On Gerard Manley Hopkins
Of the great Catholic poet who had trouble sleeping.
Hopkins made language soar. His little sonnets, often reconfigured slightly into curtal (about 3/4 the length of the usual sonnet) or caudal (about 8/7 the length) forms, giddyingly swoop and glide like his windhover. An Anglo-Saxon linguistic purist, he filled his poems with compound neologisms, employed heavy alliteration, and did away with standard syntax, all to mimic the properties of Old English alliterative verse.
‘His was an ontology of grammar’, as Isobel Armstrong put it. Hopkins’ corpus enshrines his attempts to effectively incarnate the divine logos in the written word. He wanted language to perfectly unite the sign with the signified. He regarded language through the prism of the copula: his poetry sought to fuse together the subject with the predicate, and semantic meaning with actual Being(!). ‘Stress’ was the term he used to describe this binding of Being and language:
There would be no bridge, no stem of stress between us and things to bear us out and carry the mind over: without stress we might not and could not say /Blood is red/but only/This blood is red/or/The last blood I saw was red/not even that, for in later language not only universals would not be true but the copula would break down even in particular judgments. — From Hopkins’ essay on ‘Parminedes’, 9 February 1868
A counterpoint to the Epicurean flux which Hopkins regarded with disdain (and which influenced the thought of his tutor at Oxford, Walter Pater), Hopkins’ ‘stress’ is a kind of metaphysical Higgs Field. It related to his broader idea of ‘instress’, the perceptive force allowing humans to recognise ‘inscape’ (the unique divine imprint on all Creation) in living things. In his poems, we can see how Hopkins’ compound neologisms and manipulation of syntax tried to actualise this ‘stress’, bringing together subject and predicate into a kind of hypostatic union.
There’s much more to be said about inscape, but I will reserve discussion of his happier verses - those which lauded the ‘embers’ of Creation’s inscape - for another post.
An Analysis of ‘Spelt From Sibyl’s Leaves’
I think Hopkins’ most formidable poem is his sonnet ‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves’, one of the so-called ‘terrible sonnets’ (a group of late sonnets primarily concerned with religious doubt). The poem reads:
Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, ' vaulty, voluminous, . . . stupendous
Evening strains to be time’s vást, ' womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.
Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ' her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height
Waste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, ' stárs principal, overbend us,
Fíre-féaturing heaven. For earth ' her being as unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-
tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; ' self ín self steepèd and páshed – quite
Disremembering, dísmémbering, ' áll now. Heart, you round me right
With: Óur évening is over us; óur night ' whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.
Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ' damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,
Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! ' Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind
Off hér once skéined stained véined varíety ' upon áll on twó spools; párt, pen, páck
Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds – black, white; ' right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But thése two; wáre of a wórld where bút these ' twó tell, each off the óther; of a rack
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, ' thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.
To briefly try to explain what’s happening: the approaching night represents the coming of Judgement Day, and darkness is analogous with the all-consuming dread of Final Judgement. The sestet describes the transformation of evening into night, whilst the proceeding octet depicts the division of all life in the universe into the saved and the damned, alluding, of course, to the flocks of sheep and goats in the Gospel of Matthew’s apocalyptic parable. The lines are bifurcated into A- and B- verses using apostrophes, mimicking Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse (and perhaps serving as a microcosm of the theme of universal disintegration into a final, terrible binary). As the title indicates, the poem is arranged so as to imitate a scattered prophecy, like the leaves of a Cumaean Sibyl. The syntax is therefore extremely important: the words appear almost homeless, placed in rather chaotic non-sequence, until the scrutinising eye, divining the prophecy, interprets them with the aid of the invisible bonds of Anglo-Saxon-like word order.
I ran the poem through some software (LexTutor, Google Cloud’s Natural Language text analysis tool, CCG [Combinatory Categorial Grammar] tagger, etc.) and found some fun data which illustrates how insane this poem is. The ratio of verbs to other parts of speech in ‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves’ is 2:20, given the poem’s high adjectival density and Hopkins’ tendency to envelop the subjects of the verbs in adjectives; I think this ratio highlights the effect of the poem’s syntax on its lexical variety. For example, the first line is comprised of seven adjectives: ‘Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, ' vaulty, voluminous, . . . stupendous/ Evening strains to be time's vást, ' womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night’. The immediately disorientating effect of the asyndeton, as well as the free word-order, is a chief paradigm of the poem. Hopkins uses a verb-second word order in the final line ‘Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe-and shelterless, ' thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grind’. The syntactical structure is distinctly Anglo-Saxon: in Old English poetry, word-order was much freer given the far greater level of nominal and verbal inflections. Without these governing inflections (some kind of 13th century linguistic avalanche effectively left English un-inflected), the syntax here evokes a breakdown of elements, making the text mimetic of the cosmic chaos which it is describing. It’s of note that there are only five coordinating conjunctions in the poem.
A more overt example of syntax as mimesis can be observed in Hopkins’ bicolons ‘black, white; right, wrong’ which depict the binary opposition of sin and virtue in a doubly dual manner: they are two consecutive clauses separated by caesura, each composed of two juxtaposing adjectives which may also function as abstract nouns. Hopkins deliberately makes the parts of language and their organisation in the text symbolically mimetic of the wider event which the poem is describing: the division of all people into the damned and the saved.
The poem’s many neologisms, created by simple changes to extant words’ morphology, add to the poem’s confounding effect. Though adding prefixes to words (e.g. ‘selfwrung’ and ‘selfstrung’, denoting the universe’s self-division into an entropic binary) produces compound words which most readers can interpret without much trouble, these words are unrecognised by online corpora: LexTutor can only identify 1 keyword, ‘black’, from a total of 123 words in the poem, identifying a keyword ratio of 0.008 (where 001 is an extremely high keyword text and .009 is a low keyword text). I imagine Finnegan’s Wake has a similar ratio.
Hopkins Lay Wrestling with God
So, Hopkins adopted the formal properties of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse in un-inflected modern English. Form, after all, was a crucial ingredient in his ontology of grammar, as we see in the case of sprung rhythm. However, he by no means extended this imitation to genre; his ‘terrible sonnets’ are not exactly consolation poems. There is no final serene capitulation to the promise of glory in Heaven as there is in ‘The Wanderer’. The verses seethe with stress, in both the standard and the philosophical senses.
The ‘terrible sonnets’ frequently depict the poet struggling with dread in the depths of the night. You can practically envision him lying awake in his room in University College, Dublin, sweating in his sheets and wincing under the penetrating gaze of Christ on his crucifix, pinned stoically and terribly to the stark white wall opposite the bed.
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.
With witness I speak this. 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.
I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
In ‘I Wake and Feel’, darkness is also associated with dread, the experience of which seems to infinitely lengthen the hours. Though, at the close of the octave, God appears to have forsaken the speaker by failing to respond to his cries, the poem soon turns to self-revulsion (notably using another compound word with the -self suffix): ‘my taste was me’ […] selfyeast of a spirit a dull dough sours.’ In this remarkable metaphor, the speaker’s agency acts upon his soul like yeast acting within a dough; he is soured by his own misdeeds. The speaker ultimately blames himself for his endless depressive state, but remembers that those who have lost their relationship with God entirely - losing their conscience in the process - are even worse off: ‘the lost are like this, and their scourge to be/ As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.’
‘Carrion Comfort’ is perhaps my favourite of the ‘terrible sonnets’:
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
Here, Hopkins puts up a fight. Though the ‘strands’ of himself are ‘slack’, he refuses to yield to the temptations of that cardinal sin, the ‘carrion comfort’ Despair. I love the self-correction: ‘I kissed the rod,/ Hand rather’; I suspect the ‘rod’ alludes to his ministry as a Jesuit priest, which threatens to assume an erroneous priority over God Himself. It is a thoroughly self-reflexive poem, as all the ‘terrible sonnets’ are; therein lies the suffering. Though the speaker attempts to console himself with the notion that the tempest of his suffering might banish the ‘chaff’ of his doubt and bring him closer to God, this glimpse of hope quickly dwindles. He sends cries like dead letters to God: how can he obey the injunction to ‘cheer’ a Creator who wracks his existence with constant anguish? The sublime alliteration and assonance of ‘I wretch lay wrestling’ is matched in mastery by the successive internal and external cry, ‘(my God!) my God’. My God, the mind has mountains.
Hopkins was a man attuned to suffering. He was very ill late in life, afflicted with all kinds of ailments including chronic diarrhoea, progressive weight loss, fatigue, and weakness. His physical discomfort wasn’t totally involuntary; he documented his various ascetic practises in his journals:
For Lent no puddings on Sundays. No tea, except if to keep me awake and then without sugar. Meat only once a day. No verses in Passion week or on Fridays. Not to sit in armchair except can work no other way. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday bread and water.
Hopkins certainly believed in sacrifice - both through abstention from the pleasures and comforts of life to gain spiritual strength, and, on a grander scale, through heroic martyrdom. This notion of self-sacrifice is woven into The Wreck of the Deutschland, in which Hopkins compares the drownings of the monks and nuns in the famed shipwreck of 1875 with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In The Wreck, Hopkins’ poetic theodicy simultaneously deprecates mankind and venerates God in order to vindicate divine providence. He embraces the mystery of God’s actions in the antithetical phrasing ‘thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm [….] Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then’. Here, his characteristic alliterative pairs unify oppositional forces into a mysterious hypostasis; once again, his poetry is shot with mimesis. This phrasing, coupled with the paradoxical ‘dark descending’ of a ‘merciful’ God, invokes the mystery of God’s dual nature which both offers us salvation and seemingly allows the innocent to suffer. One means by which Hopkins makes sense of this duality is to dwell on the flaws of mankind, which, in the schema of his theodicy, justify human sacrifice (‘Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,/ Man's malice, with wrecking and storm’).
Elsewhere in the poem, Hopkins addresses St. Francis of Assissi (the nuns on the ship were Franciscans) who took on the sacrificial suffering of Christ by manifesting the stigmata. Hopkins evokes ‘his Lovescape crucified’, ‘with the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance’. Aligning the the deaths of the nuns with the crucifixion, Hopkins makes the shipwreck glorious. The compound epithets ‘fall-gold’ and ‘all-fire’ in the line ‘sealed in wild waters,/ To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances’ produce a startling image of bathing and breathing in fire. In conjunction with the imagery of baptism in the phrase ‘sealed in wild waters’, where ‘sealed’ takes on the double meaning of sacramental unction and submergence in water, Hopkins invokes the Holy Spirit to make the nuns’ deaths triumphant. So much of the joy of Hopkins’ poetry, counterpoising the gloom, derives from sacrifice: recall the image of the fire’s ‘blue-beak embers’ which ‘fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion’.
A final note: I suspect that Hopkins’ trouble sleeping was - had to be - a defining part of his suffering. He said somewhere of sleep paralysis that 'It made me think that this was how the souls in hell would be imprisoned in their bodies'. Yeah.