Twenty-nine years elapsed from the time the poet Robert Bridges first published his edition of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ POEMS to publication of the definitive collection edited by the great Hopkins scholar, W. H. Gardner. Within that time Hopkins had been firmly established as an important if not a major British poet, not of his age but of the present. Undoubtedly, many of the conflicts over his life and work will have been resolved by the hundredth anniversary of the year Bridges first presented a small number of Hopkins’ poems in important anthologies (1893).
Certain it is that the interest when this brilliant genius was in vogue, during the decade after 1918, has changed to something more deeply critical and scholarly. The letters, notebooks, and essays as well as the complete poems—no one now believes the best of the poet’s work was destroyed—are now available to all, and hardly a year passes without the appearance of a volume of criticism or biography of the extremely paradoxical G. M. Hopkins.
Of utmost importance in understanding the very powerful poetry of this often misunderstood poet is his eclecticism, his wide knowledge and deep insights. While it is true that the preponderance of criticism has dwelt on Hopkins’ innovations in rhythm-rhyme and imagery (“instress” and “inscape” summarize the two main facets), his whole poetic output indicates that he followed in the great European poetic tradition from Homer to Matthew Arnold. Hopkins’ greatest poems are unique in powerful rhythmic effect, equal to or surpassing that of any other poet of like output; historically speaking, his poems prove that the genius of our language lies in stress-rhythms (often “sprung”) of our oldest traditional poetry, at least as important as syllabic meters in effect. His poetic diction, his use of common idiom as well as ingenious coinages, is without exact parallel. His ear for language was so acute, though highly individual, that he helped restore poetry as an oral-aural art, a fact the late Dylan Thomas so brilliantly demonstrated.
The lack of bulk, the slender volume of three hundred pages encompassing less than two hundred poems or fragments, makes arbitrary the distinction of whether Hopkins was a major poet. Certainly he is a classic in a very special sense. His central vision was deeply Christian, Jesuit, even mystical, often ecstatic though intellectually controlled. One of his greatest poems, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” was inspired as much by the “happy memory of five Franciscan Nuns” as their tragic death in 1875 by drowning. By his own account, the thirty-one-year-old theologian, deeply affected by the newspaper account of these nuns, exiled by the Falk Laws, who drowned in the Thames on a ship carrying them from Germany to America, responded to his rector’s suggestion that a commemorative poem should be written of this. Hopkins was eager to try a new rhythm which had been haunting his ear, as he puts it. In spite of Robert Bridges’ disapproval, he kept the rhythmic “oddnesses” because the technique was irrevocably bound to the sentiment he wanted to express, the sprung rhythm or “expressional rhythm . . . a vital fusion of the internal rhythm of thought-and-emotion and the external rhythm of...
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