Hopkins Lectures 2009

Hopkins's Influence on Heaney - the Poet as Craftsman

Brian Cosgrove Chair (Emeritus), Department of English, NUI Maynooth

I begin with two introductory points:
(1) The importance of Hopkins for Heaney:
In the interviews with Dennis O'Driscoll, Heaney refers at one point to the possible influence on his work of Robert Frost, then significantly adds: "But I don't think of him as genetically important to my voice - Hopkins was far more important " (O'Driscoll 454; italics added).
(2) Heaney's acute awareness, which he attributes to W.H. Auden, of "the double nature of poetry" ( GT 109), is recurrently evident in the 1986 T.S. Eliot Memorial lectures:

On the one hand there is poetry as "magical incantation", fundamentally "a matter of sound", associated with "an acoustic complex", and, on the other hand, poetry as "a matter of making wise and true meanings . the intelligent disposition and inquisition of human experience" (see GT 109).

We should perhaps emphasise in the latter quotation the word "making"; for "the double nature of poetry" may point to the possible tension between poetic spontaneity ("inspiration") and what we can call craft or craftsmanship (elsewhere in GT the opposition is couched in different but related terms, as a "problematic relation . between poetry as impulse and poetry as criticism of life": GT 169). For Heaney, the ideal balance is possibly to be found in Robert Lowell: of Lowell he observes that "His conviction that poetry could not be equated with craft did not diminish his respect for craft" ( GT 130).

But Heaney, try as he might to do justice to both sides of the duality he speaks of, seems finally to come down on the side of what, with reference to Auden, he calls the "enchantment" of poetry ( GT 122). Writing in 1986, the year in which he delivered the T.S. Eliot memorial lectures, Heaney's own prose really comes to life when he considers "that degree of imaginative access where we feel the poem as a gift arising or descending beyond the poet's control, where direct contact is established with the image-cellar, the dream-bank, the word-hoard ." ( GT 163).

When it comes to a choice between what the French poet Paul Valéry called les vers donnés and les vers calculés , Heaney's bias seems to favour the former rather than the latter, the poetry that arrives as an inspirational gift rather than the poetry consciously worked for. And when in the interviews with Dennis O'Driscoll - later still by some two decades than the T.S. Eliot Memorial lectures -- Heaney cites Valéry in this way, he goes on to associate les vers donnés not just with "inspiration" but with the need for "fewer revisions" (O'Driscoll 320). Inspired writing, in other words, trumps conscientious (or conscious and possibly contrived) re -writing.

Most explicitly of all, there is this exchange between O'D and SH:

[O'D]: Do you see "forcibleness" - Sir Philip Sidney's translation of the Greek energeia - as a litmus test of true poetry?

[SH]; It's certainly what sets the seal of inevitability on much of the best writing . The attribute that makes you feel the lines have been decreed, that there has been no fussy picking and choosing of words, but instead a surge of utterance. (O'Driscoll 365-66)

(3) The Central Argument:

It is within this general context that we should, retrospectively, consider the earlier lecture on Hopkins that Heaney delivered to the British Academy in 1974 as part of a series known as the Chattterton lectures on an English poet. And the question we have to ask is whether, even at this earlier stage, twelve years before the T.S. Eliot lectures, and some thirty-odd tears before the interviews with O'Driscoll, the Hopkins lecture might just reveal an IMPLICIT critique of Hopkins because of his undue reliance on craft - that same Hopkins, let us remind ourselves, with whom Heaney felt a strong affinity. In addition, the terms we have already encountered in Heaney's differentiation between the two sides in the "double nature of poetry" are at this earlier stage extended to encompass the binary of gender; for the distinction that is to some extent central to Heaney's argument is that between "feminine incubation" (correlative with spontaneous creativity) and "masculine forging" (a term related to the notion of conscious "making" or craft). Hopkins, as far as Heaney is concerned, is associated with "masculine forging".

There is no doubt that in this 1974 lecture Heaney sets out not just to explore but also to celebrate the nature of Hopkins's poetic achievement. Thus he feely acknowledges "the astounding richness of his music and the mimetic power of his language"; his verse, he adds, with a glance at Ben Jonson, is "rammed with life" ( Pre 85). But like Ben Jonson, and unlike Shakespeare, Hopkins according to Heaney believes that energy should be "kept leashed"; and Heaney adds that like Jonson Hopkins values "control, rule, revision ." (86). For with regard to "the double nature of poetry", Heaney seems to insist that Hopkins is to be firmly placed on the side of conscious craft rather than fluent creativity. Thus Heaney observes at one point, referring to the Hopkins poem "Heaven-Haven: A nun takes the veil ", that the "words are crafted together more than they are coaxed out of one another" (84). Craft in the lecture features predominantly as the masculine mode of poetic creation, with which Hopkins is associated; and the masculine mode implies "a labour of shaping" (88). Hopkins does not, it appears, provide us with what Heaney at one point (glancing at Shakespeare) calls "words coming safely and fluently towards us out of the uncharted waters of the unconscious" (80). For the masculine mode has to do with a " conscious quelling and control of the materials" and an emphasis on what Heaney calls "the muscle of sense " (88: italics added ). Or again in the kind of poetry that Hopkins writes there is, says Heaney, "a conscious push of the deliberating intelligence" (85). Even in the outstanding "The Wreck of Deutscland", everything is "designed and intended", and in a fine extension of this idea Heaney adds that the poetry "lives not only in its linguistic elements but in the poet's pre-verbal intention and intellection" (90). It is this aspect of Hopkins that leads Heaney to associate Hopkins more with an essentially "allegorical rather than symbolic " procedure (84).

The argument Heaney offers is, let it be acknowledged, dense and complex; and there are a number of qualifications of some of the qualities he apparently attributes to Hopkins. Thus while he associates Hopkins with rhetoric - "his use of language is disciplined by a philological and rhetorical passion" (85) - Heaney is at pains to insist that in the wonderful closing lines to the great sonnet "The Windhover", "this conclusion is not rhetoric in the pejorative sense, not the will doing the work of the imagination", but something of real imaginative substance (96: italics added). Moreover, Heaney makes an important connection between Hopkins's poetic procedures and his Christian beliefs: thus "the mastering, design-making rhetoric and fondling of detail" in Hopkins's work is the aesthetic manifestation of his "idea of the Creator himself as father and fondler" (and of course the idea of the Creator as source of ultimate design: 97). But it seems to me revealing that Hopkins should be associated in the lecture not with the divine Shakespeare, but with that poeta doctus , Ben Jonson; and indeed Hopkins is, for Heaney, a further instance of the poeta doctus .

The 1974 lecture reveals Heaney at his most passionately engaged, responding to Hopkins with a prose criticism that is, in its metaphoric richness, clearly the writing of a poet; and given the quality of that engagement there would appear to be a lot at stake in his need to come to terms with Hopkins. What it is necessary to emphasise here, however - given that our main focus is on Hopkins - is the extent to which Heaney's account of Hopkins seems valid. I have time in conclusion to do nothing more than raise some questions.

If Hopkins is indeed a craftsman rather than a fluent creator, does that mean that his poetry lacks a significant dimension? Are there times at least in Hopkins' poetry when the conscious or self-conscious use of language distracts from rather than articulates the meaning? For example, is the insistent alliteration, carefully crafted, a too obvious reminder of artifice? Or, to take a specific instance, is the opening sentence of "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo" verbally overloaded? Is the "laboriousness" and "strain" which Norman White finds in the first line of "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves" (and according to White justified by the poem's theme) entirely palatable to other readers? And, conversely, do we value some of the "terrible sonnets" so highly precisely because the pressure of the experience does not allow for the kind of verbal accumulation or indulgence in rhetorical ornamentation possibly evident in other Hopkins poems? To revert to Heaney's comment to Dennis O'Driscoll, are we in fact responding in our reading of "the terrible sonnets" not to a "fussy picking and choosing of words, but instead a surge of utterance"? For, in conclusion, are there times at least when Hopkins' obsession with craft may indeed lead to that "fussy picking and choosing of words"?


Seamus Heaney, "The Fire i' the Flint: Reflections on the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins" (1974 Chatterton Lecture on an English Poet); reprinted in Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (London: Faber and Faber, 1980: referenced as Pre ).

Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue (London: Faber and Faber, 1988; reprint 1989: referenced as GT ). All of the quotations from GT derive from the 1986 T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures included in that volume.

Dennis O'Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (London: Faber and Faber, 2008; referenced as O'Driscoll).

Norman White, Hopkins in Ireland (Dublin: University College Press, 2002).