Hopkins Lectures 2003



































































Hopkins's Climb to Transcendence

James McGonigal University of Glasgow, Scotland

Transcendence,existence outside the bounds of the created world and freedom from the limitations of matter, is a word which touches key tensions in the life and poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

"Transcendence", with its everyday sense of surpassing excellence, and its theological meaning of existence outside the bounds of the created world and freedom from the limitations of matter, is a word that clearly touches some key tensions in Hopkins's life and poetry. There is the gap between the natural and supernatural worlds, for example, or between matter and mind, or body and spirit, as well as between will and action, including political action.

I want to begin, however, with just its ordinary meaning of extraordinary, of climbing beyond the normal earthly level of things, and to stay close to that as a way of reading the poetry. As a boy, Hopkins's light frame, graceful movements and seemingly fearless personality found a perfect outlet in his love of climbing trees, the taller the better. Robert Martin's biography Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life (1992) describes how, having reached the top, "he would remain balanced for hours, gazing with wonder at the landscape" (p. 11).

We even know what kind of trees they were: an elm in his family's garden at Oak Hill, and two cedars of Lebanon and a beech tree at his grandparents' house in Croydon. As Martin acutely notes, this may also have been a way of retaining a certain distance between himself and his family, a psychological trait that we find recurring in his later life. I am going to suggest that this bird's eye view from the treetops, and the emotional and intellectual charge of these new perspectives on a familiar landscape that climbing offered, also had an impact on the poetry that Hopkins' would later come to write. I should say that I am influenced here by my experience of teaching young people, and that like most teachers I have sometimes wondered what some of the most mentally agile children in the class are making of the experience.

Generally, although not always, we can recognise those who excel in their quickness of uptake. We can sense it in the quality of their responsiveness to the ideas and methodology that our subject offers as a purchase on the world; we can sometimes be the sounding board for their wit or ingenuity; sometimes we become aware of their empathy as we struggle to explain a process or idea to their classmates who fail to grasp it. Often, when these youngsters move onwards and upwards away from our classroom, we wonder what remains of all that effort of teaching and learning, as they test the limits of their understanding in the new contexts that life or further study offers them. There's nothing more we can do for them at this point, except watch as they climb away. Standing below shouting "Be careful!" doesn't ever achieve very much. Hopkins' parents must have experienced a similar sense of helplessness with their son's tendency to take the difficult route, and time and again to transcend the ordinary and the expected. Moderation or compromise counted for little with him, it seemed. Choosing to follow the Catholic pathway made no sense at all in terms of his Oxford studies or future career. Selecting the hard Jesuit training as his route to the priesthood (he could after all have become a Benedictine!) similarly seemed to offer him difficulty as part of its attraction. This character trait in Hopkins of being drawn to what was difficult is also evident in his approach to describing and analysing aspects of the natural world that caught his eye and his mind. Oaks: the organisation of this tree is difficult he writes, and then, having studied the problem for nearly a week, he records: I have now found the law of the oak leaves (Journals and Papers of GMH, ed. Humphrey House, p. 141-6). We can see this analytical quality frequently in the Journals, where the subtlety of his exploration of the physical world is matched by his combing through or even reshaping the English language for the precise lexical or syntactical correlatives of what he was sensing.

Of course, artists do make us see the extraordinary in the ordinary scene, and sometimes even get paid for it, but his concerned and clever carving of language and reality seems to transcend even that more or less socially sanctioned role. Robert Martin describes this tendency as Hopkins attempting to formulate for himself a symbolic universe, in which both the individual and the generic had its own validity (p. 133), and he adds that it is partly this alternation between what is observed and what it signifies that gives such a dizzying, almost hallucinatory quality to much of his later poetry. But I am more interested here in exploring how this quality might derive in particular from the poet's variation of viewpoints and perspectives in particular poems, and how he creates what we might call a syntax of seeing, that enables the verse to reflect or even enact a vision of the natural world and its full significance. Sometimes the view of his visionary landscape is experienced vertically, and sometimes horizontally, but most often it is in the oscillation between polarities that we find the force of the poetry deployed to subtle and accurate effect. To help me keep a firmer grip in this heady enterprise, I checked the on-line concordance to Hopkins' poetry on-line concordance to Hopkins's poetry developed at the University of Dundee. Here we can note that, among the many single (and singular) usages of words in Hopkins's rich and varied lexis, there is a markedly multiple focus on the upper world of air (31), heaven (17), high (9), up (6) and above (5). This contrasts with the slightly more numerically powerful tug of down (37), under (21), and earth (17), the latter balancing heaven precisely, at least so far as numbers go. I don't want to become obsessed with numerology and structures here, but find this an interesting and somehow comforting validation of the almost visceral tug that I experience as a reader of Hopkins's verse. He directs and redirects our gaze constantly, combining this with a rhythmical and alliterative insistence that helps us to see further and more clearly than ever before.The Windhover is a good example of this. The poem opens with the speaker's memory of a sudden upward glimpse "caught this morning" of the falcon, and of the long gaze as he followed its flight path. High above, the bird moves off horizontally on the rolling level underneath him steady air, before rising vertically again to hang High there in search of any movement of prey below.

Then there's another rhythmical and alliterative enactment of a long horizontal curving movement As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend, before the sudden downward pitch of Buckle! as the bird dives towards the ground. The movement into the symbolism of Christ and crucifixion is marvellously caught here in the imagery of fire and danger (we may be swept up in this fall, and in some ways fear its full implications). The poem then modulates into the more gently downward sloping of the ploughed field and the dying fire, with their implications of the longer stretch of effort and time needed to work out the full implications in day to day living of that first spiritual assault (we might say) on the heart. There is just enough shine and gold among the earth and embers to remind us of the momentous vision, although there is sheer plod and a blue-bleak shading too. These latter images remind us of the heavy and lonely aspects of the pastoral life of a priest. Hopkins' work as a pastor in the Victorian cities of Liverpool and Glasgow presented a major problem to transcend. How might he overcome that assault on all the senses presented by the noise and smoky breath of the new industrial landscape (to quote a near contemporary Scottish poet, Alexander Smith, in his poem Glasgow of 1857)- Hopkins's experience of working within the blackened cityscapes with their crowds of deracinated migrant workers (most often Irish men and women in the two northern cities where Hopkins was posted) presented a world which could not be responded to with the uplift of his earlier more favoured pastoral scenes, as in Hurrahing in the Harvest. In that poem, the stooks rise / Around; up above, what wind-walks . so that the poet's spirits too are expressed in a youthful physical energy and eager gazing, with again that liking for a rising movement transposed to the gently falling slope of the sky, imagined as good farmland:

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour.

The encounter with Christ majestic in the natural world is powerful enough to shake the categories of up and down in the vertiginous final lines:

The heart rears wings for him bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

But the city must have knocked Hopkins sideways in a totally different sense. Simply to look around was to see the sheer scale of social and technological change, with its ravaged earth, drunken violence and needy crowds. To look up was to see skies filled with smoke from new industrial processes powered by coal and steam. How could all this be transcended? There were two ways. The first was to find God, very boldly, within the new processes themselves. He does this in God's Grandeur very surprisingly, given the more traditionally negative and condescending view of urban growth he expresses in Duns Scotus's Oxford, where a base and brackish skirt . sours the relationship of country and university town. But in God's Grandeur technology is used as a symbol of God. The world is charged with his electricity, as it were. Flame and foil take up the manufacturing imagery.

Although Hopkins in his note to Robert Bridges emphasises the more decorative elements of gold leaf, that hardly squares with the following image of the ooze of oil / Crushed, presumably as lubrication in a piston. The rod which men no longer seem to reck becomes now not only a biblical implement for chastising children, but a powerful coupling rod or drive shaft powering the wheel of creation. There's honest negativity in the bleakness of the industrial scene seared with trade and the remorseless treadmill to which machine power reduced human labour: Generations have trod, have trod, have trod . But that sense of God alive in the midst of the scene is salutary, and topical too.

Only two years after this poem's composition in 1877, the first successful electric lamps were developed almost simultaneously by Joseph Swan in England and Thomas Edison in America, and within two more years, in 1881, the town of Godalming, Surrey, in Hopkins's Home Counties heartland, was the first in the world to have electricity supplied for public and private use in a three year experiment, generated by water and then by steam power. At the poem's close the balance of natural, technological and spiritual powers is nicely caught in the brown brink of an industrial dawn, where the Holy Spirit as a broody hen watches over the egg of a wakening world - again with a poignant rising and gently downward movement from earth to heaven and home again as we read those lines: Oh, morning at the brown brink eastward, springs Because the Holy Ghost over the bent Hopkins climbs to transcendenceWorld broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. Hopkins's second way of transcending the darkness of the Victorian city was through pastoral care for others. Here the movement or perspective is often lateral and mysterious, as in the masterly opening of The Lantern out of Doors:

Sometimes a lantern moves along the night
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
much-thick and march air of the city.

Christ's personal presence and interest in each individual is what counts at the end of this poem of 1877. Two years later, in its partner poem The Candle Indoors, there is more self-criticism, and we have a sense of the priest's exclusion from the life of the weavers' cottages (as I take them to be from the use of technical terms such as truckle and trambeams, the latter combining silk-weaving technique and the new metal rails to speed up transportation of goods and people). But the priest can only plod, wondering, a-wanting, uncertain of his role, and in the sestet he returns to a fading fire in the heart, now turning bitterly against himself the negativity he has been feeling towards others. Individual parishioners do feature in some poems, most powerfully in Felix Randall, but it is noteworthy that the physical power elegised here is all past, and the technology belongs to the old and already dying crafts of the blacksmith and the ploughman. In Tom's Garland Hopkins attempts to deal with the real social and political problems of unemployment and political unrest, but he and the poem, and the reader, become entangled in the extended Pauline analogy of the head and the body (which he has to explain in a somewhat self-justificatory note to Bridges). The human body represents a last problem that Hopkins struggled to transcend. We include the mental life here, and sexuality - all that toil, that coil, as he puts it in Carrion Comfort, of living in the physical body and in the human world.

The perspective in the last poems is pitched downwards. The body is prone and unable to rise, yet restless even when trying to sleep and recover strength. What has been uplifting in earlier years now becomes a dark mirror image of itself, as the mountains of the mind in No worst, there is none are turned into cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Whatever upward growth is to be found in these poems is low and weedy, like the ivy of Patience, hard thing or the fretty chervil on the roadside banks in Justus quidem tu es, Domine. Everything wants rain, freshness, rootedness. Just occasionally and inexplicably there is a glimpse of a former way of seeing, as in the lovely mile that lights up between mountains in My own heart let me have more pity on. This is not the steep and sudden illumination of the early years, of course, but a long slow rise through the glen between hills. But there is light there, and realism. Hopkins must have felt that he had failed to live up to early promise and his own high-flying aspirations (all those planned books of his that came to nothing!). And yet paradoxically we might now say that this very failure enables readers in an agnostic or post-religious age to come to his poetry with greater empathy and identification, reading the early affirmative works through the later darker ones. The anguish of despair endears his words to us in an intimate way. I'm not sure whether Hopkins had any awareness that his late suffering and isolation in Ireland could have been his cross to be carried, a pain-filled period of identification with Christ. Despite his long training in the Spiritual Exercises and the lectionary, I can find in the concordance no use of tree or wood that makes the obvious symbolic connection to the Crucifixion.

Why might this be? Possibly his sense of the sacredness of Christ's salvific suffering precluded any easy identification. Perhaps he was too acutely troubled by a sense of his own lack of worth. But there may also still have been strong memories at a deep kinaesthetic level - a mind's map of actual trees, of branches and handholds, and the deft and confident movements he'd made as a boy when climbing towards the sky. He could not see the sacred wood for the real trees, so to speak. We can understand that. But there is one obvious thing that Hopkins did not really seem to have grasped, for all his careful learning to read the law of the oak leaves.

This is the plain fact of nature and life that oak and other deciduous leaves wither and fall, and then appear again as if new formed in Spring. This is the final and inescapable rise and fall and rise again movement of life that we respond to at a human level, year upon year. The winter world that Hopkins despaired over in his late poem To R. Bnow constitutes for us just one season in a life's work. We return to the earlier and lighter poems with a wider perspective than even Hopkins could see, and appreciate the whole bright strange vivid landscape of his verse laid out below us, and stretching as far as the horizons of heaven.

Links to Hopkins Literary Festival 2003

|| Scottish View of Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins || Explore other areas of The Hopkins Archive || Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Climb to Transcendence || Hart Crane and Gerard Manley Hopkins | How Father Hopkins SJ Prays || Oscar Wilde and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Flannery O Connor and Hopkins || Levelling with God || || || Polish writer Norwid and Hopkins influence || Walker Percy and Gerard Manley Hopkins ||