Hopkins Lectures 2001

The Natural World and Percipience in the writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Thomas Hardy

Meoghan Byrne Cronin St Anselm's College, USA

The poetry of Hopkins and Hardy repeatedly expresses the living, literal intersection of the natural and supernatural in the things and places of this world. How do readers respond to and how do they read the signs.

 

 

In my mind, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Thomas Hardy met at St. Anselm College, during my interview for the position I hold now. In a typical New Hampshire blizzard, the professors were wearing dress jackets and snow boots. I was talking about my dissertation topic, specifically, Hardy's focus on folklore as a kind of openness to the power of the supernatural, a kind of space in which this world and a supernatural influence can meet. One of the department members was Dr. Gary Bouchard, a Hopkins scholar who lectured here a few years ago. Gary asked me, "How does this approach to the supernatural apply to Hopkins"? I thought to myself, "How should I know"? But I didn't say that. I talked about the natural world as bearing a charge created by the supernatural-a charge that an individual can access through faith, a habit of mind, or even through folk belief. But I didn't really think that this was a great answer. It was good enough for Gary, I guess. What did he know about Hardy? But I wasn't satisfied. Eight years later, for this lecture, I thought I might try to figure out a better answer. The questions I put to myself were these:

The poetry of Hopkins and Hardy repeatedly expresses the living, literal intersection of the natural and supernatural in the things and places of this world. As the speakers of the poems seek signs of God or supernatural in this world, how are they responded to and how do they read the signs. What use do Hopkins and Hardy make of language in expressing the sign-seeking way of gathering evidence?

Here's what I mean by sign-seeking: First, it's a term I'm taking from Hardy's poem,A Sign-Seeker, whose speaker observes natural occurrences and phenomena with acuity and intensity: I mark the months, . . . the noontides many-shaped and hued,. . . . I have seen the lightning-blade, the leaping star, / The cauldrons of the sea in storm, /Have felt the earthquake's lifting arm. The sign-seeker is an avid perceiver: he seeks out connections between this world and the next:

I learn to prophesy the hid eclipse,
The coming of eccentric orbs,
To mete the dust the sky absorbs,
To weigh the sun, and fix the hour each planet dips. (13-16)

But, he says, "that I fain would wot of shuns my sense-." Often the result of such whetted apprehension results in a disturbing revelation for a sign-seeking speaker. This is so in both poems of Hardy and Hopkins.

Sign-seeking speakers like the one above, in Hopkins as in Hardy, perceive Nature's vitality but cannot determine what it evidences about the relationship between the self and the Divine. While Nature is itself selved, the speaking self is not part of that or cannot fully commune with or understand it. The sign-seeker catches connections-he beholds natural supernaturalism-but he can't make out how it is answering his own need. In this poem of Hardy's, the numinous is just not showing up in the phenomenal world. Is this a fault of perception, a failure of imagination, a consequence of man's fall and death? Or the disappearance of God? The absence of God?

The sign-seekers see Nature as alive with influence, and evidence of otherworldly power is sought in the things of this earth. Hopkins seeks it there because it is there: Nature is Christ's presence. Of looking for divine power in Nature, Hardy would say, "Where else am I supposed to look for it? In man?" In the poems I'll look at, this influence is felt in the activity and vitality of the images of the natural world. Hardy's poems filter the revelations of the external world-entire settings and tales-through a speaker's consciousness, which reads his findings, sometimes because Earth, animals or trees are actually speaking. The act of perceiving is presented overtly and reflected in the speakers' diction. Sign-seeking, as an act, is a product of the "searching microscopic eye," that Gardner names as a metaphysical quality of Hopkins' poetry (190).

But it is also, "a fresh primitive sensibility," which Gardner attributes to Romanticism and I would attribute, in addition, to rural, animistic way of seeing . .." Consistent in Hardy and Hopkins is the presence of not simply of Nature, but old Nature-a force alive with influence, but whose influence is ultimately unknowable or at least unreadable. Penmaen's Pool, Ribblesdale, Elwy. Instead, Whether their faith in God's immanence wavers or not (which it often does), Hopkins's speakers are not always sure of meaning of the signs. Sea and Skylark Nondum states outright, as Tennyson's In Memoriam did, "We see the glories of the earth / But not the hand that wrought them all But of course, you may be thinking, many of Hopkins's poems seek and do find evidence of God, even Christ, in the world. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God " who fathers forth all things, dappled things, skies of couple-colour, finches' wings, silk-sack clouds, azurous hung hills, primroses, bluebells, kingfishers, dragonflies, the furl of fresh-leaved dogrose, poplars, nightingales, skylarks, wooddoves, Harry Ploughman, Felix Randal, and the dapple-dawn drawn Falcon.

But what are these things to me? Besides beautiful? The speakers might ask. What does the dive of the Windhover mean about God and me? Just because God or something like God has entered the world, doesn't mean it has entered me. And that means that I might be the only unconnected thing. Hardy's speakers are repeatedly afflicted with the dark revelation of their "god-forgotten" status. They ask, repeatedly, like Hopkins's speaker does, How wouldst thou worst, than thou dost? Why does disappoint all I endeavour end? In Hardy's words (and similar syntax), "Why arrives it joy lies slain and why unblooms the best hope ever sown ("Hap")? But still, the rural places of these poems remain thrumming and breathing with old, earthy life; the natural things buzz and flutter and stretch and call with a greenworld energy and a knowledge of something Other.

The signs of supernatural life in nature do not unscroll for easy reading, however. The problem of failed perception or impercipience (as Hardy calls it in another poem) is secondary to the act of sign-seeking itself. What I see in both Hopkins and Hardy is the response of the human sign-seekers in these old, alive worlds. These poems' speakers cry their >chief-Woe, world-sorrow in musical, bizarre, rhythmic images, and, like the speaker of No worst, on an age-old anvil wince and sing.

Both Hardy and Hopkins came by their age-old anvils honestly. Both men loved the rural countryside. Hopkins and Hardy both found "live" evidence of Nature's vitality in Wales and Dorset, and found poetic expression of it in the work of an earlier poet, William Barnes, whom both admired for his vision of this world and his commmitment to authentic language. Both poets were drawn toward folksy, rustic sources of poetic subjects and words, and drew Hopkins to his sprung rhythm, which he said is often found in nursery rhymes and weather saws (Preface). Some effects of these interests in "broadening the. . . sources of diction" and the breadth of poetic tradition are the "dissonance," "interest in irregularity" (60) and "the turn toward stress scansion" (21) that Samuel Hynes notes as "qualities of mind" that "points the link which ties Hardy to Hopkins to Patmore" (32). In Barnes's poems, Hopkins read examples of the Welsh metrical devices he would later use in his own. He set some of Barnes's poetry to music. To Robert Bridges, Hopkins praised the Dorset poet's West Country instress precisely because it expressed the essential nature of Dorset (Hynes 30). Hardy sought to emulate Barnes's closeness of phrase to vision, an ideal we can surely attribute to Hopkins as well (Hynes 31). Connections between Hopkins and Hardy have borne only a handful of scholarly articles. Nonetheless, readers of twentieth-century poetry seem drawn to offhand comparisons of Hopkins and Hardy. There is little evidence of influence between the two poets, in the strictest sense of the word, (though I'll mention one case later) or even evidence that Hardy read Hopkins' s poetry. But each poet seems to bring a sense of the other, intuitively, to readers' minds. There are some fairly obvious reasons for this similar feel: perhaps it's the compound words or the strange and often elaborate metrical structures.

There are some fascinating real world connections between the poets as well. Most people know that Arthur Hopkins, Gerard's brother, illustrated the serial edition of Hardy's The Return of the Native. Gerard read that novel, as well as Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and The Trumpet-Major (Letter to Bridges, 10/28/86) (Abbott 239). For different reasons, both writers published much of their poetry long after the time of its initial composition. As a result, neither had an audience contemporary to his poetry's inception. In the poetry of each, specific architectural terms are used literally and metaphorically, reflecting both men's love for architecture. Language. Both wrote poems on the wrecks of great ships--the Deutschland and the Titanic. The presence of treescape and birdsong in Hopkins's and Hardy's poetry is so thick as to deserve a serious look.

Despite their common ships and skylarks, not unexpectedly, Hopkins and Hardy are often brought together via their difference in Christian belief. In the Victorian struggle with faith and doubt, they seem to stand at opposite poles.Francis Kunkel, pairs their poetry above all other of its time, for its intense, preoccupation with God (907). But he then separates Hardy and Hopkins with a cosmic divide-separating in (his terms) supernaturalism from naturalis and naming them frontsmen of the two dominant views of God in modern poetry (907). W.H. Gardner sees an apocalyptic distinction:" In Housman and Hardy, he writes, "there is always the leaden echo of extinction," while "in Hopkins one hears continually, between bouts of pain and grief, the golden echo of immortality " (GMH: A Study, 161). It is indeed easy to see the poets' philosophical and theological differences, and, admittedly, though Hardy's poetry does not conform to a philosophical system, many of the poems do attempt to set out philosophical concepts, many of which would oppose Hopkins's Roman Catholic faith.

Other essays pair the poets' oppositions in the gray area of ambivalence. W. David Shawincludes Hopkins and Hardy as examples of a Keble's "theory of reserve"; that is, the idea that a poem's central "passion" can be one that is "disguised or not . . . named directly" (468). This unnamed passion often opposes the overt one, most obviously when the absent God becomes present or fear of "the absolute" is veiled by expressed love for it. Similarly, the contemporary poet W.D. Snodgrass finds in the work of both Hopkins and Hardy whose meaning "directly oppose[s] [the poet's] own conscious beliefs" (479).

The speakers of Hopkins's and Hardy's poetry agree that Nature is alive with a meaningful presence-Will, supernature, deity, power. This is an easy and popular tradition, of course, as both writers are obviously influenced by Wordsworth and Shelley even more so than by their faithful/doubtful early contemporary, Tennyson. The boyishly sought "spirit in the woods"-the near-pantheism of Wordsworth's poetry--did not result ultimately in failed faith or rejection of orthodoxy. For Shelley, however, a man could be sure that the skylark knows a higher world, but still be sure that the God that men speak of in the way that they speak of him does not exist. Shelley's poet-prophet speaker in "Ode to the West Wind"may not get a response to his audacious demand: " Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is"! But he is a sign-seeker. His famous question, If Winter comes. . . may not be a rhetorical one. It's about trying to read the signs. And to his most well-known poem, To a Skylark, we can compare the reserved, desperate queries of Hardy's speaker in The Year's Awakening:

How do you know that the pilgrim track
Along the belting zodiac
Swept by the sun in his seeming rounds
Is traced by now to the Fishes' bounds
And into the Ram, when weeks of cloud
Have wrapt the sky in a clammy shroud,
And never yet a tinct of spring
Has shown in Earth's apparelling;
O vespering bird, how do you know,
How do you know? (1-10)

The type of animism or life that enlivens Nature in Hopkins poetry is, clearly, the life of the Incarnate Christ. Nature is a living form of Christ, his embodiment; its vitality is at once his immanence and its individual inscape, which, while uniquely selved (to use a verb common to Hopkins criticism), does not exist without Christ's creative thereness. In so many of Hopkins poems, particularly the most well-known, Nature is both a sign of Christ at the same time that its identity relies on Christ's immanence. In Hurrahing in Harvest the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder / Majestic (9-10). But even more than on Christ's thereness, the poem focuses intensely on the act of perception. The speaker 1) actively seeks and perceives beauty and 2) tries to read its meaning: I lift up heart, eyes . . . to glean our Saviour(5-6). This gleaning-the harvest-is both the natural scene itself and the product, the result, of the perception: These things were here and but the beholder wanting (11). Let's look at Nature's vitality and the sign-seeking perception that apprehends it in three poems: Hopkins's Ashboughs and Hardy's The Sign-Seeker and To Outer Nature. Each of these poems offers a logical progression of sorts, either a linear one that builds as we read the accumulating images of supernatural evidence in Nature, or an analytical logic, in which the speaker shakes down the poem's images with careful, shifting dicton and wordplay to leave at its end a sort of syllogism about human perception and the relationship of Mind, God and Nature. Hopkins's Ashboughs offers evidence of a nurturing God, in the form of a tree whose boughs break in the sky (l. 3). First comes the overt perceiver, the speaker whose eyes wand[er] on the world taking in hints of supernature through Nature. Not of all my eyes see(1), he says, is anything a milk to the mind so, so sighs such deep/ Poetry to it, as a tree whose boughs break in the sky (2-3). Say it is ashboughs, runs the next line, indicating with the say it is that ashboughs are just one type of bough with this effect. The opening phrase, Not of all my eyes see prepared the introduction of ashboughs as just one, perhaps most intense, milk to the mind. Further, this perception can come at any time of year with the boughs in any state of growth: whether on a December day furled/ Fast or they in clammyish lashtender combs creep/ Apart wide and new-nestle at heaven most high (5-6). Most important is the poet's diction and innovative use of compounds and parts of speech, for in his usage the speaker explains just what the ashboughs evidence. They are a milk to the mind: they actively nurture or nurse the mind. But they do so presumably by their reaching, as they new-nestle at heaven most high(6). We aren't so far from Wordsworth, are we? Yes, heaven lies about them in their infancy. So the mind is nursed (note the mind is not itself milked), but prior to this, the ashboughs themselves new-nestle — fresh and babylike the compound says — at heaven.In the speaker's presence the breaking boughs touch heaven and lamb-like "tabour on it. The Virgin Mary's purer fruit also comes to the speaker's mind: in his view, May mells blue and snowwhite through the ashboughs, into a fringe and fray of greenery (8-10). The entire relationship of God, Nature, Man is reaffirmed in the last lines, completing a logic of natural-supernatural mothering: it is earth's old groping towards the steep/ Heaven whom she childs us by, and here "childs" joins "new-nestle" as an odd verb. Here's how it works: Earth gropes toward steep heaven, and we can (or at least the speaker can) perceive this groping directly. Heaven whom she childs us by. Earth, not Heaven, childs us; but Earth childs us, and is a milk to the mind, "by" or via Heaven. What we see physically is the groping, the breaking ashboughs, but this speaker knows, perhaps through instress, perhaps through this animistic, alive sign that he seeks, what it is that the boughs stretch to. To be fair, I should mention that Daniel Harris's reading of the poem disagrees with this one. He sees Earth's being "old" as "the ravages of sin," and this falling away causes her barrenness and her desperate "groping" toward Heaven (21). (based on a significantly different final line than Phillips or Gardner have).

This voice could be a Hardyan speaker before disillusion, a sign-seeking speaker who looks to Nature for evidence of Love and Intention. The speaker of To Outer Nature remembers doing exactly that, and apostrophizes Outer Nature with a plea:

Show thee as I thought thee
When I early sought thee,
Omen-scouting,
All-undoubting
Love alone had wrought thee (1-4)

This early, sign-seeking or omen-scouting perception is now gone, for the speaker, whose wish--the re-adorning of the Natural world--time forbids with scorning. We could almost call his early view of Nature, Creation, as he describes Outer Nature as wrought by Love, for my pleasure 6). Outer Nature's Iris-hued embowment (15) has faded, to the speaker's eyes, and he uses compounds vividly to reflect what is has lost and why: Glow-forsaken, / Darkness-overtaken, Outer Nature is doomed, as None shall re-awaken" (21-22, 25). The speaker who once saw Nature as the Wordworthian child does, is a victim of Time, which Makes me see things / Cease to be things / They were in my morning " (17-20). In this poem, the post-childlike perception, the failure of sign-seeking, is not overtly linked to loss or lack of faith (though capitalized Time is one of the several words Hardy tends to use for an impersonal or indifferent over-presence). The speaker of an important poem, The Impercipient, does do so. The speaker is the eponymous not-perceiver, who stands with churchgoers, the bright believing band utterly and admittedly blind / to sights my brethren see" (1, 9-10). He feels no "intimations of immortality"-an absence he points up by quoting Wordsworth in a description of the not-perceiving state: I am like a gazer who should mark / An inland company / Standing up-fingered, with 'Hark, hark! The glorious distant sea (19-22). Where this glorious distant sea should lie, is all dark / And wind-swept pine to me (23-24).

This older way of seeing, this sign-seeking, is not only the view of Wordsworth's child figures, but of Hardy's folk figures, heathdwellers. whose unconsciousness, recall, makes their view not quite the ideal that the poet-prophet aspires to. It is the ability to perceive vitality in an older, more alive earth, a rural or even primitive life-force; it is the ability to access, if just by seeing, a faeryish realm of vitality, a chthonic supernature that bubbles up from old earth. The travellogue poem, Penmaen's Pool, is a rollicking romp of living breathing mounds and mountains: Grizzled Dyphywys; the Giant's Stool the Mawddach-all by nature's rule / [ride] repeated topsyturvy / in frank in fairy Penmaen's Pool (14-16). "Shaken in Penmaen's Pool," even the heavenly constellations and clouds "shew brighter" (20). Again we hear the alliterated compounds-"water-wattled"; "raindrop roundels" that bring vitality to the scene.

The best example of vital old earth in Hopkins is Inversnaid. The poem is also one of the only possible items of strict influence of Hardy on Hopkins, who read a similar passage in Far From the Madding Crowd (Taylor, Hardy's Poetry, 174 n.85). In the Scottish settlement Inversnaid, Loch Lomond, the "darksome burn" is alive and roaring--Hopkins' object lesson for preserving old earth and its wild wilderness. For three stanzas the poem only observes the Loch, saying nothing of its higher power (except that it "rounds Despair to drowning"). Degged with dew, dappled with dew / Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through, / Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern, / And the beadbonny ask that sits over the burn (9-12). Hopkins invents words and emphasizes consonantal alliteration, in the Welsh style, to create the music and power of the lake and cataract but also to capture its vitality without philosophizing. Christ is not mentioned or, I think, nodded to. And yet the world depends upon this wildness. O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet (15-16). A more traditionally analytical, less exploratory paper with the same thesis would have unfolded differently than mine has done. That other paper would have linked views of Nature to philosophical paradigms-pessimism, Darwin, Schopenhauer-and theological ones- Duns Scotus, Ignatius Loyola, Thomas Aquinas. But that's been done for Hardy and Hopkins separately, and though it hasn't been connected to a sign-seeking folk view, it has been done in the context of the struggle of faith and doubt, which my friend Gary called "the conventional angst of Hopkins's age" (183). I have done something bad in this paper: I've opened doors to passages that I didn't go down. That's what I accuse some of my students of when I am remarking on a paper's ineffectiveness. But I did it because I mainly wanted to read some poems to you and to show you the complex and inconclusive web of connections we can make between the poems of Hopkins and Hardy, especially in the area of Nature and the Divine. They come to different conclusions, ultimately, these two men. But the route to this difference-faith versus reluctant unbelief-strangely arrived along the way at the same doors of inquiry. On the idea of supernature intersecting this earth, there's much I haven't said. What about Hardy's ghosts and Hopkins's saints? Hardy was a life-long ghost-seeker, but never a ghost-seer. Many of the poems envision or desire to see ghosts, usually of a dead beloved. The sign-seeker looks for the phantom of a dead friend who would say that this world is "Not the end"!; or he awaits the imprint of a dead lover's "spirit-kiss." Hopkins wrote several poems on female saints, who become literal, physical connections between the two worlds: Christ lived in Margaret Clitheroe St. Winifred is an even more astonishing example, as the earth itself responds to Margaret's purity and faith with a spring or well of water: pale water, frail water, wild rash and reeling water (15).

Outside of their respective terrible sonnets, (Hardy's are the three In Tenebris poems), both writers question what the life in Nature means. Without knowing how Nature responded to the omen-scouting speakers, we are left to fall back on the puzzles they present in reading Nature's signs of the divine for its meaning to man. For Hardy's wary speakers, the The Darkling Thrush, gives the speaker an uncertain, reserved hope:

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy goodnight air
Some blessed hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware. (25-32)

Hopkins' unfinished, untitled poem asks, What being in rank-old nature should earlier have that breath been / That here personal tells off these heart-song powerful peals? — / A bush-browed, beetle-browed billow is it? / With a south-westerly wind blustering, with a tide rolls reels / Of crumbling, fore-foundering, thundering all-surfy seas in; / seen/ Underneath, their glassy barrel, of a fairy green … / Or a jaunting vaunting vaulting assaulting trumpet telling ?

Works Consulted

Abbott, Claude Colleer, ed. The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges. New York: Oxford UP, 1955.

Allingham, Philip V. A Consideration of the Illustrations for The Return of the Native, Jan — Dec. 1878 (by Arthur Hopkins, A.R.W.S.).

The Thomas Hardy Yearbook 23 (1996): pp. 44 - 63. Bailey, J. O. , 1970

The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.Barnes, William.

Select Poems of William Barnes. Ed. Thomas Hardy. London: Henry Frowde, 1908.

Bender, Todd. "The Architecture of Hopkins's Poetic Vocabulary."

Rereading Hopkins: Selected New Essays. Ed.

Francis L. Fennell. English Literary Studies no. 69. University of Victoria. 1996. 157 — 164.

Bouchard, Gary." What Gets Said in a Narrow (ten by fourteen) Room: A Reconsideration of Hopkins's Later Sonnets."

Rereading Hopkins: Selected New Essays. Ed. Francis L. Fennell.

English Literary Studies no. 69. University of Victoria. 1996. 180 — 192.Gardner, W.H.

Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Study of the Poetic Idiosyncrasy in Relation to Poetic Tradition. Vol. 1. New Haven, Yale UP, 1948.

Gardner, W. H. and N. H. MacKenzie. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. 4th edition. New York: Oxford UP, 1967.

Gibson, James, ed. The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy. New York: Macmillan, 1976.

Hardy, Thomas. "Preface." Select Poems of William Barnes. London: Henry Frowde, 1908. iii — xii.

Hynes, Samuel. The Pattern of Hardy's Poetry. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1961.

Kunkel, Francis. "Chapter XXXIII: The Two Dominant Views of God in Modern Poetry. God in Contemporary Thought: A Philosophical Perspective: A Collective Study. Ed. Sebastian A. Matczak. New York: Learned, 1977. pp. 907 — 35.
Marsden, Kenneth.

The Poems of Thomas Hardy: A Critical Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 1969.

Phillips, Catherine, ed. Gerard Manley Hopkins. A Critical Edition of the Major Works. The Oxford Authors. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Taylor, Dennis. Hardy's Poetry, 1860 — 1928. London: Macmillan, 1981. "Victorian Philology and Victorian Poetry." The Victorian Newsletter 53 (1978): 13 — 16.

Shaw, W. David. "Victorian Poetry and Repression: The Use and Abuse of Masks." ELH 46 (1979): 468 — 94

Snodgrass, W. D. "Against Your Beliefs." The Southern Review 26.3 (1990):
pp. 479 — 95.

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