Atlantic Book of British and American Poetry: Gerard Manley Hopkins

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In the threadbare minor poetry of the later Victorian and the Edwardian eras, though the technique of the art had recently been enriched by innovations of Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, these had not yet time to sink into the consciousness. But now, where these examples have been followed, they have not been understood, and Hopkins has met with the fate of nearly all innovators. Hopkins should never be regarded as a model, since he worked his own discoveries to the uttermost point; there is no room for advancement, or development, along his lines. His imitators have misunderstood his examples, and, ignorant that his rhythmical impetus, his magnificence of texture, are the results, at once natural and cultivated, of the properties of his material acted upon by the impact of his personality, they produce poems with superimposed rhythms, exterior and therefore unliving rhythms, instead of rhythms which live in, under, and over the lines. Unskillful imitations of him have resulted, too, in a complete loss of melody, arising from falsified, clumsy, or too thick vowel-schemes, clumsy and huddled assonance patterns, useless alliterations, and a meaningless accumulation of knotted consonants.

Yet great are the technical wonders from which these imitations have sprung. Not, perhaps, since Dryden and Pope have we had such mountains and gulfs, such raging waves, such deserts of the eternal cold, and these are produced not by a succession of images alone, but by the movement of the lines, the texture, and by Hopkins' supreme gift of rhetoric.

I will not discuss Hopkins' use of sprung rhythm, since, after his own notes on the subject, nothing is left to say. I will dwell, rather, on what at first sight seems the strange imagery (it is of great beauty) of his poems.

Sir Wentworth D'Arcy Thompson, in Growth and Form, wrote of a "great Aristotelian theme — the search for relations between things apparently disconnected, and for 'similitude in things to common view unlike.'" Perrin speaks with admiration, in Les Atomes, of men like Galileo and Carnot, who "possessed the power of perceiving analogies to an extraordinary degree." Hume declared, and Mill said much the same thing, that all reasoning whatsoever depends on resemblance or analogy and the power to recognize it.

Hopkins possessed this "power of perceiving analogies" to an extraordinary degree. He had, as Emerson said of Plato, a "genial radiation skillful to discriminate power from form, essence from accident, and opening by its terminology and definition, high roads into nature."

Hopkins had an acute and strange visual sense, piercing down to the essence of the thing seen, and by endowing it with attributes which at first seem alien, with colors that are sharper, clearer, more piercing than those that are seen by the common eye, he succeeds in producing its inherent spirit.

This acute and piercing visual apprehension, this sharpening and heightening of the thing seen, so as to obtain its essential spirit, produces great beauty in The May Magnificat. Here, in the sharply seen image the "star-eyed strawberry-breasted" thrush — strawberry-breasted because of the freckles on her breast — in the enhanced and deepened color of the "bugle blue eggs" (I presume the image is derived from the deep blue wildflower of that name — bugle, or bugloss), in which the sharp u of "bugle" melting to the softer u of "blue" gives the reflection and the sisterhood of the deep blue heaven, the flower, and the egg, we have piercing truth-finding vision.

Both here, in the poems with short lines, and in those long lines that are not "rhythm run to seed: everything is weighed in them" (letter Robert Bridges, 1882) and in the Notebooks, we find this piercing vision. "I see how chestnuts in bloom look like big seeded strawberries" (Notebooks). "Antares sparkled like a bright crab-apple tingling in the wind" (Notebooks). "As kingfishers catch fire, dragon-flies draw flame" (A Sonnet).

In the first verse of that great poem The Wreck of the Deutschland, we have the huge primeval swell of the sea, with its mountain-heights and its hell-depths, and we have the movement before life began, conveyed by technical means.

In the slow and majestic first line, "Thou mastering me," the long and strongly swelling vowels and the alliterative m's produce the sensation of an immense wave getting itself up, rising slowly, ever increasing in its huge power, till we come to the pause that follows the long vowel of "me." Then the wave falls, only to rush forward again.

After this majestic line comes the heaving line "God! giver of breath and bread," ending with the ship poised on the top of the wave. This last effect is caused by the assonances of "breath" and "bread." The sound of "breath" is slightly longer, has slightly more of a swell beneath the surface than "bread," because of the th. This pause on the top of the wave is followed by the gigantic straining forward of the waves in the line "World's strand, sway of the sea," an effect that has been produced by the strong alliterative s's, reinforced by the internal r's of "World's strand," followed by the internal w of "sway." This line, after the huge tossing up and down from the dulled a of "strand" to the higher dissonantal a of "sway," ends by sweeping forward still further with the long vowel-sound of "sea," a sound that is more peaceful than that of "strand" and "sway" because of its absence of consonants.

The whole poem is inhabited by a gigantic and overwhelming power, like that of the element that inspired it. The huge force produced by the alliteration in the lines I have analyzed above, and in such a line as "Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh," has never been exceeded, even by Dryden and by Pope, those masters of the effects that can be produced by alliteration. It is true that the last line I have quoted from Hopkins is necessarily, because of the subject, more static than most of the more magnificent lines of Dryden and Pope, yet Hopkins' line is of an equally giant stature.

At the end of this verse, the huge primeval power, splendor and terror which inhabit it change to the softness and tenderness of "Once again I feel thy finger and find thee" — a line which is equaled in gentleness and sweetness by the lovely line in the ninth verse: "Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm." How huge is the contrast between this and the black coldness and opaqueness, like that of savage waters, of the line "And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow." The Opaqueness of this is caused by the flat assonances, the thick consonants, of "black-backed" and "blow."

In the same verse, we find this line: "Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow." I cannot recall any other English poet who has produced such a feeling of huge and elemental cold as Hopkins.

In the line quoted above, he produces the sensation of watching a wave receding and then plunging forward, by rhyming the first and the fourth word. A higher and more piercing dissonantal i precedes the second rhyme, and this feeling of the wave plunging forward is the result, too, of the internal r's which always lengthen a word or else make it flutter. In this case (as in the line "World's strand, sway of the sea") they lengthen it or rather give the feeling of an immeasurable force driving onward.

This relentless and inevitable wave-stretch, this driving onward, contained in the sound of "whirl," is followed immediately by the shrinking sound of "wind," the i's in "wind" and "swivelled" being dulled with cold.

A lovely movement, a sense that all is well, that all creation is part of a controlled and gigantic design, is given by the internal rhymes and assonances of the twenty-sixth stanza.

The movement of this is like that of a bird flying through the bright air, swooping downward to its nest, then up again through the holy and peaceful light.

We find a lovely floating movement, but this time not like that of a bird flying home through the wide air, but, instead, like that of a bird seeking its nest through the soft dark leaves of a wood, in Peace.

It is owing to the reiterations, and to the subtle arrangement of the exquisitely soft and hardly perceptible variations of the o and u sounds ("wood," "you," "do," "poor," "pure," "good," "plumes," "coo," and "brood") with their higher dissonances "round" and "boughs," that we see the dove circling through the trees, that we hear its soft warm voice. In this poem the form, the texture and the subject form one miraculous whole.

If we compare this with the terror and huge strength of Carrion Comfort — perhaps the greatest of Hopkins' sonnets — we shall see the variety of which he is capable.

The great strangeness of this poem is almost entirely a matter of texture. Hopkins recognized this strangeness in nearly all his poems, for he wrote in a letter dated 1879: "No doubt my poems err on the side of oddness. I hope in time to have a more balanced and Miltonic style. But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music, and design in painting, so design, pattern, of that I can inscape is what I, above all, aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive, and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer. This vice I not have escaped." Later, we find him explaining, "... when, on somebody returning me the Euridice, I opened and read some lines, as one commonly reads whether prose or verse, with the eyes, so to say only, it struck me aghast with a kind of raw nakedness and unmitigated violence I was unprepared for: but take breath and read it with the ears, as I always wish to read, and my verse becomes all right."

It is exactly in this raw nakedness and unmitigated violence, in a leonine majesty, that Hopkins' greatness was shown.

From Atlantic Book of British and American Poetry, ed. Dame Edith Sitwell, pp. 757ff; the book includes the following Hopkins poems: Wreck of the Deutschland, "Peace", "May Magnificat", "The furl of fresh-leaved dog-rose down", "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire", "Carrion Comfort", and  "Windhover".
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