The word "transcendence" has a number of meanings depending on context (religious, philosophical, mathematical, etc.). Willliam Adamsonson examines poetry of Louis MacNeice and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
My talk today is the offspring of a paper I had started to prepare last year for the Gerard Manley Hopkins Festival the theme of which, as those of you who were here will remember, was "otherness" in Hopkins' poetry. For one reason or another I didn't manage to finish the paper in time and promised to put things right this year. Now the only problem there was that I already had two thirds of the paper on Hopkins, MacNeice and "otherness" planned and the prospect of sitting down and starting again on a theme for this year which might well be totally unrelated to either MacNeice, MacNeice and Hopkins or "otherness" was not an entirely happy one, but perhaps just punishment for not doing the work last year. Having more or less resigned myself to starting from scratch, you can well imagine my feelings when the theme for this year's Festival was chosen: Hopkins and Transcendence.
Well, as all of you are no doubt completely aware, "transcendence" is nothing more nor less than a synonym for "otherness" and if you bother to consult that standard reference work William's Thesaurus, you'll in fact find it given as the first alternative (the bulge you see in my cheek is my tongue). Quite apart from that it meant that I could basically keep much of what I'd prepared, simply assuming transcendence as implicit in the writings of both poets.
Seriously, however, the word "transcendence" is a complex one having a number of meanings depending on context (religious, philosophical, mathematical, etc.). For my purposes a working definition might simply be surpassing or exceeding ordinary limits coupled with a sense of durability, but I'm open to suggestions. One caveat before we start: the nature of this talk, is exactly that, a talk. What follows is more by way of a discourse on a number of parallels between Hopkins and MacNeice which I find interesting and worthy of further examination. Observations starting with the men themselves and what we might term either "displacement" or "alienation ," (1) before going on to look at some aspects of their work which link them closely together under the headings "religion" and "language and style".
But enough. Let's return to the two men in question: why Hopkins and MacNeice? Two poets seemingly divided by time, culture and religion. Louis MacNeice: born in Belfast in 1907 (1907-1963), the son of an Anglican bishop, problematically Irish, cultured, worldly, left-wing liberal, infused with Classics and religion - although as far as the latter is concerned he claimed the left-wing agnosticism of his generation. Gerard Hopkins: born in Stratford, Essex in 1844 (1844-1889), middle-class English background, reclusive and troubled, also infused with the Classics and religion - although as far as the latter in Hopkins' case is concerned he embraced his faith to such a degree that he at one point contemplated sacrificing his calling as a poet, resolving "to write no more" to better serve God through his calling to the priesthood - luckily for us this sacrifice was, in the long-term, not exacted. There would seem to be a temperamental and ideological divide between the two and there are, I admit, many obvious and manifest differences which might seem to give the lie to any relationship between them. This would be false, however.
There are, I suggest, definite connections between MacNeice and Hopkins demonstrated through MacNeice's own proven interest in Hopkins and his poetry, and Hopkins' undoubted influence upon MacNeice's own work . Displacement
Displacement and the complex nature of identity are integral parts of both the poetry of MacNeice and Hopkins. With both the problem centres around questions of culture and religion and a sense of dereliction.
MacNeice was a man of extreme sensitivity and he was "marked" psychologically at an early age (5) by the loss of his mother, a loss from which he never recovered. This sense of loss found expression in his poetry and must have supplied me with many images of fear, anxiety, loneliness and monotony. He suffered, too, from a degree of personal doubt and a lifelong crisis of identity and from what a number of critics have termed cultural displacement, incidentally a term also used by critics in reference to Hopkins. I don't want to go into MacNeice's background in too much detail, but it is perhaps important to note that the family had originally come from the West of Ireland and that MacNeice's father, an Anglican bishop, was a proponent of Home Rule.
In Belfast, however, the divide between the Catholic poor and the Anglican middle-class insularity the young MacNeice grew up with dominated and shaped his life. His father's move from Connemara was in effect MacNeice's own first displacement, from what he called his prenatal mountains, setting the pattern for his life. One critic, Terence Brown, has described him as spiritually hyphenated between Ireland and England, where he was educated, and yet another, Michael Longley, that to the Irish he has often seemed an exile, to the English a stranger. Indeed, MacNeice spent most of his life in this spiritual and cultural No Man's Land, feeling cut off from the Irish by culture and religion and never at home in England, either. In 1939 he wrote a powerful poem entitled "Dublin" which is, if you like, MacNeice's own attempt to come to terms with his Irishness and his relationship to Dublin. He writes:
This was never my town,
I was not born nor bred
Nor schooled here and she will not
Have me alive or dead.
Interestingly enough these lines would not be out of place from the pen of Hopkins and if we look at his sonnet To seem the stranger, we do find lines which MacNeice's seem to echo:
To seem the stranger lies my lot my life/among strangers
Norman White tells us Hopkins, on his arrival in the country, found himself caught up in the battle of two civilisations . There could be no compromise between the one or the other, no halfway house.
Hopkins - and MacNeice - would seem to have been curiously cut off from the country - I'm referring here to Ireland - by both culture and religion. With Hopkins, his own English Catholicism always at odds with Irish Catholicism. His sense of displacement in Ireland is evident from his own letters and poetry; in To seem the stranger, which I quoted above, he continues: I am in Ireland now; now I am at a third remove. W.H. Gardener writes that he was set apart from his Irish colleagues by nationality and political allegiances and at the same time severed from his family and English friends by distance and religion . Derek Mahon has referred to MacNeice as A tourist in his own country, but goes on to make the point that of what sensitive person is this not true?
Hopkins and MacNeice, then, were both the victims of a degree of personal doubt and loneliness. MacNeice certainly never produced anything as bleak as Hopkins' terrible sonnets, but there are many examples in his poetry of the darkness in his life. To illustrate this briefly here are two verses from his Postscript to Iceland: For W.H. Auden, written in 1937:
From the litany of doubt,
From these walls comes breathing out
Till the room becomes a pit
Humming with the fear of it
With the fear of loneliness
All the wires are cut, my friends
Live beyond the severed ends.
Hopkins, too, must have felt a similar emotion in Dublin. In the sonnet My Own Heart Let Me More he writes:
... not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day
You don't even have to look at MacNeice too closely to see that for a man who openly eschewed religion, there's an awful lot of it about in his verse. He has, it seems, a fascination for religious symbols and vocabulary in his poetry. Very briefly we have titles such as Prayer before Birth, Prayer in Mid-Passage, Place of a Skull, Whit Monday, Easter Returns. Declan Kiberd quotes Terence Brown, who sums up MacNeice's philosophy quite nicely as that of unresolved disbelief .
For both Hopkins and MacNeice, poetry was a medium for praise. In many ways though, Hopkins had it easier steeped in the 19th century view of God as the Supreme Being, whereas MacNeice, if you like, was more influenced by Western Christian society's more disjunctive image of the traditional view of the Supreme Being, which, of course, gave rise to all sorts of quagmires ranging from the hopelessness of non-belief, through humanism, to quasi-mystical responses to the riddle of existence. Here again, though, we find points of contact between both poets: Hopkins' extreme pessimism evinced by his bouts of prolonged depression, believing that his prayers were no longer heard by God. It was in his terrible sonnets that Hopkins' deep sense of alienation and distress were so powerfully and tragically expressed.
MacNeice also frequently presents us with a grim view of the human condition in much of his poetry, but nevertheless never loses faith in the humanistic vision, rejoicing in what he called the accident of being alive. Both Hopkins and himself share what we might call the Romantic response to the joy of creation and the mystery and beauty of life. In Hopkins this response is explicitly religious, with MacNeice there is a good case to be made for a latent religiosity - despite his avowed secularity. What unites both poets, however, is their firm belief in the transcendence of life and the natural world. Both poets are descendants of the Romantic tradition, but, as Edna Longley writes of MacNeice, from the non-Wordsworthian branch of Romanticism.
Indeed, Hopkins' influence upon the way MacNeice saw the world would seem incontrovertible if we look at some of MacNeice's writing and the vocabulary he used. Before I give you MacNeice, however, let me read you the first stanza of Hopkins' poem Pied Beauty:
Glory be to God for dappled things
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle trim.
Now let me read you a passage from MacNeice's prose work Zoo, written in 193:
The pleasure of dappled things, the beauty of adaptation for purpose, the glory of extravagance [...]. We react to these with the same delight as to new potatoes in April speckled with chopped parsley, [...] or to brewer's drays or to lighthouses and searchlights or to a newly cut lawn [...] or to the fun of shelling peas into a china bowl or shuffling one's feet through dead leaves when they are crisp or to the noise of rain or the crackling of a newly lit fire [...] or the silence of snow in the moonlight [...].(12)
It's hard not to echo Hopkins and add Praise him! What we have is delight in God's creation of nature the adaptation for purpose - divine design. What MacNeice does add, however, is the human dimension, which Hopkins does not include in his poem. Elsewhere he again echoes Hopkins' sentiments of the sheer pleasure of creation and being alive:
God be praised that things are as they are,
That grass is green, that water is wet, that trees are tall.
For what any extensive reading of MacNeice will show is that he was a poet who reacted to the beauty of the tangible and the visible with undisguised sensuousness.
Feeling, wrote Hopkins, and love in particular, is the great moving power and spring of verse and what both poets are masters of is the physical response, the shock of sensual perception, the juxtaposition of sensual words, the rush of images. Which leads me on to language and style.
Language and Style Both Hopkins and MacNeice share a richness of language and rhythm, imagery and allusion, both defend, in Kiberd's words, the freshness and integrity of language , or, to borrow a phrase of Hopkins' (describing Dryden's poetry), the: thew and sinew language.
A reading of MacNeice's critical work Modern Poetry: a Personal Essay shows how concerned he was with the theories of language and rhythm. Like Hopkins, MacNeice also made use of nursery rhymes to illustrate the effect of natural speech patterns and rhythm: "'Pussy-cat, Pussy-cat, where have you been?'" he writes in Modern Poetry, [.] is a good line rhythmically, but I should not like to write 'Polar Bear, Polar Bear, where have you been?' For (a) in ordinary speech we say 'Pólar Béar and (b) 'bear' here is a more important syllable than '-cat' for both sound value and meaning.
Compare this with Hopkins' reflection upon that other nursery rhyme cat - the one in the well - which he quoted in a letter to R.W. Dixon in October 1878 to demonstrate the natural occurrence of sprung rhythm in English by pointing out that many nursery rhymes employed it: Díng, dóng, béll; Pússy's ín the wéll
The example is prefaced by these remarks:
I had long had haunting my ear the echo of new rhythm which now I realised on paper. To speak shortly, it consists in scanning by a ccents or stresses alone, without any account of the number of syllables, so that a foot may be one strong syllable or it may be many light and one strong. I do not say the idea is altogether new; there are hints of it in music, in nursery rhymes and popular jingles, [...]
Hopkins's poetry, then, is an increased version of the natural cadence of speech.
A poem's beauty, its transcendence, can be found in part in its power over us, the readers. With the two poets at present under discussion the great bulk of this power lies, perhaps, in the pure emotion of the poetry, in the imagery and in the assemblage of sounds, in the verbal music, the epiphany of a single line. Both poets were masters in the use of internal rhyme, onomatopoetic words and cadences, assonance and alliteration, in word music. The vocabulary used consistently by both poets to achieve all this was by and large Anglo-Saxon-based - a level of English particularly suited to this.
I don't want to point out the obvious, but if we look at the two levels of English, one of which is Anglo-Saxon based and the other Romance, we can see very definite differences in register which achieve very different effects: Anglo-Saxon words tend to be more sonorous and slow-moving, due mainly to the clusters of long vowel sounds; Romance-based words are fast moving and perhaps less musical to the ear and tend to convey concepts in contrast to Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, which gives us images. As I mentioned a few moments ago, there is an insistence with Hopkins and MacNeice on the importance of sound of their poetry, that what they want to give us are aural images.
Now most of us here approach the reading poetry with some expectations. Anybody who deals with poetry in a critical manner must, I would suggest, presuppose certain defining elements either explicitly or implicitly. This begs the question of what is sometimes termed the "character" of poetry and the question of whether or not poetry has what I.A. Richards called "protocol", and whether this notion is at odds with the creative spirit of verse?
Now one of the definitions of protocol is that of an official formula, which would seem to be directly contradictory to the quality of poetry certainly as I understand it. Undeniably, however, critics over the years have invested poetry with protocol, feeding our need to understand. Maybe transcendence is also the departure from this, breaking the mould of critical preconception by writing something that defies expectation, something that through rhythm, imagery and language shocks, surprises and delights the reader taking him beyond the limits of his perception.
It is often the unexpected that causes the most joy, not the expected - subconscious or not. The great impact of Hopkins' work may be seen as a renewal of poetic energy, seriousness, and freshness, after a period marked by a great deal of verse which was to a large degree both bland and unexciting. MacNeice, as E. E. Smith has commented, also argues the necessity for, breaking away from the tyranny of the models of [...] preceding periods.MacNeice himself wrote of the poet that: he should be a maker, not a retail trader. It is the struggle of both poets for identity, for meaning and for authenticity which sets them apart, rising above the ordinary, which is, in other words, the enduring nature of their transcendence. Closing Remarks
I have no more than touched upon a few areas which link Hopkins and MacNeice, and have left much unsaid. As well as a more in depth look and those areas I've briefly mentioned here, points for further, more detailed discussion might include amongst others sexuality, structure, the representation of Ireland in their poetry, religious imagery, and thematic similarities.
If I might end or a slightly less serious and definitely less academic note: I don't know whether you've ever experienced the rather spooky way words and letters seem to be trying to tell us something, probably the best example of which is cognate anagrams: lives is an anagram of Elvis, for example, or mother-in-law of woman Hitler and eleven plus two is strangely an anagram of twelve plus one, and so on.
The same kind of thing happens with the spell check on computers: you punch in a word which is either incorrectly spelt or not recognised and a red, squiggly line appears underneath. Well - and this may also tell us something about the literary preferences of computers - the name Hopkins was always recognised, but MacNeice not. After a while I thought I'd just add the name to the computer's memory, so I clicked with the right-hand mouse button and before clicking on the add option, looked out of interest to see what alternatives were offered above. There at the top of the list, glaring me in the face, was the word Manlike.
Gerard Manley Hopkins and Louis Manlike MacNeice - I rest my case. Notes 1. Although both terms are not identical. "Displacement" would signify more the purely physical removal of the poet from his natural cultural position whereas "alienation", I would suggest, is the emotional and intellectual separation. Possibly "isolation" or "estrangement" (if we're talking about synonyms) might be terms better suited to cover both options.
2. Brian Arkins has written that alongside Wilde he is the Irish writer best educated in the Classics. Cf. Arkins, "Greek Themes in Wilde" in: G. Franci & G. Silvani (eds), The Importance of Being Misunderstood: Homage to Oscar Wilde (Bologna: Pàtron : 2003) p. 341. MacNeice was actually asked to review
The Notebooks and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, which he took with him on his trip to the Hebrides in 1938. Whether he found it rather heavy going or was just lulled by the rhythm of the train, he fell asleep over it on his way to Edinburgh. Not terribly auspicious for a talk celebrating both poets, but thankfully this is not the only connection between the two.
3. Brown, Terence, Louis MacNeice: Sceptical Vision (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1975).
4. Longley, Michael (ed.), Louis MacNeice Selected Poems (London: Faber, 1988), p. xxii. All quotations of MacNeice's poetry are taken from E.R. Dodds (ed.),
Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice (London: Faber & Faber, 1979). 5. For Hopkins, all quotations of poetry are from W.H. Gardiner (ed.), Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Selection of His Poems and Prose (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954).
6. White, Norman, Hopkins in Ireland (Dublin: UCD Press, 2001) p. 44. 7. MacNeice, Louis. Zoo (1937), quoted in: Press, John, Louis MacNeice, (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1965), p. 9.
8. Letter to Robert Bridges, 1879. Quoted in Leavis, F.R., The Common Pursuit (Harmondsworth: Peregrine Books, 1962), p. 66.
10. MacNeice, Louis. Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (London: OUP, 1938).
12. Gardener, W.H. (ed.), Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Selection of His Poems and Prose (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954); Introduction, p. xxvii. MacNeice, Louis. Zoo (1937), quoted in: Press, John, Louis MacNeice, (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1965), p. 9.
12. Letter to Robert Bridges, 1879. Quoted in Leavis, F.R., The Common Pursuit (Harmondsworth: Peregrine Books, 1962), p. 66. Kiberd, Declan, op. cit., p. 548. Quoted in: Smith, Edward, E., Louis MacNeice (New York; Twayne, 1970), p. 72. MacNeice, Louis. Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (London: OUP, 1938).
12. Mahon, Derek, "MacNeice in England and Ireland", in: Terence Brown and Alec Reid, (eds.),
Time Was Away (Dublin: Dolmen 1974), pp.113-22. Brown, Terence, quoted in: Kiberd, Declan, Irish Classics (London: Granta Books, 2001), p. 547.
17. Gardener, W.H. (ed.), op. cit., p. 184.
18. Quoted in: Whitehall, Harold, Sprung Rhythm, in: Kenyon Review 6 (1944), p. 336.
19. Smith, E.E,. Louis MacNeice, (New York: Twayne, 1970), p. 71. A. Primary sources
20. W.H. Gardiner (ed.) Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Selection of His Poems and Prose (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954).
21. E.R. Dodds (ed.) Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice (London: Faber & Faber, 1979).
A. MacNeice 3. Brown, Terence, Louis MacNeice: Sceptical Vision, (Dublin 1975).
4. Kiberd, Declan. Incorrigibly Plural in: Irish Classics (London: Granta Books, 2001).
5. Longley, Edna, Louis MacNeice. A Study (London: Faber& Faber 1988).
6. MacNeice, Louis, The Strings are False. An Unfinished Autobiography (London: Faber, 1965).
7. Press, John. Louis MacNeice (London: Longman, Green & Co., 1965).
8. Richards, I.A. Practical Criticism (London: Routledge, 1966).
9. Smith. E.E. Louis MacNeice (New York; Twayne, 1970).
10. Stallworthy, Jon, Louis MacNeice (Oxford, 1995). B. Hopkins
11. Leavis, F.R. The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins in: The Common Pursuit (Harmondsworth: Peregrine Books, 1962).
12. Leavis, F.R., Metaphysical Isolation, Gerard Manley Hopkins. (Norfolk, Connecticut: The Kenyon Critics, New Directions, 1945), pp. 115 - 131.
13. J. Wain, J., An Idiom of Desperation, in: Hartmann, G., (ed.) Hopkins: A Collection of Critical Essays (New Jersey: Prentice Hall), 1966, pp. 57-70 14. Whitehall, Harold, Sprung Rhythm, in The Kenyon Review 6 (1944), pp. 333-354.
15. White, Norman, Hopkins in Ireland (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002).
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