An Analysis of Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Inversnaid-by-Gerard-Manley-Hopkins
 (c) poemanalysis.com

This darksome burn, horseback brown, 
His rollrock highroad roaring down, 
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam 
Flutes and low to the lake falls home. 

A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth 
Turns and twindles over the broth 
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning, 
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning. 

Degged with dew, dappled with dew, 
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through, 
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern, 
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn. 

What would the world be, once bereft 
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left, 
O let them be left, wildness and wet; 
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. 

Commentary

The initial response of a class hearing Hopkins for the first time – in my long experience – can only be described as a kind of muted sniffling, an uneasy shuffling!  Indeed, I am reminded of a scene from Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Van.   In the novel, Darren is studying Hopkins’s poetry for his  Leaving Cert.  He reads one of the poems – probably Inversnaid – and wonders when Tippex had been invented and he concludes, ‘Gerrah Manley Hopkins had definitely been sniffing something.’  Not all students are as negative as Darren but given a chance most conclude that this poetry is old but yet new and surprising.  This difference is what opens the paths to further exploration.  Here we have someone experimenting and stretching the outer limits of language just like a modern rapper would do. 

Inversnaid, while not one of his best poems, shows how he continually explores the possibilities of words.  A good class will enjoy puzzling out the images, rather like trying to solve a cryptic crossword.  There may even be arguments about which sense of ‘comb’ is intended.  However, the average class will need a lot of help with this poem. 

Finally, by way of introduction, this poem does not end with a homily like many of Hopkins’ poems but instead takes on a very modern plea and could have been written in 2021 by any one of a range of eco-warriors from David Attenborough to Greta Thunberg.  However, while the spiritual dimension, so explicitly treated in ‘Spring’ and other poems, may be hidden from the reader, here one senses that it is never far from the poet-priest’s mind.

The poem was written in 1881 while Fr Hopkins, the Jesuit priest, was ministering to his flock in inner city Glasgow.  On one of his rest days he paid a hurried visit to the little village of Inversnaid near the shores of Loch Lomond in the Scottish Highlands and was inspired to write this poem.

The poem was written at the height of the Industrial Revolution in England and Scotland and the poet makes a very prescient and prophetic appeal that such places should not be destroyed forever by man’s search for wealth at any price.  The poet praises the special and irreplaceable beauty of the ‘wetness and wildness’ of the world.

Hopkins wrote the poem at a time when the Industrial Revolution in England was beginning to destroy the countryside.  There was also a counter move by Victorians to set aside areas of great beauty so that people who could afford it could escape to enjoy the beauty of nature.  Victoria herself had her Scottish royal retreat at Balmoral and this is still in use to this day.  Elsewhere places of particular scenic beauty such as the Lake District in England and Killarney in Ireland were making a name for themselves as soothing spa resorts where the rich and famous came to relax and enjoy the restorative power of nature in all its glory and wildness.  Here Hopkins pleads that such places should be spared and were, in fact, essential.  He attempts in the first three stanzas to convince people of the wonder of such areas; this he does by using all his word-power to describe what he sees in an exciting way.  In the final stanza he presents his plea in repetitive and almost desperate terms.

The structure of the poem, unlike its language, is very simple.  The first three stanzas convey a lively and exciting picture in our minds.  The final stanza then is a plea that such beauty be preserved.  Each stanza contains four lines, and each line has four stresses.  Hopkins stresses the important word and this can be surrounded by any number of unstressed syllables.  This unique form of rhyming scheme he called sprung rhythm.

Hopkins is describing a river rushing and roaring down the Scottish hillside to reach Loch Lomond.  The river begins high in the hills and flows powerfully down over the rocks, then eases into lower land and flows gently into the lake.  There are many pools and eddies filled with froth so dark that they suggest despair.  Dew sparkles on the banks beside the river where wild plants grow such as heath and fern and ash trees.  The last stanza is a passionate plea to his fellow man to leave such wildness and beauty alone, and let them survive.

Hopkins language can be difficult because he is constantly experimenting.  In this poem, for instance, he is obviously infatuated by the Scottish accents all around him and we can see this in the continual use of ‘r’ alliterative sounds throughout the poem.  Hopkins tries to capture the inscape and instress of a fast flowing stream in the rural landscape of Inversnaid.  He makes use of a number of important techniques to capture the true essence and energy of the stream such as compound words, sprung rhythm and alliteration to great effect.  He also invents new words, and makes use of local colloquial and dialect words freely. 

To fully appreciate the beauty of the poem you really need to read it aloud in your best Scottish accent!  From the very beginning he sets the scene,

This darksome burn, horseback brown,

His rollrock highroad roaring down,

These lines suggest the river’s steep rush through the highlands.  The hard vowel sounds convey the rush and roar of the water over the rocks.  The essence and energy of the river (its inscape and instress) is compared in a lovely metaphor to a wild horse careering downhill at great speed.

The final two lines in the first stanza are calmer

In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam 
Flutes and low to the lake falls home. 


The poet uses alliteration to suggest a peaceful pool with foam like ‘fleece’ gently circling as in a whirlpool.  ‘Coop’ and ‘comb’, ‘fleece’ and ‘foam’ convey multiple images if we allow them in.  The energy of the river is now ‘cooped up’ in a rockpool and the water gently ‘combs’ over the rocks and falls with lovely sibilant ‘s’ sounds to the lake.

shiny boulders and water stream
Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

In the second stanza the focus switches to these stiller shallow pools.  The ‘fleece’ of stanza one is now a ‘windpuff-bonnet’ of ‘fawn-froth’.  These are lovely examples of compound words made up by the poet to describe the scene before him.  The poet is after all trying to describe or inscape a whirlpool and he invents a new verb to describe the motion of the pool – it ‘twindles’.  This swirling motion produces very ominous, dark emotions in the poet: the pool is now a ‘broth’, a ‘pitchblack’ soup of seething river in flood.  The darkness or shadows of the area also help induce a mood of despair – Hopkins gives it even added importance by giving it a capital ‘D’.  ‘Fell-frowning’ has many layers of meaning.  Again it is a compound word invented for the occasion: Hopkins often uses ‘fell’ in his poetry and usually it means foul or evil.  The stanza is a perfect example of sprung rhythm, a unique Hopkins invention.  (Read the stanza again – out loud – to get a feel for this rhythm).

The focus now switches to the banks of the stream and the abundance of plants and shrubs and trees that exist there.  He uses a very precise set of words to capture the essence, the inscape of the gorge through which this stream is flowing.  It is a glorious description of nature in all its wildness:

Degged with dew, dappled with dew,

Are the groins of the braes that the brook threads through,

Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,

And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

We get the sense of the river picking up speed again in the first two lines before it slows again before the stanza ends.

In the last stanza, Hopkins uses many words beginning with the letter ‘w’.  This, combined with all the repetition, conveys a mood of anxiety and pleading.  The use of the rhetorical question also gives a sense of his uncertainty.  He ends by issuing an appeal, asking us to preserve the natural landscape. Yet again, one can detect the intensity of the emotion in his pleading and in his poetry.   Hopkins finishes with a rallying cry, almost a call to arms, similar to what Greta Thunberg has done in recent times, in which he champions the natural world and pleads with us to respect it.  That call is now nearly 150 years old and, unfortunately, is more pertinent today that ever before.

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Further Study

You might like to have a read of the following blog which explains the various terms such as ‘inscape’, ‘instress’ and ‘sprung rhythm’ used in the above notes.  Just click on the link.

The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

You might also be interested in the following blogs which analyse particular poems by Hopkins:

Analysis of The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Commentary on Pied Beauty by Hopkins

 

Listen as Tom O’Bedlam reads Inversnaid