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Posted on September 3rd, 2012, by

Gerard Manley Hopkins is considered to be one of the greatest innovators in the literature of the 19th century. The most important fact of his biography concerns his studying at Balliol College, Oxford University, where he entered Catholicism. 1868 was a turning point for him: he burned his early poems and became a novice in the Order of the Jesuits, which greatly influences his poetry. Hopkins returned to poetry only in 1875, creating “The Wreck of the Deutschland”¯, the first work in his characteristic style (Mariani 114-115). After that, he didn’t write much, but the written poems were the quintessence of feeling, creative imagination and syntactic innovation. One of the peculiar features of Hopkins’s poetry, also reflected in this paper, is the symbolic religious overtone, which played an important role for the poet-Catholic.

The complexity of studying Hopkins’s creative work has always been associated with innovative features of the language in comparison to the poetry of the 19th century: connections between the words defined on the basis of poetic etymology; complex semantic chains; technology of drawing with the words in order to reflect most vividly the beauty of nature and the surrounding world; and Hopkins’s specific rhythmic verse (Rogers 379-380).

Hopkins’s contribution to poetry relates to the concepts of “uniqueness”¯ and “running rhythm”¯. Under the first one he meant a specific, inimitative unicity of form, inherent to all the things in the world: in a sense, everything in the world is fresh, hidden, unseen, and individual, including the poem itself in its aspiration to reflect the uniqueness of the reality. The running rhythm, which has enormously influenced contemporary poets, supposes that there should be an exact number of stressed syllables in each line and a random number of unstressed ones, so that some lines get short and others are longer (Rogers 380-381).

The advantage of this rhythm is that it is close to the tempo of the emotional and excited spoken language, and so it is fraught with the negligence of style. In order to avoid this, Hopkins used the internal and end rhymes, alliteration, assonance, and other methods, not for decoration, but for revealing the content. The running rhythm is responsible for uniqueness, because it creates each poem in its unique metre.

The most significant poems of Hopkins are almost all religious and generally form three consequent groups. In “Pied beauty”¯ the nature is interpreted as a reflection of God, in “Hurrahing In Harvest”¯ the beauty of nature refers to the sublime beauty of spirit. The later poems are based on the contrast of nature and human. In the last years of his life in Dublin Hopkins, peering into the dark depths of his soul, created his famous “terrible”¯, or Dublin sonnets (Roger 382).

In Catholicism as a spiritual system Hopkins found the source of unity, which was lacking in his attention to the individual and the concrete. Catholicism of Hopkins was greatly connected with the desire to follow the path of greatest resistance, the path of maximalism, inherent to the romantic worldview. Despite the spread of the Oxford movement’s ideals, the adherents of High Anglican church generally treated Roman Catholicism negatively. Becoming a Catholic, the poet was in a position of exile in his own homeland. However, the aureole of martyrdom surrounding the history of the Order was, no doubt, very attractive for Hopkins (Hanson 27, 184-185).

The common feature of Hopkins’s religious poetry is the desire to gain personal unity with God, which is characteristic to the mystical poetic tradition. For example, the unity with God becomes the main theme of Hopkins’s poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland”¯ (1875), dedicated to the memory of Franciscan order’s sisters, who drowned in that shipwreck. Hopkins creates a sublime image of a nun, appealing to Christ and yearning that his victory over sin and death was one more time replicated in her body (Hopkins 110).

After entering the Order of the Jesuits, Hopkins described the feeling, which possessed him a year before taking monastic vows: a feeling that writing poetry is the unworthy occupation (Mariani 232-233). In Hopkins’s conscience poetry was competing with his religious mission. Trying to suppress this aspiration, in the poem “The Habit of Perfection”¯ Hopkins develops the idea of refusal from the beauty of the external world, from sensory perception of the world, giving preference to “elected silence”¯ instead of hearing, “uncreated light”¯ instead of vision, etc. (Hopkins 80). This poem became one of the important stages of Hopkins’s creativity and a manifesto of his boundless desire, above all, to spiritual perfection, without which the perfection of human life is impossible.

The deep problem of Hopkins’s worldview is related to the concept of divine orderliness, denial of chaos, fluidity of the world, the principle of random connections of form and content. Hopkins tried to protect the hierarchical structure of the world, approved by Christianity, from the destruction. In Hopkins’s poetry, this problem affects the formation of poetic language and was solved by the poet through the creation of a unique and innovative theory of language, which was based on the idea that all the world’s divine connections are reflected in the linguistic structure, coordinating relationship between subject and object. Hopkins creates complex linguistic constructions, designed to identify the relations of all things and the supreme meaning, put into these relations (Phillips 245-250).

Hopkins was always afraid that his interest to the individual prevented the comprehension of integrity; that is why he turned to Catholicism as a Christian religion, associated with the principle of unity of existence. However, the interest in the individual nature of each thing and phenomenon prevailed in his poetry throughout his creative work (Phillips 260-263). In order to reconcile the commitment to the holistic perception of the world and his interest in individual and private, Hopkins creates and develops special concepts of Inscape and Instress, which become key notions to his interpretation of the poetic vision.

According to Hopkins, inscape means the internal structure, the essence of the object; it is a naked structure of object, and at the same time, the concept of its vital force, which helps to outline its individual features. Detection is a unique form of internal and higher meaning of speech is poetry as such. By instress Hopkins denotes a feeling or impression produced by internal structure; an impression that affects human vision of the inner nature of the subject and is difficult to express in words (Phillips 250-252).

Hopkins uses these notions in order to express in poetry everything, that defies verbal expression and refers to the inner essence of an object or image, and above all, they are connected with the idea of God’s plan, laid in all things. Thus, admiration with the beauty of anything in the world is actually admiration of God and His glorification. According to Hopkins, every creature is one of the innumerable and each time unique incarnations of God. Therefore it was necessary to reconcile the sensuous feeling of diversity of the world, the love to sharply individualized subjects and details of nature with the faith in the transcendent unity of God (Hanson 184-185).

In his works Hopkins stresses that inspiration is available only to a true genius and is temporarily in its length. Its main feature is the existence of a unique innovation in how poetry reflects the inner essence of things (inscape), and the impression from them (instress). The concepts of inscape and instress were designed by Hopkins to symbolize his basic philosophical and aesthetic ideas. The ability to express and convey inscape and instress in poetry can be interpreted as the ability to achieve the revelation and have the opportunity to transmit this revelation in a poetic work through language.

For Hopkins, the search for patterns, which bring together individual pieces or series of objects and for more general laws of aesthetic organization in nature was the search for evidence of divine power. Constant craving for comparisons led Hopkins to a vision of some structural characteristics, common for many objects and phenomena. Even in Hopkins’s early works we meet “fan”¯ in the description of branches and leaves, tree branches as “ribs”¯ and trunk as “spine”¯, come across the similarity of light-pierced clouds with spiderweb. All the nature is penetrated with the same images, or matrices; no resemblance is accidental and each of them indicates the presence of God (Hopkins 1-54).

In addition, the image of flame is specific in the poetry of Hopkins. In the sonnet “The Windhover: To Christ Our Lord”¯ the beauty of flying birds, “kingdom of daylight’s dauphin”¯, represents the perfection (“mastery”¯) and unity of creation, driven by fire penetrating everywhere (Hopkins 132). “God’s Grandeur”¯ fills the world, so “It will flame out, like shining from shook foil”¯ (Hopkins 128). In a later work “Heraclitean Fire”¯ Hopkins speaks of nature as of eternally burning fire (“eternal beam”¯), comparing to which the fire of human soul would be less durable, if there was no gift of resurrection, which reminds people that the wood coal, remaining after the fire, becomes “immortal diamond”¯ (Hopkins 180). Flame and fire are symbols of comprehension of the divine essence and the beauty of nature.

Specification and physical palpability of God are generally quite typical for Hopkins’s lyricism. Nature and God in his worldview are represented as unity; the beautiful in nature is the manifestation of God in the visible world. So, in Hopkins’s poetry the lyrics of nature and religious poetry represent the unity. In other words, it is the religious poetry of nature.

Hopkins’s poetry belongs to the type of mystical poetry, which is designated as Ā«I-YouĀ». Among the samples of mystical works of this type in the Catholic tradition are the works of Juan de la Cruz, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena (Rogers 379). Their main feature is the attempt to transmit the individual experience of direct contact with God, which is finally often acknowledged by authors impossible due to the limited capacity of language. In the English literature mystical poetry has centuries-old traditions, associated with such medieval poets as Walter Hilton and Richard Rolle. In many aspects, Hopkins could be considered a successor and heir of that tradition.

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