Hopkins Lectures 2008











































































































































Water Imagery in Hopkins's Poems

Aleksandra Kedzierska UMCS, Marie Curie-Sklodowska University Lublin POLAND

Kedzierska ponders the significance of water in Hopkins's poetry demonstrating Hopkins saw water as God's way of bringing good out of evil, Water in Hopkins's poetry serves to mirror the paradoxical nature of the Divine and His attributes.

Who does not remember the cover of the standard Oxford edition of Hopkins' poems, the one with Gerard Manley's eccentric yet "oddly accurate" (Landow) portrait of himself reflected in the lake?

Looking at himself, a man in a black hat sees how much of him is missing, his embarrassing disfigurement witnessed by the whole world "sealed in water". Forming the still centre of this perfect spot of time (August 14th), the man's intent face, an arena of black and white, expresses what may be taken for his concern with these newly realized parameters of his existence, gazing down, as if looking for that which will make him whole again. In this silent act of baptism, the immersion in water which, Eliade observes, symbolizes the dissolution of form, and a death prior to rebirth, the man on the cover seems to pray for a new self, its creation as well as its incorporation into Christ well documented by the book of his poems recording his spiritual progression.

Following the onlooker's gaze "deep down things" one cannot but realize the engulfing presence of water or ponder on the fundamental significance of it in Hopkins's works. Hence I am taking the plunge into "a world of wet" hoping to demonstrate that, being a vital instrument of his theodicy -- of God's way of bringing good out of evil (Vendler 38), water in Hopkins's poetic microcosm serves not only to render the most important Christian truths concerning the paradoxical nature of the Divine and His attributes . Deployed as a recurrent motif in the great theme of the impact of Christ's Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection on humankind , treating also, Kyne posits , "on the realities of the Christian disciples who 'say yes' to the experience of being humbled, crucified, and exalted with the Risen Lord of Life" (148-9), water often becomes the theatre of the divine intervention into man's life as well as the scenery against which various "downcarolls" and "uprolls" of Hopkins' personal relation with God are depicted. And indeed, when analyzed in detail, various aquatic images (i) whose presence can be noted even in Hopkins's earliest works, tell their "tale of wet". A story of a man in love with mortal beauty who, 'spying' as he was for Canaan, witnessed a miracle of water coming from a stony rock. And though he did need time to make himself drink it, when he finally embraced the chance, he understood that he had found the Water of Life and his desire to "go / Where springs not fail" its heaven-haven.

This tale has its beginning in "A Vision" (1862), a poem which offers a fascinating study of the sunset at sea, where a romance of light and water creates a breathtaking spectacle of "jeweled harmony" of all hues and colours: turquoises, beryls, sapphires, onyxes, garnets, lapis lazuli, rubies, amethysts, pearls, jacinth, corals and crystals. "The roseate light", MacKenzie writes, "is painstakingly pictured in the water imagery (.) the pale green of the sky becomes the 'beryl lakes' on which the brilliant cloudlets float as water lilies; the splendour is seen as 'swimming until it's ebbed back when the light cools'"(18). Yet, "there is no God [yet] under this splendour and wonder, and the keen glimpses of the inner firmament reveal no inner truth" (18) . Even the exotic, sensual beauty of Sirens at first pleasurable to watch, fills the rower with sadness and pain when the world around him, dyed with Tyrian reds, "gloom[s] to a blood-vivid clot". The sadness becomes all the more tangible due to the Mermaids' ringing "the knells of seamen whelm'd in chasms" which lets the watcher into the secret of their melodious wail and of the slumber that follows when the sun, lapsing to Ocean, leaves the bay "stirless", and the rosy isles disappear, washed away by the tide. All this is a prelude to the death in the senses, the 'death by water' which, Murphy claims, "led Hopkins to see the need for spiritualization of the senses [and] to search for the extension of consciousness beyond the natural, to find immortal beauty" (Murphy, 174).

This quest starts in earnest in "A Soliloquy of One of the Spies Left in the Wilderness " (1864), a poem in which water, competing against desert for dominance, serves to render a man's conflicting attitudes towards the Divine. Plodding towards still a very distant Canaan - its potential still contested rather than recognized -- the spy refuses to accept the gift of water from the smitten rock (Exodus 17:6), clinging instead to his memories of "the easy burden of yore" (GMH 16), the temptation of "Egypt, the valley of our pleasance" and of its "comfortable gloom", a false paradise where, sitting unshod, each man would have a fill of meat and water and "fear no iron rod". The rebel who embodies the failure of the spirit - the failure enhanced by the aridity of "hot sands perilous" (GMH 14) -- prefers to meet his death dreaming of the fertile Nile and its "slabs of water (.) [blazing] for him all the way" (GMH 15); imagining how thanks to "easy runnels" he waters his private Eden with his foot.

Criticizing Moses as well as doubting God by defying His ways (ii), the sickened man sneeringly encourages his companion(s) to go and fight for Canaan, and his last will must have appealed to the young poet with a sense of mission, and a desire to seek and find. Though "lost in [his] desert ways", ("Nondum" GMH 32), his better wretch persona with a bankrupt heart so dry it had no tears to spend, learnt well the lesson of the sands -- of God as true Canaan -- getting ready to give up his "national old Egyptian reed" so that on reaching the "God knows when", he would be able to replace it by a different, "cross-barred" rood. Already in 1864 Hopkins wrote of God's working in his heart:

He hath abolished the old drought
And rivers run where all was dry,
The field is sopp'd with merciful dew
He hath put a new song in my mouth.(GMH 18)

Not surprisingly was this a song about water, one borne out of the desire to go where springs not fail and yet, although -- also in "Heaven-Haven" (1864) - he "asked to be / Where no storms come" (GMH 19), he was sent right into the "the dense and the driven Passion" (st.7) of the Kentish Knock, as if the ordeal of desert sun was to prepare him for the trial by water, for that wrestling Hopkins's father had prophesied in a poem for his first born son:

Thy sport is with storm
To wrestle; and thy piety to stand
Musing on things create
And the Creator's hand.(by Manley Hopkins qtd in Kyne 148)

When this "authentic cadence" ("Let me be.") eventually found its way into "The Wreck of the Deutschland", it created a profound meditation on "the all of water", a book of Revelation as it were depicting a unique gathering in one poem of the whole family of aquatic forms: rivers and lakes, wells and floods, gulfs and bays, of seas and a "quenching ocean of a motionable mind" (st.32), even tears and "frightful sweat", not to mention snow, hail, and rain which having penetrated the recurb (.) of the gulf's sides"(st.32), revealed themselves as the forces of "God's dark descending" (st.9).

In conveying the man's spiritual progression, the unprecedented mass of water is indeed symbolic of that spilling of grace, of that closeness to God -- physical and metaphysical at once -- which allows a believer to become immersed in divine blessing' and enables him to grasp that which is "Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue": that God is "lightning and love. Father and fondler of heart", most merciful when darkest.

"The Wreck" brims to the full with such 'aquatic' definitions of the Divine as "sway of the sea" (st.1), "master of the tides, of the Yore's flood, of the year's fall" (st.32), "an ark for a listener" (st.33) which at the same time is the expanse of "the all of water", the bay of blessing and "the heaven - haven of the reward" (st.35). Nevertheless, signaling the paradoxical nature of the Divine, water, especially the "endragoned" North sea, through/at which He chooses to reveal His presence, may be perceived as the realm of evil, the kingdom of the 'dragon of the Apocalypse' (cf. MacKenzie 34), attacking the Deutschland with the monstrous shock of the "breakers" (st.14), overpowering men and the ship with their "burl of the fountains, buck and the flood of the wave"(st.16), breaking their spirit also through the "the romp"(17) of the inboard seas . swirling and howling"(st.19) and the "storm's brawling" (st.19).Equally malevolent is the "deathgush brown" in "The Loss of the Eurydice" where the sea is controlled by "black Boreas" (l.23 p.72) who, "deadly electric" (72), hustles hailropes over the ship, lashing out with heavengravel and the rivelling wolfsnow, (25-8/p. 73).

Thus emphasizing the power of the Creator and stressing "contradictory revelations" of His character (cf. MacKenzie, 34), water proves instrumental in offering an insight into various Divine mysteries and sacraments. Hence, for instance, the sea in "The Wreck" is like a great "baptismal font" (MacKenzie 34), where the tall nun's call "O Christ, Christ, come quickly . christens her wild worst / Best" (GMH 29). Responding to her need, the bridegroom surrenders himself to His Bride who - in this holy matrimony - "can have him for the pain, the cure to the extremity He Himself has cast. In accepting the cure she becomes one herself, for having accepted the sister's sacrifice, Christ puts an end to his harvest on the sea, "his doom there" (st. 28; cf. Kedzierska, 84-6).

What is more, the impregnating presence of Love which turns the sea into a colossal womb results in the nun's giving birth to a new Mary who, in turn, gives birth to a new Christ, worded and hence reborn in her call. Hearing the nun's call the speaker's heart is stirred by her desire and identifying himself with it he becomes personally involved in the experience of the Real Presence, that feast of "lovescape crucifed" which, celebrated in the presence of the Trinity, the Virgin and the saints, initiates him into the divine perspective of things: what the people perceive as the doom of the wild waters is in fact only "a bath in fall-gold mercies: the storm of but "scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers, which sweet heaven's astrewn". In the intimate and instantaneous illumination he not only acquires the light to embrace God at once as "the master, Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head" (st.33), but he is also given strength to say the mass during which he will be born anew as priest- poet., a celebrant, Kelly writes, who, through the "vehicle of his hands, of his mind, offers a sacrifice of which a victim, other than he, is he also by participation (119). Conducted to make a joint offering of the Passion of "our passion-plunged giant risen" (st.33), of the shipwrecked, and of his own refashioned heart, the poet's mass climaxes with the triumph of the Resurrected Christ who "easters" over mankind .

This triumph of the sea does not repeat itself in "The Loss of the Eurydice" where the ordeal by water concerns not just specific individuals but is also symbolically connected with the fate of England, "My people and borne own nation/ Fast foundering own generation" (GMH 75). What remains is the hope that eternal pity will be granted and that the Lord of storms and thunder will transform the "cursed quarter" of the sea into a true cradle.

Also that one day the "lifebelt of God's will" will rescue even the hardest "hearts of oak" from the swill of unbelief. Even though "The Wreck" eventually proved for Hopkins a blessed catastrophe, never again was he to re-create or experience such intensity of the elements, and hence, even in other poems of God's closeness (iii), the presence of water is strangely inconspicuous: the few exceptions being "Penmaen Pool", with its joke of a "topsy-turvy" reflection of the world around and "Inversnaid", depicting a "pool so pitchblack" it can round "Despair to drowning" (GMH 153).

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning (.)(GMH 89)

These apart, there are only two other works in which water appears to be of great significance: "St. Winefred's Well" (1879/81?) and "Epithalamion" (1888), both corresponding - each in its own way --to a darkening of Hopkins's world and both left unfinished, thus among others betraying his frustration with the old aesthete in him who despite the years of discipline to spiritualize the senses, would still refuse to die.

Hoping to be healed in an appreciation of "better beauty, grace", Hopkins wrote "St Winefred's Well", a poem illustrating how God brought good out of evil and violence of Caradoc's killing a saintly girl (a model nun), and how working through St Beuno (a perfect priest), He granted the prayer for Winefred's resurrection, sealing his miracle with a spring that burst forth. The holy well changed the otherwise "dry valley" ("Dry Dean") into the "sweet spot, this leafy lean-over (.) no longer (.) dumb but moist and musical/ With the uproll and the downcarol of day and night delivering" (GMH 192) life, the water of the well. As predicted by St Beuno, being a venerable record of the recovery, the water would lend its curative qualities to others in need.

(.) As long as men are mortal and God merciful,
So long to this sweet spot (..)
Here to this holy well shall pilgrimages be,
And not from purple Wales only nor from elmy England,
But from beyond seas . everywhere, (.)

What sights shall be when some that swung, wretches, on crutches,
Their crutches shall cast from them on heels of air departing
Or they go rich as roseleaves...(GMH 192-3).

Hopkins himself visited Holywell, yet though it seems his healing was to come through a different body of water, from those seas which, to quote from G. Herbert's "The Size" "are tears", only a few of those are shed. Even in his Dublin sonnets, "written in blood", where, as if thwarted by "hell's spell" and barred "by dark heaven's baffling ban" (GMH 101, "To seem"), they are indeed scarce, a symptom of the poet's spiritual dryness, and a reminder of his separation from the Divine reservoir of all possibilities, which in the long run could only mean preventing his further growth. In fact, tears appear only in "Patience" where "eyes red with weeping, and tears like seas flowing from them" (Milward 166) mark the dormant soul's pre-birth state, this "lonely began" in which it gets ready to accept the paradox of plenty in the last of the terrible sonnets. In "My own heart let me have more pity on", a confused man learns to accept that he can, it seems, "no more get". than blind / Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find / Thirst's all-in-all in all a world of wet" (102). Here again, as in early, pre-conversion works, water does not provide spiritual nourishment; rather, it leaves a man wanting and unable to satisfy his desire. He can but complain of his sap being sealed (cf. GMH 169) and pray to the Lord of Life to "send [his] roots rain" (GMH 107 "Thou art").

Among the wasteland landscapes of Hopkins's Dublin poems, with their "cliffs of fall" (No worst), the sea of pain whose waves huddle like cries of incessant torment ("my cries .huddle in a main" GMH 100), "the fell of dark" (I wake), "the ruins of wrecked past purpose" (Patience GMH 101)", or the ooze of drying mud squandered to "crust, dust" in "That Nature" (GMH 105), "Epithalamion" is indeed an exception. The last heaven-haven Hopkins was to describe, the poem seems to retrace his life and priesthood, and resurrecting Nature's sacramental reality (baptism, matrimony, holy orders) brings the poet into a delightful den, a secluded pool among the rocks, "sweetest, freshest, shadowiest" (GMH 198), where, unperturbed, he can rediscover its "sacred matter". Once again Nature has opened her paradise of sensuous beauty, fragrant, pulsating with colours and sounds, generous in offering to man her "summer's sovereign good". When, therefore, "a listless stranger", possibly the persona of Hopkins himself, immerses into the river, he becomes transformed. Invigorated and renewed, his happiness momentarily restored, he can again laugh, and swim, ready to absorb the zest for life he feels all around (GMH 199). Even his perception of the universe is healed, capable of bringing together erthworld, airworld and waterworld, recreating the wholeness in which he finds a place for himself, his private fairyland. There he feasts in aesthetic and sacramental sense. Adey claims that this "immersion in water brimming with 'heavenfallen freshness' recalls both the baptism in the Jordan and his own [Catholic] ministry, 'flinty' and 'kindcold' because it inflicts suffering yet leads to an eternal life" (19).

Besides, the river wedlock also brings to mine Hopkins's very own "wedding" , the holy matrimony (the sacrament of the Holy Orders) he movingly addressed - and through tears -- in "At the Wedding March". It may be that the speaker's recollection of "Him who to this wonder wedlock / Deals triumph and immortal years" (GMH 86) starts him into thinking about eternity against which, this spot of time, however delightful, loses its appeal. It seems that one cannot enjoy oneself in a mere wedlock, realizing that no true heaven-havens can be built/found on earth, in this life, this side of paradise. Thus water, a vital force in creation, all of a sudden fills the poet with poignant longing for the Father, still too far away, without Whom, the man's feasting, turns out to be not just very lonely, but somehow grotesque given the poem's title.

And so ends the tale of water , this gauge of the intensity in Hopkins's relationship with the Divine which made him who he was: a great priest poet, one who could celebrate piedness in "rose moles all in stipple upon trout that swims" (GMH 69), and who, admiring the fairy frankness of the lake, was sensitive enough to hear the lament of the Binsey and the Ribble complaining of man's "thriftless reave" (GMH 91). Who, wrestling with storms, even the "tame tempests" he could spy in "smooth spoons" (GMH 107), was invariably preaching his sermon on God's grandeur, and who, treading even high seas would always cling tightly to God's rope of gospel proffer, this bridge over the troubled waters, which, eventually would lead him to the haven-haven of his reward.


i) In Hopkins, "waters are and they are very much alive. As derivatives of the principle of 'moisture'" (Eliade 4), they reveal themselves not only in numerous descriptions of weather phenomena: clouds, rainbows or storms, but also through richly represented bodies of seas and oceans ( The Wreck, The Loss, The Sea and the Skylark, Heaven Haven ), rivers (the Pactolus, "Winter with a Gulf Stream"; the Nile, "A Soliloquy"; the Thames, the Rhine "The Wreck"; the Barrow, "Portrait of Two Beautiful Young People"; The Elwy, "In the Valley of the Elwy"; the Ribble, "The Ribblesdale" ), and streams (brooks/burns (Inversnaid), or lakes (pools Penmaen Pool, Epithalamion ) and wells ( St Winefred's Well ).

(ii) "Who is this Moses?" , the spy asks, "Who made him, we say, to be a judge over us? He slew the Egyptian yesterday. To-day/In hot sand perilous/ He hides our corpses dropping by the way/ Wherein he makes us stray (.)". He is also very explicit articulating his loathing for God: He feeds me with His manna every day: / My soul does loathe it and my spirit fails? A press of winged things comes down this way: The gross flock call them quails. / Into my hand he gives a host for prey, / Come up, Arise and slay. Sickened and thicken'd by the glare and sand/ Who would drink water from a stony rock? (GMH 14—5)

(iii) Poems written specifically in the years of 1875—1877, before Hopkins's ordination.
References Adey , Lionel, "A Reading of Hopkins's 'Epithalamion', The Victorian Newsletter , 42 (1972): 16—20. Eliade , Mircea, Symbolism of Place Kelly , Bernard, "The Wreck of the Deutschland", Gerard Manley Hopkins's Poems. A Selection of Critical Essays , M. Botrall(ed.) Macmillan Press Ltd. Houndmill, Basingstoke 1975.

Kedzierska, Aleksandra, On the Wings of Faith . A Study of the Man-God Relationship in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University Press, Lublin 2001.

Kyne , Mary Theresa, S.C., Country Parsons, Country Poets:George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins as Spiritual Autobiographers , Eadmer Press, Greensburg, Pennsylvania, 1992. Landow , George P., Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Visual Arts in Victorianweb.com Mackenzie , N.H., "'Thy Dark Descending': Light and Darkness in 'The Wreck'", Readings of "the Wreck": Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "The Wreck of the Deutschland" , ed. P. Milward, S.J., Loyola Press, Chicago 1976, 12—22.

MacKenzie , N.H., Gerard Manley Hopkins , Thames and Hudson Ltd, London 1981

Milward, Peter, S.J., A Commentary on the Sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins , Loyola Press, Chicago 1997. (See also Milward on Hopkins and the Dark Sonnets in the Gerard Manley Hopkins Online Archive
Murphy , Russell Eliott, "Hopkins and the Unrevealed Christ: Towards a Catholic Aesthetics: A Catholic Theory of Art", Studies. An Irish Quarterly Review, 2 (1995): 173—80.
Vendler , Helen, "The Wreck of the Deutschland" , The Authentic cadence. Centennial Essays on Gerard Manley Hopkins, A. Mortimer (ed.) Freibourg University Press, Freibourg 1992, pp. 37—51.
Mackenzie, N.H ., "'Thy Dark Descending': Light and Darkness in 'The Wreck'", Readings of "the Wreck": Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "The Wreck of the Deutschland", ed. P. Milward, S.J., Loyola Press, Chicago 1976, 12—22.
MacKenzie, N.H ., Gerard Manley Hopkins , Thames and Hudson Ltd, London 1981

Links to 2008 Hopkins Festival Lectures

|| || Editing Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins || Fancy in Hopkins Poetics || Hopeful Hopkins || Dolben and Hopkins || Dancer Isadora Duncan and Hopkins Poetry || Hopkins and Water Imagery || The Dark Sonnets || Hopkins Interpretation || A Scottish Reading of Hopkins Poetry || John Henry Newman and Translation ||