Hopkins ranked with Yeats among the poetic enthusiasms of my college years. This was in part the result of the influence of my roommate, who was a couple of years older than I, and of a teacher for whom we shared a great admiration. At the time it meant nothing to me that Hopkins was a Jesuit; I could not have told you coherently what the word meant. It also meant nothing to me that he was a late Victorian convert, and thus in continuity with the movement from Canterbury to Rome which had attracted so much attention a generation earlier, most prominently in the person of John Henry Newman, who crossed over to Rome in 1845, the year after Hopkins was born, and in 1866 received the twenty-two-year-old Hopkins into the Catholic Church. I did at least understand that he was a Christian, but I was not particularly interested in that fact.
What I was interested in was the special intensity, the almost ecstatic quality, of his poetry, which was the result of (among other things)
- an unnatural compression of meaning (unnatural in the sense of being far from ordinary speech, even by the standards of poetry), often involving the use of short, forceful, archaic, or arcane words and invented compounds;
- an exaggerated music which uses alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme well beyond what would generally be acceptable, going right up to the edge of the ridiculous, but made effective by precision, and by mastery of the whole;
- stressed and contorted syntax;
- an irregular but highly controlled meter which he called “sprung rhythm”.
These effects are easier illustrated than described. Here is stanza 26 of “The Wreck of the Deutschland”:
For how to the heart's cheering
The down-dugged ground-hugged grey
Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing
Of pied and peeled May!
Blue-beating and hoary-glow height; or night, still higher,
With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky way,
What by your measure is the heaven of desire,
The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?
Among Catholics a few of his poems have become fairly popular, for me to the point of over-exposure. “God’s Grandeur” (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God...”) is probably the best example, and then perhaps “Pied Beauty” (“Glory be to God for dappled things...”). Supposing that most of my readers will be familiar with those, I’ll include here one not quite so well-known, but which, if my memory serves, was the first of Hopkins’s poems to impart to me something very much like the sensation described in the last line.
Hurrahing In Harvest
SUMMER ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?
I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?
And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.
Hopkins’s technique is at the service principally of two subjects: an intense religious devotion, and an equally intense love of nature which tends to focus on precise individual details captured as precisely as possible. Individuality—”all things counter, original, spare, and strange”--was both an aesthetic and a theological matter for him, and are nowhere better expressed than in this poem, left untitled by the poet but generally known by its opening phrase:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
Hopkins didn’t write very much. Given his technique, it’s hard to see how he could have. Moreover, he died young (in 1888, at 44). And upon entering the Jesuits at the age of 22, he gave up poetry entirely, as being incompatible with his vocation, and wrote nothing for seven years, until a superior expressed the wish that someone would write a poem about the deaths of five Franciscan nuns in a shipwreck. Taking this as permission, Hopkins produced a striking, even astonishing, classic, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” I would like to be able to say something like “He burst upon the literary scene...” with this poem, but in fact the only publisher that saw it, a Jesuit monthly, turned it down, apparently because it was too strange—and it is strange. After this a little less than fifteen years of life remained to him. In that time he produced, in obscurity, the few dozen poems that, when finally published in 1913 by his friend Robert Bridges, left open only the question “whether he is a great lesser poet, or a lesser great poet.”
At one time I would have not hesitated to choose the second of those characterizations. I’m not quite as enthusiastic as I once was about some of these poems as poems only. I now find myself a little impatient with the obscurity and compression of the poems that are less than entirely brilliant, or are so obscure that I’m still puzzled by certain passages (and a few whole poems). And in encouraging those qualities on the part of 20th century poets, I think Hopkins’s influence was not 100% for the best; this has retroactively, and quite unfairly, colored my view of him.
Nevertheless: the best of these poems are among the best ever written. There’s pretty general agreement on that, and I’d still say “lesser great” rather than “great lesser.” And if one share’s Hopkins’s faith, the enjoyment and appreciation naturally go much deeper than for one who does not: we read his poems not only as elegant verbal artifacts unfortunately attached to an obsolete “belief system,” but as expressions of truth. We feel something of what he feels, not as a moment of openness produced by the poem, but as an aspect of our relationship to the real world. This is not the usual experience of a Catholic with the art of the past couple of centuries, and it’s pleasant not to have in the back of one’s mind a voice saying “Of course one can’t take his philosophy as-is...”, which I at any rate often do.
The joyful contemplation and adoration encountered in Hopkins’s most popular poems was not the whole of his work, just as it is not the whole (to say the least) of ordinary Christian life. There is a set of poems written fairly late in his life which are know as “the terrible sonnets” because of the desolation they describe. He had difficulties with his vocation (of course). And the work he was given, and the places where he was required to do it, were sometimes ill-suited and uncongenial to him. It’s hard to imagine him as a parish priest. I believe some of these poems were written while he was in Ireland, where he apparently found himself at odds even with his fellow Catholics over Irish-British politics.
I had intended to include one of them here, but they are so dark, and so intense, that to toss one in to be read casually seems wrong, to both reader and poet. So I’ll give you a link to No. 42, “No worst, there is none...” and suggest that you read it at leisure
W.H. Gardner’s Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose gives the non-specialist all the Hopkins he will need in a single volume: all the completed poems, significant fragments, and a selection of prose from journals and letters. Gardner’s introduction is an excellent brief biography and a sympathetic view of the poetic and theological matters with which the poet was concerned, and of the tension between his vocation-by-grace as Jesuit and priest and his vocation-by-nature as artist. Wisely, and happily for the reader weary of contemporary obsessions, he notes the likelihood that Hopkins was troubled by sexual tensions (as most celibates naturally are), but declines to speculate further. I could have used a bit more help with some of the obscurities in some of the poems. Hopkins said “Obscurity I do and will try to avoid so far as is consistent with excellences higher than clearness at first reading.” He certainly sacrificed nothing to that latter consideration.
If even after a couple of readings you're baffled, or half-baffled, by certain poems, my advice is to give up on them for the moment and try them again now and then at long intervals. That seems to have worked for me, at any rate. It's a concession to my laziness, I admit, but there is a point in struggling with a poem where frustration overpowers enjoyment, sometimes fatally for the moment. In that case I find it better to let it go for a while, and to read it again occasionally without making any great effort at puzzling it out. The words sink in, and on one of those subsequent readings come together. I recall years ago finding "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire, and of the comfort of the Resurrection" more or less unintelligible, except for the last two lines. Then a decade or so ago I heard it read by a Jesuit expert on Hopkins whose name I can't remember now, and it made perfect sense.
—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.