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    What I Do Is Me

    Gerard Manley Hopkins found the big picture in nature’s most intricate details.

    By Margaret R. Ellsberg

    April 27, 2023
    • John Wilson, Jr.

      I have loved Hopkins poetry for a very long time and I enjoyed this article thoroughly. This observation captures for me the impression I have had of Hopkins since I first read his poems and learned something of his life. “Like Darwin, he rejected the conventional Victorian view of creation as totally comprehensible.” He always seemed to find himself on the other side of the conventional, in a kind of constant conflict. Perhaps that is what “thisness” is all about, we can’t be our true selves while trying to be what others expect. Hopkins became a Catholic in a country that did not like Catholics. Once a Catholic he became a Jesuit, the branch of Catholics the English liked least (look at the Porters speech in Macbeth). As Priest he was sent to Ireland where he was a monarchist in a nation trying to overthrow the monarchy. And as the article points out a Scotist in an order devoted to Aquinas. For me, and this may just be me, he has a bit of Eliot’s inscrutability and Whitman’s view of nature. As a reader I experience Hopkins poetry as I do music. I experience the music of his language first. Hopkins wrote beautiful poetry that was not fully appreciated. Hopkins friend, the poet Robert Bridges published Hopkins poetry as kind of homage, at least that is the impression I get from bridges’ introduction. Yet today Hopkins is better known and more read than bridges.

    • Crystal McConney

      Thank you Margaret for Sharing this article! The artistry in Nature and Hopkins strong faith and belief in God. I truly enjoyed this read.

    This article is excerpted from The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selections from His Poems, Letters, Journals, and Spiritual Writings.

    It might be accurate to say that Hopkins felt attracted to Duns Scotus’s doctrine of “thisness,” the “arch-especial” self of each thing, because he himself was so highly individual. At seminary, even amidst so distinctive an assembly as Jesuits, Hopkins struck others as an oddball, standing transfixed by the branchlike pattern of urine frozen on the wall of the outdoor latrine. Oddity, however, became the centerpiece of Hopkins’s poetic focus, and within that focus he located the self-documenting presence of the person he called “Our Lord.” Scotus affirmed Hopkins’s tendency to take a simple assumption – the omnipresence of God, say – and specify it by embellishment, amplification, elaboration, and repeating patterns.

    Hopkins’s poems are actually not philosophically complex, just verbally complex. And Hopkins’s self-imposed resistance to cliché and commonplace makes his work extraordinary: religious writers seem always to resort to the familiar, in an understandably insecure effort to make sense. For Hopkins, making sense is secondary, and if you take in – really take in – a line like “Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s / Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name,” it seems small-minded to request that this poet calm down, cut back, ease up.

    In August 1874 Hopkins arrived at St Beuno’s College in Wales, where he would be happier than at any other time in his Jesuit career. He took a bath in the waters of the well of the eleventh-century martyr, Saint Winefred. Hopkins considered the miraculous cures associated with these waters testimony to God’s direct presence in nature. The rural landscape suited him far better than the urban slums to which his ministry would often lead him. It was here that he produced “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and a miraculous bundle of nature sonnets.

    Throughout the next dozen years of unrecognized poetic genius, Hopkins would continue to rely on what he had learned from Scotus, who moved decisively from the ideal to the material without totally ditching the ideal. Although Hopkins ultimately would dismiss Keats for being too dreamy, he also learned something from Keats about the chameleon poet’s talent for extinguishing the ego. In an ostensible irony, while avoiding egotism, Hopkins refined his concept of “selving” – by which a creature became itself – and rang it out in his gorgeous sonnet “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”: “Each mortal thing … / goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, / Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.” Thus did Hopkins navigate the deep meanings of his objects – because of his minting of this idea of selving – “I am I because God wants me to be me.” God resided at the fount of every detail. And for Hopkins, finally, ideal and detail, universal and particular, met in the penultimate line of “God’s Grandeur”:

    The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
        It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
       It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

    Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
    Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
        And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
        And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
    Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

    And for all this, nature is never spent;
        There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
    And though the last lights off the black West went
        Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
    Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods …

    At St Beuno’s, between February and October 1877, even while preparing for the theology exams which he would nearly fail in July, he wrote most of his extraordinary nature poems. On a day in February he wrote “God’s Grandeur,” declaring, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” which “flames out,” and “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” In “Kingfishers,” as in “God’s Grandeur,” the divine throws fire – but this time, it flames forth in the selving of each mortal thing.

    As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
    As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
    Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
    Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
    Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
    Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
    Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
    Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

    I say móre: the just man justices;
    Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
    Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
    Chríst —for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
    Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
    To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

    Hans Hoffmann, A Small Piece of Turf, watercolor, 1584.

    Hans Hoffmann, A Small Piece of Turf, watercolor, 1584.

    In “Spring” – a common enough subject for poetic contemplation – Hopkins asks, “What is all this juice and all this joy?” God’s presence shoots, rinses, rushes. A few months before his ordination he wrote “The Windhover,” in which a bird becomes “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon” and serves as an emblem for “Christ our Lord” when “Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here / Buckle!” As with divine grandeur and with kingfishers, fire breaks and electrifies the poet. The sheer plod of quotidian work becomes “shine” in the sestet, and embers fall only to “gash gold vermilion.”

    I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
                    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
                    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
    In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
                    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
                    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
    Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

    Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
                    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
    Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

                    No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
    Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
                    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

    It was in high summer that he wrote his beloved curtal sonnet, ten and a half lines long, “Pied Beauty,” which gives glory to God “for dappled things.” Colors mix and vary and strike contrapuntal disharmonies; cows, trout, finches, all praise God in their sporting of traits contrary, strange, and original. And then, in “Hurrahing in Harvest,” “Summer ends now … / I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes, / Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour.” Finally, just before leaving Wales for good, he wrote “The Lantern out of Doors.” In most of these sonnets, of course, euphoria fluctuates with corruption, Darwinian dustbins, crushing sadness, and ecological imbalance, and these bipolarities will dog Hopkins for the rest of his life.

    After his third year of theologate, Hopkins scraped through the final exam. He passed, but did not do well enough to serve as a Jesuit rector or provincial; thus he would be consigned to common ministries for the rest of his life. This near-failure left him permanently disappointed. In his biography, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, Paul Mariani agrees with other scholars that Hopkins, the brilliant Star of Balliol who left Oxford almost a dozen years before with a Double First, was graded harshly by his Jesuit examiners for preferring Scotus to Aquinas: “If the Thomistic way of understanding was via the species, Scotus was for individuation, the haeceittas or one-of-a kindness of experi­ence.” Mariani adds to this suggestion the facts of Hopkins’s chronic poor health (head colds, headaches, diarrhea, bleeding hemorrhoids, mental depression, exhaustion) and, of course, his personal eccentricity. These qualities would not suit an adminis­trator in a rugged field of mission.

    Hopkins never represented an archetype or universal, but only individuals. He selected individuals as descriptors for how he sought patterning. Through networking, through recurrence, things revealed meaning.

    Deprived of the “long course,” the fourth year of theologate which would have prepared him for leadership in the Society of Jesus, Hopkins was ordained a priest on September 23, 1877. He wrote one more sonnet while at St Beuno’s – “The Lantern out of Doors.” This somber poem commemorates the eerie sight of a lantern carried through the dark: “Men go by me … / They rain against our much-thick and marsh air / Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite. / Death or distance soon consumes them …”

    Hopkins left Wales on October 9, 1877. Immediately, he was assigned to assist in a parish and teach classics in a boys’ school. Over the next two years he traveled to various assignments, but tended to find the work uncongenial. While serving at St Aloysius in Oxford in 1879, however, he wrote a number of sonnets, including “Duns Scotus’ Oxford” and “Henry Purcell.” In both poems, Hopkins honored unsung English heroes – Scotus, whom he called “Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller”; and the seventeenth-century composer Henry Purcell, in whom Hopkins recognized not only haecceitas, but selving – “The poet wishes well to the divine genius of Purcell … [who] uttered in notes the very make and species of man …”

    Hopkins’s ministry moved him to Liverpool, where he found the job so taxing that he fell into a very poor mental and physical state. Nevertheless, in 1880, he composed “Felix Randal,” which comments on his priestly work with a dying farrier: “This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears … / When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers, / Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!”

    Sketch of a waterfall by Gerard Manley Hopkins

    Gerard Manley Hopkins, At the Baths of Rosenlaui, sketch.

    Alfred Thomas, author of Hopkins the Jesuit, writes of Hopkins at this time, “Liverpool he found hideous and his time there a nightmare almost from start to finish. Never before had he seen such stark and dire poverty, such misery and moral degradation …” Yet, in “Felix Randal” we don’t encounter the moral agonies of the late sonnets, nor the ecstasies of the nature sonnets – rather we read a poem of consolation. Felix goes from big and handsome to sick and weak – and this “endears” Hopkins and Felix to each other. The suffering priest experiences an opening of love, which must reside at the heart of his vocation. In that year he also wrote “Spring and Fall” – “It is the blight man was born for / It is Margaret you mourn for” – destined to become his best known and most anthologized poem. In this poem, too, we read neither agony nor ecstasy, but rather, resignation to the human condition.

    By the time Hopkins began to write his best poems, a new empiricism associated with Victorian science dominated the intellectual atmosphere. With this empiricism surely came an enhanced interest in, or even obsession with, specific details. Here Hopkins not only thrived but forged. Appropriating Scotus’s teaching that individuality can be intuited, Hopkins promoted his own theories of instress and inscape: “instress being ultimately the stress of God’s Will in and through all things … Inscape a glimpse or a strain of universal harmony.”

    In The Disappearance of God, J. Hillis Miller examines the apparent departure of God from the Victorian world. The transcendent, the transgressive, the affirmation of self (Wordsworth), and the abnegation of self (Keats) spring up in God’s place. By the time Matthew Arnold publishes “Dover Beach,” Victorians were experiencing not so much the Sea of Faith, “once, too at the full, and round earth’s shore / … like the folds of a bright girdle furled” as its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” Hopkins, however, reintroduced the direct presence of God like a jolt of electricity into a closed system.

    In fact, beginning with his amazing partial-year (1877) of writing nature sonnets in Wales, Hopkins’s religious experience became inseparable from the poetry he produced. With “God’s Grandeur” and the other Welsh sonnets, and most of his journal entries, Hopkins joins a poetic tradition that dates back at least to the biblical psalms – praising God for his creation. Here is the sestet of “Hurrahing”:

    And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
                    Majestic —as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet—

    These things, these things were here and but the beholder
                    Wanting; which two when they once meet,
    The heart réars wíngs bold and bolder
                    And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

    Nature thus is not merely sweet, not merely a useful companion to our “emotions recollected in tranquility,” but the tangible proof of a system yearning only for a human consciousness to complete its electrical circuit. Every individual form is unique and none is dispensable, a theme climactic in the late, prodigious poem, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and the Comfort of the Resurrection” – noise, joy, romping, tossed pillows of clouds, all summarized as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus would have done: “Million-fuelèd, nature’s bonfire burns on.”

    Hopkins’s dedication to rightly representing each thing as a self, with its own being and doing, combined with his habitual Jesuit dedication A.M.D.G. (Ad Majorem Gloria Dei, to the greater glory of God), meant that he could not digress from the world as God made it – not through a Wordsworthian egotistical sublimity, and not through a Keatsian drowsy numbness. Later in his life, Hopkins would describe his own preference for “an austerer utterance in art” as a reaction against Keats’s luxury and sensualism. To deviate from precise selfhood would have bestowed upon Hopkins the nihilism of art for art’s sake; it would have left him drifting away from the redemptive meaning he sought by becoming a Catholic.

    Hopkins never represented an archetype or universal, but only individuals. He selected individuals as descriptors for how he sought patterning. Through networking, through recurrence, things revealed meaning. Otherwise, life on earth really would be random, really would be just one damned thing after another. Hopkins studied Darwin, recognizing that laws of nature rescue details from chaos and randomness. Yet in “the widow-making unchilding unfathering” capacity of nature, wherein prayers seem to go ignored – here Hopkins encountered God, too. Like Darwin, he rejected the conventional Victorian view of creation as totally comprehensible.

    He focused hard on detecting a pattern of integration between individuals and an intelligent universe, seeing clouds as “shires” and observing them “quaining and squaring.” He wrote about the visuals of things such as clouds like none other – with more verbal originality not to say haecceitas than anyone – proving that despite his early passions for drawing and music, Hopkins was vocationally adapted to the medium of language. “The Windhover,” which Hopkins thought his own best poem, implies the question, can I selve too? The poem offers gliding and riding and galling and gashing, but only out of the poet’s own modest service, out of “sheer plod,” will come “shine.” As in “God’s Grandeur,” the world over which Hopkins’s falcon glides (“in his riding / Of the rolling level underneath him steady air …”) is charged, not only with verbal force, but with breaking fire, heavy wind, shining, and burning which transform blue-bleak to gold-vermilion.

    The energy of the windhover’s world charges upward. Hopkins finds new language to describe a bird flying overhead. His method employs the basic materials of short words, drumming rhythms, alliterations, compressions, French chivalry, and Anglo-Saxon economies. He tolerates no metrical filler words. He imagines upward energy released when the Incarnation discharges into nature, and when the divine presence discharges into a wafer of bread. “This morning morning’s minion”: it actually sounds like the bird’s wings overhead.

    Hopkins constantly reminds his readers that the earth is the body of God. In his nature sonnets, the sensuous poet collides with the religious master, usually in the first eight lines, and the religious master is then released to spend the six final lines rhapsodizing about God. Until he was in his thirties, Hopkins was always down on his knees with a sketchbook or journal, squinting at something tiny that disclosed the Big Picture. And then, when he left his notebooks for writing – however rarely – poetry, every poem contained a collision. In the octet of each of his sonnets, we meet nature interacting with humanity; in the sestet, we meet God. Between the octet and the sestet, we encounter the volta – a turning, a white space – and in this sacred space occurs a transformation in every sonnet Hopkins wrote.


    Contributed By MargaretEllsberg Margaret R. Ellsberg

    Margaret “Peggy” Ellsberg (PhD, Harvard University) teaches English at Barnard College.

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