Thomas Eckert

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The Observations of Gerard Manley Hopkins

29 Sept 2017 | Rochester, NY

Originally written on 7 December 2015.

The poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins demonstrate a profound change in his state of mind from contentedness to depression. The letters and journals he wrote provide further evidence of his increasing pain. There is a correlation between his depressive state and the prevalence of self-reference in his text. In this state, his obsession with his own flaws overshadowed a sense of wonder and admiration for the outside world which abounded in his earlier works. However, as he neared death, Hopkins came to be at peace with his own faults. His work teaches a reader the inherent nobility in appreciating beauty found through observing the nature of the Universe.

One of Hopkins’ earliest poems is “A windy day in summer”. The poem was enclosed in a letter to E.H. Coleridge (Hopkins 308), a friend of his from Highgate, his boarding school from 1854 to 1863 (Martin 42, 12, 22). Hopkins urged Coleridge to come visit Balliol College at Oxford, which he attended after boarding school. In his view, the school was, “the head and the fount of Catholicism in England and the heart of our Church.” (Martin 42).

The poem, itself, is replete with rural imagery. Nature itself is the primary subject of the work,

The vex’d elm-heads are pale with the view
Of a mastering heaven utterly blue;
Swoll’n is the wind that in argent billows
Rolls across the labouring willows;
The chestnut-fans are loosely flirting,
And bared is the aspen’s silky skirting;
The sapphire pools are smit with white
And silver-shot with gusty light;
While the breeze by rank and measure
Paves the clouds on the swept azure. (Hopkins 11)

The piece maintains a calming mood, with a steady rhythm throughout and a couplet rhyming scheme. Hopkins seems pleased and fulfilled simply by observing the world around him. He does not refer to himself at any point in the poem. He is the implicit observer. A reader might visualize Hopkins sitting on a bench, or a hill, or as a floating specter omnisciently recording the world. There is no imposed perspective.

Compared to Hopkins’ later works, this piece is quite straightforward. The rhymes are not complex. Like many of his early pieces, the poem is a word-painting that does not go beyond describing a scene. The letter in which the poem was sent is dated 3 September, 1862 (Hopkins 308). The poem’s images are representative of a landscape one might see in the late months of summer at Oxford. Hopkins is not suffering. According to those who knew him, he enjoyed his early days at Balliol College. In the words of Vincent Amcotts, an acquaintance of Hopkins at the school, he was, “the greatest dilettante in the college. He also writes very good poetry.” (Martin 24). That poetry lifted an already contented Hopkins to a greater state of fulfillment and connection with the world around him.

Hopkins’ longing and love of nature is a theme carried into the bulk of his work. In May of 1865 he wrote “The Alchemist in the City”. The poem is a narrative that centers on Hopkins’ inner monologue as he wanders through a town. Though he appreciates the aesthetic qualities of the city, when he thinks of the hustle and bustle required to live in such an environment, he realizes that busy lifestyle does not suit him. For this reason, he longs for an existence apart from the world. This can be seen in lines 21 through 24, “No, I should love the city less/ Even than this my thankless lore;/ But I desire the wilderness/ Or weeded landslips of the shore.” and again in lines 33 through 36, “And then I hate the most that lore/ That holds no promise of success;/ Then sweetest seems the houseless shore,/ Then free and kind the wilderness,” (Hopkins 65).

At this time in his life, Hopkins was beginning to consider a conversion to Catholicism, inspired by connections he made with other students at Oxford including Robert Bridges and his cousin Digby Dolben (Martin 80 - 83). In his work, it appears that this change in his life – one that was so countercultural to the majority Anglican population – made him reflect upon the condition of being an outsider finding respite in the wild.

He cared deeply for the natural world. In his work “Binsey Poplars”, he wrote with indignation at the felling of trees on the Oxford campus, “O if we but knew what we do/ When we delve or hew —/ Hack and rack the growing green!” (9-11 Hopkins 142). He compares the loss of a handful of poplars, which are fast-growing trees, generally thought to be of little value beyond the aesthetic, to a deep gauge into the natural state of the world. However, it would seem that the aesthetic quality itself is what drives Hopkins’ love for the trees,

Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene. (20 - 24 Hopkins 142)

He is affected by the ease with which the trees were brought down, not in sadness for the trees themselves, but for the ruining of the scene they created. This scene being closely tied in with how they cast light in his room at school as mentioned in earlier lines, “My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,/ Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,” (1 - 2 Hopkins 142). His pain lies more in the loss of an aesthetic quality, as though the image of the aspens itself soothed him. Hopkins’ outward focus on the trees and how they fit into the world around him is valuable to him in an emotionally satisfying way.

Trees as images were important to Hopkins’ work. Several years prior to his writing of “Binsey Poplars” and the act to which the poem responded, Hopkins expressed his pain at the loss of an ash tree thusly, “The ashtree [sic] growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first: I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more” (Hopkins 359). His use of the word “inscape” is a reference to a nebulous inner nature of objects and people with which Hopkins’ felt a connection. This term, invented by Hopkins, was used in connection with another, “instress”. In the words of Glenn Everett, Ph.D. of English Literature from Brown University, “By ‘inscape’ [Hopkins] means the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things, and by ‘instress’ he means either the force of being which holds the inscape together or the impulse from the inscape which carries it whole into the mind of the beholder.” (Everett).

Though his observance and appreciation for the inscape of the Oxford campus was a source of peace for Hopkins, he found himself in places whose inscapes were far less fulfilling to him as he grew older. In particular, his assignment to the parish of St. Francis Xavier in Liverpool affected Hopkins in a profoundly negative way. The extremely successful parish was pleasing to many priests for its safety and solid establishment (Martin 317). However, Hopkins was overlooked because his sermons were not liked by his superiors at the church and fell flat in the ears of the many in the town. While he worked to please fellow parishioners who audited his sermons, his works remained theologically dark and complex as well as overlong in many cases. It was Hopkins’ view that, “What they wanted, no doubt, was the broad, heart-warming message of the Gospel transposed into modern dress.” It was not his intention to bow to these limits (Martin 321).

Five months after arriving at Liverpool, he wrote to an Oxford Friend, Alexander William Mowbray Baillie of the ‘Lancastrians’ of Leigh and Liverpool. While writing the letter, he was told that his sermon for that night was to be given to a father at the parish instead. Reacting to this, he wrote in the letter, “I do not think I can be long here; I have been long nowhere yet. I am brought face to face with the deepest poverty and misery in my district. On this theme I could write much, but it would do no good.” (Martin 323 – 324)

From Liverpool, Hopkins was sent to Glasgow as an assistant to St. Joseph’s church before beginning his third, and final, year of noviceship (Martin 333). During this time, he was exceptionally busy. Though he was in better spirits, things were not all well. He expressed this, writing, “Things are pleasanter here than at Liverpool. Wretched place too Glasgow is, like all our great towns; still I get on better here, though bad is the best of my getting on.” (Martin 334). To alleviate some of the stress of work in Glasgow, Hopkins was given a meager two days of time off. He wrote of this time to his friend Bridges, “I hurried from Glasgow one day to Loch Lomond. The day was dark and partly hid the lake, yet it did not altogether disfigure it but gave a pensive or solemn beauty which left a deep impression on me,” (Martin 335).

It was on this day that he wrote the poem “Inversnaid”, which was named after a small town on the banks of the Loch. The work is a beautiful description of the landscape around him. It is reminiscent of a far more mature version of “A windy day in summer”. This poetic maturation is evident in the complexity of his rhyme and imagery. He used accent markings to define the metrical feet that highlight important aspects of the poem. In this work, he overtly stated how the world around him brought a calmness to his soul in the second stanza, “A windpuff-bónnet of fáwn-fróth/ Turns and dwindles over the broth/ Of a póol so pítchblack, féll-frówning,/ It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.” (Hopkins 153). The word “Despair” being capitalized gives it a sense of persona. The feeling was an active force in his life. Though observing the lake drown the sadness for a time. It had become such a force in his life that it required effort to alleviate. In “A windy day in summer”, the natural landscape lifted Hopkins. Here, through the same act, it only swallowed his inner darkness.

That darkness would only grow until its culmination with a series of works referred to as “The Terrible Sonnets”. They are not so named for their lack of quality, but for their depressive tone and subject matter. None of the six poems were titled, nor were they sent to Robert Bridges unlike many of his works (Pearson 23). They were written during the final chapter in Hopkins’ life, in Dublin, as Fellow in Classics and Professor of Greek and Latin Literature at University College, which was newly formed upon his arrival (Hopkins xxxviii). This was not a pleasant time in his life. He spent much of his time grading papers, was unfulfilled by his work, and disliked by other faculty for his abnormal mannerisms (Martin 405). “The Terrible Sonnets” are individually referred to by their first lines, “To Seem the Stranger”, “I Wake and Feel”, “No Worst”, “Carrion Comfort”, “Patience, Hard Thing”, and “My Own Heart”.

The opening stanza of “To Seem the Stranger” provides a good sense of the series, “To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life/ Among strangers. Father and mother dear,/ Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near/ And he my peace/ my parting sword and strife.” (Hopkins 166). These lines identify Hopkins’ loneliness. They starkly contrast with the general body of his work for they are not about the connection between Hopkins and the world around him, but instead focus on his isolation from those whom he loves. He sees himself as an outcast, being shy, reclusive, and misunderstood. He expresses his lack of connection with his family being, “in Christ not near” (3), a reference to their evangelical religion being opposed to his Catholicism.

In these sonnets, his isolation is emphasized by his use of self-reference. This is best seen in “I Wake and Feel”, which reads,

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day…

… And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;…

…The lost are like this, and they scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
(1, 6–8, 9–10, 13–14 Hopkins 166)

Hopkins refers to himself eleven times in the fourteen-line piece. This is an exceptional divergence from his earlier works in which he is only an implicit character. The “Darkness” with which he wrestled at Inversnaid seems to have infected his very being. His depression locked him inside of himself and bleakly tinged the lens through which he experienced his own inscape. He illustrates his pleas to God as “dead letters” (7), words never received by their intended recipient. This is the explanation to which he fell. Being that his God was just, his treatment, which he compared to that of a sinner, could only have been because he deserved it or God was not listening. Either way, to be treated by God the same way his peers at St. Francis Xavier, the University College, and elsewhere had treated him was, in his view, tantamount to damnation.

Hopkins died four years after completing these sonnets. His final works do not all reflect the desperate tone of this period. They illustrate some grappling with his state of pain and connection to God. Only two months prior to his death, he penned “Justus quidem tu es, Domine” which reads,

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,
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 spend,…

…Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain. (1–8, 13–14 Hopkins 183)

Hopkins addresses God informally, as a friend, in this sonnet. While the tone of the work is less dark than in “The Terrible Sonnets”, he petitions similar requests to God. Mainly, these revolve around sinners being more fruitful than him, a servant of God. He questions why a just God would treat him in such a damnable way. Though he cannot find reason in his state, he does not seem to languish. He demonstrates an acceptance of his “Darkness” as part of his being through observing it within him, but not allowing it to define him. By calling himself “Time’s eunuch” (13), he identifies that he is not fruitful, but that this infertility is not inherent to his being. A eunuch being not born a eunuch, but achieving that status in life.

To look upon the work of Hopkins as a whole, a reader may see the rescindence of his infertility as a poet as being poetic itself. Hopkins became a read and studied poet in the century following his death. His work teaches readers patience and the honor inherent in observing God’s grandeur. It shows the importance of humanity in one’s work by demonstrating that all honestly produced art has value. Hopkins struggled in his life with acceptance and self-worth. Though painful, these struggles informed and strengthened his sense of observation. Without them, he may not have developed the insight for which he is known today. An appreciation of his work reinforces in any who study it a truth that observation of the Universe, though not always rewarded, is always noble.