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Saying Simply

Hopkins follow-up


In view of how interesting your Eliot tapings were, I’ve concluded that I shouldn’t have been so prescriptive about what you do with Hopkins.

So, record what poems and/or passages intrigue you—what seem to you interesting challenges.

However, will we really need more than two recordings of the same poem/passage? I mean, some diversifying would be nice.

And wouldn’t it be helpful if each of you were to provide the rest of us with a photocopy of what you’ve recorded, with the requisite number of stresses in each line marked, so that we can check your performance against the score, as it were? Don’t bother to mark unstressed (or “slack”) syllables, though.


I have checked the poems on the handout sheets with the texts in the Fourth Edition. They’re virtually identical.

I have also obtained the presumably definitive 1990 edition, The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Norman H. Mackenzie. A number of other markings by Hopkins himself are included in it. These will be there to be referred to, if anyone wishes, next Monday.

Oh yes, and the marks on the small-print “Windhover” are mostly ones that I’d put there myself and failed to erase.


I have also done what I should have done earlier, and checked what the notes in my old Penguin edition had to say about which of the poems are in Sprung Rhythm. The groups into which the poems appear to fall are as follows:

Standard rhythm

The Habit of Perfection, In Honour of St Alphonsus Rodriguez

Standard rhythm with counterpointing

God’s Grandeur, The Starlight Night, In the Valley of the Elwy, Thou art indeed just, Lord

Standard rhythm with some springing

Spring, No worst, there is none

Sprung rhythm

The Windhover, Felix Randal, Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves, Carrion Comfort, That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire, Duns Scotus’s Oxford, Spring and Fall.

The notes don’t say about the others, but I take it that Inversnaid and The Leaden Echo are both in Sprung Rhythm.


I also thought I’d better let you have some of Hopkins own words about his procedures, in case you were to wonder what I was hiding from you (or trying to shield you from).

The Author’s Preface, as you will see from the footnote, was done five or six years before Hopkins’ death.


Doing this cut-and-pasting caused me to do what I should have done earlier and re-read what Hopkins said.

I was interested to see that some of the things that I told you were simply wrong.

I was wrong about the opening line of “God’s Grandeur,” for example.

I did not point out that not all the poems are in Sprung Rhythm.

I was wrong about counterpointing. Hopkins (I think) reserves that term for places in a basically iambic poem where one has two or more substitute trochees adjoining one another, as in the first line of “God’s Grandeur.”

His point is that one still tries to read such lines as if they were iambic, and so has two rhythms co-existing.

I found interesting his statement that it is very uncommon in English poetry for there to be reversals in the second and the final foot.


I was also wrong when I said that a (sprung) line consisting of four monosyllabic feet would move faster than one containing more syllables per foot.

At least this seems not to have been how Hopkins himself saw it.

For him, the former would be spoken more slowly than the latter, the latter more rapidly than the former, so that there would, at least in theory, be an approximate equivalence in duration.

This is obviously true of “Ding Dong Bell” with its steady strong beat throughout.


However, I think I lucked out in one regard.

What I prescriptively said about stresses does appear to apply to all these poems, whether in sprung rhythm or not.

Hopkins himself says nothing about spondees and pyrrhics, and talks as though a standard English foot, by definition, has a principal stress and only one such stress.

And when I went through the poems pencil in hand, and took into account the additional markings in the recent edition, by and large what I desiderated worked.

There are indeed a number of problems and anomalies with Hopkins’ scansion, as Norman Mackenzie, the leading textual expert on Hopkins, freely acknowledges. Hopkins was evidently not always self-consistent in what he said and did.

But still, I found that for the most part I could come up with the right number of stresses, and that the stressing (and non-stressings) were meaning-related (as in “God’s Grandeur,” for example, and that the poems were coming more alive for me as speech as I made my way through them in this fashion.


In ordinary speech, as we know, there are differences in meaning between different stressings:

Smith: “He says you gave him some money in the Seventies.”

Jones: “I never gave him any money.”

Smith: “Not even a few dollars?”

Jones: “I never gave him any money.”

Smith: “He was very positive about it.”

Jones: “I repeat: I never gave him any money.”

Note how in the first “I never...” one has virtually only one stress, in the second, one or two, in the third, four. At least that is how it comes out for me when I speak Jones’s lines aloud as if in a conversation. Which is to say, perform them.

It helps here to think of gents talking in British movies.


Or again, a literary old British gent reminiscing before the TV camera might recall of some then-unpublished writer at the outset of his career that “He was a very angry young man at that time.”

He might also say of the same writer when he was better known, “He was in his Angry Young Man mode by then.”

In the second statement we have a natural phrasal unit of four syllables, of which the first is stressed and the others not—a compound epithet (“Angry-young-man”). In the first statement, there are more stresses.


A problem at times with all this is that whereas in ordinary accentual-syllabic verse we can usually tell how this or that bit of phrasing goes metrically, and then proceed from there to infer what kind of meaning and feeling are being conveyed, with Hopkins the process may be reversed.

We can find ourselves trying to figure out what is being said in order to decide what syllables should be emphasized.


When we come to Wordsworth’s line “Never did sun more beautifully steep . . .,” we know that we have to say “Never” and not “Never,” and that, on reflection, we have a metrical substitution here, and that it is related to the meaning, just as with Yeats’ “A lonely impulse of delight/ Drove to this tumult in the clouds.”

But unless we have extraordinarily well-attuned linguistic ears, and at times not even then, we can sometimes find ourselves with no way of determining which word or syllable should be emphasized in a line by Hopkins, particularly when we get runs of words— e.g. noun-noun- noun or adjective-adjective-adjective—that seem to have exactly the same kind of semantic significance.

For example, Hopkins own markings indicate that in the twelfth line of “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” the stresses should fall on “black” and “right”. I can sense the rightness of this now, but I’m not sure that I could articulate it, and I myself had guessed wrong.

Simply thumping on all four adjectives may be a way out of the problem but it is not what Hopkins himself evidently intended, and in general that kind of solution simply coarsens the texture of his writing/thinking/feeling.


I trust you will get some pleasure from his numerous compound-word coinages , as in “The Starlight Night” (“fire-folk,” etc). The English language is full of “fused” compound terms (“horse-race,” as opposed to “course de chevaux,” “horseshoe” as opposed to “fer de cheval”), though they are usually not so striking or so clustered together. Often they can function as either nouns or adjectives.

Personally I find, too, that I am increasingly less worried by his omissions of various parts of speech. In “Spring,” for example, it would surely be less effective to say (“correctly”) “[The] thrush’s eggs look [like] little low heavens,” In an earlier draft, the “the” was in fact there. One commentator points out that in North American English one says, “I’ll write her tomorrow.” Which reminds me that people also say, at times, “I looked out the window.”


But of course obscurities can result when one isn’t sure of how the elements in a compound relate to one another.

Does “wind-beat” in “The Starlight Night” consist of two nouns (the beat of the wind?) or of a noun and a truncated participle (beaten by the wind?)? Or both together?

Does “rollrock” in “Inversnaid” mean “rolling rocks along” (by virtue of the force of the stream) or “rolling along among rocks,” or “passing through an up-and-down rocky bed,” or....?

“Whitebeam,” by the way, is the name of a particular tree—some kind of poplar, I think. A lot of the odder words were apparently regionalisms still in use at the time—“degged,” for example, in “Inversnaid.” Hopkins, like Mallarmé, collected English words and phrases.


How much was Hopkins “entitled” to ask of a prospective reader? How much research ought we to be doing now? Is “twindles” in “Inversnaid” a made-up portmanteau word like “slithy” in Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwock,” or another regionalism?

I suppose what answers we give to such questions depends partly on how much trust we have in the (inferred) author of a poem with respect to what semantic money may be in his/her bank.

Which in turn may depend partly on how much is given elsewhere in the poem in the portions that we do understand, partly on what a sample dip or two into a large dictionary may disclose, and partly on how much work the puzzle term itself is doing.

“Twindles,” in its context in “Inversnaid,” feels like a portmanteau fusion of “twists” and “dwindles,” and what Hopkins has done earlier in the poem suggests that he likes words because of their natural evocativeness.

I suspect that if we were standing with some laconic old Scotsman beside a down-rushing stream and he were to refer to “that wee bit o’ froth twindling over there,” we’d be satisfied enough with the degree of communication.


On the other hand, in “The Windhover” a great deal depends on what one makes of “buckle,” and a variety of meanings have been attributed to it in support of a variety of interpretations of the poem.

Personally I am grateful for Winters’ dry comment, “ I am no great philologist, myself, but in my casual reading of the more obvious dictionaries I have observed that the word buckle, in Scots and in northern English, sometimes means to marry. In this sense, the word would function as well as it would in any other sense.”

But this reading does not make it into Mackenzie’s notes, I see. Winters himself ends by saying, “What the word actually means in the poem, I confess I do not know” (Function of Criticism, 134).


As to the discussion next time, you will have, so far as I can see, close to the full two hours for it. How should you fill that time? Oh, I suppose by talking about Hopkins.

You have a very representative selection in front of you, containing a lot of his best known—and best—poems. What is he like? What are they like? What do you, I mean you-as-individual-reader, make of him and them?

I am truly going to stay out of the discussion for a good while. I have no idea how you will react to him (or, if you prefer, to these texts). I shall be curious to find out.

I do hope that you will anchor the discussion, from time to time, in particular texts and passages. At times the past discussions have seemed to float at a curious distance from actual “inscaped” texts.


Some possible questions for consideration:

Which of the poems do you especially like or dislike?

Do you find yourself tilting more towards the joyous earlier poems or the more somber later ones?

Do you tend to remember the octaves more than the sestets of the sonnets?

Do you feel that Hopkins demonstrated in these poems that one could be a devout Catholic priest and a major poet?

What do you make of quieter poems like “In the Valley of the Elwy” and “In Honour of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez”? Are they simply ones in which his inspiration has flagged?

Do Hopkins wilder experimentings (as in “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” and “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire” succeed brilliantly? Somewhat? Not at all?

Was Hopkins a Symbolist?

Which do you yourself prefer, Hopkins or Eliot?


When I put the words “Other Voices” on the schedule, I had in mind that with Hopkins we see a poet who was really not in the general Franco-British stream that we have been dipping into.

And yet, as my invocation of Mallarmé was intended to recall, we have in Hopkins, in his own way, a very significant measure of the strengths that we have noticed in figures like Mallarmé and Rimbaud, with respect to language (especially verbs) and its relationship to the physical but not merely physical world, and the establishment of one’s own creative space(s) in that world.

When the first generally accessible volume of his work appeared in 1930, he was enthusiastically welcomed as a modernist by a lot of the literary young, a lot of them on the Left. They may even have considered him more of a modernist than Eliot.



I have tottered to the library and taken a handful of books off the shelf. I should, of course, have done my homework better in the past. But I was relieved to find that my untutored linguistic speculations weren’t too much off the mark.

Kunio Shimane, The Poetry of G.M. Hopkins: The Fusing Point of Sound and Sense. Tokyo, Hokuseido Press, 1983. By a knowledgeable-sounding Japanese linguist and Hopkins enthusiast. A nice book. I’m providing a handful of pages from it for the file.

James Milroy, The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins, London, Andre Deutsch, 1977. A fine rich readable work of intelligent scholarship, of interest with respect not only to Hopkins but to language more generally. I’m providing a few pages from this too.

Two large recent biographies of Hopkins appeared within a year of one another, much to the mutual disgust of both authors, I would imagine. They are: Robert Bernard Martin”s, Gerard Manley Hopkins; A Very Private Life, N.Y., Putnam’s, 1991 and Norman White, Hopkins; a Literary Biography, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1992. Martin’s seems the more readable.

Mackenzie calls Edward Stephenson’s, What Sprung Rhythm Really Is, International Hopkins Association Monograph No.4, 1987 the best book on the subject. I haven’t read it and it isn’t on Novanet.


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