Hopkins Lectures 2001

Problems Reading Hopkins Poetry in 2001

Frank Fennell Loyola University, Chicago, USA


What I propose to offer this morning is not the usual lecture or academic conference paper. The ambiguities of my title might have afforded at least a suggestion of that possibility. Instead I wish to describe, first, what I see as some of the obstacles facing any reader of poetry, but especially Hopkins' poetry, in this year of our Lord 2001; then, second, what I see as some possible ways out, ways to evade the obstacles; and finally I will conclude with both a challenge and an exhortation. In short: description, prescription, and a brief peroration.

For over three decades now I have been a teacher and a scholar, both of which presume that I am also a reader. And it is as a teacher and a scholar that I am becoming increasingly unsure of what is going on when I exercise that role I share with so many others outside these professions, the role of reader. It seems to me that we know so little about what goes on when we read -- when we read, for example, a poem by Hopkins -- that our ignorance calls into question whatever we may have to say by way of criticism. So until we can give a better account of reading itself, it seems to me we will not make much headway in trying to explain or appreciate Hopkins or any other poet. In other words, we need to identify and overcome the obstacles to our understanding of what happens when we read, as a way of coming closer both to the poet and to ourselves.

Obstacles to Reading - and to Reading Hopkins

What do I mean by obstacles? We can begin by thinking briefly about what we mean when we say we read Hopkins, or anyone else for that matter. Let me suggest that reading is an activity which has at the very least five different dimensions: the experiential, the perceptual, the interpretive, the relational, and the appropriative. Each of these dimensions can be analyzed separately, and each builds upon the one before it.

Reading a mode of Behaviour that can be studied experientially

Thus we have to start with the experiential: what we call reading is after all a mode of behavior which can be observed. At the very minimum, for example, readers are people who have in front of them books, magazines, sheets of paper, computer screens or some other means of displaying texts and who make their eyes move left to right and top to bottom if the texts are in English. But the experience of reading must also include a perceptual dimension: all of us have had moments when our eyes travel down the page but we take in nothing, our attention is elsewhere, we "space out"-- that is, our eyes pass over the words on the page but do not actually perceive most of them, do not convert the pattern of black marks on a white background into what we would call meaningful utterances.

Reading Hopkins and Hermaneutics

To perceive, however, is to wish to understand, which is to say that readers encounter the interpretive dimension of their experience. So they engage in the quest to which we have given the name hermeneutics. Depending on what they're reading, how difficult it is to interpret, they might investigate how other readers have construed a passage, they might check up on an allusion, they might explicate according to some favored interpretive scheme. To interpret successfully readers will often feel themselves compelled to go to relate what they read now to what they already know. This relational dimension of reading is where readers compare and contrast this author with other authors, this passage with other passages by the same author, this "take" on a subject with other views, from Shakespeare's to those of one's mother-in-law. And finally, having experienced, perceived, interpreted, and related, readers often come to the appropriative dimension of reading. They wish to know "what's it all about, Alfie"--what this means for their lives, how things are or might be different for themselves or others because of what these words say to them.

Now it will not have escaped your attention that if Robert Alter is right when he claims that "all study of literature must emerge from and return to reading," think of what follows if we compare contemporary criticism especially as it is practiced in the academy with my five-part schema for thinking about reading. In the academy -- and I'm speaking now primarily about departments of literature - and are happy to leave the experiential and perceptual dimension of reading to our colleagues in the psychology department or the School of Education. Some fine work is being done there, incidentally: studies of how children learn to read, of how language acquisition and learning relate to one another, of how reading behaviors differ between genders and among cultures. But by and large most of us don't know very much about this kind of research and are content with our ignorance.

Our interest instead is with the interpretive and relational dimensions of reading. Depending on our training and affiliations we might, on the interpretive level, engage in a New Critical close reading, or pursue etymologies, or ask about the hermeneutical strategies of individual readers (as Iser does) or of groups of readers (as Jauss does). On the relational level our interest at one time was often biographical -- how does this poem relate to the life of the person who wrote it? Now we might be more likely to lay down in any number of procrustean beds: Karl Marx's, or Jacques Lacan's, or Catherine Belsey's, or Homi Bobha's. In other words, we are more likely to situate the work in a cultural context or show how it is complicit in an ideology.

Where Academcis Fail

But there are two things we academics almost never do: we almost never talk or write personally about that fifth dimension of reading, the appropriative; and within the interpretive and relational dimensions we do recognize, we almost never talk or write about the responses of those readers who are outside what we like to call "critical discourse," that is to say the professional discourse of the academy. So that is exactly the kind of approach I want to take here with you today: I want to discuss appropriation, and I want to think about appropriation and other aspects of reading as they manifest themselves in readers outside the academy. Although the subject is too large and complex to address here, if you feel, as I increasingly do, that because of the exclusivity of its language and the frequent irrelevancy of its subject matter contemporary academic criticism has reached a serious impasse, these two foci may offer a fresh approach, a way to begin de novo and thus negotiate the impasse.

What is the best way to encourage the reading of Hopkins's poetry?

But if we are to start afresh and outside the academy, how shall we proceed? Let me suggest, not one line of inquiry, but rather several, and let me illustrate two of them. In other words, this is where I turn from description (of the present impasse) to prescription (of what we can undertake instead). The examples will of course be drawn from Hopkins, but the applicability to other writers should be readily apparent.

The response of other Artists to Hopkins's Poetry

Consider first the response to Hopkins coming from other artists who read him and then respond to his poetry in their own art. I include here other poets, of course, but also novelists, painters, sculptors, composers, photographers, graphic designers. While they have an honored place here at Monasterevan, they usually do not engage in what we call critical discourse, and so are largely ignored in the academy; but their responses can be fully as rich, as sensitive, and as provocative as any academic article.

Over 450 musical compositions of Hopkins's Poetry

Let's just take composers as one example. I have provided elsewhere a fuller description, but let me summarize here by indicating that there are at a minimum over 450 musical compositions based on Hopkins' work, and almost 200 composers can be identified. These composers include such well-known names as Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Sir Arthur Bliss, Benjamin Britten, Dame Elizabeth Maconchy, Ned Rorem, and Sir Michael Tippett, and their works constitute a treasure-trove of nuanced responses to the poet.

How, you might ask? Consider just one interpretive issue, the proper understanding of Hopkins' coinage inscape, and the response of just one composer, Aaron Copland. Since Hopkins used the term often and in a variety of ways but never gave it a complete definition, scholars have pursued it etymologically and philosophically or have glossed it based on the construing of specific textual references. Copland comes at it a different way, through his music, specifically the final work he composed before his retirement, a fourteen-minute piece entitled "Inscape" which he premiered with the New York Philharmonic in 1967. For Copland inscape, as he says in program notes, means at least in part the connection of meaning to form, that is to say a "quasi-mystical illumination" whereby the observer sees beyond external form to a deeper, underlying pattern. His work bears no reference to any particular poetic or other work by Hopkins; it is instead, in the words of one reviewer, "an engrossing ... study in melancholy lyricism, which happens to flirt with easy-to-like serialism." This freeing up of the term from any linkage to a specific text, combined with Copland's use of the twelve-tone technique with its implicit bow to Schonberg<, have made the work controversial with modern concertgoers. For example, when the work was first played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the composer's own baton, hundreds of concertgoers exited at the next intermission in a gesture of protest which the critic for the Los Angeles Times called "appalling" and "silly, silly, silly."

Fascinating interaction of Those concertgoers evidently missed the fascinating interaction of concept and music. Copland's use of serialism focuses on taking a pattern of notes and then reproducing that pattern in a myriad of permutations. This method allows the composer to "fully" explore a pattern, to know its essence -- in Hopkinsian terms, to find its inscape. The composition does this twice over, because in addition to studying one pattern from a variety of angles, Copland

So Copland's music suggests to us that inscape can be understood as the epiphanic connection of meaning to form and of variety to essence. That is a provocative interpretation. But if we listen to modern composers, it is only one possibility among many. The New Zealander David Lilburn, for example, in his composition of electronic music entitled "Three Inscapes," seems to portray inscape as the prolongation of focus. Referring neither to text nor definition, Lilburn has created a twelve-minute electronic experiment which takes the relationship between concept and score in a new direction by exploring what can be discovered within just one musical tone. When compared to other electronic music, including Lilburn's own, this piece is striking for allowing an individual sound to exist over so long a period of time, especially when layered with other sounds that are also held steady for long pehave been engaging in one of the oldest academic shell games: that is, taking ordinary and familiar experience, breaking it into its constituent elements, arranging these hierarchically, and then dressing them up in Latinate words like "relational" and "appropriative." But like all shell games this one has a purpose: in this case it allows me to show, simply and clearly, what I think is missing from contemporary criticism, including the criticism of Hopkins.

Much of the piece allows - forces - the listener to focus intently on a particular sound, to become intensely aware of it, perhaps to experience or understand it in a way it was never experienced before. When a single sound is heard for a prolonged period of time and then other sounds are added slowly, the listener focuses on both the new and its relationship to the already familiar. The intensity of the experience seems to last after the music has ended. Therefore for Lilburn an inscape is an attempt to experience some particular thing in a new, more intense, more prolonged way, to isolate it and appreciate it to a degree never before possible. One thinks of Hopkins watching so intently as the steam curls up from his cup of Lenten chocolate.


But with Copland and Lilburn we have only just begun to see what a careful listening to modern composers might yield by way of an understanding of inscape. Anthony Gilbert, for another example, in his "Inscapes" sees it - hears it?--as evocative of the acuity and precision of the painter's eye. Edmund Rubbra in his choral suite "Inscape!" develops inscape as exuberant celebrations of nature, an exuberance best conveyed by the exclamation mark he adds to the title. Peter McGowan in his ballet score translates the term psychologically, as the exploration of psychic states. Joseph Fennimore portrays it as a process, that is to say the combining of careful scrutiny with keen emotional involvement. All are different "takes" on inscape, portrayed through music, and all, I would argue, can be as stimulating and suggestive to the reader of Hopkins as an etymological discussion.


Permit me to take up now a second line of inquiry into the responses generated by readers outside the academy. This time I want to look into appropriation, and I want us to consider closely the experience of one reader. If we want to understand reading, it seems to me that, rather than generating more theories about reading, we would be better off attending humbly to the experiences of particular readers. Asking them questions, not with the intent of making them conform to some a priori assumptions, but rather with the goal of understanding what they believe themselves to be doing when they read, will produce a remarkable body of information. Here our colleagues in the social sciences with their qualitative research techniques can help point the way.


The person of whom I am going to speak takes it as a matter of pride that he is rather far removed from the academic world: he is, in fact, a chef, a chef by the name of Craig O'Brien who lives and works in south-central Ohio. Craig O'Brien loves Hopkins, whose poetry he learned from his father, a Brooklyn fireman. What happens when we take his experiences as a reader seriously?


I'm going to provide short extracts from two hours of audiotape, recorded a month ago at an Ohio truckstop, and then I'll offer a brief commentary. This is O'Brien in response to a question about why he reads Hopkins:

Firstly there are simply times when I find it restorative to it down and read those poems. Because by now they are friends to me; these words do their work, they are restorative, they are comforting, they are challenging.... Like anybody, you live your life, and certain things are important to you, they become woven into the fabric of your life, they become woven into the fabric of your consciousness. Well he [Hopkins] is woven into the fabric of my consciousness.... You know, being human, to name something is both to control it and to verify it. When you give an emotion a name, you've kind of quantified and limited it. Before that it was something much more ephemeral. Okay, I think that it's not at all uncommon for me [interiorly] to finish a sentence, to balance a sentence, spoken by somebody else, or to balance a conversation, by using a well-turned phrase. And a lot of my well-turned phrases come from Hopkins. "Out of the swing of the sea..." There are a lot of little phrases that I use to balance and control my life and the situations I find myself in, because like any human being I need to do that. So he's part of that vocabulary of phrases that helps me to understand things.


When asked to give a concrete example, here is O'Brien again

A particular time? That's a hard one, let me think about that. Something concrete.... I know what you might be after on that, but ... Oh! No. It's not hard at all. Of all days, today.

I have three children, two boys and a girl. Many of their friends, especially the boys', have become our friends as well. That's just a cool part of our lives. Well, two of those boys, Mario and Mike, were in Saturday. They came to the house around 11 o'clock, and they stayed down in the basement family room drinking beer. About 3 o'clock in the morning they hit a stone bridge pylon. And actually where I was literally coming from when I came to meet you was Grant Hospital. Mario is still in a coma. Mike is out of his coma now. Mario is better, he's definitely better. But as I looked at him I was thinking of the words of "Heraclitean Fire." "Immortal diamond, /Is immortal diamond." Mario is an immortal diamond. Just the image of this nice kid... Mario is a nice kid. He's not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but he's a nice kid. I've busted his chops in the house plenty of times for dumb stuff. But I can't stand the thought of him just lying there.... Yet you have to balance that stuff when you're a human being, because [tragedy] is every day. It doesn't always touch you that intimately. But we're all going to die.... And just today I was thinking of, oh, the turns of phrase where Hopkins is thinking about "Man, how fast his mark on time has washed away, his fire-dint..." Whatever those particular words are. Even the images of touching and leaving your mark on life.... So I guess that's part of what you were asking about.

How Craig O'Brien Reads Hopkins's Poetry

Now please note what in these words Craig O'Brien has told us explicitly or implicitly about his reading:

Each of these propositions is noteworthy and could be discussed at much greater length. I know you would not find it difficult to work out the many and interesting intersections between these statements and the claims of certain modern theorists.

The reader is the reader of herself when she reads a book

What these statements have in common is a clear recognition of the appropriative dimension of the process of reading. Discussing appropriation in oneself let alone in others is not currently fashionable, as I noted earlier. Perhaps the only modern theorist who has given it a full and complex treatment is Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur, drawing approvingly on Proust's claim that the reader is the reader of herself when she reads a book, links this notion to the idea that we are all evolving people, unfinished egos. "Therefore," says Ricoeur, "what I call myself, the self of myself, is in fact the pupil of all the works of art, works of literature, works of culture which I read, which I loved, which I understood..... The act of reading creates a new ego. When I read, I exchange the claims of an ego to know who he is, and then I receive a self through the act of reading." Craig O'Brien and others like him offer abundant illustrations of Ricoeur's dicta.

But of course we have only just begun to explore the possibilities afforded to us when we take seriously the experiences of readers of Hopkins who are not part of what Eugene Holahan calls the "critical discourse" of the academy. Besides the careful examination of individual readers like Craig O'Brien, one could look at the experiences of groups of readers taken collectively, or the history of oral performance of Hopkins' poetry, or the nature and context of allusions to Hopkins, or the use of Hopkins in religious discourse, or the ways Hopkins has been mined for everything from book titles to shop names and tree engravings.

Now at this juncture you are probably assuming, and quite rightly, that I have shaded over into the final portion of my paper, the peroration. I will keep it brief.

Let me put it as an if-then proposition. If what I said at the beginning struck a resonant chord with you, namely that modern criticism as it is practiced in the academy is becoming increasingly irrelevant to readers; and if you accept the further proposition, perhaps best articulated by Robert Scholes, that all any critic does is teach us a new aspect of how to read, whether it's a poem or some other cultural artifact; then perhaps you will accept the conclusion that undergirds this paper: we need to start afresh, we need to look at reading in new ways. And one of the best ways we can do so is by taking seriously, maybe for the first time, the experiences of whole new categories of readers.

You know, if you stop and think about it, one of the most exciting developments of the past three decades has been the endeavor to reclaim lost writers: lost women writers first of all, but also other writers, writers neglected or ignored because of the country of their origin or their social class or their lack of conformity to what someone else has decided is the "great tradition." A simple comparison of changes in the Norton Anthology over these years will show the fruit of this endeavor. What I am arguing for is a comparable effort, this time to reclaim not lost writers but rather lost readers. If what we do is teach or write about reading, then we have to know more about how reading is experienced not just in theory but in actual practice, as it plays out in the lives of countless people like Craig O'Brien

"Come, my friends, 'tis not too late to seek a newer world"[!]

Search the Gerard Manley Hopkins Archive 2001
Death of Hopkins
Parmenides and Hopkins
Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins