An Experiment in Poetry: Gerard Manley Hopkins Marries Thought to Feeling

Image by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

Image by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

An Experiment in Poetry is a weekly series here at spotlighting poets whose work points to transcendent values and encourages us to contemplate questions at the heart of the human condition.

Although I do have favorite poets, it’s difficult for me to single out one above all the others. But if pressed, I daresay Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) would lead the list. In Hopkins’ skilled hands, poetry reaches its fullest expression—musically, thematically, and emotionally. Hopkins was an uneasy poet, obviously gifted but believing his religious convictions and (eventual) priestly orders to be at odds with the literary life. When he entered the priesthood, in fact, he burned all his manuscripts; fortunately, many of these early poems survive due to the careful keeping of his friend Robert Bridges to whom Hopkins had sent copies. Even still, these poems and others were published only after Hopkins’ death—nearly thirty years after and then at first only under a pseudonym.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, image from  Wikipedia

Gerard Manley Hopkins, image from Wikipedia

What led the living Hopkins back to verse was the wreck of the German ship, the Deutschland, in 1875 and especially the deaths of five nuns on board. The accident affected him deeply, perhaps because he identified so closely with the nuns who were on the ship only because they had been exiled from Germany due to their faith. Hopkins, too, had endured much personal loss on his conversion to Catholicism (as part of the Oxford Movement and through the influence of John Henry Newman, a significant luminary in the field of moral apologetics); he faced consternation and pressure from his devout Anglican family who feared for the state of his soul. Writing his elegy The Wreck of the Deutschland allowed Hopkins to work through both personal and public grief and proved to be a turning point for his poetic career.[1] In its lines, Hopkins developed his unique style—especially his distinctive sprung rhythm[2]—and deftly blended his theology with his subject matter. What resulted made way for the experimental modern verse of the next century.

A difficult poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland can best be understood as an application of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (in whose Society of Jesus Hopkins was ordained) to the specific situation of the nuns’ loss (or more appropriately for Hopkins, their martyrdom). Hopkins’ poetic act involved a contemplative stance that he believed enabled him to perceive and even participate in “the religious truth of the nuns’ sacrifice.”[3] Getting at the central truth of a thing—a landscape, a person, an animal, a phenomenon—this was the animating force behind Hopkins’ poetry. And his aesthetic form served to bring this truth to poetic life.

The terms Hopkins coined for these concepts, drawn from the metaphysics of John Duns Scotus, were inscape and instress, inscape referring to the inherently unique quality of a thing and instress referring to the faculty of the poet needed to perceive that quality. Hopkins’ vision of God is made manifest here—his creativity is boundless, and human beings made in this creative God’s image reenact that creativity in their perception of God’s expression in this world.

For this reason, nature should be celebrated, as Hopkins so beautifully does in works like “God’s Grandeur,” seen in these opening lines:

 The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. . . .  

Or in these closing lines of “Pied Beauty”:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

Always in Hopkins’ poetry, there’s a stark divide between the creator and the created, with a clear mandate for the created to worship their creator. When we don’t—as we so often don’t—much is amiss, and Hopkins’ poetry embodies this breach in the poem’s content and form. Note the dissonant sound in the following lines describing man’s disobedience taken from “God’s Grandeur”:

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 bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

This, and especially the concluding stanza of the poem, evidences Hopkins’ poetic genius, his ability to marry thought to feeling, enveloping readers in the poem’s atmosphere and simultaneously stirring their heart and mind. Notice the sound shift in these last lines, where a soft, inviting alliteration has replaced the harsh sounds of the poem’s earlier lines:

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 eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The poem here comes full circle, closing the loop with a God who has created the world but who will also not leave it helpless, left to its own destructive devices; he recreates and redeems—the fount of life and all that’s good. The all-powerful God of the opening line is one and the same all-loving Spirit of the comforting closing image.

Paul Mariani, biographer of Hopkins, discusses the poet’s life and work

Links for This Week’s Featured Poems

“As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

“Carrion Comfort” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

“God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

“The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

“Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

[1] There’s so much more, of course, to Hopkins’ verse than can be covered in this short sketch. His so-called “terrible sonnets” (written in the mid-1880s) offer an intense—and intensely uncomfortable-to-read—portrait of a mind existentially wrestling with faith. Additionally, his personal life, of which he was intensely private, is the subject of much debate and explored in many of his biographies.

[2] Poetry Foundation describes sprung rhythm as follows: “A metrical system devised by Gerard Manley Hopkins composed of one- to four-syllable feet that start with a stressed syllable. The spondee replaces the iamb as a dominant measure, and the number of unstressed syllables varies considerably from line to line.”

[3] Todd K. Bender, “Gerard Manley Hopkins,” Critical Survey of Poetry, Second Revised Edition.