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Saying Simply

Reading Hopkins


Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) died of typhoid. It can be a struggle to remember this.

When a gifted and intense nineteenth-century poet dies in his prime, it is natural to assume that he or she died of tuberculosis, or some other wasting and literary disease, and that his or her life was shaped in part by the foreknowledge that it would be a brief one.

But Hopkins was simply struck down. So one shouldn’t too lightly construct a scenario of earlier intensity, a later flagging of creativity, and an appropriately melancholy and foredoomed conclusion.

We simply don’t know what his career would have looked like had he lived, say, until he was seventy, which would have brought him to 1914.


Hopkins was born a couple of years after Mallarmé, who also died abruptly and before his time.

Both were, professionally, teachers of the unintellectual young—Mallarmé in his lycées, Hopkins (during his later years) inside the Jesuit order Both found that work demanding and tiring.

The body of serious poetry by each was slim.

Both were fascinated by the craft of verse, and by language.

Both could be very obscure. Mallarmé’s French was pas Français at times, Hopkins’ English un-English, or at least not “proper” English.

Neither man rushed to publication. Mallarmé continued tinkering with works for years, and all but a handful of Hopkins’ poems remained unpublished until almost thirty years after his death.


Hopkins became a literal priest of religion, Mallarmé a figurative one of art, as in his “Tuesdays.”

Both were strange.

Being an English Catholic (as distinct from an Irish or Continental one) was an odd business, given the long and intense English hostility to Catholicism as a religion of tyranny and treason.

Becoming not only a convert but a priest was even odder, as though a gifted present-day poet were to become a hard-core Scientologist.

As for Mallarmé, apparently a fair amount of fun was made of him in the popular French press once the younger Symbolistes got under way in the 1880s and he himself became more visible.


No doubt this list of loose analogies could be extended.

But what most concerns me here is that with both poets, and in the commentaries on them, one can have the sensation of stepping into special and rather intimidating zones where somehow the “normal” rules of poetry (whatever they may be) don’t apply, or only very marginally.

In part this is because of the textures of their writing, in part because of the relationships of those textures to transcendent truths and experiencings that bring into question the taken-for-granted certainties of ordinary living.

Mallarmé’s sense of the void was not just intellectual posing.

Likewise, Hopkins was not just a poet who happened to be also a Catholic. He was an intensely Catholic poet in an increasingly secular period.


The intensity of the critical discussions of Hopkins obviously derive in part from this.

If one was a Catholic oneself, it could be not simply a source of comfort that being a Jesuit was compatible with writing major poetry. It could also be a source of anxiety because that major status had to be claimed and defended.

And where Hopkins’ metric is concerned, there seems to me to have been a related feeling that the elusiveness of his procedures at times, and the oddness of some of his claims, were essential to his expression of more or less ineffable emotions and experiences that could not be embodied in more traditional forms.


I am going to dodge talking about the religious aspects here.

Where the metrics are concerned, I want to simplify things a lot, without, I hope, oversimplifying them. We do not, at this time of year, want to get all bogged down among quasi-theoretical tangles of obscure scansion marks.


So far as I have been able to figure out, to appreciate Hopkins’ poems one needs to grant him, without further question, certain basic facts about his own verse.

At bottom, this comes down to saying that once one has determined, on the basis of some unambiguous line or set of lines, what basic number of main stresses a line in that poem should contain (five? six? four?), one must then go through the poem line by line and mark that number of stresses, and only that number of stresses, in each line.

I don’t mean that all the other syllables in a line have no degrees of emphasis, so that one proceeds through a series of shouted peaks and whispered troughs.

But one must not start importing extra stresses into a line (usually by thinking in terms of spondees) and thereby end up with varying numbers of primary stresses.


What in effect this means is that one must abandon, or go against the grain of, two of what are likely to be one’s normal ways of proceeding.

One is to begin with one’s own generalized sense of how (drawing on one’s own English) one would “naturally” stress something.

Another is to bring into play one’s basic sense of iambic rhythms and all the substitutions that accentual-syllabic verse permits.

There are no spondees in Hopkins’ sprung rhythm, nor are there iambs or anapests.

In a five-stresses poem, there are always five “stressed” syllables and only five such syllables per line. The other syllables all group themselves in subordinate relationships to the stressed ones.

They group themselves, technically, into feet—one-syllable, two-syllable, three-syllable, four-syllable, occasionally more-than-four-syllable feet, in which the stressed syllable is the first one in the foot.


The two-syllable, three-syllable, and four-syllable feet can be thought of, respectively, as trochees, dactyls, and fourth paeons. I forget the term for a one-syllable foot.

A poem can open with an unstressed syllable, as in the first line of “The Windhover,” but once we have the first stressed syllable (“I caught this morning...”), the feet start too, and they are always “falling” rather than “rising” feet.

If a line happens to end with a stressed syllable, there will probably be an unstressed syllable or two at the start of the next line that can attach themselves to it.


All this may seem more than a little odd when taken in by the mind alone, especially since rising rhythms (iambs and anapests) are much the most common in English verse.

One wants to see Hopkins’ lines as basically iambic/anapestic, with substitutions. This is what he means, I think, when he speaks of “counterpoint.” But, as I have said, one must not so see them.

And so long as one gets one’s stress-count right, one doesn’t have to worry about feet at all, so far as I can see, at least when reading his verse. I have no idea what trying to write it would be like.

But I suspect, now that I come to think about it, that just as there are auditory limits to how long a line in English can be and still be a unit (rather than breaking mechanically into two or more parts), so there are natural limits as to how many unstressed syllables can be grouped with a stressed one before one of them rises to equal prominence.

The normal limit of sounded syllables (as distinct from ones that are there for the eye only) is probably four.

So Hopkins’ four basic feet are there, and no doubt his mind’s ear was conscious of patterns of contracted and expanded feet.

A line consisting of four one-syllable one-stress feet would be very different from one made up of four four-syllable ones.


Paradoxically, once one gets down to cases, all this works pretty well, at least in Hopkins.

It works because the stresses are related to meaning in determinable ways, since what we are being given are speech-stressings, as in the differences between “Look at the white house” (two ways of stressing that, actually) and “Look at the White House.”

Hopkins obviously had a fine ear for such distinctions.

And to honour his intentions in fact makes his verse more accessible and more precise, because doing away with the generalized boom and clatter that come when you thump down on syllable after syllable because that is how “common sense” tells you each should be said in an excited state of mind.

In that kind of reading, individual words (and perhaps concepts) are likely to be given an unnatural prominence, as in a phrasing like “dápple-dáwn-dráwn fálcon.”

In Hopkins’ own reading, if I am correct, only one of the first three words is stressed. The meaning is the meaning of the phrasal unit that they compose, as in an idiomatic statement like “He was caught red-hánded.”


I don’t mean that one can always be certain as to where the stresses are meant to go. Nor am I defending this system as one that others can use with relative ease.

In fact very few poets indeed, possibly none, appear to have taken over Hopkins’s system and applied it precisely, as distinct from throwing loose handfuls of stresses at the reader as ways of signalling states of excitement.

I am simply pointing to what, so far as I have been able to determine, is there to be found in Hopkins own poems.


I don’t feel that we need to agonize over the terminology. I also feel that one doesn’t have to go into a decline because one can’t figure out how to mark a line. The fact that there may be exceptions at times, or that at times Hopkins may seem to be making excessive demands on his reader’s ear and patience if things are to come out right, does not negate what I have been saying.

I am of course assuming that one’s markings are preparations for reading the poem from start to finish aloud (scorings, as it were), and that one may be moving back and forth between voice and eye while making one’s marks, or at least putting marks over syllables about which one would otherwise be in doubt.


I am providing for the 5510 file a copy of a long strong paper (40 pages of the smaller of the two ordinary typefaces) done twenty years ago for this seminar. I’m also providing a handful of good pages from that paper for those who don’t have the time or patience (nor need they) to read the whole thing.


Lastly, I’m providing a mini-selection of Hopkins material for you to mark up.

As part of the preparation for next time, scan the last two poems (“Spring and Fall” and “The Windhover”) in the way that I have specified.

We may well find that there are disagreements and uncertainties as to where the stress marks should go. That’s fine.

But if you simply go by your “feeling” for a line, or by the kinds of scansion systems that we’ve been familiarizing ourselves with this year, you will learn little of use from the experience, except that Hopkins is “difficult.”


The point of all this, of course, is the poetry.

But one cannot deal with this with any precision if one cannot see what is being said in a line at a literal level. And one cannot do that without hearing Hopkins’ speech-based stresses.


As I’ve said before, my impression is that he is always pointing to things with a hoped-for precision.

I mentioned “weeds in wheels” in “Spring.”

In the second stanza of “The Wreck of the Deutschland,”, not included here, he writes, “I did say yes/ O at lightning and lashed rod.”

Normally one expects a rod to be doing the lashing. But in fact, as I realized recently, the rod here is the birch-rod or birch, so-called, of nineteenth-century English public schools like Eton.

The birch-rod in fact consisted of several switches from a birch tree tied together at the base (“lashed”), like a sort of stiff arborean cat-o-nine-tails.

In another of his poems he speaks of kissing the rod. That too, apparently, was part of the ritual of punishment with this implement.


At times, too, what looks like an oddity in stressing may be odd only because of subsequent linguistic changes.

When Hopkins himself stresses “Margaret” as “Márgarét,” the odds are that at that time the word, at least in some parts of Britain, was stressed more as though it were French. I say “in some parts,” because there was a lot more linguistic regionalism then.

I myself have also thought for a long time now that in the celebrated opening line of “God’s Grandeur” (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”), “grandeur” should have the stress on the second syllable.


Hopkins can still be opaquely difficult at times, like Mallarmé.

But it helps to feel, as one tries to teaze out the meaning, that this is not because he had been writing on some kind of spiritual acid high.

In this connection, look at his prose explication, on the final page, of a few of his lines. I’d call it Crane-like, except that Crane was obviously Hopkins-like in that passage of his that we glanced at.


As to the term “inscape,” I suggest that you try thinking of the differences between a non-gardener, ignorant even of the names of flowers and trees, who looks at a garden, and an informed and avid gardener who does so.

The former may well enjoy what is before her/his eyes (taking pictures, picking flowers, stretching out prone or supine under a tree).

But the latter will perceive that system of growth from the inside, as it were—will know what all those growing things are, and at what stages they are in their cycles, and what makes them happy with respect to sun and shade and water, and which ones are really doing well, and which may have problems, and what kinds of changings and prunings may be necessary.

She/he knows what this particular birch here is like, and that particular one over there.

He/she could also, if necessary, describe with some precision what he/she sees.

The latter, I would say, grasps the “inscape” of the garden.


The appended prose piece by Hopkins about the movements of water on a particular beach give us some idea (apart from the evidence of the poems themselves) of how he went about trying to feel his way into natural phenomena, the particularities of this physical but not merely physical world of ours that he so much relished and could make so real in a lot of his poems.

Nature there is a system of energies and processes, not just of appearances masking a realer reality—perhaps, even, the reality of a void.


Of course bleaker times came for him, in part, I imagine, because of the sheer exhaustion resulting from conscientiously lecturing to and grading a lot of uninspiring students (see A Portrait of the Artist for the ambience of University College, Dublin), and we have the so-called terrible sonnets, written when he was painfully conscious of how his ability to feel the inscape of things was flagging and fading.

These are generally, and I think correctly, rated highly in his oeuvre, and can make that pain feel very real.

But it is worth remembering that they are sonnets, and that even a poem as wild, to an initial glance, as “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” is a sonnet.

Hopkins may allude to King Lear in one of them, but he was not in fact Lear on the heath. and the exuberantly experimental and affirmative “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire” appears to have been written a year or two after the terrible sonnets.


In your recordings for next time, let’s try an experiment. Let’s have two of you make individual recordings of “Spring and Fall,” three make recordings of the octave of “Carrion Comfort,” and two make recordings of “The Leaden Echo,” in which last-named poem the rules that I’ve been outlining, and which must be followed in the first two sets of recordings, don’t apply and free emotion is the order of the day.

Consult with one another if you wish when you’re trying to score the texts. You can record other poems or passages as well if you wish. But it will be interesting to see how much agreement there is in the readings-aloud of the poems I’ve named. I suspect that there’ll be quite a bit.


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Saying Simply Verlaine Mallarme Suspiciousness Referentiality Holderlin Yeats Hopkins Hopkins2 Woolf