Hopkins Lectures 2007





























































































































































Elizabeth Bishop and Gerard Manley Hopkins

Ben Howard Professor of English Emeritus, Alfred University, New York,USA

In his sonnet "Duns Scotus's Oxford," Gerard Manley Hopkins pays tribute to a kindred spirit. Contrasting the "graceless growth" of Victorian Oxford with the "grey beauty" of the older buildings, he invokes the memory of the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, the "rarest-veined unraveller," who lectured at Oxford in the early fourteenth century. "[T]hese walls are what / He haunted," Hopkins recalls, "who of all men most sways my spirits to peace." (1) Balancing the past and present tenses, these lines portray Duns Scotus as both a historical figure and a timeless, countervailing presence in the poet's life and art. Something similar might be said of Hopkins's own presence in the life and art of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), who discovered Hopkins at the age of thirteen, when elizabeth_bishop
she read his poems in Harriet Monroe's anthology of modern poets. From the start she felt an affinity, and during her years at Vassar College her fondness for Hopkins deepened, culminating in an astute and original essay, "Notes on Timing in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins," which appeared in the Vassar Review in February, 1934. Over the next four decades, "dear Hopkins," as Bishop called him, became a sustaining spiritual companion, providing moral guidance as well as literary inspiration. In March, 1972, seven years before her death, Bishop wrote to her friend Robert Lowell, reproving him for including his wife's letters in his poems. "I keep remembering Hopkins's marvelous letter to Bridges about the idea of a 'gentleman' being the highest thing ever conceived. . . It is not being 'gentle' to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way-it's cruel." (2) As is evident from this reproach, the poet who had excited Bishop in her youth remained, in her seventh decade, a locus of ethical integrity, by whose standards Lowell's questionable actions might be judged. Although Bishop's voluminous correspondence abounds in references to Hopkins, her most extensive reflections on the formal aspects of his poems may be found in her undergraduate essay. At once an analysis of "sprung rhythm" and an exploration of what Bishop calls the "baroque" character of Hopkins's poems, this essay portrays Hopkins as a poet of "action" rather than repose, continuous movement rather than settled thought. Writing to the poet Donald Stanford in 1933, Bishop argued that "only Donne occasionally. . . and Hopkins" have written poems that dramatize a mind "in action" rather than "at rest." (3)

In effect, Bishop's essay is a nuanced expansion of that central insight. In her analysis of "sprung rhythm" Bishop stays close to Hopkins's own explanations, employing the terms "stressed" and "slack," as Hopkins did, to identify accented and unaccented syllables. As Bishop explains, in sprung rhythm,

"the rhythm felt corresponds to that of the counterpointing in running [i.e., conventional] rhythm-minus the original underlying rhythm."

As a result, verse based on sprung rhythm will have

"a very different quality about its coordination-maintaining the rhythmic beat customary to poetry, with an enormous increase in the variations possible for setting it up."

To illustrate her point, Bishop contrasts lines from "God's Grandeur," cast in "ordinary running rhythm," with the closing lines of "The Windhover," finding in the latter a marked increase in "action":

The action pulls more ways at once: new muscles are touched and twinged, and the interrelations of stressed and slack sylla- bles knit the poem more closely since they refer us not alone to a general meter but to other particular feet . . . The lines have said themselves exactly with that poise I label timing , and there has been more action compacted into the lines by reason of the use of sprung rhythm.

Here, as elsewhere in her essay, Bishop establishes a link between sprung rhythm and what she calls "action," by which she seems to mean greater rhythmic variation and a corresponding surge of verbal energy. The dynamic heterogeneity of Hopkins's rhythms has, for Bishop, an integral relationship to what she chooses to call 'the movement in his poetry," the "depiction of a 'mind thinking'." Drawing on M.W. Croll's article "The Baroque Style in Prose," where Croll argues that the prose style of the seventeenth-century sermon served "to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking," Bishop finds the same quality in Hopkins's poems. For Croll, the baroque style captured the "ardor" experienced by the thinker at a point where the thought has not yet fully crystallized. It portrayed the "moment in which "truth is still imagined ." Perceiving the same representation of feeling and thought in Hopkins's verse, Bishop observes that Hopkins's distinctive use of certain poetic devices, specifically "rove over" lines and the "odd and often irritating rhyme," contributes to an effect of "intense, unpremeditated, unrevised emotion." The poetry "comes up from the pages like sudden storms," and a single stanza "can be as full of, aflame with motion as one of Van Gogh's cedar trees." (4)

Bishop's essay, written when she was only twenty-two, reflects her early enthusiasm for Hopkins's poems. But what lasting impact, we might inquire, did her deep immersion in Hopkins's verse have on her own mature poetry? On her evolving conception of poetic form?

Brett Millier, Bishop's biographer and a leading authority on her work, believes that Bishop's essay "contains the seeds of all her later thinking on rhythm in poetry." (5) And in her examination of similarities between Bishop's and Hopkins's sensibilities Millier cites multiple points of alignment, including a "fondness for the short poem," a "distinctly modest voice," and the "subordination of
human desires to a higher power." More centrally, she observes that Hopkins's "position in his poems, his view of the world 'charged with the grandeur of God,' his insistence that he himself be humbled before 'morning's minion, king- / dom of daylight's dauphin'-this modesty appealed to her." (6)

Valuable though they are, Professor Millier's remarks identify points of general affinity rather than specific influence. They trace a lineage of thought, form, and feeling from George Herbert through Hopkins to Bishop. The question of Hopkins's influence, per se , is at once more limited and more speculative, and to approach it, we might begin by distinguishing between Hopkins's influence on Bishop's style and his more general influence on her attitude and outlook. In the first instance, that influence is detectable but rather circumscribed. In the second, it is sweeping and profound.

With respect to style, the most conspicuous evidence of Hopkins's influence may be found in Bishop's rhythms. Here, for example, are the opening lines of Bishop's most celebrated poem, "The Fish":

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth. (7)

Like several of Hopkins's poems, particularly "The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air We Breathe," this poem is cast in iambic trimeter. Its initial line, "I caught a tremendous fish"-iambic trimeter with an anapestic substitution in the second foot-establishes the meter. But the remaining lines may best be scanned as sprung rhythm, particularly "half out of water, with my hook," with its profusion of "slack" syllables. Moreover, Bishop's placement of contiguous stressed syllables across the line break ("the boat / half," "my hook / fast") calls to mind Hopkins's frequent use of that device, as in "That each eyelash or hair / Girdles," or "The fleeciest, frailest-fixed / Snowflake"). (8) The effect, in Hopkins and Bishop alike, is to add force and diversity to an established rhythmic pattern.

If Hopkins's stylistic influence may be felt in the minutiae of her prosody, it may also be seen in the prominence of visual imagery and the presence of close observation in Bishop's poems. Bishop is justly famous for her attention to visual detail. And though her habits of meticulous observation owe something to Marianne Moore, they owe even more to Hopkins's example, especially that of Hopkins's journals. Here, for example, is Bishop's description of Duxbury beach in "The End of March":

It was cold and windy, scarcely the day
to take a walk on that long beach.
everything was withdrawn as far as possible,
indrawn: the tide far out, the ocean shrunken,
seabirds in ones or twos.

The rackety, icy, offshore wind
numbed our faces on one side;
disrupted the formation
of a lone flight of Canada geese;
and blew back the low, inaudible rollers
in upright, steely mist.

And here, by way of comparison, is a description from one of Hopkins's journals:

Day bright. Sea calm, with little walking wavelets edged
with fine eyebrow crispings, and later nothing but a netting or chain-work on the surface, and even that went, so

that the smoothness was marbly and perfect and, between
the just-corded near sides of the waves rising like fishes'
backs and breaking with darker blue the pale blue of the
general field, in the very sleek hollows came out golden
crumbs of reflections from the chalk cliffs. (10)

Although Bishop's observations are cast in verse and Hopkins's in prose, they share a heightened visual acuity and a fascination with the moving surfaces of the world. They also share a common attitude, namely that of self-forgetful contemplation. In the journals of Charles Darwin, Bishop found a "selfforgetful, perfectly useless concentration." (11) And in Bishop's own writ- ing Seamus Heaney finds a movement from "self-containment to an acknowledgement of the mystery of the other, with the writing functioning as an enactment of all the bittersweet deferrals in between." (12) Speaking specifically of "The Fish," Heaney notes that the poem offers a "slow-motion replay, sensation by sensation, of the process by which the fish is recognized as a harbinger of what Hopkins calls 'the glory of God,' of that dearest freshness that lives deep down in things, all that which the poem itself finally calls 'rainbow, rainbow, rainbow.'" Like Bishop's poems generally, "The Fish" brings the reader "into a renewed awareness of the mysterious otherness of the world." (13) To be sure, Bishop learned methods of self-forgetful contemplation from many models, including those of Herbert, Marianne Moore, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Bishop singled out Moore in particular for her ability to "give herself up entirely to the object of contemplation," (14)and, as noted earlier, she found a similar quality in Darwin's journals. But in such poems as "The Fish," "The Sandpiper," "Quai d'Orleans," and "At the Fishhouses," where Bishop explores what Hopkins called the "inscape" of her subjects, her process of contemplation bears a marked resemblance to that of Hopkins. And in one striking instance, her contemplative form and method may be traced directly to Hopkins's example. Bishop's double sonnet "The Prodigal" depicts the Prodigal Son at a pivotal moment in his spiritual journey. Exiled, directionless, and alone, he is reduced to living with pigs in a barn. He is also suffering from addiction to alcohol. In the opening lines, Bishop describes his miserable environs:

The brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
for him to judge. The floor was rotten; the sty
was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.
Light-lashed, self-righteous, above moving snouts,
the pigs' eyes followed him, a cheerful stare-
even to the sow that always ate her young-
till, sickening, he leaned to scratch her head.

Appealing to multiple senses, most prominently those of sight and smell, Bishop's images suggest a correspondence between the Prodigal's repugnant surroundings and the state of his soul. They also introduce a theme of moral judgment, contrasting the Prodigal's inability to assess his situation with the "self-righteous" stare of the pigs, who resemble a jury of peers. Whatever their verdict, their perceived cheerfulness stands in stark contrast to the Prodigal's evident despair. In the remaining lines of the first sonnet, the Prodigal's burden is lightened, if only momentarily:

But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts
(he hid the pints behind a two-by-four),
the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red;
the burning puddles seemed to reassure.
And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile yet another year or more.

Setting images of consoling light against the prevailing darkness, these lines depict moments of intermittent hope. But they also reveal the self-delusion of the alcoholic, who hides the empty pints from himself as well as others.

In similar fashion, Bishop's closing lines portray a man denying the depth of his despair by overestimating his capacity to endure it. In the second sonnet, those illusions gradually disperse. Juxtaposing images of light and darkness, Bishop dramatizes the Prodigal's continuing agony:

But evenings the first star came to warn.
The farmer whom he worked for came at dark
to shut the cows and horses in the barn
beneath their overhanging clouds of hay,
with pitchforks, faint forked lightnings, catching light,
safe and companionable as in the Ark.
The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored.

"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills," cries the Psalmist, "from whence cometh my help." (15) And in another context, the celestial imagery deployed in these lines-the evening star, the clouds, the forks of lightning-might signify hope or incipient salvation. But here these images serve mainly to amplify the abiding darkness and to heighten our awareness of the Prodigal's low estate.

Likewise, the image of the cows and horses, safe in the ark of the barn, serves largely to remind the Prodigal of his own precarious existence. A sense of instability dominates the closing lines of the poem, where the true nature of the Prodigal's spiritual condition is made known:

Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats' uncertain staggering flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make his mind up to go home.

If the Prodigal's uncertain footing on a "slimy board" signifies emotional as well as physical instability, the phrase "shuddering insights" points toward a shocking recognition, a self-perception too damning to be readily absorbed.

Similarly, the phrase "beyond his control" implies that the Prodigal's redemption, toward which his narrative is tending, is not in his hands alone. "The Prodigal," wrote Bishop to Joseph Summers in 1967, "was suggested to me when one of my aunt's stepsons offered me a drink of rum, in the pigsties, at about nine in the morning, when I was visiting her in Nova Scotia." (17) Composed between 1948 and 1949, the poem reflects the condition of its author, who was battling depression, loneliness, and chronic abuse of alcohol during those years. "I worked on 'The Prodigal Son' all morning," Bishop wrote to Loren MacIver from Yaddo, the writers' retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1949. "I've had enough of it & drinking and all forms of trouble. . . If I can just stay together-but things do seem MUCH better and I find myself looking forward to Washington." (18)

Fortunately, Bishop found a model for her poem-and a tool for recovery-in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius , which she had read, a decade earlier, in the New York Public Library. (19) As she explained in a letter to Lowell, in writing "The Prodigal" she had endeavored to follow "that spiritual exercise of the Jesuits-when they try to think in detail how the thing must have happened." (20) According to the prescribed method of the Spiritual Exercises , the aspirant is first directed to picture the scene associated with the subject of meditation and to contemplate the sensations that each of the senses would experience. The aspirant then contemplates the significance of the event portrayed and its connection to his or her life. All of this is done in the context of choosing one's state of being in the view of God and salvation and ordering one's conduct accordingly. And, as Father Rickaby notes in his edition of the Spiritual Exercises , their accomplishment will require, on the aspirant's part, "much overcoming of oneself." (21) As should be evident from the foregoing discussion, "The Prodigal" follows the method of the Spiritual Exercises almost to the letter.

This would be remarkable in any event, but it is especially so in the case of Elizabeth Bishop, who was a secular modernist-or, if you like, a lapsed Protestant. Although she loved the old hymns and had, as Richard Wilbur puts it, "religious concerns and habits of feeling," (22) she was certainly no Jesuit. That she would turn in her time of great distress to a fundamental text of the Jesuit order is proof positive of the enduring influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who, as a novice priest, devoted a thirty-day retreat to the Spiritual Exercises and later incorporated a semblance of their structure into his poems. In this, as in other matters of a spiritual or moral nature, Bishop followed Hopkins's lead. To be sure, Bishop also took her cues from Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and other poets of her time. And, with the exception of the Hopkinsesque poems she wrote in her youth, her voice is too original and her manner too conversational to be mistaken for Hopkins's. Yet beneath the calm surfaces of her poems, as here and there in their textures and rhythms, we may detect the abiding spirit of her mentor. (23) "But just then," wrote Hopkins in his journal in 1872, "when I took in any inscape of the sky or sea I thought of Scotus." (24) So it was with Elizabeth Bishop, who looked hard at her earthly estate and thought of Hopkins.


1. Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works , ed. Catherine Phillips
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 142.

2. Bishop to Lowell, March 21, 1972. One Art: Letters, Selected and Edited by Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994), p. 562. See also Hopkins's letter to Robert Bridges, February 3, 1883.

3. Bishop to Stanford, November 29, 1933. One Art, p. 13.

4. Elizabeth Bishop, "Gerard Manley Hopkins: Notes on Timing in His Poetry, Vassar Review , 23, (February, 1934), 5-7.

5. Brett Millier, "Modesty and Morality: George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Elizabeth Bishop, Kenyon Review , 11, no.2 (Spring, 1989), 47-56; 53.

6. Millier, 49 —50.

7. Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983), p. 42.

8. Hopkins, op.cit., p. 158.

9. Bishop, The Complete Poems., p. 179.

10. August 1, 1868. Hopkins, op. cit., p. 197.

11. Letter from Bishop to Anne Stevenson, January 8, 1964, in Brett Millier, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 346

12. Seamus Heaney, "Counting to a Hundred: Elizabeth Bishop," in Finders Keepers (London: Faber, 2002), p. 336.

Links to Hopkins Literary Festival 2007

Faather Hopkins SJ on Retreat || Elizabeth Bishop and Hopkins Poetry || Aubrey de Vere and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Patrick Kavanagh and Gerard Manley Hopkins | | Communion of Saints in Hopkins Poetry || Saint Patricks Breastplate || Place of Church in Hopkins Juvenile Poems || Cardinal Newman and GM Hopkins || Hopkins Misdirected Faith || Father Hopkins SJ the Priest ||