Hopkins Lectures 2007































































































































Gerard Manley Hopkins, Aubrey DeVere, and New Historicism

Patrick Samway SJ, St. Joseph's College, Philadelphia

One of the most famous Catholic poets of the 19th century, Aubrey DeVere, a convert, like Hopkins, was on his literary radar. This was evidenced in letters to Richard Watson Dixon and Coventry Patmore, a friend of DeVere, both he and Patmore were in agreement about DeVere: "He has all the gifts that make a poet excepting [sic] only that last degree of individuality which is the most essential of all."

I have it on good authority from someone I live with in Philadelphia that Hopkins enjoyed both the language of play and the play of language. The linguistic arabesques and interlocking configuration of images in "Dun's Scotus's Oxford" -- such as "Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed, lark-charmèd, rook-rackèd, river-rounded"-are, to cite but one example of such language, traps for poetic meditation.

Who among us can easily but his or her arms around this language, to find epistemological connections that are grounded metaphysically in things as they are or things as we know them? Thus, from one perspective, Hopkins could easily become the poster boy for deconstructionism, which indeed treats the "play" side of language-as all too often deconstructionists decree that poetry, or novels or any literary texts, for that matter, consist of a series of words without any verifiable "meaning" or "center," something in my mind antithetical to a Christian world-view where Christ is the Verbum or the Logos, and therefore the content of all words. He is the Alpha and Omega of language, of all possible words in all languages, and thus the originator and receptor of all that can be thought or expressed in language.

From a study of Duns Scotus, and other philosophers and theologians, Hopkins directed his readers toward words and concepts that allowed them to approach an understanding of his linguistic playfulness, words such as inscape and instress. In this way, he assists his reader in coping with the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiates it from other things.

Studying the inscape of a thing shows us why God created it. "Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / . . . myself it speaks and spells, / Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. " By instress, he refers to the force of being that holds the inscape together or which carries it wholly into the mind of the beholder. Inscape, a word well beloved to readers of Hopkins's poetry, likewise can evoke other words, such as landscape, which Hopkins uses in "Penmaen Pool," "Pied Beauty," and "Ribblesdale," and/ or by extension, at least to my way of thinking, mindscape, which he does not use. Unfortunately, inscape, a word comparable to the French word instase, does not have an opposite, such as outscape, or as the French might say, exstase.

Were we to use these new critical words, instase and exstase, in discussing Hopkins, our aim should not be of layering definitions, but of highlighting the originality of Hopkins's contribution to the poetic enterprise. Thus we might note that in "Spring" Hopkins would have us be cognizant of weeds in wheels, thrush's eggs, a glassy peartree, and racing lambs, and whatever has existed within the earth's sweet being from the beginning. Instase looks within a being or within Being itself. "Pied Beauty," to cite another instance, presents skies as the color of the hides on brinded cows and of the skins of swimming trout, or the design of finches' wings and the shapes of plotted and pieced landscapes, all within a world that reveals the unchangeable beauty of God, who though one, embodies what the world contains, or else how could he have created it? Instase, the search for what is within, goes beyond itself to lead to exstase, an overwhelming acceptance of the completely Other, in this case of God the Creator and Redeemer.

Yet, whatever language one opts for should ultimately give more and more accessibility to Hopkins's poetry and allow it to take on the clarity one witnesses in seeing the negative of a film develop before our eyes into a well delineated picture. The critical language one adopts is but one way of entering into important considerations of Hopkins's originality, which can, of course, incorporate valuable literary theory. Yet, there is another way of gauging such originality; that is, by comparing Hopkins with other Catholic poets of his day and their play of language, the conceits that give distinction to their poetry. One of the most famous Catholic poets of the 19 th century, Aubrey DeVere, became, at age 37, a convert to Catholicism, as did Hopkins, whose correspondence clearly indicates that DeVere was on his literary radar.

In a letter written to Richard Watson Dixon from Manchester on August 12, 1883, for example, Hopkins mentions that during a conversation with Coventry Patmore, a friend of DeVere, both he and Patmore were in agreement about DeVere: "He has all the gifts that make a poet excepting [sic] only that last degree of individuality which is the most essential of all." (1) Though Hopkins had little praise for DeVere in the three times he mentions him, it should be noted in fairness to DeVere that Hopkins never had a genuine contemporary reading public who might criticize his poetry, for better or for worse. Born in County Limerick in 1814, DeVere died there in 1902, making him an exact contemporary of Hopkins. His education at Trinity College in Dublin provided him an opportunity to study Ireland's Heroic Age and the legends of Cuchullain, at a time before Yeats or Lady Gregory took up similar interests. At John Henry Newman's invitation, he became the first Professor of English Literature at the Catholic University of Ireland.

Over the years, DeVere's poetry gradually focused on Irish spirituality, most notably in his poem "The Legend of St. Patrick," published in 1872, though one should not discount in this regard his poetic and dramatic tributes to St. Thomas of Canterbury (1876) or St. Peter (1888)-or a host of other saints: Benedict, Francis, Jeanne d'Arc, and Catherine of Genoa. And like Hopkins, he was fascinated by literary theory, as evidenced in his book "Essays Chiefly on Poetry" (1887), which highlighted various aspects of the poetry of Walter Savage Landor, Edmund Spencer, and William Wordsworth, as well as rather developed interest in theology. In his essay, "The Subjective Difficulties in Religion," he writes tellingly of a subject dear to Hopkins: "The material beauty of the earth, apart from all here utilitarian helps and appliances, witnesses to a Creator, because it reveals that law of loveliness to which He has subjected creation." (2) DeVere's profound interest in nature stemmed in part from his friendship with Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. In his essay on 'Recollections of Wordsworth," DeVere was impressed by the fact that Wordsworth jotted down whatever struck him most - "a river rippling over the sands, a ruined tower on a rock above it, a promontory, and a mountain-waving its red berries. He went home, and wove the whole together in a poetical description." (3) Nature not described accurately was for Wordsworth a profanation. "Truth," Wordsworth told DeVere, "is truth in its largest sense, as a thing at once real and ideal, a truth including exact and accurate detail, and yet subordinating mere detail to the spirit of the whole,--this, he affirmed, was the soul and essence not only of descriptive poetry, but of all poetry." (4) Though Wordsworth was anti-Roman Catholic, mainly because of his objection to Vatican politics, his poetic line in "The Virgin" ("Our tainted nature's solitary boast") is perhaps the most celebrated popular tribute to Our Lady. Since Hopkins had apparently read some of DeVere's poetry and criticism, it might be good to see if there are any literary connections between these two poets, and in doing so I merely wish to open doors that others might walk through. DeVere's 1857 volume of short poems, entitled May Carols, written at the suggestion of Pope Pius IX, focuses primarily on Our Lady as a way of understanding the Incarnation.

In the Introduction to this volume, DeVere two insightful comments about these poems:
1) "Through Mary the Palpable is preserved in the Spiritual." (xv).
2) "Mary assists equally in sunning out every.Christian affection" (xxiii; my emphasis).

Well after DeVere's volume appeared, Hopkins began writing about Our Lady: "Ad Mariam," probably in 1873, "Rosa Mystica," perhaps in 1874, "The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe," in 1883, and " The May Magnificat," in 1878. In this latter poem, Hopkins posits May as Mary's month, as does DeVere in his entire volume; Hopkins wonders why this month is so appropriate in celebrating Our Lady. Thus the question, " What is Spring?" has a ready answer for him; " Growth in every thing." Is it more than fortuitous that DeVere begins his first poem in this sequence with a reference to Spring?

Who feels not, when the Spring once more,
Stepping o'er Winter's grave forlorn
With winged feet, retreads the shore
Of widowed Earth, his bosom burn?

As ordered flower succeeds to flower . . . Hopkins, as is his penchant, then gives wondrously imaginative examples, not merely for the sake of illustration, but more to show how specific entities in our "greenworld"-all flesh and fleece, fur and feather - participate in the marvelous nature of God. They signal to all how Our Lady magnified her Son. But there is more, especially in Hopkins associating Our Lady with flowers and fruit-a characteristic, likewise, of DeVere, particularly in indicating that Mary's dowry was the "Fruit of Life" (in "Ab Angelo Salutata") and that her infant Jesus was her "violet" (in "Adolescentulae amaverunt te nimis"), an image suggested by Hopkins's drop-of-blood-red apple blossom:

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
   And thicket and thorp are merry
  With silver-surfèd cherry And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
 And magic cuckoocall
   Caps, clears, and clinches all - This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ's birth
To remember and exultation

In God who was her salvation. (Emphasis mine)

Other similarities, coincidences, juxtapositions occur in the poetry of Hopkins and DeVere. In "Ad Nives," a poem in print by 1857, DeVere writes: "Before the morn began to break/The bright One bent above that pair … " (5) Is there an echo in Hopkins's 1877 poem "God's Grandeur" in "morn," "bent," "bright," and in the similarity of "bright One" and "Holy Ghost"?

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 with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

In addition, in "Spring and Fall," written in September 1880, Hopkins focuses on a young girl, named Margaret, who is grieving over the human condition, especially her own mortal fate. Curiously, almost 20 years earlier, DeVere had published a collection of poetry, entitled The Sisters; or, Weal in Woe: An Irish Tale, which partly depicts the grief of Margaret MacCarthy and her sister Mary over the death of their parents-perhaps representatives of Ireland. (6) ("In grief's bewilderment the orphans stood/Like one by fraud betray'd.." [p. 14]).

In this poem, the Irish narrator tells his English friend about Mary's life and death and the future of Ireland, which can expect a social and political resurrection. Though Mary holds center stage throughout the poem, the reader, like Margaret, can grieve over Ireland's fateful past. Would it change the nature of Hopkins's poem if one thought of Margaret lamenting silently Ireland's fate, in addition to her own? The theme in Hopkins's poem is likewise suggested in DeVere's poem "A Song of Age." (7)

Who mourns? Flow on, delicious breeze!
Who mourns though youth and strength go by?
Fresh leaves invest the vernal trees,
Fresh airs will drown my latest sigh:
This frame is but a part outworn
Of earth's great whole that lifts more high
A tempest-freshened brow each morn
To meet pure beams and azure sky.
Thou world-renewing breath, sweep on,
And waft earth's sweetness o'er the wave!
That earth will circle round the sun
When God takes back the life He gave!
To each his turn! Even now I feel
The feet of children press my grave,
And one deep whisper o'er it steal —

"The soul is His who died to save." I would not argue that DeVere is a better poet than Hopkins. Au contraire! But I might suggest that Hopkins scholarship could be amplified and given another new direction by looking more carefully at his fellow Catholic poets, their preoccupations and concerns, in order to find that Hopkins difference. Maybe I have been trying to suggest, in my own way, that Hopkins criticism should look with greater intensity at the proposals put forth by New Historicism.

Cleanth Brooks still casts a long shadow on Hopkins criticism; the need now, I might suggest, is to look latitudinally at the poetical world that enveloped Hopkins. I believe that the history and sensibilities of Late Victorianism would open up new vistas in this regard. And maybe, even going beyond this, to integrate New Historicism's approaches with New Formalism, which "assigns to literature a special kind or concept of form, one that is responsible for a work's accession to literary status in the first place.." (8) Don't we need to rededicate ourselves to and retheorize art, culture, knowledge, form, and especially value-and create space for metaphysics, commitment, conviction, and devotion in our approach to Hopkins's poetry? Perhaps Hopkins critics overly favor the Scholasticism of the High Middle Ages and not the dramatic contributions of Late Victorianism. Perhaps. Perhaps.


(1) The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon , edited by Claude Colleer Abbott, London: Oxford University Press, 1955, p. 112. In a letter to his mother, dated November 10, 1888, written from University College, Dublin, he notes that she had read with pleasure DeVere's book of criticism and that he, too, had "only seen a little of it. He has a beautiful mind and is full of noble and slightly vaporous thoughts. … Like all that is best in Ireland he is entirely on the shelf and as ineffective as if he were not. I could tell you more about him." ( Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Including his Correspondence with Coventry Patmore , edited by Claude Colleer Abbott, London: Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 186.) In a letter he wrote to Robert Bridges from Fort William in Northern England on August 18, 1888, he says that his Irish friends suggested he meet DeVere, but that never happened, at least just then. We do not know if he met him later on, though it seems doubtful, since it is not mentioned in his later letters or journals. He did note to Bridges that upon learning that DeVere did not like Dryden as a poet, then he, Hopkins, had "not missed much." (The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges , London: Oxford University Press, 1955, p. 280.)

2. Essays Chiefly on Poetry , Volume 2, London: Macmillan & Company, 1887, p. 198.

3. Essays Chiefly on Poetry , pp. 276—77.

4. Essays Chiefly on Poetry , pp. 278—79.

5. This poem appears in May Carols, London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, & Roberts, 1857 (also, London: Burns and Oates, 1881, third edition; this is the edition I cited).

6. The Sisters, Inisfail, and Other Poems , London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, & Roberts, 1861, pp. 3—41.

7. Poems from the Works of Aubrey DeVere , selected and edited by Lady Margaret Domville, London: Catholic Truth Society, 1904, p. 147.

8. See the informative article on this topic by Marjorie Levinson, PMLA , March 2007, Volume 122, No. 2, 558—569.

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 ||