Thursday, March 3, 2011

Selections from Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) was not well-known during his life time but was later hailed by modernist poets such as W.H. Auden. Hopkins's work was published posthumously in 1918 by his friend and then Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. Highly religious during his lifetime, Hopkins converted to Catholicism, following in the footsteps of the Cardinal Newman. Hopkins joined the Jesuit order, and was ordained a priest in 1877. In his later life, Hopkins worked with parishioners in rough areas of Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow, which inspired later poems like "Felix Randal," "Harry Ploughman," and "Tom's Garland." 

Hopkins is now famous for his innovative "sprung rhythm," which contains feet of one to four syllables. Each of these feet may have one stress, which always begins the foot. Zero to three unstressed syllables may follow, yielding the possible feet of trochee ( / x ), dactyl ( / x x ), or paeon ( / x x x ). According to Hopkins, sprung rhythm sounds natural in that it is "the rhythm of common speech and of written prose," "in all but the most monotonously regular music," and "in nursery rhymes." Hopkins is also famous for his abstract notion of "inscapes," a distinctive design[s] which a person finds in...natural phenomenon" (SOURCE: Frank Fennell Jr., LitEncyc). This is different from his concept of "instress" which has more to do with the energy in the object perceived acting on the beholder's perception. 

The Wreck of Deutschland,” Hopkins's longest poem, is about the drowning of five Franciscan nuns on December 7, 1875. The first part of the poem (the first ten stanzas) are primarily about the poet's relationship to a violent and at times terrifying God whom he yet desires: "I did say yes / O at lightning and lashed rod; / Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess / They terror, O Christ, O God." The poet also describes the passion of Christ, which is also at once violent yet loving. The second part of the poem tells the story of the drowning, bringing the event into the present even though it has already happened. Part of the poet's project seems to be to inhabit the terrifying moment of the nuns' drownings:  "She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly / Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quals / Was calling 'O Christ, Christ, come quickly'" / The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst / Best." The poet seems to argue, that though terrifying, the event could be beautiful from a different perspective, namley God's: "They unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth, / Thou martyr-master: in thy sight / Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers--sweet / heaven was astrew in them." There is a sense that man cannot understand this violence and sees it as merely terrifying because of his limited perspective. The final stanzas of the poem focus more on the poet making peache with God: "I admire thee, master of the tides...throned behind / Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides."    

“Binsey Poplars,” subtitled "felled 1879" contrasts the aspens' former power to their current demise: "My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, / Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun, / All felled, felled, are all felled." The longer second stanza focuses on the violence of man as we know not what we do, "when we hew or delve." 

“Carrion Comfort,” one of the "terrible sonnets" is characterized by twisted syntax which mirrors the subject matter. The speaker begins with resistance against despair, which he analogizes to "carrion comfort": "Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee." He continues with a Hamlet-esque wondering about "being" and bursts out against the violence done upon him by a terrifying God: "But ah, O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me / They wring-world right foot rock?" In the sestet, the speaker begins to answer these questions more optimistically, though still struggling with being "foot trod" by God. The sestet is a wrestling with God, which he makes explicit in the final line which seems to signal that God has won, since he ends the poem quietly and calmly: "Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) / my God. 

“The Windhover” is dedicated "To Christ our Lord," roughly in sonnet form. It begins in the with the speaker saying that he "caught" (presumably, with his perception, and not literally) the windhover, described not by name but as "morning's minion, king-/dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in / his riding..." The speaker becomes enamored with the bird's swooping movement after hovering in the air. The second stanza continues to express an astonished admiration: "oh, air, pride, plume, here / Buckle!" The third stanza is a bit cryptic. It seems to give another instance of the divine "fire" which the poet has described in the second stanza as breaking from the bird: "No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion / Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, / Fall, fall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion." What's weird about it is that it kind of negates the glory of the vision which he has just described in saying that this "fire" might be found in the everyday and nondescript as well.

“Tom’s Garland,” subtitled "upon the Unemployed" describes a heavy-set, strong laborer: "Tom--garlanded with squat and surly steel / Tom" and imagines his place in the "commonweal." Specifically (as Hopkins describes in one of his letters), he imagines such laborers as the "mighty foot" of the commonwealth body, different from those may be the "head," certainly, but no less honorable and necessary for the functioning of the entire body. Hopkins's political vision warns against not incorporating people into the commonwealth body: "by Despair, bred Hangdog full; by Rage, / Manwolf, worse; and their packs infest the age."  

“I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark Not Day,” is a sonnet seemingly addressed to an unnamed "you," describing the poet's despair as like waking in the dark. It seems at first that he is talking of "black hours" literally during nighttime, but in the second quartet  says "But where I say / Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament / Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away." The final sestet makes no more reference to the "him" above (potentially God?) but turns to focus on the poet himself. He fears that he is a kind of soured Eucharistic body: "Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see / The lost are like this..." If the "you" and the "him" mean God, the sonnet argues against man who has isolated himself from God.  

"No Worst, There Is None. Pitched Past Pitch of Grief,” a sonnet, begins in despair, the poet questioning, "Comforter, where, where is your comforting?" The despair seems to open up to a more generalized despair in the next quartet, "My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief / Woe, world sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing." The sestet suggests that man himself can't understand the heights or depths of his own mind, and the only available certain comfort is that "Life death does end and each day dies with sleep." 

The (Petrarchan) sonnet “As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire Dragonflies Draw Flame” expresses "being" in circular phrasing: "Selves--goes itself; myself it speaks and spells; / Crying What I do is me: For that I came," and "Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is--." It ends with an affirmation of Christ being present in the features of men's faces, making them "lovely" to the Father. The sonnet expresses both particularity and universality--men and things are individual yet everything shares in a sort of Godly energy. 
“That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection,” describes the elemental and powerful force of nature, beginning with the clouds, and then the violent wind, which "ropes, wrestles, beats / earth bare." The whole of nature is a "bonfire" which "burns on." In contrast, Man's effect is weak: "Man, how fast his firedint his mark on mind is gone!" The poem ends though, with the assertion that because the poet also shares in Christ's being, he shares in his immortality: "I am all at once what Christ is,  since he was what I am, and / This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, / Is immortal diamond."  

God’s Grandeur,” a earlier (Petrarchan) sonnet forcefully proclaims "God's grandeur" in the world through a number of memorable (and strange!) metaphors. The poem begins: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; / It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed." Following from this, the poet tells of man's negative impact on God's creation ("Generations have trod, have trod, have trod") but the last sestet is reassuring, beginning with "And for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things," and ending with the reverent lines (the isolated and stressed last two words especially so), "Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."    

In the first two stanzas, the poet of “Felix Randal” muses on the husky, masculine Felix the farrier whom life had dealt hardly with, and who was now dead. We find out that the poet has ministered to him in his sick days. The third stanza generalizes on the effect of ministering to the sick: "This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears / My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy / tears, / They tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix / Randal." The final stanza muses how far Felix must have been from this when he was "at some random grim forge, powerful amidst peers." In other words, Felix didn't realize the elemental, divine, masculine force in which he was involved with in his work, but the poet realizes it for him here.   

“Pied Beauty” describes the beauty of "dappled things" like "skies of couple-colour" "rose moles" on the trout, "finches wings," and so forth. The first stanza gives examples of dappled beauty, and the second thinks on their strangeness and parenthetically notes of their origin, "(who knows how?)" This second stanza ends with the two word line in reference to the father of pied beauty: "Praise Him." Isobel Armstrong points out that the poem is organized around the copula "to be--it is revealed forcefully at the end "He fathers-forth" that the list of dappled beauty which has come before are predicates of the subject God. Hopkins's glorification of beauty which isn't usually considered "perfect" in its irregularity and patchiness parallels his poetic program of creating new grammatical structures and meter.

In “Spring and Fall,” the poet addresses a young child (Margaret), asking her if she is "grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?" He explains to her that though she may not know this know, it is her own mortality that she morns for. The final couplet reads: "It is the blight man was born for / It is Margaret you mourn for."

“Harry Ploughman" is yet another poem on the uber-masculine laborer, this time with "Hard as hurdle arms." Hopkins seems fascinated by the laborer's body, and clearly connects its strength to the elemental and violent energy associated with the divine. The name Harry Ploughman signals the fusing of Harry's body with the plough and his work, something which is borne out also in the poem. "He leans to it, Harry bends, look. Back, elbow, and liquid / waist / In him, all quail to the wallowing o' the plough." His body kind of melts into the motion of the plough. The working-class subject for Hopkins seems to peculiarly serve the religious idea put forth in poems like "As Kingfishers" that an elemental divine force runs through all people and things within the creation.   
Isobel Armstrong emphasizes Hopkins's "ontology of grammar," his reliance on "the authority of the Word made flesh through the incarnation of Christ." Hopkins created a new poetic system in order to find a linguistic, structuralist solution to the problem of representing being, something which he felt to be fixed (unlike Paterian flux and its tendency towards epicurean materialism). According to Armstrong, Hopkins felt rational accounts of happiness tended to just be "a materialist account of comfort and amusement for the masses" and so his poetry seeks to access a non-rationalist, non-materialist account of happiness that reaches for being as given by God (something which man can't really understand without the help of his creator; thus, so many of Hopkins's poems desire God's to break in, often violently). The force and strain of Hopkins's meter and rhythm seems to channel the notion of a powerful sense of being,  fixed and assertive up against a century that was moving towards dismantling the notion that words could represent the actual object of its representation.      

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