Poetry: Gerard Manley Hopkins

January 9, 2015

A former student called me to task, quite rightly, for not mentioning Gerard Manley Hopkins in my writings about poetry: a very serious oversight, for which I hereby make amends:

I think Hopkins is probably as much of a minority taste in poetry as Milton, nowadays: both are ‘difficult’, or take some serious effort to access, though both are well worth it; both very religious, though at opposite ends of the spectrum – you can’t get farther apart than a Puritan and a Jesuit – and both were serious experimenters with language and verse.

I tried to get my head round ‘sprung rhythm’ when we ‘did’ Hopkins at university and failed abysmally; it was only when my job as teacher meant that I had to pick up someone else’s work on Hopkins’ poetry halfway through that I really came to appreciate him. And for a teacher of literature, in some ways Hopkins is a godsend.

With Hopkins, you finally ‘get’ the crucial importance of reading poetry aloud: on the page it looks and reads like a nightmare. It takes several goes to parse it orally, but the revelation is stunning: nobody illustrates all the poetic techniques so fully and perfectly. There is rhyme in abundance, there is the rhythm (sprung or not!) all of Hopkins’ own. There is alliteration with real purpose, at least as much assonance as you could wish for: no-one revels in the gorgeousness of sounds as much as he, in the fullness of English words. And enjambment – well, who could have imagined it could be used so dramatically? not Shakespeare… Hopkins revels in words, and the ordering of words, to slow us down, make us stop, ponder, and then… the moment of epiphany!

But it’s poetry, too, not just beautifully honed technique: a devout Catholic who joys in the beauty of the world his God created, in masterpieces such as God’s Grandeur, Pied Beauty or The Windhover (how that bird moves!); also a man tortured by depression and suicidal thoughts: who can be gloomier than the writer of No Worst, or Carrion Comfort? though he seems to come back to his God in the end.

And: is it possible to do more with the sonnet form than Hopkins has done? he pushes it to its limits, it seems; but then, that’s the difference between him and me: he was a poet and could imagine such things; I can only wonder.

I don’t come back to Hopkins very often, now, but thanks for the reminder, Sam.


One Response to “Poetry: Gerard Manley Hopkins”

  1. Sam Bell Says:

    I love all the ones you mentioned, but also ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’ for a good soul-wrenching despair-y one and ‘As kingfishers catch fire’ as a joy-filled God loving one. No-one else does such density with such charm and skill!

    I sometimes like to play the game of what one adjective would I use to sum up the entire oeuvre of a particular artist, and it’s ‘dense’ for Hopkins for me. If he’d crammed any more in, it would’ve been unreadable! Great post.


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