Inscape: a lifted veil
It is extraordinary how Dublin, my native city, has moulded the lives of so many of those who have made English what is it: Swift and Sheridan, Wilde and Shaw, Beckett and Joyce and Yeats and a score of others, have with various degrees of satisfaction and chagrin, and no matter how much they tried to tear themselves away, been ultimately rooted here.
It was different with Gerard Manley Hopkins. He came here later in life, to take the chair of Classics at University College, Dublin, and by all accounts was unhappy with the city. And yet he helped, with two of the citys greatest literary sons, Beckett and Joyce, to regenerate a venerable but comatose English literature.
Perhaps it was the influence on him of Welsh poetry which prompted him to break through the flagging cadences of late Romanticism, a tradition vitiated by sentimentality, decadence, the transformation of the high ideals of the late 18 th century into the ethics of the market-place. Perhaps it was a linguistic if not spiritual affinity which drew him to the university where, later, the brilliant but rebellious Joyce was to spend formative years. (They were opposites -- Joyce steeped in Roman Catholicism from the cradle, rejected it with a contumely which showed how partial his rejection was; Hopkins, brought up a Protestant had become a Catholic and a Jesuit). And yet it is a question whether one can distinguish, ultimately, the logosm as word from the act of original creation -- does not true poetry reflect, to whatever degree, the underlying spiritual act?
And the logosm is everywhere is this strange city, lying as it does halfway between Anglo-Saxon rationality and a dormant, but not dead Celtic consciousness. It can be felt in a half-aware yet stubborn resistance to the banality, the thingificationm of consciousness which has been for the West, the most bitter legacy of the rise of the middle class and the industrial revolution. Hopkins shared in this resistance. In "God's Grandeur," he writes: Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil Is baree now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
and yet he retained in invincible faith in the underlying reality: And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink east ward, springs -- Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
This piercing insight into the wonder of nature he called "inscape." In this Journal he wrote: "I thought how sadly beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people and yet how near at hand it was if they had eyes to see it and it could be called out everywhere again." One has the feeling sometimes that he attempts to use language as a vehicle for the direct transmission of the glories of nature, as in "Spring": Nothing is so beautiful as Spring -- When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sings; . . .
"Rinse and ring" echoes the bird's song, but it also cleanses our hearing, our conceptm of the senses, so that we are enabled to escape a little from sensuous bondage to partake in some way of the immediacy of direct experience. Hopkins' ability to discern the underlying beauty of creation was no doubt aided by a strict asceticism, a desire for total purity.
This joy of spiritual vision was not always without cloud for him, however. Like many of those whose aim is direct communion with the infinite, he knew the darkness of apparent desolation, as in the terrible poem beginning "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day."
Bondage to physicality was felt by him as an acute sense of torment: . . . my taste was me; Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse. Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. . . .
For those to whom it is given to catch a glimpse of what lies beyond the material veil, the temporary falling of that veil again can be a thousand times more terrible than if it had never been lifted. But this sense was to pass: the dark night of the soul was but a tunnel on his spiritual journey.