Gerard Manley Hopkins: Intimations of divinity


I remember being confronted at school with an examination question, '' 'Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of our great lesser poets' - comment.'' It struck me then, as it strikes me now, how typically Western an impertinence it is to believe that a poet, or indeed anyone else, should be judged by the quantity rather than the quality of his output. There is a story of a Japanese gardener who was informed that the emperor had admired the profusion of flowers in his garden and proposed to make a visit the following day. When the potentate arrived the garden was bare. Every single plant had been uprooted, except for one: which was the best.

Hopkins, like the gardener above, cut through the fussy paraphernalia of poetic sentimentality of the time to produce a number of poems which, in my opinion, are without equal in nineteenth-century poetry and which rank among the finest in English literature. Among these might be mentioned ''God's Grandeur,'' ''Spring,'' ''The Windhover: To Christ our Lord,'' ''Spring and Fall,'' and the sonnet beginning ''I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.'' Hopkins' genius has a number of roots: his return to the rough, hard-edged Anglo-Saxon origin of English and his avoidance of effete Gallicisms; his introduction of ''sprung rhythm'' into poetry, reminiscent of the rhythms of ordinary speech, as a counteraction to the overly mellifluous cadences of traditional poetry. But what chiefly contributes to his greatness as a poet is the frankly, almost naively religious element in his poetry.

In Hopkins, the priest, such an element is easily explainable. Yet it is integral, never overlaid, and always intimately bound up with the nature-mysticism of the poetry. In Hopkins' frank invocation of Deity it is as if centuries of doubt and scientific materialism had not intervened between the certainties of the Middle Ages and the modern world: it is this certainty of the numinous that gives his poems their compelling power - or rather, this is their compelling power.

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Hopkins, whose thought was influenced for a time by the aestheticism of Walter Pater, absorbed the atmosphere of an Oxford that was yearning for an antidote to the ugly rationality of nineteenth-century England: a yearning that led him back to the pre-Reformation faith, as it turned others, like Ruskin and Morris, in a political/aesthetic direction. But the horizon they all looked to was the same: the Middle Ages, with their sense of stability and community and freedom from doubt and fragmentation. It was in medieval philosophy, in particular the writings of Duns Scotus, that Hopkins found an echo of his own ideals of poetry. For Hopkins, the numinous or transcendent is, in a typically Anglo-Saxon formulation, ''instress'': the energy upholding all things. The particularity of these things he denoted as ''inscape.''

The poems quoted here represent, perhaps, two extremes of his thought. ''Pied beauty'' celebrates the dualities, diversities of the world, a dialectic represented by the constant repetition of ''pl'' in ''dappled,'' ''couple,'' ''stipple,'' ''plotted'' and ''plough.'' It is as if the joining of two such dissimilar consonants represents linguistically the ''pied beauty'' of the poem: in the latter part of the poem the device is continued with the ''kl'' sound: ''tackle,'' ''fickle,'' ''freckled.'' But what ultimately gives the poem its effect and sets it apart from run-of-the-mill Romanticism is the fact that it is a devotional work: nature is admired not for itself but for the power which it bodies forth.

In the sonnet included here we see Hopkins in a more sombre mood. The Latin quotation heading the poem is Jeremiah 12:1: ''Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I plead with thee: yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? wherefore are all they happy that deal treacherously?'' It is a plaint that has been echoed by the righteous down through the ages. The fretful incomprehension of the ways of heaven serves, paradoxically, to bind the poet to his Maker's will; while the quaintly archaic mode of address (''sir'') serves to distance the poem from modern sophisticated banality: by assuming the mantle of an importunate courtier addressing his monarch Hopkins emphasizes the importance of simplicity and humility, qualities which are, perhaps, at somewhat of a premium in our time, as in his.

Why should devotion to a spiritual ideal be at times so hard, while the wicked prosper ''like a green bay tree''? Periods of discouragement, aridity and indeed anguish have been known to many of those who have taken spiritual matters seriously, a state described by St. John of the Cross as the ''dark night of the soul.'' Some of Hopkins' poems, indeed, are much blacker in mood than this. And yet, in the shaved economy of ''send my roots rain,'' where the final word is almost too important for the compression of the syntax, Hopkins reiterates his belief in the divine source of all inspiration and joy. Paradoxically, again, the almost-throwaway last phrase serves to emphasize rather than diminish the importance of the content: it is as if the poet is attacking the presumptuousness of a more discursive, inflated style: he pares language to the bone. Not because what he has to say is unimportant, but because it is so important that anything extraneous might tend to swamp the essential message.

It is this passion for economy, this mania to get down to the essence of words and of things, that gives Hopkins' poetry its unique and haunting power. Here is a man, the poems seem to say, who is impatient to strip off everything that hides the essential wonder and blessedness of the world.

Hopkins experienced a certain tension between his religious commitment and his activity as a poet: a conflict reflecting, perhaps, the feeling of his superiors, who did not regard kindly a priest who channelled his energy in a poetic direction. It is sad to read that Hopkins was troubled that his poetry might have been a distraction from the single-minded pursuit of the spiritual life. He should not have worried. For his poems have been a means of leading countless lovers of literature and of nature to realize that, without some apprehension of the holiness that beauty typifies, such beauty is insubstantial, evanescent, and ultimately a sham. As much as the beauty of holiness, it is the essential holiness of beauty that Hopkins celebrates.

Hopkins' influence has been immeasurable: one critic, Geoffrey Grigson, holds that he has had a greater influence on modern poetry than T.S. Eliot. Possibly the finest poet owing him allegiance was Dylan Thomas, a man perhaps with more earthy roots. But Hopkins' work is rooted in his world-vision: a vision that sees, everywhere about it, the work of a divine hand.

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