Hopkins Lectures 2005

Influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins on Twentieth Century US American Poets

Michael Dennison

Michael Dennison examines the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins on American Modernist poets writing their most significant work between 1930 and 1970. He refers to Hopkins Among the Poets and to Desmond Egan's "Hopkins's Influence on Poetry

Micheal Dennison , Carlow College, USA

This lecture is about the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins on American Modernist poets, and that will mean especially the second generation Modernists, poets writing their most significant work between 1930 and 1970. This is a vast subject, and in order to fit the allotted time I will only very briefly allude to those already treated in some detail by the existing scholarship, especially in the valuable Hopkins Among the Poets , Monograph Three in The International Hopkins Association Monograph Series, edited by Richard F. Giles, 1985, and in Desmond Egan's comprehensive study "Hopkins's Influence on Poetry," published in 1994 in Saving Beauty: Further Studies In Hopkins, edited by Allsopp and Downes.

John Berryman's great esteem for Hopkins is clearly perceptible in his Dream Songs and Mistress Bradstreet , and there are fine studies on that subject by Gerry Murray and Daniela Ciani. The influence is clear, pervasive, and inspiring. Although as personalities they seem opposites, Berryman had a great empathy for Hopkins, as both were Catholic converts, both were exiles for a time to Dublin, and both were sufferers of horrible depression. All of this is also true for Robert Lowell, and Steven G. Axelrod has written pretty much all that need be said on Hopkins and Lowell, which isn't a great deal. It was early, somewhat implicit, then not evident at all, and then ironically post-modern. The influence on Elizabeth Bishop has been addressed at length: one more of inscape and instress . And there is Randall Jarrell. Hopkins helped him to find the right American accent for the times.

Hopkins had significant influence on a great many poets. And when we consider the significance of Hopkins on twentieth century poetry in the American idiom, the influence may be direct or indirect, may be mediated by figures strong in the eccentricity, narcissism, and originality fused with cantankerousness that has typified American poets since Edgar Allen Poe. We will discuss some of those in a minute. Above all, I hope to share with you some titles of significant poems that illustrate Hopkins's enormous influence -- some that may be new to you.

There is a three-part nature to the Modernist endeavor, and this Hopkins prefigured (or figured, if you like) by sprung rhythm , inscape, and instress. Most attention has been directed to sprung rhythm as tradition or experiment or practice, because it is easily identifiable -- and certainly it is enormously important. But inscape is also a concept of great significance though less a subject of inquiry for influence largely because of its difficult, almost disturbing, nature. It is the heart of the Modernist endeavor. A poem should not only mean what it wants to say -- in fact, it is only successfully and idiomatically Modernist if its inscape, the elements by which it achieves existence, does not compromise itself to figurative referentially. It must exist completely and unapologetically as potentialized language. Then we come to instress, disordering everything we had presumed about words in unity. Typically, prose exists to express what we already comprehend. Poetry exists to express what cannot be comprehended precisely, to express the otherwise inexpressible. For Hopkins, this was the incoming of grace, the invasion of the closed system by divine energy. This is easily related to the secular irony of New Criticism, irony that imposes the necessity of holding "in stress" the tension of irreconcilable opposites, equally valid and true, and irreducible. This is the twentieth-century agnostic way with our experience of the kind of instress Hopkins's makes as poetry with the invasion of joy into the tragedy of The Wreck of the Deutschland . Hopkins's grasp of these three elements -- and above all the excellence with which he puts these into practice -- has rightly made him a great pioneer of Modernism, and a major influence to the poets who were able to experience his work after its appearance to a greater public in 1918. And that dissemination took time. We should remember that it took several years for the limited number of 1918 first edition copies to sell out, and only a fraction of those would have gone to the United States.

Thomas Merton is an interesting early example. While a student at a grammar school in England, he first read several of Hopkins's poems lent to him by the headmaster who was a Jesuit priest, while Merton was confined to the school infirmary. He again studied him at Columbia University in New York, and, in fact, began a PhD dissertation on Hopkins under the famous Mark Van Doran, which was abandoned when Merton joined his religious order. (By the way, there are interesting parallels in Merton's life to that of Hopkins's, as well as the poetic influence.) We see in Merton's "Duns Scotus," published in the 1947 collection Figures for an Apocalypse , a triple tribute to Hopkins. First to our attention, by the title, is the poem's subject, the poet-theologian of essential importance to Hopkins, undoubted evidence that Merton had continued to pay attention to the evolving scholarship on Hopkins. Then there is sprung rhythm. "Did God refine that Gold?" heavy stress hammers the question Hopkinsian, and it must be read as trochaic, not iambic as we might read it as a line written by Byron. And for answer there follows the celestial army of our Lady Mary. This is an important third element: the instress is Marian visionary. The revelation of love with a direct illusion to Courtly Love makes, to this reader, and odd turn. We have to accept "liege" in the Medieval (and also then Pre-Raphaelite) tradition that exalts the lady love by gender change from a mistress to full Lord and Master. I admit I am not as knowledgeable in religious traditions as in those of poetry, and there may be a Marianist resonance here that I am not able to address, and I hope someone else will. But please note the word "Chivalry" in stanza four and the word "romance," though the use must be ironically applied as well as literally. This is a very Hopkinsian poem, not just by rhythm and subject, but by the stress of the invasion -- a most apt word here -- of Mary into the poem.

A very direct influence, I am sure you agree. Let us now consider a couple of poets, technically first generation Modernists, who not only illustrate influence to a significant degree by Hopkins, but are especially important in the influence they had on the new young voices emerging in the 1950s and 1960s. First e.e. cummings, on whom Hopkins is an unacknowledged and unrecorded influence -- admittedly no direct mention in his writings has come to light. His Sonnet 71 from Xaipe , published in 1950, written a little after Merton's poem, is so Hopkinsian I would only embarrass myself if I endeavored to point out the separate elements to this assembly of scholars. Obviously, just to be general, a lot more is going on here than some trochaic license. There is point/counterpoint in the truest sense. In terms of language, even more is going on than such words as "dreamslender" and "firstful" -- this is the language of positive exclamation, rare in the Twentieth Century, especially rare in the years just following World War II. And the instress? Can we say it a similar invasion to the one in Merton's poem, and arguably the same as in Hopkins's The Wreck of the Deutschland ? I think so, as far as this can be stated by an animist, and such the atheistic Cummings had become by the 1940s. To quote his biographer Christopher Sawyer-Laucanne: "Cummings had a belief that God resides in all living things. Accused once of being almost an animist, he exclaimed, 'ALMOST? I AM an animist.' Indeed for Cummings the exceptional design of the planet, if not the universe, in which everything had a place, in which nature is a force alive, even godly, is the subject of countless poems . For Cummings, salvation was to be found in embracing the natural world where the miracle of life.was indubitable and always visible." When we look at the poem we see this sonnet illustrates a very direct influence. It is very obvious. Then what should we think about how he never wrote about Hopkins either as young, licentious and irreligious small case e. e. cummings or as the meditative older man of letters? Was he afraid that association of influence would almost seem like an appropriation and would lessen his appeal -- his status as great original and originator -- to the rising generation of the 1950s, especially the Beats -- that the original hep cat daddy-o got his best rifts from a Victorian Jesuit priest? Nervous, man, nervous.

This puts us in mind of another heavy influence on the young generation of American poets beginning to write and publish in the 1950s, William Carlow Williams. Dr. Williams did read Hopkins when he was younger -- and with muted appreciation it seems -- but waited to study Hopkins until old age. And then, according to critic Paul Mariani, it was too little, too late. At 70, in 1953, Williams had put together his won "variable foot," a sprung rhythm concept that really, if you look at it, took the Hopkinsian line of three or four stresses and dropped it down in three stair increments (triversions, he called them) for a Modernist typographical twist. His lines are really fractioned thirds of lines, together equivalent to Hopkins's own sprung rhythm line . If you read his own explanation of intent in a letter to Richard Eberhart in 1954, you get a paraphrase of Hopkins' own Introduction . Following his explanation, Williams then gives an example that doesn't make much sense. In another letter, he accused Hopkins of being constipated in his sprung rhythm. W.C. Williams suffers from too much laxative, but we have to admit the curmudgeonly doctor and his figurative rhythmic irritable bowl disease, through Paterson and his later poetry broadcast Hopkinsian traits -- admittedly secondhand and possibly defective, near to broken -- to the new generation of American poets -- and somewhat at the expense of the native free verse of Whitman, with its emphasis on declarative rhetoric, especially parallel repetition over form and music. Of course, Howl is one of the exceptions, but Ginsberg gets Hopkinsian into the 1970s. For an example of work Williams did while studying Hopkins, there is The Desert Music published in 1954. The instress comes in by the image of a homeless migrant worker sleeping rough against a bridge bordering Mexico and the U.S. -- a very American inscape and instress. More important is the statement about the poem in the poem -- the poem as a thing, neither referential nor allusional.

But of course many, many emerging American poets got their Hopkins unmediated by Cummings and Williams or the British writers writing under the influence (sometimes in denial) such as Dylan Thomas. They got their Hopkins straight. How could they miss him with his leading off since 1936 the Faber Book of Modern Verse with The Wreck of the Deutschland ? Really, even lazy students read the first ten pages, and we are speaking of young talents looking beyond Whitman, who, I repeat, could only serve as a provisional model to a particular rhetoric. Emily Dickinson was only just then being accurately printed in her pure, vital brilliance in the Johnson edition -- but as many critics have pointed out, she has had no real, authentic followers. Her influence is too vague and diffuse -- a kind of idiosyncratic bend to the New England idiom of lyric Puritan poetry, so individual that it thwarts any sustained imitation.

To Sylvia Plath -- a young woman of enormous talent, recognized and celebrated very early - Gerard Manley Hopkins was most important. His name often comes up in her journals. She writes, "Meanwhile, read Hopkins for solace" at a time in 1956 of desperate questioning and a few months later, "I will read Hopkins: and, when our lives crack, and the loveliest mirror cracks, is it not right to rest, to step aside and heal." Several days later she mentions she has made a poem for Ted, who is of course Ted Hughes, an ode undeniably Hopkinsian: "For his least look, scant acres yield;/each finger-furrowed field/heaves forth stalk, leaf, fruit-nubbed emerald;/ bright grain sprung so rarely/he hands to his will early;/at his hand's staunch hest, birds build." But this is middle period Hopkinsian Plath. Ted Hughes stands in as God -- big mistake of instress. For early Plath reinterpreting Hopkins, read "Go Get the Godly Squad" - among her first paid publications as a poet, appearing in Harpers in November 1954. A work of youth (it was placed by Hughes in her Collected Poems with Juvenilia ) it is not flawless, but it is beautiful nonetheless. A late poem (October 1961, sadly -- it should have been counted an early one if she had lived) with a powerful Hopkinsian inscape and instress as well as sprung rhythm is "The Moon and the Yew Tree." The instress is by an anti-Mary -- a Hecate, moon mother of bats and owls loosed sacrilegiously from the Marian blue, invading ideas of tenderness, faith and order with her demonic wildness. To me, Plath resounds as the last great voice of Mid-Century Modernism, and this is one of her greatest poems. Evidence that Hopkins had a sustained influence throughout her too short life.

Links to Hopkins Literary Festival 2005

Monastic Ireland and Saint Patrick || Influence of Hopkins on American Poets || John Henry Newman Influence on Hopkins || Ursula Bethell and Gerard Manley Hopkins ||