Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 - 1889)

Innovative precursor of Modernism

By Ian Mackean and Stephen Colbourn

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn falcon

[The Windhover]


Although Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) lived and wrote in the nineteenth century, his work did not enter the canon of English literature until 1918, when a volume of his poetry was published by the then Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges.  Once it appeared, Hopkins’s poetry became a major influence on twentieth century English poetry, and his innovative approach to language can be seen as prefiguring the experimentation with language as a medium in the works of many Modernist writers.

Hopkins was a brilliant scholar at Balliol College, Oxford, who became a Jesuit priest. He was also an amateur musician, writing atonal music, and kept a journal which he illustrated with drawings from nature.  In his journal he records some of the terms he coined for concepts he was trying to express in his poetry, and which he expanded upon in the Preface to the first edition of his poems. W. H. Gardner explains the two main terms as follows:

As a name for that ‘individually-distinctive’ form (made up of various sense-data) which constitutes the rich and revealing ‘one-ness’ of the natural object, he coined the word inscape; and for that energy of being by which all things are upheld, for that natural (but ultimately supernatural) stress which determines an inscape and keeps it in being – for that he coined the name instress. [1]

With the exception of a few Latin verses, Hopkins did not write his poetry for publication.  Instead, he sent his works to his life-long friend, Robert Bridges (1844-1930), and Coventry Patmore (1823-1896) and  burned his own copies.

His verse was so unusual that it was considered inept in the nineteenth century; almost a product of language disorder or mental disturbance, but its highly individual and personal approach, and innovative use of language, struck a chord with, and inspired, poets of the Modern era. 

Hopkins was innovative not only in the way he selected and combined words for their sensual and musical qualities, but also in the way he broke up the traditional metre of poetry, using unpredictable rhythms as part of his technique of ‘sprung rhythm’, which he also explained in his Preface.  In sprung rhythm the conventional regular rhythms of poetry are mixed with the rhythms of speech, varying the number of syllables, and intervals between stresses in each line.

The effect of Hopkins’s poetry is cumulative and impressionistic and often defies an answer to 'what does it mean?' but begs the questions 'what does it imply, or feel like, or how does it accord with memory?'  It is the poetry of dreamscape and inner life and its purpose, to Hopkins, was deeply religious and akin to prayer.  He attempted to go beyond language to convey what words cannot say.  He could never have accepted Ludwig Wittgenstein's dictum that 'Whereof one cannot speak, therof must one be silent'; on the contrary, he strove to give voice to the ineffable.

One now-famous poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, which he submitted for publication in a Catholic journal, demonstrates how he strained at the limits of language.  The poem was rejected, which disheartened the highly sensitive Hopkins who could hardly bear to show his works to others for fear that he would not be understood, or worse, would be ridiculed. 

The Wreck of the Deutschland, an odd and convoluted work, is a meditation on man and God, and shows Hopkins attempting a new form of expression to energise the art of poetry.  He used everyday idiom, employed Anglo-Saxon words and assonance, internal rhyme, alliteration, and a complex rhythmic and linguistic scheme that came to him from his study of Welsh poetry:

Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World's strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

More typical of Hopkins are the sonnets that he wrote in 1877, such as God's Grandeur, The Lantern out of Doors and The Windhover, his most celebrated poem, describing the flight of a falcon:

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!

Hopkins's final 'dark sonnets' owe something, in their approach to their religious subject matter, to the Metaphysical poets John Donne and George Herbert.  The poems constitute a record of an acute spiritual crisis, and the verse is simpler in style.

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.

The powerful expression of spiritual pain is seen again in:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked `No lingering!
Let me be fell: force I must be brief'.

There are direct echoes of these language forms in Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, and Dylan Thomas attempted to imitate the word-music and striking collocations.  The critic Walford Davis identifies the influence of Hopkins not only in the poetry of Dylan Thomas, who was an enormous influence on later poets, but also in the work of W. H Auden (insofar as he could consciously write a Hopkinsian pastiche), and in the works of W. R. Rodgers, and William Empson, in that they were influenced by Hopkins’s ability to give weight and density to lines of verse. [2].  Hopkins was also a direct influence on Ivor Gurney, and Seamus Heaney, and a favourite of the influential American poet Elizabeth Bishop.

Hopkins’s style is seen at its simplest and most direct in such a poem as Heaven Haven in which a nun contemplates taking the veil:

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

1. Gardner, W. H. Gerard Manley Hopkins: a selection of his poems and prose. Penguin. 1953.
2. Davies, Walford. (Ed.) Dylan Thomas, Selected Poems.  Dent. 1974

© Ian Mackean and Stephen Colbourn 2005

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