Unlike those we have been looking at recently, Gerald Manley Hopkins is known, as a creative writer, only for his poetry. But he is known also as a Catholic priest, and his faith is inextricably bound up with his work. If we recall Tennyson, in In Memoriam, responding to the doubt brought by scientific discoveries to Christian dogma by simply reaffirming his faith, Hopkins did the same thing with greater anguish as well as drama, is befitted his calling.
The simplest poem of this nature, and one of the strongest, is the sonnet in which he wrestles with what seems an unjust world. The latter part of the poem contrasts the fecundity of nature with the statutory celibacy of Catholic priests, highlighted here in the term ‘Time’s Eunuch’. The plea with which the poem ends then is most moving, with its need for a purpose beyond what seems an arid passivity.
THOU art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend, 5
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again 10
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
A more tragic version of this anguish occurs in perhaps his most famous poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, which tells the tale of a group of nuns coming over to England and drowning when their ship sank. How a good God could do this to his faithful servants seemed inexplicable, but Hopkins was moved by the story of the nuns trying to hearten their fellow victims even as they died. The first part of the poem is about Hopkins’ own wrestling with the worries such a tragedy rouses, but the philosophizing yields in interest to the intensity of his depiction of the nun affirming her faith in the midst of the storm –
Sister, a sister calling 145
A master, her master and mine!—
And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one;
Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine 150
Ears, and the call of the tall nun
To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.
Hopkins also explored the theme of acceptance of God’s will in a common context, in his meditation on a farmer to whom he had ministered during a debilitating illness.
FELIX RANDAL the farrier, O he is dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?
Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended 5
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!
This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears, 10
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;
How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!
I find as startlingly impressive as the account of the farmer’s ‘heavenlier heart’ as he accepts his fate, and the celebration of mutual endearment through consolation in the third stanza, the powerful last line. Orwell thought so too, and stressed the exotic nature of the sandal which lends dignity to the drayhorse, but more important I think is the juxtaposition of the adjectives preceding the word ‘sandal’, its beauty and its potential destructiveness. This seems to me to sum up Hopkins’ view of the world, with a splendor that grips one even as God in his mysterious way can deliver crushing blows.
In addition to his distinctive subject matter, Hopkins was also renowned for introducing what seemed a new form of verse writing, which was described as ‘Sprung Rhythm’. In short this meant that, instead of fitting a certain number of syllables into a line, Hopkins instead based his lines on a certain number of stresses. This could allow for what would ordinarily seem an excess of syllables in a line, but read with the correct rhythmic intonation, this added to the impact of the verse.
The most famous effect of this was in what is seen often as Hopkins’ keynote poem, The Windhover, in which Hopkins moves from a celebration of a falcon exulting in its flight to ecstasy about Jesus Christ, his chevalier.
The transition would seem unmotivated except that I think we need to see the fire that breaks from ‘thee’ as the day dawning, the most marvelous of natural phenomena. is compared to a bird of prey, hovering high over us. The intensity of the lines, the characteristic use of forceful adjectives, the devotion to his subject and the sheer over-arching conception of his image, make this a triumph of virtuosity.
But as always with Hopkins beauty also carries danger. The strange last verse seems to indicate that sheer hard work can create beauty, but beauty can also fall apart – though even in the galling, shining beauty can be seen.
I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, 5
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion 10
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
Hopkins could also be quite modern in his outlook, as in what I suspect was the first poem concerned with environmental protection. This is Binsey Poplars, in which he regrets the cutting down of trees in the suburb of Oxford which is known in literary history also as the site of Lewis Carroll’s Treacle Well in Alice in Wonderland.
The vivid description of sunlight on leaves and shadows on water moves on to a startling image of what a simple act of destruction can do, as with a simple prick depriving the eye of sight. The poem exemplifies Hopkins’ use of internal rhymes that reinforce sense, as with the forceful 9th line of the second stanza.
MY aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
This theme comes together with the religious one is the simple but powerful God’s Grandeur. Hopkins uses images we should be familiar with from The Windhover to show how, even if man abuses the world, it is constantly renewed. His celebrated morning ‘at the brown brink eastward, springs’ and the Holy Ghost watches the world with ‘ah! bright wings’.
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. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; 5
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.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; 10
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.