Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins was an ineffectual parish priest and a hardworking but unappreciated teacher who, during his lifetime, wrote a small body of obscure and ignored poetry. After his death his work was edited and published by Robert Bridges and is now regarded as some of the most important poetry of the Victorian era; indeed it is some of the most important religious poetry of all time.

His work was technically revolutionary. He devised a new form of metre which he called sprung rhythm. Instead of lines constructed of words with a set number of variously stressed syllables, as was customary in English poetry, he constructed his lines of a number of feet - each with a varying number of syllables - but with the stress always falling on the first syllable of the foot. In this way he pioneered a freer rhythmic structure and paved the way for the later development of free verse.

But his great innovation was religious, or philosophical or cosmological. He was fascinated by Being. He believed that everything in existence had a reason for being here, and each thing - each rock and blade of grass and person and institution and relationship - had its own unique identity. This identity could be described as the thing's inscape, in the same way that we talk about the landscape of a geographical region. Everything had its own inscape, and the particular energy of the thing, the energy which held this inscape together and was expressed by it, he called instress. The instress was thus akin to what Maori might call the Wairua of a person or thing. It was the thing's soul, although soul is a poor synonym because even inanimate objects had an inscape and instress.

Hopkins sought to express, in his poems, the inscape of the thing he was talking about. He thought that his poems should impart the instress of his subject to the reader, and do it in a particular way. He used his innovative rhythmic structure and carefully chose his words, manufacturing words where he needed to, to construct a poem which was deliberately tight and obscure. The reader encountered the poem and while charmed by its beauty and originality, was left somewhat baffled as to its meaning. But on rereading the poem several times an extraordinary thing happened: the poem suddenly burst into meaning , opening itself like a rosebud quickly blooming, revealing the completeness of its meaning all at once, and, in that opening, imparting the instress of the subject to the reader as a felt and intuited and understood thing.

I once described all this in a conversation with somebody. That conversation changed her life. Mine too.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
 - Gerard Manley Hopkins


Merv said…
Thank you for sharing this delightful conversation with us.
My life was changed 50 years ago when my High School English teacher introduced the class to 'God's Grandeur'.
Noelene said…
Yes I thank you too, Kelvin. Like Merv's, my view of the sights and sounds of this amazing world was opened wider by my 6th form English teacher (state school!) as he read "Pied Beauty" and "The Windhover" to us. Such language was so exciting .. and deep.
Barbara McGrath said…
You describe the work of Hopkins most wonderfully and beautifully, Kelvin.
It is life changing indeed. The jewelled simplicity of the words has stayed with me all my life.