Commentary on ‘Pied Beauty’ by Hopkins

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Rebecca Vincent Art (@printreb)

Pied Beauty

 

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stiple upon trout that swim;

Fresh–firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift,  slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He father’s-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise Him.

Commentary

The poem shows Hopkins at his innovative best.  Everything is condensed, distilled, pared back to the bare essentials.  His use of comma and semi-colon, compound words, alliteration and simile are examples of his craft.  The poem packs a huge amount of detail and contrast and comparison into its ten short lines.

The theme of the poem is the gratitude he expresses to God for the variety and imperfection in Nature, in the implements used by man, for the lesser earthly things, for the two-tone things in life that add beauty by simply being different.  He may also be pointing out that God is perfect in sharp contrast to all the imperfection seen on earth.  Maybe the message is that variety is the spice of life!

The overall tone of the poem is one of praise and wonder – wonder at the variety and contrast to be seen everywhere in God’s creation.  The word ‘pie’ is of Medieval Latin origin and here it means spotted, two-toned or striped.  We still use the word today in words like magpie or piebald; someone is said to be pie-eyed drunk; we’ve all heard of pie in the sky; of course Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair; and where would we be today without our pie charts? When dealing with Hopkins we need to give ourselves permission to think outside the box and there is even room to think of a pastry pie made of assorted fruits – mother’s award winning apple pie even!

The opening line introduces us straight away to the idea of variety and mixture with the word ‘dappled’ (streaked) and, from then on we are among things that have two aspects, the ‘couple-coloured’ are compared, by way of a simile, to a spotted (‘brinded’) cow.  We have no problem with this comparison today because all our Irish cows are ‘couple-coloured’ anyway but this wasn’t always the case.  The ‘rose-moles’ on the sides of the speckled trout are compared to the once fashionable moles applied to a woman’s cheeks to enhance her beauty.  The sound of the word ‘dappled’ is echoed through the poem in words like ‘couple’, ‘stipple’, ‘tackle’, ‘fickle’, ‘freckled’, ‘adazzle’.  Hopkins’ use of compound words like ‘fresh-firecoal’ and ‘chestnut-falls’ adds to the overall sense of compression in the poem.  The coals of the fire are both red and black, and the windfall chestnuts are often mahogany and beige.  The similarity between the coals and the chestnuts is classic Hopkins.  Some of these innovative compound words are very unusual, but their very oddness helps the poet to convey the idea of diversity, variety and imperfection as well as adding freshness to the poem.

Hopkins then mentions the birds with their variety of feathers.  He is ever the priest looking for good material for his Sunday homily and he once spoke of the sun, stars, birds and bees giving glory to God without their realising that they were doing so.  Man can also give this glory to God and mean it.  Perhaps he is contrasting and juxtaposing his own intentional praise of God in this poem with the finches instinctive song of praise.

Next we are given the beautiful patchwork quilt image of the landscape with its pastures, meadows, cornfields and ploughed fields.  ‘Fold’ suggests a sheepfold, ‘fallow’ suggests land being rested after producing a crop and ‘plough’ suggests land newly tilled and ready for a new crop.  It should be very easy for us today to imagine such a sight with our ever increasing use of aerial photography and the use of drones to take photographs from the air.  Hopkins, on the other hand, seems to be suggesting that this is a God’s-eye view looking down on the things He has created.

In the fifth and sixth lines the poet is praising the work of man and here also there is an infinite variety in the different types of work performed by man and also a great variety in the implements he uses to carry out his various tasks.  All these also give glory to God.

The final five lines are a masterclass in the compression of ideas: God creates all the varying contrasts in life, all things odd, original, spotted.  We are then dramatically ordered by the poet to praise God for these things.  ‘Fathers-forth’ is a strange compound word.  To me this suggests and echoes the creation story in Genesis: God magically clicking his fingers and saying ‘Let there be light!’  ‘Counter’ means contrasting with what is usual, as in ‘counter argument’, ‘spare’ can mean both ‘scarce’ or ‘more than enough’ or ‘left over’.  This is exactly what Hopkins is about here: he is trying to show us that there are contradictions within things (even in words).  Hopkins uses great technique here in line 9 by placing these contrasting words together side by side without any connecting word or verb and also with his use of alliteration.

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Rebecca Vincent Art (@printreb)

A FURTHER NOTE ON HOPKINS’S TECHNIQUE

Hopkins deliberately set out to be innovative and to create a new type of verse, and so he broke many of the accepted ‘rules’ of poetry – rules of grammar, the order of words in the sentence, making up his own words, especially compound words, and so on.  In fact, to give further credence to the idea of compression used here, the poem actually reads like a ten line sonnet!  His words and phrases are actions as well as sounds, ideas and images.  He uses very few verbs and this is accommodated by his repeated use of the semi-colon.  The words must be read with the ear and the body as well as the eye.  He obviously feels what he sees.  This is the challenge for us when we come to study any poem by Hopkins.  In coming to our own interpretation of the poem we must not forget the music, and his appeal to our sense of sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell.

Hopkins has been called ‘the poet of energy’. Notice the rush of words in the first three lines and then he pauses as he ticks off his ‘shopping list’ as it were: ‘fold, fallow and plough; / And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim’.  The energy is also made possible by the scarcity of verbs and by his use of alliteration.  In his great poem, ‘God’s Grandeur’, he says that the earth and all things in it are ‘charged’ with God (like a battery – and long before they were even invented!).  This poem, too, like many others is full of God – it is, in fact, a prayer, a spiritual meditation.

As I said earlier the poem reads like a shortened sonnet and Hopkins called it a ‘Curtal Sonnet’ (curtailed).  There are only ten and a half lines instead of the usual fourteen lines and unlike the usual sonnet, which is concerned with the number of syllables, Hopkins here is only concerned with stressed syllables.  Therefore, in this poem, there are five stressed syllables to each line, with two in the final line.  This, however, is just something for you to know; don’t let it interfere with your enjoyment or reaction to the poem.

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Rebecca Vincent Art (@printreb)

A more comprehensive analysis of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is available here

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Analysis of ‘The Windhover’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

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Hopkins said that ‘The Windhover’ was ‘the best thing I ever wrote’.  We should first get the feel of the poem by reading it more than once silently and then aloud.  Then we begin to realise what a superb description we are given of a bird in flight.  His words and phrases seem to mime or mimic the energy and grace of the falcon’s flight.  This sight of a hovering falcon is again a relatively common sight today so hopefully, the next time we see such a sight we can recall the words of Hopkins. Hopkins once said that we should read his poetry with our ears, which seems like an impossibility but is not, since many of the sounds we hear create images in our mind.

In ‘The Windhover’, Hopkins uses recurring images of royalty.  The high-flying solitary falcon is a monarch of the sky, surging through the steady air.  The poet uses chivalric terms such as ‘dauphin’, and ‘minion’ to capture the elegant and dignified ‘striding’ falcon, the prince of the daylight.  God, too, is visualised as a ‘chevalier’.  Indeed, there are so many images given to us in these eight lines it is hard to know where to begin! The words ‘rolling level underneath him steady’ are best taken as a compound adjective, qualifying ‘air’.  Next, we find the falcon ringing ‘upon the rein of a wimpling wing’.  Here the bird, by means of a mixture of metaphors, seems to become a bell, hanging by its wings in mid-air.  ‘Wimpling’ means quick beating, fluttering or rippling.  Therefore, we have an image of the falcon, bell-like, swinging back and forth in a wide arc (‘on a bow-bend’), having mastered ‘rebuffed’ the big wind.

However, Hopkins’ imagination is turbo-charged here and the phrase ‘to ring upon the rein of a wimpling wing’ may also be a metaphor from horse-training, the term being applied in a riding school to a horse circling on the end of a long rein held by its trainer.  Also, we must remember that ‘to ring’ is also a technical term used in falconry and this then leads on to the image of a skater doing a figure of eight on the ice!  He compares the swooping movement of the falcon to an ice skater and this image also conveys the speed of the bird’s flight.  At any rate, the idea of the falcon as a hanging bell, filling the heavens with joyful news (‘In his ecstasy’) is confirmed in that other beautiful sonnet ‘When Kingfishers Catch Fire’ where he says:

each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name

The main feature of Hopkins’s images, then, is the way in which they are loaded with unlimited possibilities.  It is as if Hopkins intended to create multiple ideas in some of his images, each interesting and valid in its own way.  For example, the image of the falcon on a ‘rein’ may represent the motion of a horse at the end of a trainer’s long rein.  However, the term, being ambiguous, could also suggest the spiral climb of the bird.  Perhaps, Hopkins is encouraging us to ‘Buckle’ several ideas in our engagement with the poem.  What is not in doubt, at any rate, is the powerful and original representation, through the falcon, of Christ’s beauty and nobility.  In essence, the poet is like an Impressionist painter striving to capture the essence (the inscape) of the bird.

The word ‘Buckle’ is pivotal in the poem.  This word has been the subject of discussion and debate for many years.  Some believe that the word means ‘Challenge!’ or ‘Tackle!’ or ‘Come to grips with!’ adversity; others believe that it means ‘Collapse’ or ‘Crumple’ before the assault of evil.  There is even a third interpretation which proposes that it means to clasp, fasten together into a single unity all the skills and aspirations.  My own interpretation of the word is that the majestic beauty of the bird as described in the octet of the poem crumbles into insignificance when compared to the beauty and majesty of Christ as we see him in the sestet.

Other original images include that of ‘blue-bleak embers’ representing self-sacrifice and the ‘plough down sillion’ that evokes the hardship and perhaps tedium of daily labour.  In ‘The Windhover’, therefore, Hopkins employs images of flight, of majesty, of sacrifice and of glory ranging from a ‘dauphin’ to a ‘skate’s heel’, from a ‘fire’ to ‘blue-bleak embers’.  Such remarkable and wide-ranging imagery reflects the vivid and precise response of the poet’s imagination to the sight of the falcon at dawn.  More importantly, perhaps, the imagery reveals that the moment created a response of deep spiritual insight.  There is nothing particularly novel in taking a falcon as subject matter.  However, what is original is the way Hopkins engages with the falcon, observes it and concentrates on it in a deeper way and articulates what it revealed to him through an interesting range of original imagery.  The priest-poet is praying!

The last three lines give us two images which stand for triumph arising out of defeat and this echoes the essence of the Christian mystery – Crucifixion gives way to Resurrection.  He uses words like ‘fall’ (Jesus fell three times on his way to Calvery), ‘gall’ (referring to the stale wine or vinegar offered to Jesus on the cross), and ‘gash’ (an open wound), to reinforce this connection in our minds.  The soil that has been ploughed and trodden on gives off a splendid ‘shine’ or radiance; the embers of the fire when they part and fall produce a victorious ‘gold-vermillion’ brightness.

‘The Windhover’ provides us, therefore, with an excellent example of the unique concepts associated with Hopkins: inscape and instress and sprung rhythm.  The effort to describe the bird goes beyond mere description of its physical form or appearance (‘wimpling wing’): there is almost a scientific attempt to ‘capture’ its movements (‘Of the rolling level underneath him steady air’).  This, however, is only part of the process.  The inner form of the bird, its virtues or strengths, are identified (‘Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume’).  There is more.  The hidden ‘meaning’ or symbolic significance of the falcon is uncovered in a moment of mystical recognition that Joyce would call an ‘epiphany’.  T. S. Eliot called it ‘the intersection of the timeless with time.’  It is the moment when the observer recognises God’s plan for mankind in the action of a bird in flight.

To simplify matters, remember this: Hopkins believed in the idea of incarnation.  Christ was both man and God; so, too, the world is a combination of the material and the divine.  Seeing the divine in the world is the same as seeing its inscape.  Feeling the divine presence is the same as feeling its instress.  Sprung rhythm is a poetic device used to reveal the energy of God that pulses through the world.

Now look back again over the poem and note the use of detail that goes to make the poem’s eloquence: note that the poem is a sonnet, with octet and sestet; note his extensive use of alliteration and assonance, his use of exclamation; note the tension between line and sentence, form and sense, by the use of colour and the use of heraldic imagery, the passionate rise and fall of the meditation, by the expert daring of it all.

I can’t get it out of my mind that Hopkins lived and died in the nineteenth century and yet he is one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.  Hopkins valiantly tries to describe perfection in this beautiful poem yet he once said, ‘Perfection is dangerous because it deceives us – because there is no perfection on this earth’.   As another later twentieth century poet, Leonard Cohen,  says, echoing Hopkins’ image of the falcon as a bell:

Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering,

There is a crack in everything,

That’s how the light gets in.

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A more detailed analysis of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins can be found here

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Pope Francis, a fellow Jesuit of course, is obviously very familiar with the poetry of Fr. Hopkins S.J.!

The Terrible Sonnets – not so terrible after all!

 

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In his Terrible Sonnets, Hopkins’s shows off his wide-ranging use of imagery. We know that he wrestled with doubt, particularly during his final years which he spent teaching in University College Dublin.  In his attempts to express clearly his meaning it can be said he transformed almost every known literary device used by poets: dramatic opening lines, imagery, irony, ambiguity, puns.  He also invented a few of his own: sprung rhythm, compound adjectives, and his use of foreign, colloquial and archaic words.  The best we can say about his sonnets is that they demonstrate his almost complete disregard for sonnet conventions!

All of his poems, and especially the Terrible Sonnets, were directly inspired by his experiences as a Jesuit priest, and his sonnets are attempts to elaborate his central themes: the value of sacrifice, the transience of mortal beauty, the permanence of evil in an unchristian world and the deep spiritual anguish and desolation which characterises two sonnets in particular: ‘No Worst, there is None’ and ‘I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark’.  Critics would have us believe that these ‘terrible sonnets’ plumb the depths of despair but yet I believe that despite his battles with desolation and near despair, his sonnets always contain signs of hope, no matter how slender.  After all, despair, in his Catholic catechism was one of the Seven Deadly Sins and I believe that these often harrowing sonnets are dramatisations of the darkness and spiritual anguish which comes with ‘the dark night of the soul’ often mentioned in Ignatian and John of the Cross spirituality.

Therefore, it is my view that while the Terrible Sonnets sometimes plumb the depths of despair they never actually reach rock bottom and each sonnet ends on the slightest sliver of hope.  We must remember again that Fr. Hopkins is a priest, not only that but he is a Jesuit priest, one of Christ’s Storm Troopers, crack SAS commandoes, and so despair is not an option!

In his sonnet ‘No Worst, there is None’, Hopkins outlines the intensity of his pain in the opening quatrain and then proceeds to seek significant comfort, but in vain.  This sonnet is particularly interesting in that many of its images echo through earlier poems where the mood was less despondent.  The poet’s sense of despair is emphasised in quatrain two in an unusual but particularly poignant image of his cries heaving ‘herds-long’, gathering at the gate of heaven perhaps but not being admitted or even acknowledged.  Where is the comfort that Hopkins himself had administered to Felix Randal?  The poet then refers to an ‘age-old anvil’, a sounding board which winces and rings out his pain. This very original image of the anvil reminds us again of Felix and his work in the forge, except on this occasion the poet is the raw material that Christ is beating into shape.  In the sestet, the poet refers to a natural landscape, the mountains.  In earlier poems, ‘wilderness’ filled him with joy.  Here, however, the steep cliffs, a nightmarish metaphor, represent the spiritual torment and physical suffering that the poet has had to endure, day in, day out.  The only comfort is the relief of sleep.  However, as the poem comes to an end, there is slender hope because while the lost souls are as he is, they are worse off because they are dead and at least he is still alive and has time before he dies to repent and live a better life.  This in turn makes him realise that he is not so badly off after all.  The title also, believe it or not, contains a tiny nugget of reassurance: here, he is not saying that this is the worst, but that there IS no worst – as we all know from sometimes bitter experience,  things can always get worse!

In ‘I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark’ the poet awakens to the oppressive darkness of night and yearns for the respite of daylight.  The dark night is itself symbolic of dark periods in the poet’s life when hope of spiritual ecstasy may have seemed very distant.  So where then is our sliver of hope here in this sonnet?  Well, there are a number of sightings!  For example, when he says, ‘Comforter, where, where is your comforting?’, this is merely echoing Christ’s words on the cross. ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ and while it may appear at times in his imagery that Hopkins is literally hanging by his fingernails over the pit and the abyss, yet he does not despair.

In The Terrible Sonnets, he constantly uses numerous tricks to gain our attention and his opening lines are often very dramatic and effective:

            ‘No worst, there is none.  Pitched past pitch of grief’

            ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.’

The Terrible Sonnets, in particular, specialise in short, hurried, phrases and in the repetition of certain thematic words: ‘Pitched past pitch of grief’; ‘More pangs will, schooled at forepangs’; ‘Let me be fell’; ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark’; ‘O the mind, mind has mountains’; ‘What hours, O what black hours’; ‘Fall, gall themselves, and gash’; ‘I am gall’.

His schooling and studies in theology have convinced him that God exists, he is always certain of that, so why then has He forsaken him and why does he appear to be so far away, apparently unresponsive and uncaring to a man whose letters are ‘dead’?  Hopkins’s increasingly sinister images explore the bounds of human suffering and despair.  In the sonnet ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark’, for example, the conspicuous absence of daylight reminds us how far the poet has come from the glorious sunshine and colour in ‘Spring’, ‘God’s Grandeur’ or ‘The Windhover’.  There is little evidence of ‘couple-colour’ in ‘the black hours’ Hopkins has spent with his torment, suffering ‘yet longer light’s delay’.  The delay of light represents, of course, the delay of hope – all is now ‘gall’ and ‘heartburn’.  Quite remarkably, taste is evoked as a description of the poet’s state.  He becomes bitterness itself, borne out of his despair.  Yet, perhaps this is God’s will that he suffer the ‘curse’ with which his ‘bones’ and ‘flesh’ must contend.  But the poet’s tormented spirit is souring dough, which needs to be infused with spiritual ecstasy.

To conclude, in Hopkins’s poetry, therefore, the range of imagery is certainly quite extensive, his originality unquestioned.  Imagery ignites the poet’s celebration and it ignites his desolation.  In the darkness, there is no flash of colour, of light, no ’dapple-dawn-drawn’ inspiration to lift his thoughts, no sparks, no flashes, no gold.  In 1889, only weeks before his death, Hopkins wrote another sonnet, often linked with the Terrible Sonnets, ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord’.  This sonnet is a hurt protest by the good and devout priest that God allows the wicked to prosper while Hopkins, who has devoted his whole life to the service of God in the slums of cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow and Dublin, suffers the tortures of the damned.  In the poem images of fertility in nature abound: building, breeding, waking, growing.  The poet, however, is depicted in the sterile image of a ‘eunuch’.  Nonetheless, the concluding appeal expressed again through a vivid and most appropriate image, is that as Spring renews nature, so God may send his spiritual ‘roots rain’: surely if he can still pray he is not in despair.   Where there is prayer, there is hope!

 DONNE- a Hymn to God the Father

The Poetry of Dylan Thomas

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Dylan Thomas, oil on canvas, by Augustus John, 1938.

THE POETRY OF DYLAN THOMAS

(with particular focus on ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’)

Dylan Thomas’s poetry has always attracted diverging views, attracting some readers and repelling others.  In certain ways he is the last of the Romantic poets, and like most poets in that tradition he liked to experiment with words.  He was perhaps the only modern poet to experiment persistently, hence the bewilderment of his audience when his early poems were published in the mid-1930’s.

The poetry of the twentieth century can be divided roughly into two main categories.  There is, first of all, the tradition established by Yeats and Eliot which attempted to comment on and influence major social issues in an effort to bring about reforms.  Yeats’ ‘September 1913’ and Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (1922), are two good examples of this tradition.  Both poets express similar attitudes, namely disgust at the degeneracy of modern life, and both poets advocate a return to past virtues as a means of displacing society’s unpleasant aspects.  For Eliot and Yeats therefore, a significant aspect of a poet’s role was that of social commentator, and with them a tradition was established which continued to be a dominant one throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

The poetry of Dylan Thomas, however, diverges sharply from this tradition and to a large extent he remains outside it.  His poems had so little of the realism of Eliot and Yeats that they took the contemporary literary scene by storm.  Being at heart a Romantic poet, Dylan Thomas preferred to write poems that were completely devoid of social issues and unlike Yeats and Eliot he did not feel the urge to reform the world.  Modern poets in general had come through the Great War with a new sense of function and responsibility.  This sense of conviction, of important work to do in a political or social context, is completely lacking in the works of Dylan Thomas.  Indeed, this lack of an urgent poetic content seemed naive to many early readers, particularly at a time when Europe had emerged tragically from one World War, and seemed likely to get entangled in another.  In ‘Fern Hill’, for example, Dylan Thomas describes his memories of childhood in Wales in the years after the Great War.  The picture he creates, however, is so beautiful and idyllic as to be almost unreal.  The real Wales of the time, many early critics suggested, was in sharp contrast to that described in the poem.

Similarly in ‘A Refusal to Mourn’, a poem which describes the death of a child killed in an air-raid, no reference is made to the terrible atrocities of war.  ‘Fern Hill’ was also criticised in other respects.  Besides its lack of serious content there was the more serious charge of a complete lack of meaning.  Indeed, like much of his poetry, ‘Fern Hill’ was strongly criticised as being almost totally obscure.  Thomas himself realised the problem his poetry in general, and ‘Fern Hill’ in particular, presented to readers.  He remarked how his poems were always rigorously compressed, being ‘as tight packed as a mad doctor’s bag’.  The poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson, who published Thomas’s early work in his influential magazine, New Verse, (where he also published W.H. Auden and Louis McNeice), and who recognised Thomas’s promise was one of the first to comment on its obscurity.  He attacked Thomas for his neglect of a continuous line of meaning, for his use of ‘towering phrases’ which imply so much but say very little, and for his tendency to be ‘over-fantastic’ and obscure.

To understand the poetry of Dylan Thomas one must consider him as a modern exponent of the Romantic tradition.  Indeed, it is only in the context of this tradition that one can really characterise his particular method and identify his major themes.  Throughout the first half of the twentieth century Romantic poetry was steadily in decline.  Eliot, in particular, had dismissed all poetry in the Romantic tradition as obsolete and unacceptable in a modern context.  In its stead he substituted a new urban poetry which is so often full of depression, anger and despair (e.g. ‘The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’).  Dylan Thomas, however, completely rejected the modern mode of expression, and returned instead to the Romantic poets for his principal themes and his characteristic method.  Whereas Eliot and Yeats describe a world which is often dark and depressing, Dylan Thomas reaffirms a personal faith in life.  His poetry is subsequently filled with a sense of joy and optimism.

Dylan Thomas’s working life as a poet lasted a little over twenty years but the most extraordinary thing about it was how much of the foundations were laid down in a very short period towards the beginning.  He was writing profusely in his early teens and when he was seventeen he began work on some of the poems for which he is still remembered.  Between the years 1931 and 1935 he drafted, and in many cases actually completed, most of his best poems.  In other words he had already created the most important parts of his work by the age of twenty-one.  Despite his basic differences with T.S. Eliot, he adopted Eliot’s habit of rejecting nothing, and lines or sections that were unsustainable or unsuitable for one poem often found their way into another.  Years later he still continued to draw on material from his adolescent notebooks.  Indeed, out of these notebooks and casual jottings grew the most famous poems he published in his lifetime and those for which he is remembered after his untimely death.  He composed by selecting the best expressions from his notebooks, reordering and perfecting them until he was satisfied with their sequence.

‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ are typical examples of Dylan Thomas’s poetic method.  Both poems depend on a common Romantic assumption that the natural world is self-explanatory: things die and are born again in a constant process of death and renewal.  We notice, therefore, how nature is often strongly incorporated into his poems.  In a letter dated March 1935 he speaks of how his, ‘pre-conceived symbolism derived from the cosmic significance of nature’.  Thus, both ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ are overlaid with a strong natural imagery.  He is particularly attracted to natural images, which suggest youth and vitality, but we also find him returning constantly to ideas of transience and death.  Indeed, throughout his poetic career he remained haunted by the reality of death, and perhaps his chief contribution to English poetry was his sustained vision that life and death form part of a great process shared by all created things.  Both ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ begin with the assumption that we start to die from the moment we are born, even indeed from the moment we are conceived.  This continuous process of dying extends to all living things.  The entire thought of ‘Fern Hill’ is based on this idea, though it does not become explicit until the final stanza:

                   Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

                   Time held me green and dying

                   Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

In ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ the theme of death is seen in a slightly different context as the poet surmises on the probability of another existence.  Here he suggests that the world into which we are born and in which we die is not the final world; that there is another existence on the other side of things.  Again he expresses his ideas through use of comparisons with natural things.  Nature ‘dies’ each year and renews itself with the return of every spring; but for man there is only one death, ‘After the first death there is no other’.  Yet this realisation of the eternal presence of death does not allow the poet to grieve over the dead child, or to encourage false sentiments by a vain display of tears.  This poem is not so much a discussion of the child’s death, as a presentation of Thomas’s attitude to the idea of death in general.  He thinks of death as a slow, relentless process, rather than as a sudden pathetic end to life.  This process of destruction extends to all living things and he sees no reason to mourn when the process is finally completed.

The poem begins with a great statement as befits some good, cosmic occasion.  The first two stanzas, and the first line of the third, are one sentence with the skeleton grammar: ‘Till doomsday I will not mourn for the dead child’.  Darkness is described as making mankind, ‘fathering’ birds etc.. and ‘humbling’ all.  As such it is more than a personification of death: it is unknown, undeveloped nature from which all life comes and to which it will eventually return.  One critic suggests that darkness might also refer to God the Father who is described in the Book of Genesis as making the world out of nothing.  Water is always used in Thomas’s poetry as a fundamental life-giver.  Here it is joined with the reference to corn and behind each is the idea of change and transformation.  Corn was said by St. Paul to die in the ground before it receives the rain whereby it sprouts again.  In this manner it is transformed into a more perfect element.  The general theme of the poem is clear: all people, no less than this young girl, are transformed by death into more perfect states, and the whole process of dying is a natural precondition for this transformation.  Throughout the poem ordinary words are used to suggest mystic processes: ‘The majesty and burning of the child’s death’; ‘The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother’.  Behind this poem is the biblical idea of death as a change of life rather than as an end of it.  In the final stanza, therefore, we are given a great image of the relentless continuance of life as the Thames, bearing the young girl’s spirit, flows away to the sea.

In ‘Fern Hill’ the emphasis is on life rather than on death, yet we see how the pervasive presence of nature is a dominant feature of this poem also.  From the beginning of the poem the boy’s experiences are described in terms of natural images and his simple vitality is seen as a gift of nature soon to be withdrawn.  Phrases like ‘all the sun long, all the moon long’, show how the child measured time by nature , not by the clock, and how each day seems a long savouring of experience.  As the poem progresses, however, the facts of time become more insistent and the pathos of transience can no longer be ignored, ‘The children green and golden / Follow him out of grace’; ‘And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land’.  The lack of grammar in these stanzas makes them appear, as in Chapter 1 of James Joyce’s, Portrait of the Artist, as if part of a dream-like reflection.  This nostalgic emphasis on childhood is yet another dominant feature of Romantic poetry.  In one of his most famous poems Wordsworth wrote that, ‘Heaven lies about us in our infancy’, an idea to which Dylan Thomas also subscribed.

Wonderfully rich in visual imagery, the words of ‘Fern Hill’ combine together in highly original ways to picture the joyful exhilaration of a child.  This can be the cause of some confusion for readers.  Striking phrases like , ‘happy as the grass was green’, ‘prince of the apple-towns’, or ‘at my sky-blue trades’, are surprising by their novelty and at first it is difficult to be sure what effects are intended.  These unusual images are evocative rather than precise: their purpose is to create a strong emotional atmosphere.  Dylan Thomas deliberately uses all his poetic powers to combine in one image a wider range of associations.  Being essentially a Romantic poet, he is trying to communicate an experience, which is almost beyond expression.  In the repetitions, ‘it is lovely’, ‘it is air / And playing lovely, and watery…’, he seems to be straining after an ecstasy which can never be completely expressed in words.  He is celebrating the divine innocence of childhood which, for him, is a mystery almost beyond analysis.

The second stanza reminds us how for a child roaming the countryside, time moves slowly through long mornings of pleasure.  But much more than this is implied.  The noise of water passing over the pebbles is like Church bells calling the boy to worship.  Dylan Thomas is aware of the power of time but instead of becoming melancholy he sees the joy of his childhood as something for which to be thankful, being itself part of the wonder of creation.  Instead of giving way to regrets he rejoices in what has been.  Thus, the boy’s emotions transform every object he sees: ‘the lilting house’, ‘happy yard’, ‘gay house’.  He is, ‘honoured among foxes and pheasants’, an integral part of all natural things.  But he also achieves an exalted state: he is a ‘prince’, ‘honoured’ and ‘lordly’.  Lines such as ‘the big fields high as a house’ evoke a sense of abundance, of a world of plenty, of which the boy’s youthful joy is but a part.

These expressions of mystery and wonder reach a climax in stanza four.  When he awakes in the morning, the farm appears like the Garden of Eden, a revelation of earthly innocence.  It is typical of Thomas that this awareness is expressed in religious terms:

                   And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white

                   With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all

                   Shining, it was Adam and maiden,

                   The sky gathered again

                   And the sun grew round that very day.

From the beginning of the poem the boy’s simple vitality is seen as a gift of time to be withdrawn.  The final image of the sea repeats the previous evocations of energy and abundance; but like the child it too is confined and restricted in its range by natural forces.

An important characteristic of ‘Fern Hill’ is the manner in which Dylan Thomas develops his ideas through imagery, verbal repetition, and other stylistic devices.  The prose meaning of his poems – their paraphrasable content – is usually simple.  What is difficult, however, is their verbal texture.  In his prose writings he has stressed the importance of metaphor in his poetry, which often causes difficulties of interpretation to arise.  In one of his few statements on his own poems he describes his peculiar method of composition with particular regard to his use of imagery:

‘A poem by itself needs a host of images.  I make sure – though ‘make’ is not the word; I let, perhaps an image be ‘made’ emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess; I let it breed another, let that image contradict the first; make of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image and let them all conflict within my imposed formal limits.  The life of any poem of mine cannot move out of the centre; an image must be born and die in another; and any sequence of my images must be a sequence of creations, recreations, destructions, contradictions…’

This concept of the image determines the construction of ‘Fern Hill’.  Sequences of images are linked together without the relationship imposed by ordinary syntax, so as to provide a uniquely original form of poetry.  Words are arranged in terms of their musical effects, and individual stanzas abound with references to music.  In ‘Fern Hill’ these references are numerous, ‘the lilting house’, ‘singing as the farm was home’, ‘the Sabbath rang slowly’, ‘the tunes from chimneys’, ‘it was air / and playing’, ‘all his tuneful turning’, ‘I sang in my chains like the sea’.  The opening stanza expresses the poet’s experiences clearly.  Music, as conceived by the Romantics, is identified with nature.  Words are listed for their sound properties and are densely woven into poetic rhythms.  To these, also, are added colours suggestive of youth and vitality, ‘green’, ‘golden’, ‘white’, ‘blue’.

One of the secrets of Dylan Thomas’s strongly personal style then was his discovery of unsuspected variables in English – again like James Joyce in Ulysses.  Thus, he would write ‘all the sun long’ instead of ‘all day’, ‘once below a time’ instead of ‘once upon a time’, ‘all the moon long’ instead of ‘all night’.  The change to ‘Adam and maiden’ instead of ‘Adam and Eve’ is particularly significant with the connotation of innocence and purity that the first phrase brings.  This gift for revitalising common, general statement was to remain with Thomas all his life.  Indeed, only the great Gerard Manley Hopkins shows a comparable talent for finding similar rich possibilities in worn-out words and phrases.

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The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J. can perhaps be best described using Winston Churchill’s barbed attack on Russia, made in a radio broadcast in October 1939. He famously depicted Russia as, ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’.  Studying Hopkins’s poetry can leave us in much the same frame of mind as Churchill!  Hopefully what follows will provide you with a key to help unlock the enigma!

He was born in Stratford, Essex in 1844 and educated at Highgate School and at Oxford, where he became a friend of the poet, Robert Bridges.  He was very influenced by the Oxford Movement and he was drawn towards Newman and eventually, like Newman, he converted and became a Roman Catholic.  Hopkins didn’t do things by halves and he went on to join the priesthood, not just the ‘ordinary priesthood’ either but he joined the Jesuits and was ordained in 1877.

Shortly after joining the Jesuits he resolved not to write any poetry unless asked to do so by his Superiors.  This is in fact what eventually happened: his Rector suggested that he should write a poem to commemorate five Franciscan nuns who had been drowned in a boating accident on the Thames.  The result was his great poem, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, which he completed in 1875.

He wrote steadily for the rest of his life, but made no effort to publish, being content with the opinions of Robert Bridges and a few intimate friends.  Following ordination he worked as a priest in the slums of London, Liverpool and Glasgow, eventually coming to Dublin Catholic University (now UCD) where he was professor of Greek.

He died of typhoid fever in 1889 and he is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.  His work was first collected and published by Robert Bridges in a selected edition in 1918 and he became an overnight success 29 years after his death!  His poetry was swiftly recognised for its great freshness and energy.  So, even though he lived and died in the nineteenth century, Hopkins has become one of the great poets of the twentieth century!

Hopkins was a very original poet.  He abandoned the traditional metres and substituted his own innovative ‘sprung rhythm’, where the stresses responded to the meaning rather than to any mechanical pattern.  He used words in new and startling combinations and frequently dispensed with definite articles, conjunctions and even verbs.  As with all great poets this language was not invented for its own sake, but to get across a deeply personal and passionate response to the world and its Creator.  Since 1918 his reputation has risen steadily, and he is now rightly regarded by many as the greatest of the Victorian poets.

He once said that we should read his poetry with our ears, which seems like an impossibility, but is not, since many of the sounds we hear create images in our mind.  He also said, ‘Perfection is dangerous because it deceives us – because there is no perfection on this earth’.

In Roddy Doyle’s novel The Van, Darren, studying Hopkins’s poetry for the Leaving Cert., reads one of the poems and wonders when Tippex had been invented and concludes, ‘Gerrah Manley Hopkins had definitely been sniffing something.’

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MAJOR THEMES IN HOPKINS’S POETRY

NATURE

  • The world of nature pulses with energy because it is charged with the grandeur of God.
  • Spring is a glimpse of what the Garden of Eden must have been like.
  • Everything in existence has its own unique identity and inscape. It is possible to recognise God’s design in every natural object.
  • Contrast (dappled things) and variety set off the beauty of things.
  • Unspoilt nature (the weeds and the wilderness) is a precious resource.
  • Humankind’s sinfulness and the Industrial Revolution have made us insensitive to the beauty and preciousness of the natural world.
  • Despite the destructive activities of humankind, the Holy Ghost protects and renews the natural world.

SUFFERING AND ALIENATION

  • Humankind’s sinfulness brings it suffering and toil.
  • Acceptance of God’s will brings comfort and relief from pain.
  • Spiritual desolation is a bottomless pit of suffering.
  • The worst form of suffering, outside of Hell, is the desolation caused by self-disgust.
  • Suffering is a mystery understood fully by God alone.

RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PEOPLE AND GOD

  • God makes himself known to us through the world of nature and in the faces of people.
  • He is the ‘dearest freshness’ that permeates the natural world.
  • Only through the submission of our will to the will of God can we truly reveal our inner beauty.
  • God has made us the gift of natural beauty, with all its variety.
  • Humans are insignificant beings who have been rescued from death and oblivion by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
  • God’s will is a mystery to us.

MAIN FEATURES OF HOPKINS’S STYLE?

What about some of the following?  Energetic, intense, concentrated in meaning, obscure, tortuous, original, musical, dramatic, oratorical, erudite, demanding………

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SOME IDEAS ON THE CONCEPTS OF INSCAPE AND INSTRESS AND SPRUNG RHYTHM

 

(It is not essential to have an understanding of these concepts to appreciate the poetry of Hopkins.  If your reading of these notes enhances your understanding of the poet’s work, then they are worth reading; otherwise, they are a hindrance.)

 In our modern world we are familiar with the idea of each human being having a unique genetic code or DNA.  Hopkins’s theory was that everything in God’s creation had its own unique characteristics.  If you look closely at an object and if you have the sensitivity to recognise its unique character, the object will reveal its ‘inscape’ or, if you like, its inner landscape.  Finding the object’s form and shape, both external and internal, is the same as finding its inscape.  One of the reasons Hopkins abandoned the idea of being an artist was that he found that he could not ‘capture’ the inscape of things in his drawings.

‘Instress’, according to Hopkins, is the energy of God pulsating through all created things (‘The world is charged with the Grandeur of God’).  It is a coherent force, coherent because it comes from a single source.  He sees the inscape and feels the instress.  ‘All things are upheld by instress and are meaningless without it.’

Essentially, what Hopkins was attempting to do with the words ‘instress’ and ‘inscape’ was to provide a theory on the way in which objects, natural or human, create a reaction in the person who is looking at them.  He believed that what he saw was contained in the object rather than a result of his imaginative interpretation of that object.  He believed that the impact of that object on him was due to the object rather than to his subjective response to it.  ‘I thought how sadly beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people (like Leaving Cert. Students!) and yet how near at hand it was if they had eyes to see it.’

‘The Windhover’ provides an excellent example of these two concepts.  The effort to describe the bird goes beyond mere description of its physical form or appearance (‘wimpling wing’): there is almost a scientific attempt to ‘capture’ its movements (‘Of the rolling level underneath him steady air’).  This, however, is only part of the process.  The inner form of the bird, its virtues or strengths, are identified (‘Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume’).  There is more.  The hidden ‘meaning’ or symbolic significance of the falcon is uncovered in a moment of mystical recognition that Joyce would call an ‘epiphany’.  T. S. Eliot called it ‘the intersection of the timeless with time.’  It is the moment when the observer recognises God’s plan for mankind in the action of a bird in flight.

SPRUNG RHYTHM

By the time Hopkins’s poetry was published in 1918, many poets had already begun to dispense with regularity and rules regarding rhythm; nevertheless Hopkins’s revolutionary experiments with rhythm inspired many modern poets to be more daring and unconventional in their approach to composition.  Of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ Hopkins wrote: ‘I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realised on paper.’  He called this new rhythm ‘sprung rhythm’, because it springs naturally.  It has the following characteristics:

  • There is a fixed number of feet (rhythmic units) per line.
  • Each foot has one stressed syllable.
  • The stressed syllable may stand on its own, or may be accompanied by any number of unstressed syllables. Hopkins summed this up very well when he wrote: ‘One stress makes one foot, no matter how many or how few the syllables.’

He developed sprung rhythm because he believed that ‘it is the nearest to the rhythm of prose, that is the native and natural rhythm of speech.’  He added that ‘my verse is less to be read than heard….It is oratorical, that is, the rhythm is so.’

One of the natural consequences of allowing any number of unstressed syllables in a line is that it generates energy.  Unstressed syllables must be uttered quickly.  The more there are in a line, the more energetic the line will be.  This has a clear value for a poet who sees the world of nature as charged with the energy of God.

Sprung rhythm is used most blatantly in ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ and ‘The Windhover’, both of which vibrate with the energy of the natural world.  ‘Felix Randal’ also employs sprung rhythm extensively; other poems contain elements of it.

SUMMARY

To simplify matters, remember this: Hopkins believed in the idea of incarnation.  Christ was both man and God; so, too, the world is a combination of the material and the divine.  Seeing the divine in the world is the same as seeing its inscape.  Feeling the divine presence is the same as feeling its instressSprung rhythm is a poetic device used to reveal the energy of God that pulses through the world.

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GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS – A GENERAL OVERVIEW

(As a member of the Jesuit order – the same order, it must be remembered, who were responsible for Joyce’s education at Clongowes and later at University – Hopkins was devoted to God and his poetry is a unique record of that devotion.  In the twentieth-century several critics praised his efforts to restore ‘freshness in words’ and others came to recognise in Hopkins one of the most powerful religious poets writing in the English language.)

Though he lived and died in the nineteenth century, Hopkins is frequently considered a twentieth-century poet, not because his poems were not published until 1918 but because of their startling and unique style.  It has been said that Hopkins was a Victorian in that he was serious, scrupulous, hard-working and set himself exacting ideals, but in his remarkable poetic innovations he was ahead of his time.  His poetry was misunderstood, unappreciated, unknown during his lifetime and, even though he had a strong sense of duty and believed in self-sacrifice, he also had an independence of spirit that is evident in his work.  He did not write for an audience nor did he follow the contemporary literary fashion.  Hopkins, says Robert Bernard Martin, ‘is constantly more concerned with putting across his perceptions than with fulfilling customary expectations of grammar … Most persistent readers of his poems learn to abandon their usual demands of convention in language, in order to enjoy a fuller poetic process than would otherwise be possible.’   Coventry Patmore, however, found that Hopkins’s poetry had the effect of ‘veins of pure gold imbedded in masses of unpredictable quartz’.  As mentioned earlier Roddy Doyle in his novel The Van, has Darren, studying Hopkins’s poetry for the Leaving Cert and when he reads one of the poems, wonders when Tippex had been invented and concludes, ‘Gerrah Manley Hopkins had definitely been sniffing something.’

And his poetry, though written in the nineteenth century, had an extraordinarily important influence on twentieth-century poetry.  It was not so much that other poets imitated Hopkins; rather they were empowered to develop and explore their own individuality.  His style was fresh and free and dazzlingly different. (!)  Robert Bridges, Britain’s Poet Laureate, was Hopkins’s contemporary (both were born in 1844) and friend.  It was Bridges who first published Hopkins’s poetry in book form in 1918 and an early reviewer of the poetry said that, ‘You fight your way through the verses yet they draw you on’, that the language, at times, created ‘an effect almost of idiocy, of speech without sense and prolonged merely by echoes’.  But that same reviewer, in 1919, claimed that Hopkins’s poetry contained ‘authentic fragments that we trust even when they bewilder us’.

He always claimed that things are more beautiful in movement, as in the flight of the kingfisher, shooting weeds, the windhover, Felix Randal beating iron out, or the mountain stream ‘His rollrock highroad roaring down’.  And he loved the distinctness in all things; each must be the individual that it is, as in ‘As Kingfishers catch fire’.  He loved the uniqueness of things, the ‘individually distinctive.’   He called this quality INSCAPE.  Another principle, that of INSTRESS was used by him to convey his understanding of the energy which made possible this uniqueness (‘It is the virtue of design, design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive’ wrote Hopkins in a letter to Bridges).  Michael Schmidt, in his Lives of the Poets, sums it up as follows: ‘Inscape is manifest, instress divine, the immanent presence of the divine in the object.’

Hopkins, says Seamus Heaney, is a poet who brings you to your senses.  The reader sees and hears the ‘hereness-and-nowness’ of the moment but the sounds also match the poem’s tone and mood.  Hopkins believed that ‘my verse is less to be read than heard….it is oratorical, that is the rhythm is so’.

When he looks at nature, his involvement with what he sees is total but it is never a celebration of nature for its own sake; Hopkins saw nature as an expression of God’s grandeur.  His poetry is inspired by his love of God and God’s creation.  He is a poet of extraordinary highs.  The imagination soars in a poem like ‘The Windhover’ but he is also a poet who is capable of writing the bleakest poetry about the depths of despair in The Terrible Sonnets.

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SAMPLE ANSWER

‘Hopkins’s imagery impresses us with its originality and its range.’  Discuss this view using a selection of poems by Hopkins on your course.

Hopkins is regarded as an innovator.  He innovated in many ways in his poetry and one primary instance of this innovation occurred in his use of language.  The world surrounded Hopkins with visions of God’s glory and the poet responded by capturing those moments in imagery that is ostensibly original and quite remarkable in its range.  Hopkins’s imagery serves one of two main purposes: to record and communicate the beauty of nature and its Creator or to reveal the anguish of a desolate soul that feels isolated from God.  In the early poetry, Hopkins employs imagery to expose God’s glory in nature’s elements while the later poetry gives us dramatic images of desolation and despair.

He opened an early poem of celebration, ‘God’s Grandeur’,  with the line: ’The world is charged with the grandeur of God’ and it seemed it was not too difficult for this sensitive poet to confirm this in the world around him.  In ‘Pied Beauty’ he also praises God for his creation when he says, ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’.  Hopkins, therefore, did not accept nature’s glories in any bland or pedestrian way.  Rather, he responded to them with imagination and freshness to create images that are strikingly original and at times quite inventive.

In ‘The Windhover’, Hopkins uses recurring images of royalty.  The high-flying solitary falcon is a monarch of the sky, surging with the poet’s spirit through the steady air.  The poet uses chivalric terms such as ‘dauphin’, and ‘minion’ to capture the elegant and dignified ‘striding’ falcon, the prince of the daylight.  God, too, is visualised as a ‘chevalier’.  These images carry connotations of medieval romance and chivalry, and perhaps the virtuous struggle of the falcon in the air is symbolic of the Christian knight, Christ the chevalier, overcoming the pervasive threat of evil.  This conflict in the poem is dramatised through imagery that suggests the supremacy of the falcon in flight, and his control and mastery that ‘rebuffed the big wind’.  Another feature of Hopkins’s images here is the way in which they are loaded with possibilities.  It is as if Hopkins intended to create multiple ideas in some of his images, each interesting and valid in its own way.  For example, the image of the falcon on a ‘rein’ may represent the motion of as horse at the end of a trainer’s long rein.  However, the term, being ambiguous, could also suggest the spiral climb of the bird.  Perhaps, Hopkins is encouraging us to ‘Buckle’ several ideas in our engagement with the poem.  What is not in doubt, at any rate, is the powerful and original representation, through the falcon, of Christ’s beauty and nobility.

Hopkins uses a very different image in describing the precision of the falcon’s flight, where he says, ‘As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend’.  This image also conveys the speed of the bird’s flight.  Other original images include that of ‘blue-bleak embers’ representing self-sacrifice and the ‘plough down sillion’ that evokes the hardship and perhaps tedium of daily labour.  In ‘The Windhover’, therefore, Hopkins employs images of flight, of majesty, of sacrifice and of glory ranging from a ‘dauphin’ to a ‘skate’s heel’, from a ‘fire’ to ‘blue-bleak embers’.  Such remarkable and wide ranging imagery reflects the vivid and precise response of the poet’s imagination to the sight of the falcon at dawn.  More importantly, perhaps, the imagery reveals that the moment created a response of deep spiritual insight.  There is nothing particularly novel in taking a falcon as subject matter.  However, what is original is the way Hopkins engages with the falcon, observes it and concentrates on it in a deeper way and articulates what it revealed to him through an interesting range of original imagery.

However, particularly in his Terrible Sonnets, there is another, more disturbing effect created by Hopkins’s wide ranging use of imagery. We know that he wrestled with doubt, particularly during his final years which he spent teaching in Dublin.  God exists, he is always certain of that, but why does he appear to be so far away, apparently unresponsive and uncaring to a man whose letters are ‘dead’?  Hopkins’s increasingly sinister images explore the bounds of human suffering and despair.  In the sonnet ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark’, for example, the conspicuous absence of daylight reminds us how far the poet has come from the glorious sunshine and colour in ‘Spring’, ‘God’s Grandeur’ or ‘The Windhover’.  There is little evidence of ‘couple-colour’ in ‘the black hours’ Hopkins has spent with his torment, suffering ‘yet longer light’s delay’.  The delay of light represents of course the delay of hope – all is now ‘gall’ and ‘heartburn’.  Quite remarkably, taste is evoked as a description of the poet’s state.  He becomes bitterness itself, borne out of his despair.  Yet, perhaps this is God’s will that he suffer the ‘curse’ with which his ‘bones’ and ‘flesh’ must contend.  But the poet’s tormented spirit is souring dough, which needs to be infused with spiritual ecstasy.

In his sonnet ‘No worst, there is none’, Hopkins outlines the intensity of his pain in the opening quatrain and then proceeds to seek significant comfort, but in vain.  This sonnet is particularly interesting in that many of its images echo through earlier poems where the mood was less despondent.  The poet’s sense of despair is emphasised in quatrain two in an unusual but particularly poignant image of his cries heaving ‘herds-long’, gathering at the gate of heaven perhaps but not being admitted or even acknowledged.  Where is the comfort that Hopkins himself had administered to Felix Randal?  The poet then refers to an ‘age-old anvil’, a sounding board which winces and rings out his pain. This very original image of the anvil reminds us again of Felix and his work in the forge, except on this occasion the poet is the raw material that Christ is beating into shape.  In the sestet, the poet refers to a natural landscape, the mountains.  In earlier poems, ‘wilderness’ filled him with joy.  Here, however, the steep cliffs, a nightmarish metaphor, represent the spiritual torment and physical suffering that the poet has had to endure, day in, day out.  The only comfort is the relief of sleep.  But in ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark’ the poet awakens to the oppressive darkness of night and yearns for the respite of daylight.  The dark night is itself symbolic of dark periods in the poet’s life when hope of spiritual ecstasy may have seemed very distant.

In Hopkins’s poetry, therefore, the range of imagery is certainly quite extensive, his originality unquestioned.  Imagery ignites the poet’s celebration and it ignites his desolation.  In the darkness, there is no flash of colour, of light, no ’dapple-dawn-drawn’ inspiration to lift his thoughts, no sparks, no flashes, no gold.  In 1889, only weeks before his death, Hopkins wrote ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord’.  In the poem images of fertility in nature abound: building, breeding, waking, growing.  The poet, however, is depicted in the sterile image of a ‘eunuch’.  Nonetheless, the concluding appeal, expressed again through a vivid and most appropriate image, is that as Spring renews nature, so God may send his ‘roots rain’.  Where there is prayer, there is hope!

DEVELOP YOUR OWN PERSONAL RESPONSE TO FR. HOPKINS!

  1. What impression of Hopkins the man do you get from his poetry?
  2. Is it necessary to admire the author to admire his work?
  3. Does the poet’s profound faith make it easier or more difficult for you to relate to his work?
  4. If you had the opportunity to interview Hopkins, what questions would you ask him?
  5. What do you like or dislike about the way Hopkins writes poetry?
  6. Do you think that the themes of his poetry have relevance in the modern world?
  7. Put forward an argument why Hopkins’s poetry should be retained on, or removed from, the Leaving Certificate course?

GENERAL QUESTIONS!!!!

  1. WHAT ARE THE CENTRAL THEMES OF HOPKINS’S POETRY?
  2. HOPKINS HAS BEEN CALLED ‘THE POET OF ENERGY’. HOW DOES HE CREATE THIS ENERGY IN HIS POEMS?
  3. ‘NO DOUBT MY POETRY ERRS ON THE SIDE OF ODDNESS’. IS HOPKINS’S POETRY TOO ‘ODD’ TO BE ENJOYABLE?
  4. ‘HOPKINS’S POETRY PRESENTS US WITH A DEEPLY PERSONAL AND PASSIONATE RESPONSE TO THE WORLD AND ITS CREATOR.’