Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Gerard Manley Hopkins World Literature Analysis

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Hopkins is, above all, a Christian poet. He is also a difficult poet, who in his best work produced a density of diction and experimented with syntax, rhythm, and sounds in ways that can daunt an inexperienced reader. In fact, however, the difficulties of language and structure in his poems are not so great as they may seem at first. With a dictionary, patience, and a little imagination, any reasonably mature reader can make sense of Hopkins’s unusual word choices and arrangements.

The more serious difficulty of Hopkins is his Christian point of view. While some forms of Christianity continue to hold great popular appeal, the number of readers who understand and appreciate traditional Christian doctrines has continued to decline since Hopkins’s death. Most modern readers, even those who are practicing Christians, probably will need to use a commentary or reader’s guide in order to make sense of Hopkins’s uses of Christian scripture and doctrine.

An overview of Christian belief is helpful in order to understand the central concept of his poetic theory, “inscape.” Traditional Christians believe that a single perfect and loving God, usually envisioned as a father, created the universe and all life. He made humankind with free will, which humankind then asserted against God, opening a division between humanity and God, called sin, that humanity could not heal by itself. This rebellion is called the Fall of Man. God desires a communion, or intimate spiritual relation, with humanity that remains impossible as long as humans feel separated from God.

To make this communion possible and heal the division, God descended to earth in human form. He was born as Jesus Christ of Nazareth to Hebrew parents, Mary and Joseph, in the first year of the modern calendar. Jesus lived a short life as a holy man, performing miracles and preaching an ethic of brotherhood and love on the grounds that God required it and that each individual possessed an immortal soul that connected that person with God. Then Jesus was accused of a variety of crimes and was executed on a cross near Jerusalem. Three days after his death, he was resurrected and appeared to a number of people in his physical body. Forty days later, he ascended into the realm of God the Father and is expected by Christians to return at an undefined future date. At that time, he is expected to make judgments about all human souls that have ever lived to determine the ultimate quality of their afterlives.

Ten days after the ascension of Jesus, now celebrated at Pentecost, a new aspect of God entered into the world, a spiritual being called the Holy Spirit, that is said to flow through those who accept as true the story of Jesus and who work at conforming their wills to his teachings. The original division from God that humanity initiated is healed by God, who through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit reaches out to humanity with offers of communion. Though traditional Christian doctrine contains many more ideas and images and though many of these are disputed in various sects, most Christians agree on this central narrative.

Hopkins’s literary models and mentors were Romantics such as John Keats and Walter Pater. This background disposed Hopkins to view nature sacramentally, as a kind of book upon which the messages of divinity were addressed to mankind. Romantic pantheism was not, however, consistent with Christian theology. In the theology of the medieval philosopher John Duns Scotus, Hopkins found ideas that helped him to resolve his vivid experiences of divinity in nature with Christian theology. From this thinking, the...

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idea of “inscape” emerges.

Literary critics have differed considerably about the nature of inscape. Hopkins seems to have concluded that every object in the universe had a central organizing principle that could be called its identity. This spirit of the object was not a simple thing but a dynamic principle, the actuating core of its identity or being, and Hopkins called it the inscape of the object. Human beings are capable of recognizing the inscapes of other people and of objects. When they do so, they experience “instress,” which can be described as a feeling of communion with the “soul” of the object. When one experiences instress, one finds Christ in the object, the imprint of God the creator upon His creation. Many of Hopkins’s poems are about the experience of instress, the discovering of inscape, and the momentary union with God through Christ in the contemplation of natural objects. This set of ideas justifies critics in labeling Hopkins a Christian Romantic poet.

“God’s Grandeur”

First published: 1918 (collected in Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Now First Published, with Notes by Robert Bridges, 1918)

Type of work: Poem

The poet reflects on the persistent human failure to see God’s presence in nature.

Hopkins’s ideas of inscape and instress seem to imply that every object in creation has something like a soul, that is, a power that points toward its divine creator. He begins “God’s Grandeur,” composed in 1877, with the assertion that the world as a whole has this inscape: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Though several senses of the word “charge” may be relevant in this statement, the primary sense seems to be of electric force. God is like an electric charge present in the world. This image is continued in the statement that this divine force “will flame out.” While conveying the idea of a lightning strike implicit in the image of an electrical charge, this new image also suggests the Pentecostal tongue of flame, which introduces one of the aspects of God’s presence in the world as the Holy Spirit, the idea with which the poet ends. Hopkins extends this idea into that of blinding light, another familiar biblical image associated with God, when he says that the flaming out of the grandeur of God is “like the shining of shook foil.” In a letter, Hopkins said that he was thinking of gold foil, which “gives off broad glares like sheet lightning and . . . owing to its zigzag dints and creasings and network of small many cornered facets, a sort of fork lightning too.” Other senses of foil may also enrich this image—for example, the idea of a sword, with its suggestions of challenge and judgment. The next image compares the gathering of the force of God in nature to the way oil gathers in a container as seeds or olives are crushed.

Having asserted the presence, greatness, and force of divine power in nature, the poet poses the main question: “Why do men then now not reck his rod?” He asks why, given the visible power of God in nature, people fail to see it and to show regard for God. The phrase “reck his rod,” which may seem archaic and needlessly difficult, like the entire grammatical arrangement of the question, nevertheless is carefully chosen. “Rod” seems mainly to refer to the scepter, symbolic of power to judge, that points to and rhymes with God; but rods are also often thought of as instruments of punishment. “Reck” is a little used and archaic term, meaning to regard or care for, and both meanings are relevant here. It is also however, related to words such as “recognize” and “reckoning,” with their various connotations. Such meanings amplify the question in several ways. For example, these ideas remind readers that recognizing the power of God in the world leads to knowledge (reckoning in the sense of navigation) about the purpose of one’s life.

As this look at the first quatrain of the sonnet demonstrates, one characteristic of Hopkins’s poetry is a density of diction that allows the reader to pursue individual word choices into areas of meaning that nearly always enrich the depth and suggestiveness of the poem. Hopkins chooses words and images that reverberate deeply. Even though the above analysis may seem to some readers to have “overread” the first four lines, professional readers typically find much more of interest to say about them simply on the basis of word choice and images, and even more when they consider aspects of rhythm, sound, and grammar.

The second quatrain of the octave (or first eight lines) answers the question of the first quatrain. The reason people do not honor God as they should is that they are unaware of God’s grandeur. The poet says that generations have walked the earth, searing or burning it for business purposes, blearing or making it difficult to see and smearing it or making it less visible with work of all kinds. It is a complex idea that has at least two meanings. First, the world itself is altered by human labor so that it reveals God’s grandeur less clearly and directly. Second, however, the processes of trade and labor alter human perception, so that people are less attuned to seeing the inscapes of nature. The poet repeats this idea in the last two lines of the octave, where he says that nature is smudged by man and smells like man and that, because people wear clothing, they are less likely to perceive nature directly.

Having asserted that God’s power in nature is brilliantly if sporadically visible but that human labor obscures its visibility and weakens the human ability to perceive it, the poet turns to the miracle of Spirit’s continuing presence in the sestet, the last six lines of the sonnet. The poet says that even though labor blinds people to it, God’s grandeur persists. At the center of every natural thing is a freshness that the poet can see. This realization is just as true as that the darkness of sunset does not presage eternal darkness but rather a new dawning. These observations mean that the Holy Ghost is present, that it continually renews the “bent” or misshapen world, just as a bird—a typical image of the Holy Spirit—broods over its nest, pouring energy into its egg (the world) so that it will hatch to reveal a new bird, the double of itself within.

The richness and depth of “God’s Grandeur” is apparent in Hopkins’s use of diction, imagery, and metaphor, but these techniques do not exhaust the art of the poem. One can learn a lot more about it by studying how Hopkins arranges alliteration, meter, and rhyme. For example, one of the astonishing features of this poem is that while it is especially rich in language, it is very confined in form. Not only did Hopkins use one of the most restrictive forms in English poetry, the sonnet, but he chose one of the most difficult forms of the sonnet, the Italian, which uses only four rhyming sounds at the ends of its lines. Such a choice seems quite appropriate for a poem about how the infinite energy of God is constrained in the physical form of the world.

“The Windhover”

First published: 1918 (collected in Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Now First Published, with Notes by Robert Bridges, 1918)

Type of work: Poem

The poet sees Christ represented in a falcon’s flight and dive in pursuit of its prey.

Dedicated “To Christ Our Lord,” this sonnet in the Italian form was composed in 1877. While diction, image, and metaphor are central technical elements in the poem’s success and meaning, “The Windhover” nicely illustrates Hopkins’s more radical experiments with meter and sound.

In the octave, the poet says that while walking in the morning he saw and admired a falcon in its flight. In the first three lines of the sestet, he recounts a visionary experience, his narration shifting into present tense. The vision comes upon him as he watches the bird dive in pursuit of its prey, and several levels of meaning “burst” forth from this motion. The vision begins with the word “buckle.” When the bird buckles, it collapses, pulling back its wings for a swift, controlled descent. Yet this verb also means to put on armor, to prepare for action as in a battle, and it also means to fasten together, as in buckling the ends of a belt. Furthermore, collapse can mean at least two things, the drawing in of the bird as it dives or the folding up of one who experiences pain or momentary weakness. These are only a few of the many interesting meanings critics have found in nineteenth century uses of this word.

Fire bursts forth from the bird when it dives, and this fire makes the bird “a billion/ Times told lovelier, more dangerous.” This vision leads the poet to address the bird: “Oh my chevalier!” A chevalier is a knight, one who serves a king in battle and who is often represented as rescuing the weak and oppressed from evils both natural and supernatural. One key suggestion of the knight image is the idea of putting on armor to enter into a battle. This image connects with the divinity to whom the poem is addressed, Christ. The knight putting on his armor is parallel to Christ’s incarnation, the son of God entering a physical body to become Jesus, thereby entering the world to do battle with human sin.

This suggestion of incarnation is one way in which God descends to human beings and in which God is like the falcon that descends to grasp its prey, except that God’s intention is benevolent. For this reason, among others, the falcon’s dive may be seen as a billion times lovelier, but why a billion times more dangerous? Perhaps the poet there reflects upon the human experience of grace. Trapped in sin as humans are, in the smudged world of “God’s Grandeur,” they are unlikely to welcome the radical changes that God’s “dive” requires of them. This negative aspect of grace is reflected in another descent suggested by the bird’s dive, the descent into the grave, by which Christ’s incarnation is completed as he shares death with humankind and by means of which Christ’s “prey” is figuratively snatched up from the earth, as Christ makes possible the human ascent into heaven that completes the act of divine grace. Just as the bird will rise after its dive, so Christ arose after his death, and humans who accept this graciousness may rise after their deaths.

In the last three lines of the poem, the poet asserts almost humorously that his vision really is not a wonder. After all, a mere plow shines as a result of its plowing the earth, and almost burnt coals, when they fall and break, flash forth red-gold fire. While he may appear to retreat from the intensity of the vision of the diving bird, he cannot really reduce his own or the reader’s impression of the profundity of that vision. Though he chooses an ordinary plow as his next image of comparison, that image evokes the idea of a descent into the earth in order to prepare a new resurrection, and its shining evokes the fire that broke from the windhover. When he turns to the burnt coals, he cannot avoid an exclamation of affection—“ah, my dear”—addressed to the bird and to Christ as they reveal themselves in the coals. In breaking to reveal flames within, they remind him of the breaking of Jesus’ body on the cross, the fall that sent forth the gleams of resurrection and Pentecost.

When Hopkins composed “The Windhover,” he had been thinking about altering the rhythmic patterns of contemporary poetry. In Old English poetry he noticed metrical arrangements that he came to call “sprung rhythm.” Much of the poetry written before Hopkins in modern English made use of fairly strict syllable counts to determine basic poetic forms. For example, a sonnet would contain as close as possible to 140 syllables, fourteen lines of ten syllables each, and the rhythm of each line would be made of five iambic feet (iambic pentameter), as can be illustrated in the first line of this poem: “I caúght this mórning mórning’s mínion, kíng-” (the accented syllables are marked). Though it does not make grammatical sense presented this way, this line shows the pattern of iambic pentameter, five pairs of syllables, the first in each pair unaccented, the second in each pair accented. In “The Windhover,” there are no more lines that follow strict iambic pentameter so closely. Yet a carefully studied and prepared oral reading will reveal that each line has five heavily accented syllables. For the main rhythmic pattern of Hopkins’s poem, unaccented syllables are not counted, though how they are accented is important to preparing a performance of the poem. Sometimes, as in line 12, Hopkins marked some syllables he intended to have accented; otherwise, the reader must make judgments about which five syllables should receive the major accents in reading. The result of careful thought and analysis, however, is usually an exciting and provocative performance of the poem.

That Hopkins gave so much attention to his rhythm and that he modified, without abandoning, the basic sonnet form underscores the degree to which he thought of his poems as intended for oral performance. When one studies the poem, it becomes clear that one of the many functions of Hopkins’s frequent alliteration, especially the repetition of consonant sounds, is to control or at least suggest where accents should fall within the lines.

It is sometimes difficult to believe that a poet would give so much attention to what might seem the minor aspects of a poem, such as its rhythm and sounds. Yet even if one did not have the evidence of his correspondence, the sheer quantity of alliteration and the stress marks in this poem would indicate that Hopkins must have thought about these things. Hopkins not only thought deeply about how he would organize the sound and rhythm in his poems but also worked to integrate those aspects with the overall meaning and experience he hoped to convey. This effort can be seen, for example, in the opening of the poem, where no line has an end-stop—a final punctuation mark—until the exclamation point after “ecstasy.” To perform this opening is to realize that it is designed to make speaker and listener feel breathless and, thereby, to convey the wonder of seeing and of almost feeling the flight of the windhover. That this breathless line ends in ecstasy suggests even deeper thought in Hopkins, whether intuitive or conscious, which may have whispered to him that, in a poem about a visionary experience, a good first place to pause is on the word “ecstasy.”

“Hurrahing in Harvest”

First published: 1918 (collected in Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Now First Published, with Notes by Robert Bridges, 1918)

Type of work: Poem

In this Italian sonnet of 1877, the speaker is so moved by his spiritual vision of the harvest season that he leaps into the air.

Though “Hurrahing in Harvest” is just as rich in diction and ideas as “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover,” it may seem more accessible to beginning readers of Hopkins because the poet’s vision and actions are simpler. In the first quatrain, he observes with wonder the beauties of the harvest season, the piling of the grain for threshing, and the wind and clouds of the sky. On both levels, he sees harvest, for he finds in the clouds images of winnowing grain. In the second quatrain, he recounts his experience of walking through such a landscape. As he walks, his heart and his eyes glean, or gather, the remains of the harvest, and what they glean is Christ, “our saviour.” Gathering up visions of Christ in the landscape, he sees Christ as a lover speaking to him through the landscape: “What lips yet gave you a/ Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?” Rapturous love, however, points beyond a comparison of Christ with a lover, for “rapture” shares the root meaning of “raptor,” a bird of prey like the windhover, that seizes its prey and carries it into the sky. For a Christian, the Rapture is that moment when the soul is caught up into Heaven for the final judgment. Christ as rapturous lover is, therefore, an apt image of Christ the savior and the judge, who in the variety of ways observed in “The Windhover” offers to bring the faithful soul out of sin and into the bosom of God.

In the sestet, the poet sees the autumn hills beneath the rich blue sky as Christ’s shoulders, capable of lifting the world like a strong but sweet-smelling stallion. He reflects that this world is always present, waiting to speak in this way to a beholder. When the beholder, in this case the poet, appears, then his heart grows bold wings with tremendous strength to hurl the earth away from his feet. In this way, the heart becomes the raptor, drawing the body with it heavenward, toward God.

Though this poem is clearly typical of Hopkins in its themes and technique, it also can remind readers vividly of seventeenth century Metaphysical poetry, where the figure of Christ as a lover is not uncommon, as in John Donne’s “Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God.” Like his American contemporary, Emily Dickinson, Hopkins was drawn to Metaphysical conceits, those sometimes shocking comparisons, so delightful in Donne’s poetry, that are capable of moving and astonishing effects. Such an effect occurs when the wings of the poet’s heart carry his body into the air, wittily and somewhat humorously suggesting his imminent ascension into Heaven.

“I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day”

First published: 1918 (collected in Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Now First Published, with Notes by Robert Bridges, 1918)

Type of work: Poem

The poet meditates upon his alienation from God and his self-imprisonment.

In 1885, during the difficult years of exile in Dublin and demanding labor as a professor, Hopkins wrote a series of poems that Robert Bridges called “the terrible sonnets.” In most of these poems, Hopkins explores the theme of exile from God, the alienation and doubt that all believers feel at times. These feelings tend to lead to self-loathing, because it is the human self that stands as a barrier to permanent union with God.

In “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day,” the poet awakens in the dark, implicitly awaiting the light of day. The word “fell,” however, indicates that this is more than a literal awakening in the night. A fell is the hide, or pelt, of a dead animal. His feeling the fell of dark suggests imprisonment in an animal body and the desire to escape into a “body of light.”

In the rest of the first quatrain of this modified Italian sonnet, the poet addresses his heart, lamenting the “black hours” they have spent, the terrors they have experienced together in this seemingly endless night. In the second quatrain, he says that he has been speaking metaphorically, that where he has said hours he means years. In fact, his whole life has been lived in the dark of separation from God, yearning for the light of final union. All of his prayers to God have been like dead letters, sent to one who is distant. Dead letters are not delivered and may be returned to the sender. This comparison emphasizes the speaker’s despairing sense of entrapment. Unable to communicate with God, he is caught forever in painful communion with his suffering heart.

In the sestet, he says that he understands that God has deliberately given him this experience of exile, though here he says little about why this is the case. In another dark sonnet, “Carrion Comfort,” he suggests that God’s purpose may be to strengthen or purify him in some way, but in this poem he concentrates on the experience of being made to experience the bitterness of his own flesh.

Though his imagery repeatedly suggests loathing of his physical body, it is not clear that it is the body itself that he hates. Rather, what hurts him is that being in a body prevents his union with God. He says “Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.” This line seems to say that his body is like dough and his spirit like yeast. That yeast should raise and “ennoble” the dough, but instead it sours it. The problem seems, therefore, not to be in the body or the dough but in the isolation of the spirit, the “selfyeast.” What is needed is a renewing influx of the Holy Spirit as it is presented in “God’s Grandeur.” Perhaps a brilliant visionary experience as in “The Windhover” or “Hurrahing in Harvest” would seem a consoling reply to one of his dead letters, a glimpse of light that would promise a greater light to come. Nothing of that kind, however, comes to the speaker in this poem. His final reflection is that this experience is like that of the damned, except that for them it is worse. He does not explain why at the end of the poem, but the beginning has made this clear: because the damned have no expectation of the day, they have no faith and, therefore, no hope.


Gerard Manley Hopkins Poetry: British Analysis


Gerard Manley Hopkins Extended Critical Essays