of bundled grain, are now stacked in the fields. The technical and regional term stooks is characteristic of Hopkins’s vocabulary. The word is not commonly known, but it is exact. The speaker looks up at the autumnal skies and sees the clouds. With the bold verbal comparisons that the poet prefers, he compares the skies to “wind-walks”—they are like alleyways for the winds. The clouds are like “silk-sacks”; they are soft, dainty, and luxurious. The movement of the clouds across the sky is like “mealdrift” or flour pouring across the heavens. In that soft, flowing beauty, the speaker walks and lifts up his eyes. He sees the glory of the natural scene and then recognizes that beyond the heavens, behind all the created universe, there stands the Savior. He at first rejoices in the sheer beauty of nature, but such earthly beauty leads him to the unspeakable inner beauty of Christ’s immediate presence in the natural world. In the sestet, the speaker sees the azure hills of autumn as strong as the shoulder of a stallion, majestic and sweet with flowers, like the shoulder of God bearing the creation in all its glory. The speaker realizes that all this is here for him to see, and the realization makes his heart leap up as if it had wings; his spirit hurls heavenward.

Nature sonnets

Hopkins wrote many poems celebrating nature in sonnet form. “God’s Grandeur” states in the octave that the grandeur of God’s creating has been obscured by the Industrial Revolution, trade and toil. The sestet replies that there is a spark of freshness deep in nature that will spring up like the sun at dawn because God broods over Earth like a bird over its egg. “The Starlight Night” begins with a powerful octave describing the beauty of the stars in the night sky. The sestet replies that the stars are like a picket fence separating us from heaven through which we can glimpse a bit of what is on the other side. “Spring” typically gives an excited picture of the juice and joy of the earth stirring in springtime and compares it to the youthful, primal goodness of children, a hint of sinless Eden.

“Pied Beauty”

“Pied Beauty” is one of Hopkins’s most important philosophical poems on nature. It reflects his study of Duns Scotus and his notion of inscape. The poem is a “curtail” or cut-short sonnet, only ten and a fraction lines long. Hopkins explained that this poem maintained the eight-to-six ratio, which he felt was the key to the sonnet form. The exposition, which occupies the first six lines, states that God is especially to be praised for the irregular, dappled, serviceable parts of creation. The sestet generalizes that whatever is contradictory, strange, or changeable originates in God.

In Platonic thought, a material thing is beautiful insofar as it approaches its unchanging ideal. For example, a beautiful circle is one that approaches—as nearly as possible in our world—the perfection of an ideal circle. Because the things of the world are always struggling to become like their perfect forms, the material world is always changing. It is sometimes called the mutable world of “becoming.” The ideal world cannot change, however, because when something is perfect, any change would make it imperfect. The world of Platonic ideals is therefore unchanging. It is sometimes called the world of permanent “being.”

“Pied Beauty” makes a striking statement about the nature of beauty. It asserts that things are not beautiful because they approach the perfect type, but because they are various, changing, contradictory. Hopkins seems to be praising the very aspect of the material world that Platonic philosophy connects with degeneration and decay. Somehow God, who is perfect and unchanging, has fathered a universe of imperfection, contradiction, and decay. Nevertheless, this created world reflects his praise: Duns Scotus maintained that God’s perfection must be manifest somehow in the constant change and variety of his creation.

“Duns Scotus’s Oxford”

Hopkins’s admiration for Duns Scotus is expressed in “Duns Scotus’s Oxford,” which combines the nature-sonnet and the celebration of a famous man. Its octave depicts the ancient university town of Oxford. The sestet comments that this was the very city that Duns Scotus knew when the subtle doctor taught there in the thirteenth century. Now Hopkins finds Scotus to have the best insight into philosophical problems, even more comforting to him than Greek philosophers such as Plato, or Italian philosophers such as Saint Thomas Aquinas. All the nature sonnets give an extremely sharp picture of some relatively common event or situation in nature: a hawk in flight, the landscape of Oxford, the rebirth of the countryside in springtime, the clouds and fields of autumn. The poet reflects on the source of all this beauty. The scene itself uplifts his spirits, but the awareness of God’s creative force glimpsed behind the material world brings even more elation.

The heroic sonnet

A second group of poems is in the tradition of the heroic sonnet. These poems examine a person’s life and define what is noteworthy in an ordinary man’s career. “The Lantern Out of Doors” is typical. The octave tells of seeing a lantern moving at night. There must be someone behind that light, but he is so far off that he passes in the darkness and all that can be seen is a little spark. Humans have trouble knowing other people, and they all die. The sestet replies that Christ knows every person; Christ is the first and last friend of every human.

“Felix Randal,” one of Hopkins’s best sonnets, is about a blacksmith who fell ill and died. The once powerful man wasted away, but he finally came to accept Christ. Paradoxically, in the weakness of his death he became more blessed than in the pagan power he was so proud of in the days when he forged and fitted horseshoes with his fellow workers.

“The Soldier,” “Tom’s Garland: Upon the Unemployed,” and “Harry Ploughman” all fit into the category of poems celebrating the inner worth of ordinary people. Perhaps the pattern of this kind of sonnet is best displayed in “In Honour of Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez: Laybrother of the Society of Jesus.” Alphonsus Rodriguez performed no noble deeds. For forty years, however, he faithfully carried out his duty and filled his station as doorkeeper. It is not his exploits, but his humanity, that Hopkins celebrates. Humility, obedience, and simple faith have their reward. The poem is in the tradition of Milton’s theme of the faithful Christians: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Sonnets of terror

The third major theme of Hopkins’s sonnets is spiritual desolation and terror. These poems constitute the dark, opposite side of Hopkins’s view of reality. In the nature poems, the poet looks at some part of the created universe and feels that God is in every corner of the world. His joy, already aroused by the pure beauty of nature, rises to an ecstatic pitch when he realizes that God is behind it all. The poems of desolation, sometimes called the “terrible sonnets,” on the other hand, imagine a world without God—all joy, freshness, and promise withdrawn. They depict the dark night of the soul.

Many readers think that these poems are directly autobiographical, indicating that Hopkins in the last years of his life was devastated by despair. This view is probably not sound. The sonnet is a highly dramatized form; sonnets are traditionally constructed like little plays. Thus the speaker of one of William Shakespeare’s sonnets is no more Shakespeare, the man himself, than is Macbeth or Hamlet, and the persona or mask through which a sonneteer speaks is not to be confused with the real author. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, moreover, follows a spiritual progression that every Jesuit would imitate in his retreats and private worship. In a long retreat, lasting about a month, the exercitant is called on to drive himself gradually into a state of extreme desolation into which a renewed sense of God’s presence finally bursts like Easter into the dormant world.

The sonnets of terror may be as artificial as Elizabethan love sonnets. They may be, to some degree, virtuoso exercises in imagining a world devoid of spirituality and hope. The real feelings of Hopkins may be quite separate from the imagined feelings of the persona who speaks these sonnets. On the other hand, one can hardly imagine that Hopkins could write these poems unless there were some wrenching personal feelings motivating his creative act.

The sonnets of terror appeal to readers today because they mirror a cosmic despair or alienation. The feeling that modern humans are strangers in a strange land, that they are alienated from the profit of their own productivity, that they are caught in a meaningless or absurd activity like Sisyphus rolling his stone endlessly up a mountain in Hell, is extremely widespread. It is doubtful that Hopkins felt alienated in exactly this way. His religious belief promised him a future life and salvation. When he speaks of despair, it is always hypothetical: Think how unbearable life would be if there were not hope.

“Carrion Comfort”

“Carrion Comfort,” among the best of Hopkins’s dark sonnets, considers despair, which is itself a sin, depicting the struggle of the Christian with his own conscience. It begins a series of six sonnets of unusual power that treat the struggle of the soul. These poems should be read in sequence: (1) “Carrion Comfort,” (2) “No Worst, There Is None,” (3) “To Seem a Stranger Lies My Lot,” (4) “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day,” (5) “Patience, Hard Thing” and (6) “My Own Heart Let Me Have More Pity On.” Read in sequence, these sonnets constitute a short psychodrama or morality play.

The Christian speaker confronts his own doubt, weakness, and unworth, and is terrified of God. In five scenes, he is seen writhing and twisting in mental contortions of guilt and terror. At the conclusion of “My Own Heart Let Me Have More Pity On,” the sestet provides the dramatic release, as God’s smile breaks through, like sunlight on a mountain guiding the traveler. This sonnet sequence corresponds to the progress of the seeker through the final stages of his spiritual exercises. The same progress of the mind, through terror to elation at the Resurrection, is outlined in “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.” The first segment of this poem looks at the changing natural world. Like a bonfire, everything around humans is changing, decaying, being consumed. Humans seem so pitifully weak and vulnerable among these flames. The only hope is Christ’s promise of salvation, which comes to humans like a beacon. People will pass through the fire and, even when all else is destroyed, their souls will endure like immortal diamonds.

Hopkins’s vocabulary

A striking characteristic of Hopkins’s poetry is his rich vocabulary. As he sought to find the inscape or unique form in the created universe, he also attempted to find in language the original, spare, strange, exactly right word. He was one of the best trained linguists of his age, working at the research level in Latin and Greek, while studying Anglo-Saxon and Welsh. His notes and journals show him repeatedly developing elaborate etymologies of words. He belonged to a widespread movement in the Victorian era, spearheaded by Robert Bridges and his Society for Pure English, which glorified the archaic elements in modern English. In his notes, he records dialect words and the special words used by workers for their tools or by country people for plants and animals. This attention to the texture of language pours forth in his poetry in an unusually rich, eccentric vocabulary.

Legacy

Despite the orthodoxy of his religious views, Hopkins is known as one of the founders of modernism in literature. He is frequently compared with Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and the French Symbolist poets as a great revolutionary who rebelled against the sterile forms of Victorian verse and brought a new urgency, freshness, and seriousness to poetry. He revolutionized the very basis of English meter with his experiments in sprung rhythm. He revitalized the bold metaphor in the manner of the English Metaphysical poets. He created a whole new lexicon, a poetic vocabulary constructed from dialect, archaic, technical, and coined words.

The critics who initially praised his work in the 1920’s and 1930’s tended to see him as a cultural primitive, a man isolated from the corruption of society and so able to return to a state of nature and get to the core of language more easily than writers such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who seemed corrupted by false traditions. Although Hopkins was undoubtedly a great innovator, he was certainly not a cultural primitive. He was a highly trained professor of Latin and Greek language and literature. In addition to his “Double First in Greats” from Oxford University, he undertook years of rigorous philosophical and theological training with the Society of Jesus. He was at the center of a group of correspondents who were as powerful intellectually as any group found in his era: Bridges, Dixon, Patmore, and other less frequent scholarly correspondents.

Hopkins was not a naïve writer; on the contrary, he was an extremely sophisticated writer. His poetry is revolutionary, not because he was ignorant of tradition, but because he brought together many powerful threads of tradition: the contemplative practice of the Spiritual Exercises, with their “composition of place” and “application of the senses”; the conventions of the Petrarchan sonnet; the complicated metrical studies of Bridges, Patmore, and the classical scholars; the classical philosophical background of Oxford University; and the medieval thought of the Jesuit schools, especially of John Duns Scotus. These traditions met, and sometimes conflicted sharply, in Hopkins. From that confluence of traditions he gave modern readers the unique gift of his poems.

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