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Professor Helen Gardner's Notes on the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Helen Gardner's Life

In 1966, she became Merton Professor of English literature in the University of Oxford, the first woman to hold this chair. Her specialist areas were T. S. Eliot, the Metaphysical poets, Milton, Gerard Manley Hopkins and religious poetry.   She edited The New Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1950 (1972) and The Metaphysical Poets.  She retired from the chair in 1975.

Preface to her Notes on Hopkins

This puzzling and strangely exhilarating poet

My main purpose is clearly indicated in the sub-title.  It is, in effect, to show that Hopkins, at first sight so odd, eccentric, even revolutionary in the matters of style and rhythm, is actually and eminently as legitimate an offspring of the great European poetic tradition as any English poet before him; it is also to show that Hopkins, like the greater poet Shakespeare, appeals successfully to different levels of understanding.  There is, in his verse, a primitive quality, a certain primary poetic meaning, which goes home at once; on the other hand, his subtle overtones and obliquities, his richly varied rhythms, his elaborately poeticized theology and philosophy, his deeper probings into sensory and intellectual experience-these are qualities to be fully appreciated only by those readers who know something of the great traditions in which he was nurtured-in which moreover, as scholar and priest, he was both 'curious' and learned.  It is this ability, first to attract and then to hold our attention, that will ensure for him a permanent place among the English poets.  The principle of Truth in Christianity and the principle of Beauty in Aeschylus and Shakespeare - these, as I hope to prove, are the twin anchors above which he will " ride time like riding a river ", resisting all the currents and eddies of taste and fashion.

The Two Vocations

Trees in a chine near Shanklin

"You know I once wanted to be a painter. But even if I could I would not, I think, now, for the fact is that the higher and more attractive parts of the art put a strain upon the passions, which I should think it unsafe to encounter."

The pencil drawing of trees in a cleft or chine on the Isle of Wight that he executed in 1866 at the age of 21 convey a feeling of the cosmic energy in natural growth.  The bold stylisation of the foliage in the foreground is an almost exact anticipation of the peculiar vision and technique of Van Gogh.  The quality which Hopkins hoped to find in both painter and nature poet was "searchingness."

In the vagaries of shape and colour presented by hills, clouds, glaciers and trees he discerns a recondite pattern - "species or individually-distinctive beauty " - "for which he coins the name " inscape "; and the sensation of inscape (or, indeed, of any vivid mental image) is called " stress " or "instress".

As music and poetic rhythm were to him 'fluid architecture', so architecture was 'frozen music.'

This world then is word, expression, news of God.

When his beloved Binsey Poplars on the Thames at Oxford were felled he wrote: "there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed anymore…"

An amazed gardener at Stonyhurst saw him walking round and round a stone and scrutinising it curiously from all angles.  He was examining its inscape.

The Wreck of the Deutschland

It takes possession of the mind, fascinates., puzzles, exasperates, allures and recaptures it yet again.

To the ardent Catholic the poem must always stand as one of the loftiest expressions of both the central problem and the crowning glory of his faith - the problem of tragedy and the triumph of faith.  To others it will perhaps rather suggest the tragedy of faith and the triumph of poetry.

In the mouth of the Thames a passenger ship was wrecked on the Kentish knock

The Times 11th December 1875

At 2 am Captain Brickenstein knowing with the rising tide the ship would be water-logged ordered all the passengers to come on deck.  Most of them obeyed the summons at once. Others lingered below until it was to late.  Some of them ill, weak, despairing of life even on deck, resolved to stay in their cabins and meet death without any further struggle.  After 3am on Tuesday morning a scene of horror was witnessed. Some passengers clustered for safety within or upon the wheel-house and on top of other slight structures on deck.  Most of the crew and many of the emigrants went into the rigging, where they were safe enough as long as they could maintain their hold; but the intense cold and long exposure told a tale.  The purser of the ship though a strong man relaxed his grasp and fell into the sea.  Women and children and men were one by one swept away from their shelters on the deck.  Five German nuns, whose bodies are now in the dead house here, clasped hands and were drowned together.  The chief sister, a gaunt woman six feet high calling out loudly and often: "Oh Christ, come quickly", till the end came.

When in the winter Of '75 the Deutschland was wrecked in the mouth of the Thames and five Franciscan nuns, exiles from Germany by the Falck Laws, aboard of her were drowned I was affected by the account and happening to say so to my rector he said that he wished some one would write a poem on the subject.  On this hint 1 set to work and, though my hand was out at first, produced one. I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new as rhythm, which now I realized on paper."

The future Laureate's first thoughts on this poem are described as bilge-water, " vulgar mudbottom and common sewage "

"I cannot think of altering anything.  Why should I?  I do not write for the public.  You are my public and I hope to convert you."

It is written in Sprung Rhythm.

"Sprung Rhythm is so called because of the syncopated 'spring' - the occasional 'abrupt' juxtaposing of stressed syllables, as in ordinary speech.  This type of rhythm presents one difficulty: when two strong syllables seem to compete for the metrical stress, the problem of scansion can be legitimately resolved by recourse to a half stress.  (from Intro to collected poems)

'Dó, deàl, lórd it with líving and déad;' (no.28,st.28)

It seemed to break all the rules of poetry at that time but it has natural rhythms of the English language as it was spoken.

It is also inspird by nursery rhymes

"Díng, Dóng, béll, 
Pússy's ín the wéll; 
Whó pút her ín? 
Líttle Jóhnny Thín, etc."

The primary rule of Sprung Rhythm is that "one stress makes one foot, no matter how many or how few the syllables"

A final and necessary condition - which Hopkins was constantly repeating is that this verse is "less to be read than heard"

     Ínto the snów she sweéps,
     Húrling the háven behínd,
The Déutschland, on Súnday, and só the sky keéps
     For the ínfinite aír is unkínd . . ."

The first stanza of Part I, though one of the most beautiful, is not easy to scan.  The first line is "rove over":

                           Thóu màstering mé
                    Gòd ! gíver of bréath and bréad;
           Wórld's stránd, swáy of the séa;
                   Lórd of líving and déad;
     Thou hast bóund bónes and véins in me, fástened me flésh,
     And áfter it álmost únmade, whát with dréad,
            Thy dóing : and dóst thou tóuch me afrésh ?
Óver  ágain I féel thy fínger and fínd thée.  

In line 1, "Thou" stands in natural opposition to "me" though in actual recitation "mastering" and "God ! " carry almost as much emphasis as the syllables which mark the rhythmic beat.  An extreme example of monosyllabic feet is the last line of stanza 11


The: sóur  |   scýthe  |  crínge, and the  |  bléar  |  sháre  |  cóme.

Of- such feet Hopkins says

"one syllable has not only the stress of its accent but also the slack which another word would throw on one or more additional syllables, though here that may perhaps be 1atent, as though the slack syllables had been absorbed."

This easily felt principle of equal strengths polysyllabic feet, as in

The appéaling of the | Pássion is | ténd'erer in  | práyer apart        (Stanza27)

and

Let him éaster in us, be a  |  dáyspring to the |  dímness of us, be a |  
crímson-cresseted  |  éast,"       (Stanza 35.)

The structure of the elaborate stanza is not materially altered by these eccentric feet ; they indicate merely a change of tempo The feet are assumed to be equally long or strong, and their seeming inequality is made up by pause or stressing."  It follows that the " paeonic " and longer feet must be pronounce more quickly than the shorter ones if the metrical pattern is to be preserved.  But this does not imply an uncomely gabbling : as in the application of the musical terms rallentando and accelerando, the time-rule is slightly flexible, and can at suitable moment be extended or diminished without injury to the formal proportions.  In the MS. A " version of The Sea and the Skylark Hopkins actually wrote above the last line: Rallentando.

To man's last dust, drain fast towards man's first slime.

In The Deutschland he might well have written (stanza 31) Accelerando.

Nó not uncómforted : lóvely-felícitous Próvidence, 
Fínger of a ténder of, O of a féathery délicacy, the bréast of the
Máiden could obéy so, be a béll to, ring óf it, and 
        Stártle the poor shéep back ! is the shípwrack then a hárvest,
does témpest carry the gráin for thee ?

In a valuable note prefixed to the poem in MS. "A", the poet explains how the length and strength of the stressed syllables affect the reading of a passage like the above.  When, he says, more than one syllable goes to the beat, then if the beating syllable is of its nature long, the stress laid on it must be stronger the greater the number of syllables belonging to it, " the voice treading and dwelling ; but if on the contrary it is by nature light, then the greater the number of syllables belonging to it the less is the stress to be laid on it, the voice passing flyingly over all the syllables of the foot and in some manner distributing among them all the stress of the one beat ".  The question as to which syllables are strong and which light must, he says, be left for the ear to decide but as an example he takes the line

Fínger of a ténder of, 0 of a féathery délicacy, the bréast of the

"The first two beats are very strong and the more the voice dwells on them the more it fetches 6ut the strength of the syllables they rest upon ; the next two beats are very light and escaping, and the last, as well as those which follow in the next line, are of a mean strength, such as suits narrative.  And so throughout let the stress be made to fetch out both the strength of the syllables and the meaning and feeling of the words."

In his use of Sprung Rhythm, therefore, we see how far Hopkins went in the process of forcing versification out of its regular syllabic rut ; with what deliberate, sensitive, and thorough calculation he tried to endow it with some of the variety and flexibility of both musical rhythms and speech rhythms without loss of central architectonic control.

We have so far examined only one aspect of the poet's " new rhythm "-that dealing with stress and measure.  In a letter to Bridges he says:

"But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music, and design in painting, so design, pattern . . . is what I above all aim at in poetry."

This pattern he achieves by building up a seemingly precious yet entirely organic system of tone-values.  Alliteration, assonance, partial assonance, interior rhyme and subtle vocalic "scales " are all employed not merely as ornamental devices but as definite structural modes in the making of a complex expressional rhythm.  Their employment is not regular and monotonous as it would be if determined by a prearranged and inviolable tone-pattem. Alliteration in Hopkins, for instance, is used with far greater imaginative purpose than in either Langland or Swinburne.  In The Deutschland, alliteration and other phonal correspondences (" certain chimes, suggested by the Welsh poetry I had been reading-what they call cynghanedd ") are used in conjunction with a free, creative handling of syntax as a means of giving emphasis to the rhythm,-intensity, colour, and precision to the diction.  The unit of variation is the "musical phrase " rather than the line or stanza, and the result is a unique poetic design, a verbal tapestry of brilliant texture.

We may now illustrate the poet's preoccupation with expresssional rhythm by quoting in full the first stanza in Part II

Sóme fìnd me a swórd; sóme
The flánge and the ráil ;   fláme
Fáng, or flóod goes Déath on drúm,
And stórms búgle his fáme.
But wé dréam we are róoted in éarth - Dúst !
Flésh fàlls within sight of us, wé, though our flówer the sáme,
Wáve with the méadow, forgét that there múst
The: sóur  scýthe  crínge, and the  bléar  sháre  cóme.

The powerful, cumulative effect is produced by the judicious placing of pauses and alliterative consonants (flange, flame; fang, flood ; Death, drum).  Great emphasis is given to " some at the end 'of line 1 and "flame" in line 2 by means of the pause, or silent syllable, before each.  What a 'pregnant statement is "Dust at the end of line How apt is the alliterative link with " dream" !

Again, in stanza 18, having told us how the brave nun rose like a prophetess above the tumult of the wreck, the poet breaks out with:

Ah, tóuched in your bówer of bóne
Are you ! túrned for an éxquisite smárt
Have you ! máke words bréak from me hére all alóne
Do you !-móther of béing in me, héart."

No rhythmic device could be more natural than the overflow in these lines.  As with a sob, each line stumbles and falters over the threshold of the next, and the regularity of this encroachment sets up a vertical cross-current of pure expressional rhythm without disturbing the basic metre.

Now contrast the agitation of the above passage with the restrained rhythm of the following:

		Jésu, héart's líght,
		Jésu, máid's són,
	Whát was the féast fóllowed the níght
		Thou hadst glóry of thís nún ?-"

Such hushed and reverential invocations should indeed be so retarded.  So, too, even grammar should yield to more important considerations, and the expulsion of the relative pronoun after " feast " (Hopkins had no use for the colourless, otiose word) definitely improves the cadence.

A further device for varying the rhythm is the use of trisyllabic run-on rhymes in the very next stanza (No. 3I):

Well, shé has thée for the páin, for the 
Pátience ; but píty of the rést of them !
	Héart, go and bléed at a bítterer véin for the
	Cómfortless únconféssed of them-" 

The rhymes in lines 1 and 3 are not mere factitious ornament.  Wishing to dispense with the final pause (the passage is accelerando), the poet uses them as a substitute to mark the metrical divisions ; so that in reading, while we are primarily conscious of the speech-rhythm, we are conscious also of the metre.  It should be noted how the pause at " pain ", in the midst of the first rhyme-group, produces a drag, a sense of effort : the rhythm is " imitative as usual ". Lastly, the variety of rhythmic resources in this poem is no less apparent in the six-stress lines which terminate the stanzas.  A typical or ' average' line would be that in stanza 6

And hére the fáithful wáver, the fáithless fáble and míss."

But for the rest of these " alexandrines ", no two are metrically identical, and in rhythmic flexibility they show an extraordinary range.   In a line like :

	To flásh from the fláme to the fláme then, tówer from the
	gráce to the gráce," 

we have a typical loping Swinburnean movement (with what seems also to be a share of that poet's peculiar vagueness) ; but this precise effect is never repeated.  The poem is perhaps unique in the way it gives us a spice of one poet here and a flavour of some other poet there, yet never degenerates into pastiche.  Never for a moment does it lose its own individuality. The Bridges " dragon ", we submit, is now tamed.  The poem is no longer to be regarded as a " metrical experiment"' but as a metrical accomplishment, a masterpiece of poetic rhythm.


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We recommend the Oxford Edition and in particular Sean Street's account of The Wreck of the Deutschland, which he was inspired to write from hearing my production of Paul Scofield's reading for BBC Radio 3.  We also highly recommend Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Study of Poetic Idiosyncrasy in Relation to Poetic Tradition by Professor Helen Gardner: