Hopkins Lectures 2000

Representing the Material World: Hopkins and the Reality of Christ's Resurrection

Brian Arkins National University of Ireland Galway

Fire, for Heraclitus, is an agent of transformation. Fire also forms the soul, doomed to dissolve. But Christ's resurrection offers men a beacon which ensures a share in the immortality of the Incarnate Christ.


Fire, in Heraclitus, is an agent of unending transformation in nature. Fire also forms the human soul, doomed to dissolve in water. But Christ's resurrection offers men a different kind of fire, a beacon, an eternal beam, which ensures that a Human Being will, in the life after death, share in the immortality of the Incarnate Christ. To illustrate how man is made immortal, Hopkins makes use of an analogy from the world of matter : through fire, matchwood becomes the charcoal of a burnt matchstick, and charcoal can be converted into diamond, the hardest substance known to the world. Conversely, a human being is a thing of shreds and has the potential to transcend death and become immortal, This Jack, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond Is immortal diamond. To conclude, Joyce notes that the artist is a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience. Something that Russell, unable to imagine, cannot do:

To illustrate how man is made immortal, Hopkins makes use of an analogy from the world of matter : through fire, matchwood becomes the charcoal of a burnt matchstick, and charcoal can be converted into diamond, the hardest substance known to the world. Conversely, a human being is a thing of shreds and has the potential to transcend death and become immortal, This Jack, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond Is immortal diamond. To conclude, Joyce notes that the artist is a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience. Something that Russell, unable to imagine, cannot do :

The sombre trees
To cloud change unimaginably.

Representing the Material World: Hopkins and others

Philosophical positions can have important consequences for the way that writers represent matter. The Platonic - type beliefs of Russell and of Yeats limited their capacity to depict adequately the material world. The empirical, Aristotelian-type world-view of early Eliot, of Joyce, and of MacNeice allowed them to depict matter in a much more concrete way. The Incarnational approach of Christian writers like Hopkins and Kavanagh ensures that they too were well able to come to terms with matter - though, like all the others, they were keenly aware of the pain and suffering in human life. A.E. Russell, who lived in Dublin during Hopkins's time there, pursued in his life two chief aims: spiritual research and agricultural reform. He was able to hold these to aims in balance. Not so with his poems. Since Russell believed that Art has to reveal to us ideals, formless spiritual essences, his verse becomes , by his own admission, half dream, half vision; but the dreams are not those of Freud and the visions not those of Plotinus. Irish critics and poets concur that Russell's poems are too ethereal to be taken seriously. For Donoghue, reading A.E.'s poems is like being inside a feather mattress, embarassed by texture absurdly in excess of structure and ossature: it would be fatal to the experience if the words suddenly decided to go against their character and specify something.

James Liddy makes the same point very concisely : his verses got woolier and woolier. It is important to pinpoint more exactly what is wrong with Russell's poem, for there is much at stake. Drawing on both pagan and Christian beliefs, Russell dreamed of a new spiritual age and its various antecedents are spoken in terms of the pure alone and impure elements are ignored. But since, as Bataille tells us, the realm of sacred things is composed of the pure and of the impure, Russell is not true to experience. Crazy Jane, who knows much, knows that Fair and foul are near of kin,/And fair needs foul - as Russell does not.

Using Plato and Aristotle as paradigms of how reality is to be represented, Joyce casts a very cold eye on Russell's art. In Ulysses, Russell maintains that art brings our mind into contact with the eternal wisdom, Plato's world of ideas, and so posits a fusion between the human and divine that ignores Aristotle's law of contradiction, the idea that a thing must be either x or y. As a result, Russell can be regarded as saying this verily is that. Which, of course it is not. Joyce is very explicit about the fact that Russell and others were only able to present their dream world at the cost of ignoring the impurity of physical reality : that they may dream their dreamy dreams / I carry off their filthy streams. Indeed Russell, him who once when snug abed / Saw Jesus Christ without his head.

Consequently, Russell has provided his own gloss on what Eliot was to call the boredom, and the horror,and the glory: Russell ignored the horror, portrayed the glory in wholly unreal terms, and induces massive boredom. When we come to deal with Yeats, we find that he was, by temperament, unable to represent the material world in an adequate fashion. Beguiled by the other world of the spirit - whether such a world was that of faery, of Platonism, or of Christianity - Yeats could not depict the world of bodies in a concrete way. The result is that his earlier poetry is matterless, immaterial, while his later poetry, though acknowledging the claims of the material world, still has difficulty representing that world properly. We can describe this situation in philosophical terms.

For Aristotle's single world of irreducible things, Yeats substitutes a two-tier system of imagination and of fact, of what he called saint and swordsman, which are in radical opposition to each other. As Hugh Kenner says in his seminal book Dublin's Joyce, we have in Yeats a concupiscible phantom-world of poesy and a tyrannical world of fact (that was the dichotomy Yeats never solved, despite the toughness of articulation his later phantom-world took on).

The idealised west of Ireland that Yeats constantly and famously represents will serve to illustrate the point. No peasant here does anything so mundane as to milk a cow, plough a field, or dig a ditch; like the Hon.Gwendolen Fairfax, this sort of peasant can say I am glad to say that I never seen a spade.The contrast with Kavanagh is immense, because, as Antoinette Quinn says, nowhere before or since in Irish fiction has the routine working life of the farmer been so vividly documented as in Tarry Flynn.

The message, then, is that the world is more full of weeping that Yeats can give adequate expression to. As he himself well knew. In a famous statement of March 1888, Yeats laments the inadequacy of his early verse to human experience :

I have noticed some things about my poetry in this process of correction, for instance, that it is almost all a flight into fairy land from the real world and a summons to that flight. he chorus to The Stolen Child sums it up

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping
Than you can understand.

The poetry of insight and knowledge but of longing and complaint — the cry of the heart against necessity. I hope some day to alter that and write poetry of insight and knowledge.

Hopkins also felt that Yeat's early poems were too removed from reality. In 1886, Hopkins called by invitation on Yeat's father, who presented him with a copy of his son's exotic poetic drama Mosada, in which a female Moorish magician is burned at the stake by order of her former unsuspecting lover.

Hopkins says this Mosada I cannot think highly of, and goes on to criticise Yeat's first Irish poem The Two Titans:

A Political Poem because of its unreality it was a strained and unworkable allegory about a young man and a sphinx on a rock in the sea (how did they get there? What did they eat? and so on : people think such critisisms very prosaic; but common-sense is never out of place anywhere, neither on Parnassus nor on Tabor nor on the Mount where our Lord preached.

We now come to the way Hopkins represents the material world, which must be viewed against the general 19th century background. Hopkins held that This Victorian English is a bad business, and explains why :

it seems to me that the poetical language of an age should be the current language heightened, to any degree heigthened and unlike itself, but not ... an obsolete one. This is Shakespeare's and Milton's practice and the want of it will be fatal to Tennyson's Idylls and plays, to Swinburne, and perhaps to Morris.

Swinburne can indeed serve as a test case. What happens in Swinburne is that language has become radically unstable and tends to degenerate into sound; as Marianne Moore says of such verse, the cadence being the sole reason of all that follows. Ezra Pound was well aware of this deficiency in Swinburne : He neglected the value of words as words and was intent on their value as sound. Eliot elaborates : the object has ceased to exist, because the meaning is merely the hallucination of meaning, because language, uprooted, has adapted itself to an independent life of atmospheric nourishment. And Camille Paglia provides the explanation : because Swinburne yields totally to the domination of feminine divine figures, his incantatory rhythms, the language of neo-pagan cult, defer to female liquidity to such an extent that they do not require the object.

For Hopkins, on the other hand, words are substitutes or equivalents for material objects that are fixed and vital in themselves. Like the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides, Hopkins insists on an intimate link between real being and language : the statement x is . . guarantees the existence of x. As F. Nietzsche saw when he asserted, I feel we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar.

The main philosopher who lies behind Hopkins is not however Greek, but mediaeval: Duns Scotus. Scotus moves beyond Aristotle's concern with material objects to stress the absolute individuality, the thisness or haeccitas of each object, which is its final perfection; as E. Bettoni says, this doctrine presents a radical vindication of the individual against the depreciating tendencies of Greek philosophy.

For Hopkins, the haeccitas of Scotus, who of all men most sways my spirit to peace, mirrors his own concern with the essence of each thing, with what he called inscape. As seen in the sonnet As kingfishers catch fire which contains the most striking poetic illustration of Hopkin's theory of the inscapes to be found among natural and man-made things

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 What I do is me : for that I came.

There is, of course, a theological as well as a philosophical background to Hopkins's poetry.

As Jesuit priest, he finds room in his work for the Doctrine of Creation by God; for the Incarnation of Christ that validates that creation; for the Crucifixion that mirrors pain and suffering in human life; and for the Resurrection that that guarantees the final redemption of human beings. In the sonnet Pied Beauty, which begins and ends with the verbal formulae of a hymn, Hopkins views God - who is assimilated to the Form of Beauty in Plato - as the creator, the progenitor of the material world in all its variegated forms. The concrete nature of this matter is stressed by the use of a vocabulary that is over 80% Anglo-Saxon, while its enormous and varied beauty is proof of the power of God; as Cardinal Bellarmine says,

Though the mere multitude of created things is itself wonderful and a proof of the multiform perfection of the one God, still more wonderful is the variety which appears in that
multiplication, and it leads us more easily to the knowledge of God
and material worlds are linked through the Great Chain of Being and through the use of Analogy, so that the lesson is, as Hopkins says that The world is charged with the grandeur of God. Or, as he puts it in prose, I do not think that I have ever seen anything more beautiful then the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of Our Lord by it.

Kavanagh goes even further: a lover of nature can see beauty in everything. He can see the finger of God even in a nettle. But Hopkins was also aware of the basic ambiguity in human life, for which the seasons serve as metaphor. He knows that Nothing is as beautiful as Spring, but he also knows that Spring will turn to Autumn, and that the fallen leaves symbolise the condition of humanity. When Margaret grieves about those leaves, It is the blight man was born for; / It is Margaret that you mourn for.Then when Hopkins lived in Dublin - an outsider, faced with heavy examining duties, and subject to depression - he experienced what he called My Winter World. For example, in the sonnet Thou art indeed just, Hopkins contrasts the endless renewal of nature in the Spring with his own inability to be fruitful :

See, banks and brakes
Now, leaved how thick! laced they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh rain shakes
Them; birds build-but not I build; no, but strain
Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

And there is worse. Echoing Jeremiah 12, Hopkins complains about the apparent absence of a God who favours the good and punishes the wicked . If in the Dublin of Hopkins, Christ is crucified, He is also resurrected. So in Hopkins's sonnet That Nature is a Heracclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection - which was written in Dublin the summer beforeThou art indeed just Hopkinsexamines the ultimate fate of human beings by contrasting the thought of the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus with the artistic world is, then, imaginary, but must relate to reality; as Wallace Stevens says, The inter-relation between reality and imagination is the basis of the character of literature. What the artistic world requires is enough authenticity to make it seem real. Hence Marianne Moore regards poetry as presenting for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Hopkins's imaginary world certainly boasts real toads, for nature in Hopkins's prose and poetry is always a living organism, intricate and vibrant, whose inscape is captured in a very exact way. What captures the reality, the haeccitas, of the material world is the highly individual person, who is even more distinctive than the objects of the material world : my selfbeing, my consciousness and feeling of myself, that taste of myself, of I and me above and in all things, which is more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, more distictive than the smell of walnutleaf or camphor.

When the unique person Gerard Manley Hopkins, once considered eccentric in his life and in his work, encounters the material world, he does indeed transmute it into the radiant body of everliving life. So we find that Hopkins's work demands the same response that Rilke required of the person contemplating the Archaic torso of Apollo : Du musst dein Leben andern, You must change your life.


1. Joyce, James, Ulysses, ed.H.W.Gabler (London 1986), p. 152.

2. Russell, A.E., The House of Titans and other Poems (London 1934),

3. Donoghue Denis, We Irish (Berkeley 1986), p. 199.

4. Liddy James, Collected Poems (Omaha 1994), p. 34.

5. Bataille Georges , Erotism : Death and Sensuality (San Francisco 1986), p. 121. 6. Yeats William Butler, The Poems, ed. R.J.Finneran (London 1984), p. 259.

7. Joyce James (note 1), p. 152. 8 ibid.

9. Joyce James, Poems and Exiles, ed. J.C.C.Mays (London 1992), p. 104.

10. T.S.Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London 1964), p. 106.

11. Hugh Kenner, Dublin's Joyce (New York 1987), p. 138.

12. Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act Two.

13. Quinn, Antoinette, Patrick Kavanagh Born- again Romantic (Dublin 1991),
p. 236.

14. The Collected Letters of W.B.Yeats,Vol. One 1865-1895, ed. J.Kelly (Oxford 1986), pp. 54 — 55.

15. G.M.Hopkins, Selected Letters, ed. C.Phillips (Oxford 1990), 245. p.

16. The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, ed. C.C.Abbott (London 1935), p. 89.

17. Quoted in Donoghue (note 3), p. 200.

18. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T.S.Eliot (London 1960), p. 292.

19. T.S.Eliot, The Sacred Wood (New York 1950), p. 149.

20. C. Paglia, Sexual Personae (London 1990), p. 471.

21. F. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Gods and the Anti-Christ (Harmondsworth 1968),
p. 38.

22. E. Bettoni, The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, eds.W.H. Gardner & N.H. MacKenzie (Oxford 1967), p. 79.

24. ibid., p. 90. 25 N. H. MacKenzie, A Reader's Guide to Gerard Manley x Hopkins (London 2 1981), p. 148.

26. Hopkins (note 23), pp. 69 — 70.

27. Arkins B., Rivista di Studi Vittoriani 2 (1997), pp. 64 — 65.

28. Quoted in MacKenzie (note 48), p. 85.

29. Hopkins (note 23), p. 66.

30. Journal for May 18, 1870 in Gerard Manley Hopkins : Poems and
Prose (London 1985), p. 120.

31. Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool (Harmondsworth 1975), p. 179.

32. Hopkins (note 23), p. 67; p. 33 ibid., p. 89.

34. ibid., p. 108.

35. ibid., p. 107.

36. Hopkins (note 23), pp. 105 — 06.

37. D.C.Haggo,The Hopkins Quarterly 7, 3 (1980), p. 91.

38. Joyce James, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Harmondsworth 1960), p. 221.

39. Quoted, Donoghue (note 3), p. 200.

40. Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous (New York 1957), p. 294.

41. Quoted, R.Wellek & A.Warren, Theory of Literature (Harmondsworth 1970), p. 213.

42. Hopkins (note 30), p. 145.

43. Joyce (note 38), p. 2

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 ||