02 June 2005

On Hopkins

Ms. Bookish's recent post on Gerard Manley Hopkins links to a lecture by Hugh Kenner. In examining The Wreck of the Deutschland, Kenner makes some interesting observations of Hopkins' use of Swinburne:
Save for the arresting fact that on 25th August 1868, when Gerard was 24, the family dog had the sense to bite Robert Bridges, his domestic circumstances have little to tell us. A more fruitful field to investigate would be the Victorian passion for Comparative Linguistics, which helps explain his study of a language as exotic as Welsh. Another would be the overarching rhythmic presence of a poet not then respectable at all: Algernon Charles Swinburne. Swinburne's remedy for what had become the deadly and deadening iambic was wholesale imitation of what, by iambic standards, seemed to be Greek rhythms. Intoxicated by such rhythms, the stories have it, Oxford undergraduates would circle the quadrangle, chanting: ... For winters rains and ruins are over, And all the season of snows and sins ... (Atalanta in Calydor@'212)

The power of assonance and alliteration joins words in pairs and triplets; force yourself to linger for sense, and you have to construct a scenario. There is no unlikelihood for which the mind cannot construct a scenario; Conan Doyle might have invented Sherlock Holmes solely to demonstrate that. Winter's rains and ruins - Easy. English winters are rainy, with a greyness that can make ruins look more ruinous. Season of snows and sins - Winter and snow: no problem. But sins? Well, snow forces people to stay inside, where they make up for the bleakness by rituals of fornication. But we're being ingenious; what links season and snows and sins is primarily the driving rhythm, that insistent alliteration. Thus the verse's authority stamps what the mind can make shift to unravel. In that light, examine the surge and sway of The Wreck of the Deutschland (28):

Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World's strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou has bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing.. and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

[...] Hopkins is subverting Swinburne as fast as he's using him. Underneath that breath and bread, which sounds so Swinburnian, is a stable orthodox structure, if we can just slow down enough to see it. [...]

and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

God incarnate felt the finger of Doubting Thomas, an archetype of us all. But these lines seem to say that Thomas, made in God's image, was reenacting a frequent gesture of God. As God's finger--that's a potent trope. His finger inscribed the Law on the stone tablets. Jesus said (Luke 11.20) that he cast out devils with the finger of God. He wrote with His finger words upon the ground (John 8:6). And Hopkins hinds finger into his alliterative sequence: fasten, flesh, afresh, feel, finger, find. That hints at a formula for Resurrection.

The 35 stanzas of The Wreck of the Deutschland embody two main devices. One--learned from Swinburne--is the binding assonance, which seems to be producing the words as the rhythm moves forward. The other is a cool awareness of depths of history embedded in those English words: something Hopkins derived from inward-ness with the culture that was moving toward a New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, of which the first fascicle was published five years before he died.
One could spend decades studying his work.

In a related note, Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission has put one of Hopkins' poems to music. "No Storms Come" is a lovely, spare adaptation of "Heaven-Haven."

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