Hopkins Lectures 2000

Childbearing and Creativity

Donatella Abbate Badin University of Turin, ITALY

The Child Bearing Metaphor

From Plato's Symposium onwards, the childbearing metaphor has been used as a paradigm of the poetic process and is to our day a common tropos in world literature. Hopkins, in many of his metapoetical writings, addressed the issue of creativity accepting the relatively modern concept of human artistic creation although the word "creation" in its strict sense, only refers to God to whom all Creation pertains. ln his meditations on Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, Hopkins confronts the issue in a direct way:

Homo creatus est -- creation the making out of nothing, or bringing from nothing into being: once there was nothing, then lo, this huge world was there. How great a work of power!

The loaf is made with flour; the house with bricks; the plough, the cannon, the locomotive, the warship of iron -- all things that were before, of matter; but the world, with the flour, the grain, the weather, the seed, the ground, the sun, the rain; with the bricks, the clay, the earth; with the iron and the mine, the fuel and the furnace, was made from nothing. And they are made in time and with labour, the world in no time with a word. Man cannot create a single speck, God creates all that is besides himself.

But men of genius are said to create, a painting, a poem, a tale, a tune, a policy; not indeed the colours and the canvas, not the words or notes, but the design, the character, the air, the plan. How then? - from themselves, from their own minds. And they themselves, their minds and all, are creatures of God: if the tree created much more the flower and the fruit (SD 238).

The Trope of Child-Bearing

The use of the time-honoured trope of childbearing allowed Hopkins to come to terms with his creativity, conscious as he was that his means were given to him by God and that, like human fathers and mothers, he was not creating ex nihilo but by God's will and to his glory.

Ambivalence regarding the Topos of Poetic Birth

Yet even the biological paradigm reveals an ambivalence regarding the topos of poetic birth: how much of an active role should the creator take? Hopkins seems to make a tacit distinction between an active creative response willed by the intelligence through a conscious effort to produce meaning and a passive creation, that takes place when inspiration is received and grows subconsciously inside the artist. For the early Hopkins, real artistic creation did not begin with his version of inspiration, that is the moment of instress; real artistic creation begins with the artist's deliberate verbal response, with the impulse to produce meaning in the conception of a first metaphor. Metaphor is, indeed, the seed, in the womb of imagination, the ability to see and to verbalize the inscapes and thus also seize and reproduce the incarnation of the Word in the world. This obviously confers to the artist a very important role in his creation.

The Sweet Fire of Inspiration

The sweet fire of inspiration mentioned in the sonnet, To R.B., does not emanate from the muse nor directly from God or the Holy Ghost; it comes when the poet places himself in a position to "touch" the things of this world: "All things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God and if we know how to touch them give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of him" (SD 195 ). The sexual metaphor of foreplay before carnal union with reality displaces the responsibility of artistic creation on the knowing artist.

From this will, this effort, this know-how originates the male act of insemination: The male quality is the creative gift, wrote Hopkins to Dixon, -- the begetting one's thought on paper, on verse, on whatever the matter is; the life must be conveyed into the work and be displayed there, not suggested (L 11 13 3 ). The two moments of creation - the perception and the technical production - seem inseparable in the early buoyant phase of Hopkins's poetic life.

Actively seeking, or actively responding to inspiration?

Yet if we examine the whole of Hopkins's career we may see him wavering. Should he actively seek inspiration in reality and actively respond to it? Or should he not rather wait passively for inspiration/insemination to come to the womb of his mind? Should the poet, in other words, take a male role in creation or a female one?

Clearly Victorian views on the separate masculine and feminine spheres, on creativity as the province of men or on the perception of woman's procreativity as a mindless, unconscious, uncontrolled act of the body enhance Hopkins's own ambiguities about the legitimacy of poetic creation. As Susan Friedman points out, the childbearing metaphor is overdetermined by psychological and ideological resonances evoked by, but independent of the text (75 ).

In To R.B., the sonnet dedicated to Robert Bridges, the last and most obviously self-referential of Hopkins's poems, the paradigm is most explicitly used, revealing many such cultural and personal tensions which allow us to infer Hopkins's change of heart towards poetic creation in the final years of his life.

The Poem's spontaneous status

In the procreative process described in the poem, the poet is identified with one who conceives, nurtures and gives birth to a child, but the poem wavers between a patriarchal view of creation or production as opposed to a matricentral one, of re-production and procreation. In other words, the poem's spontaneous, inspired status is contrasted with the artist's mastery over his medium. The contradiction is a clue to the aesthetic and epistemic presuppositions underlying Hopkins's poetics and, to a certain degree, those of the Victorian age itself.

The octave and the sestet of To R.B. constitute two blocks which, while converging on the same theme, are in different registers. The octave, which is in a descriptive register, uses the biological metaphor of procreation and childbirth to articulate an ideal act of poetic creation, such as, for instance, was experienced by the poet in his happy Welsh season of 1877 to which we owe so many of his nature poems.(2) The sestet in an emotive register, continues the metaphor applying it to the present situation of the speaker of the poem, and laments the poet's sterility and lack of artistic creation.

The octave is likewise constituted of two blocks, illustrating two different points of view, the first quatrain describing masculine fecundation, the second quatrain describing feminine gestation. As the feminist critic, Mary Ellmann, points out, this is a habitual process in male writers using the procreative metaphor, : At the same time that the male mind can choose to function periodically like a uterus, it is assumed to function primarily like a penis. (2 3) In the octave Hopkins, in fact, uses both versions of the trope. The seminal moment, the moment of inspiration, is conveyed in the sonnet through images suggesting male penetration. As Ellmann points out in her study of sexual analogies in current language, since Freud we have [become] slavish in our attribution of every extrorse form to the male and of every declivity to the female (7 ). It does not take much ingenuity, then, to see the protruding spur and blow-pipe as fathering-forth phallic analogues. The moment of artistic conception, like coition, is one of fine delight, indeed of rapture (1.10), but also of lancing pain inflicted by a sharp spur:

The fine delight that fathers thought; the strong Spur, live and
like the blowpipe flame Breathes once and, quenched faster than
it came, Leaves yet the mind a mother of immortal song.

The antithesis of pleasure and pain will be reiterated by the oxymoron "sweet fire" when the analogy is resumed in 1.9. Fire, a dictionary synonym for inspiration, will then appear to have generated the more daring metaphor of the blowpipe - a device through which air and fire are mixed and blown onto what needs welding. Thus the moment of poetical conception, as rendered by Hopkins, is a summa of different myths of origin where the initial moment of creation was linked either to a sexual act, or to the blowing of divine breath, or to a spark of fire - all resulting in the fashioning of the created object.

The association of fire and air also evokes an image much closer to Hopkins's heart, that of the rushing mighty wind . . . and tongues like as of fire of the Holy Ghost who empowered the Apostles - and the poet - to speak with other tongues and gave them utterance (Acts 2 ). Linguistic - and, in consequence, poetic - creation is, thus, a gift of the Holy Ghost and the blowpipe flame is Hopkins's version of Pentecostal fire.

Theological tradition itself suggests the symbolic model of the imagination as the virgin womb in which the Word is made flesh and grows. In sacred paintings of the Annunciation this is often represented by a ray or flame piercing the head or ear of the Virgin, symbolizing her fecundation by the Holy Ghost. The paradigm of origins in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is indeed phallogocentric, as many feminist theorists have pointed out.

In the second quatrain, after the mind is set at stress and made a mother of immortal song by its soon quenched encounter with the Pentecostal fire of inspiration, Hopkins switches to a feminine model of creativity and continues his extended metaphor by describing the gestation period:

Nine months she then, nay years, nine years she long
Within her wears, bears, cares and combs the same.

The long vowel sound ea which joins together the three verbs wears, bears, cares underlines the lengthiness of the loving but burdensome process of gestation of a song-child by a mind-mother (V. Boyle's metaphor, p. xii). The first two verbs denote a passive attitude while cares and, even more so, combs mark a turning point towards a more active role of the mindmother. The verb "combs" daringly evokes, in fact, a perfectionist and obsessive maternal care towards the embryo, the impossible disentangling of the rebellious locks in utero (3). The verb also clearly represents the process of eliminating all knots, all parasites and carefully arranging every single strand of an unborn poem - the fitting together of all elements which resulted in Hopkins's complex phonic and semantic texture. The verb 'comb' testifies to the fact that the production of a poem was for Hopkins a painstaking process as the many observations jotted down in the notebooks and the many drafts of a poem prove. Hopkins admitted that much to Bridges: Then again I have of myself made verse so laborious (L 166).

Active gestation of a poem

The process of active gestation through which the poem is carefully crafted was of extreme importance to Hopkins: without masterly execution, he wrote, the product is one of those hen's eggs that are good to eat and look just like live ones but never hatch (L 11 133). In light of this observation it appears then that a poem, like an egg, is live not so much because of the fertilization but because of the prolonged, arduous and active reproductive role of the mind-mother which allows hatching to take place. The germ planted by the breath and fire of (divine) inspiration is nothing without craftsmanship.

Combs, however, has a second meaning: that of maturing or storing as in a honeycomb (4) - a process of trickling increment and of fulfillment. The poem is added to, grows and matures from that first moment of insemination, as a foetus does, outside the mother's control.

The role of the artist, thus, appears ambiguous: the polysemic comb allows us to perceive the artist's mind both as a passive recipient of a germ that grows in it, and as the active moulder of the same precious pre-formed life. The uterus-mind becomes, thus, at least in one of the possible readings, a creative force in its own right of equal, if not superior, value to the inseminating spur. The quatrain which in L1 saw creation as fathering concludes with an image of motherhood, pointing towards a matricentral reading of creation.

The second quatrain ends with an extension of the actively creative female metaphor: the mind, now a 'widow of an insight lost advances in its task with hand at work now never wrong. The emphasis, as in many preceding poems, is laid on the mastery of the thing. Hopkins's own notes for poetry, often the fruit of a moment of vision, are separated from the finished poems of the canon by the action of the poet's secure motherly hand operating even if widowed.

Although they illustrate two different points of view, the two blocks of the octave present a remarkable structural parallelism: each quatrain is one long sentence, organized paratactically with no deviations from a natural word order.Concrete terms (spur, blowpipe flame, mother, widow) predominate and even abstract rerms are made concrete through similes (i.e. delight like a blowpipe flame). The tone is affirmative, illustrating the speaker's certitudes about creation. The sestet instead, with its emotive register, reverses both the tone andthe message ofthe octave.

Many semantic and thematic links between the octave and the sestet underline the reversal. As elements of the first part are repeated in a negative key, their absence illustrates the speaker's present situation of sterility as one in contrast to his habitual mood.

Sweet fire the sire of muse, my soul needs this;
I want the one rapture of an inspiration.
O then if in my lagging lines you miss
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.

While the octave is full of active, life-giving images (breathing, fathering, mothering, caring, combing, living, working), the sestet is characterized by the vocabulary of deprivation: need, want, lagging, miss, scarcely breathe, winter world, sighs and contains precise instances of precise semic oppositions between euphoric creation and disphoric sterility:

Euphoric creation vs  disphoric sterility
live and lancing flame need of fire delight
immortal song nine months (gestation)
breathes onceGM Hopkins,poetry, want of rapture
lagging lines winter world (no gestation)
scarcely breathes

The emotive tone of the sestet, announced by the interjection "O" and by the direct address, is enhanced by a less linear syntactical construction, with an anticipation of the object in the first line (Sweet fire the sire of muse my soul needs this) which surprises the reader into first interpreting it as an invocation to the fire of inspiration. The differences in tone from the octave are also enhanced by an overabundance of abstract nouns (soul, rapture, inspiration, creation, bliss, sighs, explanation) and by the presence of literary jargon (sire, "muse").

The sonnet is built on a basic parallelism: in the octave the action of the spur and the blowpipe flame are answered by pregnancy; in the sestet the lack of fire is answered by lagging lines i.e. sterility. The structure of To R.B. is antinomic: it polarizes euphoric creation / disphoric sterility, active craftsmanship / passive inspiration, action / stasis.

New phase in Hopkins's view of artistic creation

But there is more: the poem in its antinomies also marks a new phase in Hopkins's view of artistic creation. The sestet which in a quiet, melancholy tone, laments the absence of the creative buoyancy celebrated in the octave, also reasserts the importance of inspiration by opening with a reminder of the male prerogatives of the first quatrain (flame echoed in fire, fathers in sire, delight in rapture and breathes in inspiration). The term lagging lines implies that some poems, like the unfertilized eggs mentioned above, may grow in the womb of the mind and be brought to light, but not have the ring of a true creation no matter how long a poet broods over them. But while the eggs of Hopkins's letter to Dixon would not hatch because of the absence of masterly execution, the sestet of To R.B. suggests that the whole gestation period is to no avail if there has not been a spark at the origin of the unconscious and conscious processes of growth. The world is, indeed, a winter world, because it lacks the power to instress and, in view of the nature of inspiration in Hopkins, we might add that it lacks it because the will to be instressed is absent.

Thus, after the hesitation and ambiguity of the second quatrain, Hopkins seems to return in this sestet to the primacy of inspiration which, to develop Hopkins's sexual analogy, is similar to the arousal of desire, while the creative moment resides in the ability to achieve carnal union with reality and in the will to bring a creature to life in spite of the pain. With the words Sweet fire the sire of muse, the sonnet assigns divine inspiration a hierarchical position above the muse - presumably the human, pagan will to craft a poem which had, however, been accorded great importance by Hopkins in other theoretical remarks. The mind-womb, without the divine - and masculine-inseminating force cannot indulge in autogenetic procreation. However, in Hopkins's last years, even the will to create, to craft begins , to appear suspect because of the dazzle and vainglory it involves.

Hopkins's sermon on Satan gives us a clear explanation of what, in his eyes, could have been the danger of creation. The act of creation, a wilful and individualistic action, isolates the artistic creator from universal harmony as Lucifer detaches himself from the celestial choir when he becomes enraptured with his own voice.

[W]hen from that first note sung with the other angels in praise of God's creation he should have gone on with the sacrificial service, prolonging the note instead and ravished by his own sweetness and dazzled . . . by his beauty, he was involved in spiritual sloth and spiritual luxury and vainglory .... This song of Lucifer's was a dwelling on his own beauty, an instressing of his own inscape, and like a performance on the organ and instrumentof his own being; it was a sounding, as they say, of his own trumpet and a hymn in his own praise. Moreover it became an incantation: others were drawn in; it became a concert of voices, a concerting of selfpraise, an enchantment, a magic, by which they were dizzied, dazzled, and bewitched (SD, 180, 200-201).

Hopkins had employed the same key words, dazzle and vainglory, many years before in letters to Dixon to explain his lack of interest in publication: individual fame St. Ignatius looked on as the most dangerous and dazzling of all attractions (LD 93?94) and The question for me is . . . whether I am not to undergo a severe judgement from God. . . for the disquiet and the thoughts of vainglory they have given rise to (88).

In spite of all his theories in favour of artistic creation as an activity giving glory to God, Hopkins had good grounds for misgivings about individual creation. (5)

This is also evident in the frequent suggestions of less dazzling ways of serving God. Unlike morning's minion, the windhover, the plough down sillion shines without having to display any achieve of, mastery of the thing, an activity which is as much a reflection of God's perfection as of personal pride. So does the woman with the sloppail or St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, laybrother of the Society, who for years and years . . . of world without event . . . in Majorca.. watched the door. In their modest activities they serve God just as well, if not better, than those who create, conquer, or generally achieve.

To sum up my argument, in Hopkins's earlier poetry and prose, we can recognize an active creative role - the male thrust answered by the male begetting - which gave rise to splendid poetry but which Hopkins was later to reject as dangerous. The sestet of To R.B, the terrible sonnets, and his meditation on The Principle or Foundation, with his thoughts on creation, all indicate, instead, that the artist should passively receive the spark of inspiration and let the seed grow in him. This process, as Feeney underlines, is as natural, organic and fruitful as human gestation and childbirth (19).

The plaintive note sounded in To R.B. and in the terrible sonnets about the lack of rain (Thou art indeed just) or the absence of the one rapture of an inspiration, suggests that the poet has, with sadness, ceased his active search for illumination and lashing into words (in other words, the all-male creation), but he accepts, indeed desires, an artistic creation that springs from the female in him - a female seen through Victorian lenses as yielding to male authority and lacking herself of authority and intention - a female submitting to fecundation by the bridegroom but, like a prudish bride, not actively seeking it.


  1. 1. Based, partly on my" 'Mother of immortal song': Gerard Manley Hopkins and theCreative Mind," Studi in onore di Massimo Pittau. University di Sassari, 1996

  2. 2. Wales itself was seen as "a mother of Muses"and a world that "breathes poetry": as in the octave of "To R. B: ", mothering and inspiration go together in this period of Hopkins's creative life.

  3. 3. Norman Mackenzie in his notes to Poems 1990, gives this explanation of "comb": "The poet disentangles the strands of his embryonic poem, or xembodies his inspiration in structured form. but critics disagree on how a xmother can comb an unborn child" (507).

  4. 4. In Poems 1967, Gardner gives his reasons for substituting the original "'combs" for Bridges' emendation "moulds" : "I restored the original word, which G.M. Hopkins might have used in the double sense of (1) unravel; put in order, as by combing and (2) store; mature =? as in a honeycomb; cf. No. 68: "Patience fills / His crisp combs... " (297).

  5. 5. Critics agree on Hopkins' uneasy feelings about artistic creation. For Sulloway, both Hopkins and Ruskin "saw the role of the artist as divinely sanctioned, and at the same time, a threat to salvation: sometimes the artist appears as the interpreter of God's
    will, sometimes as the man most likely to flout it" (77). In the opinion of Edward Said, the sublimation of the sexual act, implicit in artistic creation, appears to the poet as a transgression, something which diverts his mind from God's service in order to tend to his own creature. In his biography, Martin remarks that in the final years of his life, Hopkins was obsessed with his eyes ?? images of blindness and of gouging out eyes recurring. Eyes, as Martin points out, are "agents of carnal temptation" (40) but also the vehicles for inspiration. The fear mixed with the desire of losing his eyesight can be seen as a further symptom of the new mood of refusing to be actively inspired or aroused.

Works Cited

Works by Gerard Manley Hopkins and abbreviations used in the text:

The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. (Fourth edition), ed. W.H. Gardner and N.H. Mackenzie, Oxford University Press, 1970.

P 1990 The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. (Fifth edition), ed. N.H. Mackenzie, Oxford University Press, 1990.

The Journals and Payers of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ed. Humphry House and Graham Storey, Oxford University Press, 1966.

The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ed. Christopher Devlin, S.J. ,Oxford University Press, 1967.

The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges. Ed. Claude Colleer Abbott, Oxford University Press, 1955.

L I I The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins with Richard Watson Dixon. Ed. Claude Colleer Abbott, Oxford University Press, 1955.

L I I I Further Letters of Gerard Manlev Hopkins including his Correspondence with Coventry Patmore. Ed. Claude

Colleer Abbott, Oxford University Press, 1956.

S P Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Prose. Ed. Gerald Roberts, Oxford University Press,1980. books and articles

D. Badin, " 'Mother of immortal song': Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Creative Mind,"

J. Feeney, "The Creating Mind of Gerard Manley Hopkins", America, July 4, 1998, pp.19-21.

S. S. Friedman, "Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor: Gender Difference in Literary Discourse" In E. showalter, Ed. Speaking of Gender. New York, 1989.

1. Martin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, London: Putnam, 1991.

E. Said, Beginnings: Intentions and Method, New York, 1975.

A. Sulloway, Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Victorian Temper, London: Routledge, 1972.

Links to Hopkins Festival 2000 Lectures

St Augustine and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Creativity in Hopkins World || Czech Perspective on Hopkins Poetry || Eugenio Montale and Hopkins Poetry || German Perspective on Hopkins Poetry || Heraclitus and Hopkins ||
GM Hopkins in Kildare
|| Hopkins and the Resurrection || Spansih Perspective on Hopkins Poetry ||
GM Hopkins and his Translators