Hopkins Lectures 2000

Philology and Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hugh Kenner Athens University, Georgia, USA.

Hopkins, in the heyday of philology, was a writer very much of his time. English poetry was freeing itself from the iambic pentameter.Virtually every effect of which the iambic pentameter is capable had been exploited. Poets, including Hopkins, were trying variations. Hugh Kenner looks at Philology which was becoming the dominant science of the late 19th century... all language as "fossil poetry"; for "the etymologist finds the deadest word to have been, once, a brilliant picture."

A plaque beside the front door of what was once University College, Dublin, asks us today to attend to a grouping that at first glance seems unlikely:

John Henry Cardinal Newman, First Rector
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Professor of Greek
James Augustine Joyce, Student

U.C.D., to put it briefly, was created for misfits. Newman and Hopkins were in Ireland because they were Englishmen, born at a time when English Catholicism had not the faintest idea what to do with converts of such troublesome intellectual eminence. And Joyce, unlike them, a cradle Catholic who moreover belonged in Ireland, was at U.C.D. because it had been created for Irishmen who, if they were Catholics, were not in those days admissible to Trinity. That meant, in those days, most Irishmen

Between the generation of Newman and that of Hopkins, though, something of great historical relevance was happening. Philology was becoming the dominant science of the late 19th century.

That long process had begun- when did it begin?

Let's arbitrarily take for starting-point the essay Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1844, when he was 47. It is called "The Poet," and it describes all language as "fossil poetry"; for "the etymologist finds the deadest word to have been, once, a brilliant picture." That sentence energizes what is perhaps the most influential page ever written in the United States. It caught, for one thing, the attention of the English clergyman Richard Chenevix Trench, later to become Anglican Archbishop of Dublin. Trench was inspired in mid-century to deliver six lectures, later published as On the Study of Words, a book that by 1892 had attained its 22nd edition, and Trench's influence is inseparable from the gestation of what was to become the Oxford English Dictionary, the novelty of which consisted in starting each presentation not with the current meaning of a word but with its earliest one.

Thus, reading down an entry perhaps a page long, one could watch the word evolve, often in surprising directions. (In the family tree of "buxom" we find a long-ago meaning, "obedient"; the grounds of desirability have evidently shifted.) And it was a pupil of Emerson's named Ernest Fenollosa, 1853-1908, who went to Japan in 1878 as a Professor of Philosophy and brought back from Japan on his last visit in 1901 an Emersonian philosophy of language re-envisioned in the Chinese Written Character, where every word, he averred, was exactly what Emerson had claimed it was, "a brilliant picture." By way of Ezra Pound, that was to lead to the poetic movement called Imagism, also to the rationale of the Cantos, and, very much via Pound, to the layout of such a work as The Waste Land.

Philology, then, the dominant science.

The dominant science has a way of governing some masterwork of great scope. In Milton's time that science had been theology, hence Paradise Lost. A century later it was history, hence Gibbon's Decline and Fall. In the nineteenth century, as we have seen, philology and a work of epic scale, the OED. And in the twentieth century? Why, psychology and sociology, and an epical novel entitled Ulysses.

Hopkins therefore, in the heyday of philology, was a writer very much of his time. Those were the days when, as Elisabeth Schneider reminds us, English poetry was freeing itself from the iambic pentameter, suddenly perceived as a burden. She suggests that there is perhaps no instance of a single meter dominating a culture's poetry for so many centuries. By the mid. 19th century, which is to say by the time Hopkins was in school, virtually every effect of which the iambic pentameter is capable had been, in Joyce's useful phrase, "multiplied, aye, and plultiplied." And, suddenly, poets were trying variations. Undergraduates are reported to have shuffled through Oxford quadrangles to a rhythm of Swinburne's:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God

And how does that differ from, say, this opening of a sonnet by Donne:

At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels; and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your shattered bodies go
At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow . . .

Offers us ten syllables, and the opening line of Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God

also has ten syllables, but Donne's line does indeed offer what the name "pentameter" calls for, five stresses, whereas the Hopkins line has only four. Later we find, in the poem's seventh line, ten monosyllabic words which can be forced into a five-stress line

And WEARS man's SMUDGE and SHARES man's SMELL; the SOIL

though it nestles much more comfortably into a "sprung" sequence of fully seven stresses:


Admittedly, it's hard to recapture from this distance the frenzy such rhythmic novelties could generate. The date of "God's Grandeur" is 1877; there survives a manuscript copy GMH sent his mother in that year. That is fully one hundred and twenty?one years ago now. It's worth getting a sense of the magnitude of this time?lapse. Go back from the year of "God's Grandeur" that many years, and lo, it is 1756; Samuel Johnson, not yet in his fifties, has just published his Dictionary, and it will be seven more years before he and James Boswell meet. So we are as far from "God's Grandeur" as its author was fromthe Johnson / Boswell heyday. Now move forward from "God's Grandeur" a full third of a century, and behold, in the Cambridge Review, a reviewer complaining about "unmetrical sprawling lengths." He was agitated by something of Ezra Pound's, who'd had the effrontery to publish such lines as

Eyes, dreams, lips and the night goes . . .

Harrumph! The three elements of poetry, the reviewer said, were "thought, words and metre," so let us have no more of "lengths chopped off anyhow." And he's not since been unheard of; he was named Rupert Brooke.

So Hopkins was right in sensing that, were his poems ever to be published, the furore would concern meter; hence concern to supply a terminology for his innovations. we're finally back to our interest in the dominant science of his day, which was Philology. For listen:

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.

So, the octave of a sonnet. But look, that's not sonnet diction. "Charged": for centuries that had meant "laden"; but since 1750, in a domain of English remote from the one frequented by poets, "charged" has also carried electrical implications; and we see how "flame out" follows. "To accumulate a quantity of electricity" is the OED's sense 7-b; by 1750 Benjamin Franklin is using the word in that way, and by 1869 a British writer can speak casually of "clouds ... highly charged with electricity." Hence a world "charged with the grandeur of God," hence "flame out;" and as for "shining from shook foil," Hopkins in a letter adduced the way "shaken goldfoil gives off broad glares like sheet lightning and ... owing to its zigzag dints ... a sort of fork lightning too." And as for "gathers to a greatness," a Hopkins journal entry cites "a force ... gathered before it was discharged." Electricity had not yet begun to come into people's homes; it would be 1879 - two years after the date of the poem - before Edison had so much as gotten a laboratory light-bulb to burn as long as 40 hours. Yet here's electricity pervading a poem by Hopkins; pervading, moreover, a sonnet.

It's hard to imagine a readership such as Hopkins might have had in mind. We know, of course, that by not publishing his poems he could defer the question of readers indefinitely. And he was not the only British poet who kept an eye on scientific lore. Tennyson in The Holy Grail has a character in King Arthur's England invoking a deafness "Deafer than the blue-eyed cat." He also takes the trouble to supply a footnote from Darwin, who has certified the "whimsical fact, that blue-eyed cats are generally deaf." (And that's totally untrue of the Siamese, but Darwin wrote it decades before England had heard of Siamese cats.) So ran Tennyson's whimsy; but Hopkins was not being whimsical. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God": that seems to Hopkins an allembracing fact, which the new electrical terminology enables him to express with majestic precision.

Apart, though, from scientific lore, his diction can be almost fervidly strange. In one sonnet - "Pied Beauty" - we find "dappled," "couple-coloured," "brindled," "rose-moles," "stipple," more ... You see the pattern. "Poetry," so T.S. Eliot would much later write, "can communicate before it is understood," but it is difficult to imagine that truth being enunciated in the lifetime of Hopkins. It was said of Browning's Sordello that only its first and last lines were intelligible, and that both were lies. The first line is "Who will, may hear Sordello's story told," and the last line is a past-tense variant. The date of Sordello is 1840, four years before Hopkins' birth. Browning got condemned as "unreadable" ever afterward. No, it was not an inviting time for poets who aspired past conventional diction.

Hopkins aspired, though, even past any definition of English. He wrote poems in Latin, in Greek, even in Welsh. Once again, he was freed by entertaining no concept of a readership. A poem he'd written sufficed if it interested him.

In his own lifetime, though, Hopkins had no readership; no visibility, even. Contrast Browning, who in his lifetime was a well-known name, if only as a cue for excoriation. Admired or no, still Browning was always a presence. So, in his own lifetime, was T.S. Eliot. Though contemporary reviews of The Waste Land display an unrelieved hostility, still they also attest to a living poet's presence.

Hopkins, though, resembles William Blake in being chiefly posterity's posthumous construct. Blake in his lifetime would have appeared in no one's list of living poets. He was, so to speak, invented in the 1890's, by Edwin Ellis and William Butler Yeats, who offered, for the first time anywhere, his entire canon, with a commentary. Theirs is, to be sure, a late - 19th-century Blake. Thereafter he has been repeatedly reinvented; the Blake I'm familiar with is the one created for my time by my old teacher Northrop Frye.

Repeated posthumous re-invention, that would seem to be the lot of any major poet whose own contemporaries knew him little or not at all.

The Hopkins Summer School is a major part of the process of keeping Hopkins re-invented. And a corollary is this, that we can't expect ever to know a "real" Hopkins; no, not at all.

Links to Hopkins Literary Festival 2000

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 ||