Hopkins Lectures 2008

Gerard Manley Hopkins : A Quantum Electrodynamic Interpretation

David Axelrod New York Poet

Authors and poets dwell in the world of connotation. We really only have Hopkins because Hopkins wrote his poems. Indeed, there may be a scholar at work even as we meet, diligently attempting to render a definitive interpretation of Hopkins.

Scholars and literary critics operate in the world of denotation. Authors and poets dwell in the world of connotation. Thus, there is frequently a rift between their two worlds. While we wouldn't really have Hopkins without Robert Bridges, or more contemporaneously, editors like Catherine Philips or scholars like Paul Mariani, John Pink, G. F. Lahey, we really only have Hopkins because Hopkins wrote his poems. Indeed, there may be a scholar at work even as we meet, diligently attempting to render a definitive interpretation of Hopkins. J. Lowes attempted such an interpretation for Coleridge in Lowe's book, The Road to Xanadu. His work purported to document every possible conscious and unconscious source for Coleridge's "Kubla Kahn."

Mind you, not just every denoted, conscious source, but all the unconscious sources from which the great work sprung. Similarly, of course, scholars have written a thousand books, monographs, articles that seek the source-like a poetic holy grail-that would open the "real meaning" of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry. Poets, as often, create spontaneously. Yes, they may be conscious of their craft. Yes, they may, themselves, plan and even research their poems and subjects. More so, however, the poems are the personal outpourings of their creator. In Hopkins case, much as he labored in his letters, to explain his sprung rhythms and linguistic inventions, his art was deeply personal.

Like so many poets, he wrote for himself, though he certainly explained his work for Bridges and others. As a general observation, authors write for themselves. They revise for others. This may seem a thoroughly modern view, in light of the sometimes rigid forms that ages of earlier poets followed. But for Hopkins, such a notion-of spontaneous emotion expressed in genuinely experimental language-could easily apply. Even if one attributes a highly calculated plan and process to Hopkins-one that could actually be decoded, as if with a Rosetta Stone, to reveal the true meaning of the poems-the very nature of language belies any scholarly attempts to assert a single "correct meaning" for the poems. Each of us uses even the simplest words in a unique way. The definition may be codified, but all our emotions, all our experiences, all the individual variables assure that each word committed to the page is only the poet's. The reader, however scholarly or sincere, can only theorize the meaning.

Thus, we are left to recreate the poem, within our own mind. The poem is born anew with each reading, and exists only within the connotative world of our mind. Just as the poet's own associations are forever embedded in the poem, we bring our unique use of the language into play when we read the poetry. And here, at last, is where Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) applies. If there is no wrong way to read a poem, and if, corollary to that, there is no one correct way to read a poem, we can only theorize what the words should mean. Therefore, somewhere between a few fixed definitions-what the words denote-and an infinite realm of connotations-all that each word might suggest to us-we could say we are at the same loggerhead as those who debate such things as the nature of light. How wonderful it would be, if we could read Hopkins' poems, infused as they are with his special light, and arrive at a meaning in the same way physicists have contemplated the nature of light itself.

This process of analysis, which could be applied to any interpretation of any poetry, could be called Quantum Poetic Dynamics (QPD), after the physicists' method of QED. And here's how it would work, but not without one further apology. Not infrequently, someone says to me, "I'm not an attorney..." To which I often interrupt with a heartfelt, "Thank the Lord." "I'm not an attorney," that person will say, "but..." and then, that person dispenses a complex legal interpretation worthy of a pleading before the Supreme Court. Well, I am certainly not a physicist trained in QED or particle research. I don't profess to hold more than a layman's understanding of QED, but I have devoted my life to poetry, which opens the mind to the most complex workings our existence. Here's what I understand of QED, with great thanks to Richard Feynman's lectures collected in his famous book, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.

Feynman tells us that "You [can't] compute anything beyond a certain accuracy (6)." Similarly, one can not, by the very nature of language, ever expect a definitive reading of a Hopkins' (or any other) poem. Rather, we can only explain things like light, or the meaning of a poem, according the probability of their occurrence or meaning. "'Quantum,' refers to this peculiar aspect of nature (5)," the suspension of our expectation that we can ever know something with certainty-like the meaning of a Hopkins' poem. The question of whether light consists of particles or waves of energy is akin to whether words have set definitions or are entirely fluid and changing.

Thus, when we look at a poem, we see its surface, as would be true when we look at how light strikes the surface of glass. The mind works through layers, whatever number of words, as light works its way through whatever thickness of glass. With light, we can put a counter beneath the glass to see how much light is reflected back from the surface and how much light penetrates. Each time the counter clicks, it is a proof, of a kind, that light consists of particles. With a poem, we can count on a "meaning" after we parse through however many words, proving for at least a moment that a Hopkins poem can be interpreted. However, as much as we may feel we are illuminated by the words of the poem when we have read all its words, we can't automatically assume the definitions will all pass through and produce the same focused meaning, for each reader.

Many words, after all, have many formal meanings. For instance, when Hopkins uses a word like "peace," there are a dozen definitions for just that word. (See Appendix V.) Thus, the light of his language is already bounced back to us by our having to contemplate so many agreed-upon possibilities for that seemingly simple word. And then, we haven't even considered the infinite number of connotations. Again, words are not just particles of language. They, like light, also create what seem like waves-of connotations for which we must account.

Be reassured, however, that while "nature permits us to calculate only probabilities (19)," physicists are still able to determine a highly predictable pattern for how light strikes and either reflects back from or penetrates the surface of a piece of glass. They do that by measuring how many particles of light penetrate a surface in a specific, if quite minute, interval of time. The "electrodynamics" of light, the pattern determined by these measurements, in fact, appears so regular as to be a wave-a regularly reoccurring set of numbers that are quite predictable. We are not so lucky with poetry, however.

A poem is a glass surface through which light-words-must pass. Words, like light, consist of particles-their definitions, which are agreed upon chunks of meaning which we can enumerate, as in a dictionary. We can, however, give only a partial list of connotations, as they will vary and multiply infinitely not just from person to person but even within the lifetime of a single person, whose experiences continue to change as that person uses and re-uses each word. Light, physicists have found, will pass through varying thicknesses of glass in a predictable way. All that critics, scholars, readers of poems, can say is that the poem must mean exactly, and only what it means at the moment that it is read.

Thus, we have the final rule of Quantum Poetic Dynamics: A poem only means what the reader thinks it means at that moment when the reader reads it. In all probability, it will have a distinctly different meaning from one reader to another, and even the same reader will have a different meaning for the poem when the poem is read again. This may seem to be a deconstructionist view-asserting that we can never interpret poetry or any literature. However, it is, instead, a genuine opportunity for the critic and the creative writer to reconcile, for it acknowledges that every critic, every reader, is no more or less than a creative writer who builds a new meaning out of the poetry each time it is read. It only remains, now, to apply the principle of QPD to a Hopkins poem. For this, I've selected the poem, "Peace."

APPENDIX I: The Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, "PEACE."

When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace will you, Peace?-I'll not play hypocrite To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting, wars, the death of it? O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.

The poem itself contains 109 words, 17 of which are "non-connotative" words (and, to, but, that, the, the, of, in, and, that, to, and, with, to , to, to, and) though it certainly can be argued that even these could bring to mind other suggestions than their "neutral" function as simple, syntactical "glue" between the words of substance. We are left with 92 words which have an infinitely large potential for connotations, particularly as they are juxtaposed in the phrases, lines, stanzas, and whole context of the poem.

[Note: For your reference, if you play the lottery and try to pick three numbers out of ten, there are one thousand possible combination. If you try the calculate the possible combinations for ninety-two words, each with five or ten definitions, the combinations are infinitely high! Thus, your odds of winning "Pick Three" are one in a thousand and just about impossible for finding the "real meaning" of a Hopkins poem.] One might argue, at this point, that we do not read in the manner I described above-imbuing each word with our personal connotations as we read it-but I believe that physiological studies do prove that the mind is an incredibly swift calculator, capable of recalling, considering, and selecting from vast stores of information in the tiniest fraction of a second. Indeed, that is why it was only with the advent of the most recent "super computers" that it was possible for a computer to beat a world chess master. Even now, because of the spontaneity and unpredictability of the human mind, computers are a poor second to the human capacity to create new thoughts.

Thus, in the mind of a man like Hopkins, who loved language, studied it, toyed with it, sought to re-invent it as his own, there is nearly no chance to read any of his poems as he might have intended us to read them, let alone as he, himself, would have thought of the meanings/words as he wrote them. While I spare you ninety-two drills, one per word in Hopkins' poem, that would allow me to come closer to my thoughts as I read it, I have attached a "Thirty Minute Drill" (See Appendix III.) which shows my own free associations-connotations-on the single word, "peace," which is the title and subject matter of a well-known Hopkins poem.

I will explicate the poem to demonstrate how, in a contemporary context, it still has a powerful meaning and message. The intention, therefore, is to set an example for those obsessed with "figuring out what it means." A poem is only words. The words are all we have. The words, by their very fluid nature, are constantly changing, and thus the meaning of any poem is created at the moment it is read. The lesson we learn from science, and QED more specifically, is that the meaning of a poem, like the nature of light and matter more generally, is always and only theoretical. It is "fluid," it is "dynamic," and it recharges each time we cue it up.

APPENDIX II: TWO DIFFERENT QPD INTERPRETATIONS OF "PEACE" 1. "Peace" is a love poem, a sexual yearning for vigorous, physical love. Peace is a piece, is a woman, a wild, untamed lover, a love dove who wants to have a love affair but is also hesitant, shy, thus flying around her lover, moving closer, but never allowing herself to rest under him. Thus, he voices his frustration, his own impatience, crying out for her "When when?" He, in turn, would like to think he could possess her, conquer her, but knows, ironically, because she makes him wait, she is in charge. She has come and so has he, but not as fully, uninhibitedly, wildly as he (and she) might yearn to climax and fulfill the act of love. Love is a battle, a war with our desires, just as climaxing was once thought to shorten one's life. Thus we would die a little with each climax-"the death of it." You'd think if lovers have to deny themselves, there would at least be something for them as compensation. At least the wait could be sweet, a tantalizing game of its own, if painful and the imagined act of love can also lead to climax.

It is all the sweeter when the wild/shy love does submit. Then, a man can really do his job. A man doesn't just do a feminine, passive job climaxing. Rather, he inseminates, begins his progeny, takes command. 2. "Peace" is a commentary on the need to end the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Peace, now is just an illusion, in a world where the United States has become an aggressor, a maker of "preventive wars." The title of the poem becomes a false promise for those who immediately know that there is no prospect of peace when war makes those in power so much money. "When will you ever," is the question most of us have given up asking, as it presumes there is an "ever."

Those who know how the war machine works, also know there can be no peace, even as Hopkins refers to it as a "wild wooddove," with "shy wings" to "shut." The same people who are bringing us war now also show no concern for nature-as represented by the wild wooddove. That which is wild, is there to be tamed or killed off. The same people who make wars, have a moral imperative to rule all of nature, quoting scripture to prove that man has dominion over all things in nature. A "wood" dove is just a token, not a living thing. If a dove is a symbol of peace, then it's woodiness is not really wild or even alive.

Peace, therefore, has no power or place of its own. Even its wings are "shy," weak, unwilling to do what they should. Those wings should shut, come to rest so that "your roaming round me end." But those who are in charge only give us a runaround. Roam as we may, we only go round and round and there is no peace, no end to the hostilities from which they profit. Rather, we may wish that we had peace "under be my boughs," but even as the biggest profits are being made in wars, we in the United States are being denied even safe "boughs" on which to rest. Our ability to own a home is dwindling. Our ability hold ourselves up is being eroded so that we have nothing under us. The American dream-our bough upon which we could rest and find peace-is being undercut. "When, when, Peace, will you, Peace?"

The very repetition of "When," with its breathy "wh," connotes our losing our strength and our breath. And so this interpretation could continue... Proof again, not that the words do not mean what they say, but that the meaning we attribute to any set of words (any poem) depends entirely on the path we set for ourselves as we recreate the poem, word by word, reading it at any moment, in any new place, within the context of that time and place. APPNDIX III: Thirty-minute free association, connotations of "peace." The premise: how many uses, associations, definitions, variations come to mind when one starts with the word "peace?" Peace; absence of war; quiet; peace pipe; pieces of eight; she's quite a piece; peaceful kingdom; peace in our time; peas porridge hot; pees his pants; peaceable kingdom; all we want is peace; give peace a chance; peace of mind; peas, my favorite vegetable; price of peace; broken to pieces; peace and harmony reign supreme; pissed off; pees his pants; peace of mind; peace plan; brokered peace; peace negotiations; peace talks; peace and quiet; peace man; V-sign; hippies want peace; peace instead of war; piece it together; piece by piece; piece of ass; piece of a puzzle; peaceful on the western front; please like me; peace requires work; blessed is the peacemaker; prince of peace; peace on earth goodwill to men; "peacafist" not pacifist; peacekeeper; justice of the peace; peace in our lifetime; peace dove; heavenly peace; pace in terra ; piece of turf; piece of pie; pie eyed; peace and love; pee self; pleaser; peace please; peace man; justice of the peace; peace for the weary; rest in peace; eternal peace; path to peace; final place of peace; piece of broken glass; cut to pieces; slashed to pieces; mended the pieces; peacenik; peace monger; peace negotiations; peas in a pod; princess and the peas; Des Egan's "Peace;" Hopkins' "Peace;" peace in the Middle East; peace on a bumper sticker; peace symbol; peaceful evening sky; false peace; awkward peace; enforced peace; piece of ass; forever hold your piece; peace plan; peas and carrots; Stop & Shop Peapod; peace song; a time for peace (turn turn turn); time piece; piece of music; price of peace; sold by the piece; give me some peace and quiet please; emotions went to pieces; practice what you preach; Miss America wants world peace; peace prize; Nobel Peace Prize; peace officer; piece together the clues; slipped him the piece; bang the piece went off; blown to pieces; itty bitty pieces; pieced together a lead; pistol packing mama; packing a piece; let me have some peace; price of peace; symbolic of peace; winged peace; peace and quiet; piece of music; peace is here. The result after thirty continuous minutes of typing: 111 discreet entries including homonyms.

APPENDIX IV: From the Hopkins' Concordance, Uses of "Peace." The word "peace" is used thirteen times in Hopkins' poetry: Then come who pine for peace or pleasure Penmaen Pool He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace; Duns Scotus's Oxford Peace Peace WHEN will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut, Peace When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I'll not play hypocrite Peace That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows Peace O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu Peace That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house Peace And he my peace my parting, sword and strife. To seem the stranger Source: http://www.dundee.ac.uk/english/wics/gmh/framconc.htm

APPENDIX V: Dictionary definitions of "Peace" Related phrases: justice of the peace peace of mind peace officer peace on earth breach of the peace war and peace peace river peace process peace now peace in the valley Definitions of peace on the Web:

Source: from a web dictionary (source: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&rls=RNWE,RNWE: 2005-8,RNWE:en&defl=en&q= define:peace&sa=X&oi=glossary_definition&ct=title) peace ( noun) 1 . stillness or silence 2 . absence of mental anxiety: peace of mind 3 . absence of war 4 . harmony between people or groups 5 . a treaty marking the end of a war 6 . law and order within a state: a breach of the peace 7 . at peace a . dead: the old lady is at peace now b . in a state of harmony or serenity 8 . hold or keep one's peace to keep silent 9 . keep the peace to maintain law and order [Latin pax ] Source hc_dict() Collins Essential English Dictionary 2nd Edition 2006 © HarperCollins Publishers 2004, 2006 APPENDIX VI: Exegesis and IsogesisDiscussing this paper with poet and Rabbi, Dr. Adam Fisher, he observed that this discussion is akin to debates among Biblical and Torah students. From his comments I went further to find and read more on approaches to Biblical scholarship and found the following interesting discussion in The Jewish Week. When studying scripture, many scholars] "were engaged in the endeavor of exegesis, which is to derive meaning out of Scripture, as opposed to isogesis, which is to read things into it. Nevertheless, every interpreter of Scripture brings unique assumptions to bear upon the text. These assumptions may derive from the historical milieu of the reader, or his or her personal training, personality or experiences. We all find meaning according to the specific prism through which we read. This can be a very positive phenomenon. The request v'ten helkenu b'Toratekha (grant us our share in Your Torah) has often been given the additional meaning, implying that every Jew, by a personal prism to the eternal Torah gains access to a unique layer of biblical interpretation, unavailable to any other reader. To deny the personal element would be to withhold from the world the fruits of each soul's encounter with Torah.

"But one person's isogesis is another's exegesis. When does an interpretation cease to be the message of the Torah and begin to be the message of the commentator imposed upon the Torah, with text becoming mere pretext If your method is exegesis, analyzing Hopkins to determine what he meant when he wrote-given all the minutia of his life, the milieu of his time-you will not be brought closer to the meaning of Hopkins. Rather, you will set yourself on a "collectors" course where one can never own the complete collection. There may be only so many of a particular kind of penny that was minted. You could collect one of each of them, each in gem condition. You would have completed your collector's task.  But it is impossible to collect all Hopkins had in mind-by the very nature of language itself, which changes even as we speak/write.  Thus one person's exegesis, inevitably, becomes another's isogesis, where a meaning is impressed on the work by the very critic who sought, however scientifically, to cure us of our subjectivity. Given the impossibility of the exegesist's task, this paper argues that we surrender completely to isogesis. Say that the words mean only whatever we think as we read them!

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 ||