Hopkins Lectures 2010











































Gerard Manley Hopkins and African Writers

George Elliott Clarke University of Toronto Canada

Gerard Manley Hopkins's African Sound is explored by African scholars - Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie and Ihechukwu Madubuike who suggest post-independence Nigerian rap poets, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo and John Pepper Clark are ineffectual imitators of Hopkins.

Scholars- Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike - in their tome, Toward the Decolonization of African Literature: Volume I, African Fiction and Poetry and Their Critics (1983), rap the first-generation, post-independence Nigerian poets as being "ineffectual imitators" (172, italics in the original).  In a section of their essay titled, "Unsuccessful Mimesis: The Hopkins Disease" (172-179), the trio of African literary critics accuse several Nigerian poets-principally Wole Soyinka (1934-), the "early" (173) Christopher Okigbo (1932-67), and John Pepper Clark (i) (1935-) - of botching their efforts to "imitate the euromodernist tradition" (172).  The debacles include the poets' deployment of "Hopkinisan syntactic jugglery, Poundian allusiveness and sprinkling of foreign phrases, and Eliotesque suppression of narrative and other logical linkages of the sort that creates obscurity." (173). Too, these Nigerian poets manqués are allegedly "addicted to Hopkinsian sprung rhythm" (173).  Though Chinweizu, Jemie, and Madubuike praise the late Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844—89) for the "energy and felicity" of his best verse, their polite applause, as it were, is cut short by the slap that Hopkins's worthy effusions only survive his "syntactic jugglery and word play" (173).  Accordingly, those Nigerian poets who display allegiance to Hopkins also adopt these faults:

an abundance of such Hopkinsian infelicities as atrocious punctuation,

word order deliberately scrambled to produce ambiguities, syntactic
jugglery with suppression of auxiliary verbs and articles,
the specious and contorted cadences of sprung rhythm,
the heavy use of alliterations and assonances within a line,
and the clichéd use of double and triple-barrelled neologisms.  (173)

Collectively, these mannerisms are condemned as "the Hopkins disease" (174, italics in the original).  Supposedly, its symptoms also number "prosaic" sentences chopped up "into metric lines," and the wanton use of invented, compound words (175-176).  But Chinweizu, Jemie, and Madubuike do not end their inquisition of their Nigerian, Too-Hopkinsian poets by cataloguing the aforementioned, bad writing practices-these samples of cant and can't-do.  Polemically, the critics charge that the bards "have chosen to resuscitate in Nigeria, and without amelioration, the worst aspects of this vestigial branch of the anglomodernist tradition" (175).  They add this apostrophe: 

"O Hopkins!  What strange roots your mangled ghost has sprouted in these distant African provinces of the bloody British empire!" (175) 

For Chinweizu, Jemie, and Madubuike, Hopkins's degrading influence means that Nigerian poets like Clark, Okigbo, and Soyinka craft mannered and obscure verse, saluted by deluded academics, but shunned-damned-by any wise Nigerian, secure in his or her own native, linguistic practices.

     To be clear, there is an element of anti-modernism or conservative nationalism in the critique of Hopkinsian, Nigerian verse that Chinweizu, Jemie, and Madubuike vent (and vend).  The scholars claim, "Traditional African poetry speaks a public language" (188).  Poets who render "cultic utterances," therefore, indulge in "senseless narcissism" or craft puzzles in a "privatist" manner (188).  In essence, they are unpatriotic.  Indeed, the commentators insist, "The devotion to artificial complexity and gratuitous obscurity is a legacy of the modernist poetry of the West and goes against the grain of African poetic tradition" (209).  So, down with "the obscurantist aims and deracinated habits of the Hopkinsian strand of euromodernist poetry" (209)!

     As fierce and as combative as the views of the self-described bolekaja (ii)  critics may be, the offender-poets have their defenders, such as John Haynes, who, circa 1987, despairs at the "tendency among some commentators to disparage Soyinka's work, especially his poetry . because of its alleged 'obscurity,' 'elitism,' 'irrelevance,' or 'eurocentricity'" (11).  Yet, Haynes's defence is paper-thin.  He asserts that, stylistic quibbles aside, Soyinka's work may yet be judged "useful" (22).

     Of course, the heart of the dispute between the natty-dread bolekaja-ists and Soyinka and Haynes, et al., is the question of whether any neutral assimilation of European icons, ideologies, techniques, and poetics is possible in (Black) Africa.  If some worthies idolize Anglo-Irish Hopkins, then, while others wish him crucified, such is the natural state of affairs in a post-colonial 'leaving' of ye olde Britannic Empire.  The Nigerian critics and poets who use Hopkins as whipping-post-or sounding-board-expound an "anxiety of influence" (to borrow an idea from Harold Bloom's 1973 tome) that positions him in antithetical ways.  He is either a minstrel-minion of Empress Victoria and her economy of dynamite and opium, or he is a mystical modernist born of the conjunction of Karl Marx and Florence Nightingale.  A fine, experimental stylist, faithful to literature and liturgy, his poetry may be lauded as the script of a cryptic and ecstatic Christian.  Yet, it may also be scorned as the opaque raving of a Nature enthusiast or as the naïve expression of a would-be, 'holy' communism.  Too, in an Africa intent on expelling the old colonial masters (and monsters), why should any nationalist poet subscribe to an involuted, seemingly convoluted scribe of poems sometimes so ethereal as to vanish into philosophic fog and sometimes so peculiar as to approach paganism?

     But to ask that question is to ask, simultaneously, what is African poetry in English, and is there room in it to listen to-to hear-an eccentric, unorthodox, English poet like Hopkins?  Or, we could ask, what is 'African' about Hopkins that makes it possible for him to be claimed by Anglo-African poets or by black poets in general?

     French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) permits us to ponder some answers.  In his "Orphée noire" introduction to editor Léopold Sédar Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgace de langue française (1948), Sartre canvasses the verse of decolonizing, Francophone blacks, and posits, "From Haiti to Cayenne," the poets share "a sole idea-to make manifest the black soul" (18).  Thus, as a corpus, "Negro poetry is evangelic, it comes bearing glad tidings-negritude is found again" (18).  So the Negro poet is a missionary, who "calls his brothers of color to take conscience of themselves [and who] seeks to present to them a model image of their negritude and [who] will plunge into his soul to extricate this image which he is seeking." (Sartre 17).  This descent-"plunge"-into the soul liberates and inspires:  "The first revolutionary will be the apostle of the black soul, the herald who will tear this negritude from himself to offer it to the world, a demi-prophet, . in brief a poet in the precise sense of the word 'vates'" (17).  The black poet who is conscious of his (or her) blackness ought to be, thinks Sartre, a de facto revolutionary (a renegade against 'white' concepts of order) and an agape exponent of fresh, social fervour-spiritual to the point of (progressive) politics.  Later, Sartre asks, "is one a Negro as the faithful of a religion is a believer.?" (58)  He concludes:  "Negritude is an iridescence of being and the duty to be; it makes you and you make it" (59).  The experience is akin to Christian salvation and bruiting the Gospel.

     Sartre's adoration of the Negro "being"-a selfhood wrung from nothingness or repression-echoes socialist romanticism (i.e. claptrap), but he does touch on an idea pertinent to the black reception of Hopkins:  The articulate quest for the soul-for soul feeling and being-is evangelical and radical.  Furthermore, this spirited search for the soul's sense of self (or the self's soul) may reform poetic diction and form.

In Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English (2000), John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford (his son) study African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) specifically.  However, their analysis does consider AAVE varieties that appear in Nova Scotia and Liberia, and so can be extended to black religious rhetoric generally.  In addition, their findings may apply to spirited, religious expressivity, say, of the Holy Roller sort.

Vitally, the Rickfords point out that the African-American "preacher must become a maestro of style" (40).  He (or she) must be able to engage such "rhetorical strategies" that include "innovative metaphors and similes; apt narratives and quotations; appropriate variation in voice quality, gesture, pace, pitch, and volume; and skillful deployment of alliteration, improvisation, humor, repetition, and rhyme" (40).  In his (or her) effort to tap his (or her) own soul and those of congregants, the black preacher's speech experiences a liberating, oracular transformation:  Grammatical rules are broken; limits of diction are transgressed; slang rubs up against Latin; one speaks in tongues; language dissolves into melismatic bliss.  Considering one pastor's language use, the Rickfords mark his "chanting of . phrases, . rich modulation of . voice, [his] variations in volume and tempo, . metrical beat, and [his] stress patterns and intonations [that] must be heard to be appreciated" (43).  To explicate the emotional power of such sermonizing, the Rickfords assert, "Only images and metaphors consistent with the ideologies and experiences of [African-American-or black] culture . are intimate enough to conjure [Holiness]" (44).  In other words, the passage of a pastor's preaching beyond simple, intellectual comprehension, or beyond superficial, immediate understanding, or beyond mere letters-and into Word or song, is what reveals the apocalyptic being-immanent presence-of God.

Canadian scholar Phil Roberts opines, "Our twenty-six-letter Roman alphabet is a crude way to record the sounds of our [standard English] speech" (109).  Given this insight, the Rickfords can only approximate, on paper, the cadence and strength of the sermons and songs they eavesdrop upon.  The problem, once again, is that mere alphabetization, mere literacy, cannot convey-or has difficulty vocalizing-the weird, verbal elasticity and inventive, outlaw grammar of incarnated ecstasy. Sayeth the Rickford père et fils, black pulpitry necessitates "abrupt starts and stops, bursts of acceleration that disrupt an otherwise plodding pace, and wild fluctuations in volume that come without warning" (48).  Arguably, it is precisely the difficulties of capturing such emotive speech and syntax that gives rise to the eccentric metre and swinging rhythm of-ahem-Hopkins..

To go further, the descriptions of black performance techniques, that is to say, the transcriptions of the preacherly means of transcending letters, apply, or can apply, to Hopkins.  Indeed, may we not consider Hopkins, not as a horrible, aberrant influence on Anglo-African poets, but as a Victorian discoverer of the kinds of pressures-intellectual, spiritual, and political-that post-colonial black and African poets also exert on The Queen's Own English?

Object that black nationalist and Afro Independence poetry has political aims that are absent from Hopkins-a poet who ogles ecology and blindsides economics, who sets Nature before naturalism:  He is thus irrelevant to African Diasporic discourse.  But not if we do for him what Sartre does for black poets; that is to say, to appreciate that poetry can transform Nature from presenting an environment of static beauty to being, instead, the locale of active soul-searching and Truth-seeking.  Sartre tells us:  "In concerning himself first with Nature, the white loses himself in losing it [i.e. in becoming urban and proletarian/capitalist]; in concerning himself first with himself, the Negro proposes to gain Nature in gaining himself" (43).  Hopkins resembles Sartre's idealized black poet:  He discovers Nature by fathoming himself.  W.H. Gardner holds that, "For Hopkins, poetic creation occurred when the poet's own nature (his own 'inscape') had been instressed by some complementary inscape discovered in external Nature" (xxiv).  If Sartre is right about the black poet's existentialist experience of Nature, it parallels Hopkins's Christian exploration of the same.

Roberts observes, "Irish missionaries introduced [the Roman alphabet] to England and began to use it for recording English speech-sounds." (109).  Ironically, then, just as these Irish priests were somewhat arbitrary in ascribing to words their spelling and to letters their sounds, so are post-colonial poets and orators just as quirky and creative in assigning to ancien régime English their own grammars, their own pronunciations and accents, and even their own unique glossaries.  Thus, they may look to Hopkins-an Anglo-Catholic missionary to the Irish-as an exemplary practitioner of pseudo-political, linguistic/poetic innovation.  If we frame Hopkins as a wanna-be black poet, then his formulation of "sprung rhythm" becomes, not a hobbling of smooth, glib, Tennysonian, imperial(ist) verse, but a kind of precursor to the blues singer's emotive stutter and mumble; likewise, inscape becomes a synonym for soul.

The Rickfords teach that black preachers indulge in verbal repetition (46), "Alliteration [which] is another 'sweet sound' rolling down from the black pulpit" (46), "the exploitation of rhyme . and the elongation of syllables" (48), "rhetorical questions" (51), all so as to produce language that "moves and moves and moves" (39).  Surely the Rickfords also describe here Hopkins's effects?  Certes, we must respect the Rickfords' exhortations and excitements when we read Gardner's almost embarrassed assessment of Hopkins:  "Sometimes his violent transposition, omission, or clotting of words gives the impression of a man trying to utter all his thoughts as once; and then, as [Robert] Bridges [1844-1930] said, 'emphasis seems to oust euphony'" (xxxv).  For the Rickfords, arguably, such criticism would invoke the black pastor-or any transported, convicted saint who feels the touch of Pentecostal fire.

Intriguingly, Gardner insists that Hopkins's "individualizing twists are too un-English to be pleasant." (xxxv).  Here the scholar echoes the usual, Ivory Tower critiques of black-authored poetry:  It's too loud, too outlandish, too clever, too versed in rhetoric, too bombastic, too outré, too euphonious, too oral, too oracular, et cetera, than canonical (and oft middling), Anglo-American verse. (iii)  Far from being an outlier of English poetry, then, it is Hopkins who provides an entrée, whose work announces that the black poet, the believing poet, the ex-colonial poet, the marginal poet, that any or all of us can forge a space for our voice(s) in the realm of English verse:  Nope, poetry doesn't need to sound like King-and-Queen to be sound, or to be poetry. Gardner claims that Hopkins "made greater use than any other English poet of alliteration, assonance, internal full- and half-rhyme, and those subtle vocalic scales which he called 'vowelling on' and 'vowelling off'" (xxxi-xxxii). (iv)  Though such exploits mark Hopkins as an extraordinary, English poet, they also serve to render him a recuperable model for black and African poets.

Then again, one can speculate that Hopkins, who saw an age of outsized oratory, Jack-the-Ripper yellow journalism and war scares, vaudeville and tent shows and religious revivals, must have heard-and, imaginably, did hear-barkers and mongers, Billingsgate and jabberwocky, and perhaps even the Fisk Jubilee Singers who toured England and Europe severally, between 1871 and 1878, thus transmitting Negro spirituals across the Atlantic.  (Might Hopkins also have attended blackface minstrel shows with their exuberant wit as well as comic, banjo plucking?)  One can wonder about such possible influences for the poet when one reads his "Hurrahing in Harvest" (31), so reminiscent of the Christmas ecstasy of Southern plantation corn-husking festivals; (v) or when one encounters "Pied Beauty" (30-31), which could also be the effusion of an 'overcome' black preacher.  "The Windhover" (30) also seems to anticipate the sermons of the True Great Emancipator, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68).

If the aforegoing speculation seems rash, listen to a recording of High Modernist American poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972) reciting his own verse.(vi)  His performance is nothing less than vaudeville-as corny as a carny-just rolling 'r's and boisterous theatricality.  But behind vaudeville is the minstrel show-jumpin Jim Crow and all that jazz (or "Shakespeherian Rag" [31], as T.S. Eliot [1888-1965] has it, in "The Waste Land" [1922].)  If black music and voices could influence the writing of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, as Shelley Fisher Fishkin wagers in Was Huck Black? (1994), could they not also touch Pound, who nicknamed Eliot "Ol' Possum" (a tribute straight outta Joel Chandler Harris's collected, African-American Dixie fables), as well as many other writers?  Perhaps Hopkins is merely the first proto-modern, British poet to reflect the influence of Africa, via America-as opposed to what the bolekaja critics testify is the reverse ….

Admittedly, influence is cyclical and not always easily detected.  Even so, it may be the case that, far from Hopkins's putrid remains, so to speak, poisoning the wellsprings of African verse in English, black voices (along with the Welsh and Chaucerian) may have influenced him to write, speak, and hear English in a different way-and thus to be recuperated, later, as the one British poet who sounds 'black'..

Let us consider his poetry, too, as a kind of 'dialect' verse. Arguably, poetic modernism (or innovation) only occurs when a fresh, written form of dialect makes nonsense of standard grammar and established 'rules.'  If so, Hopkins proved the most influential, Victorian Modernist because he was the most oral in his effects.

Assert the bolekaja scholars, the Nigerian "euromodernists . assiduously aped the practices of 20th-century European modernist poetry" (163), with Hopkins being their evident model.  But if Hopkins had an ear cocked to the trademarks and techniques of black oratory, then one has to wonder, just who is 'aping' whom?  Heard from this perspective, Messieurs Chinweizu, Jemie, and Madubuike, in savaging Soyinka, Okigbo, and Clark, et al., parrot white elitist attacks on Black English, the Black Church, and, for that matter, black poets, who supposedly represent more sound than sense, more braying than brains.

Then again, the self-appointed guardians of a particular canon, whatever it may be, view as suspect all poetry that chooses to foreground audible, linguistic difference.  So Robert Burns (1759-96), as the articulator of a Scottish register in imperial English letters, becomes the Scottish mascot of British imperialism-or the velvet brogue to the iron tongue of conquest ideology.  He is accepted warily into a canon that, already, is based in letters as opposed to speech or song (the consequence, thinks Roberts, of the development of London as "the centre of British publishing" and the location there of "the royal court" [109]).  Difficult it is to be open to the flux of voice, with all its subversive possibilities, ungovernable pronouncement of insult, indecipherable accent, and execrable slang, when the rule of commerce and the discipline of government (or empire) dictate codified speech (etiquette) and the letter of the law.  In these circumstances, the triumph of Burns meant a breach in the fortress of what could constitute proper sound in English poetry, and the triumph of Hopkins is similar. But his victorious entry into the canon proclaims also that it can be acceptable to so richly disarrange syntax that it secrets intense, concentrated, and sophisticated ideas in what is suddenly non-standard, English speech.

The bolekaja-ists are correct to castigate S. & O. & C. for assimilating Hopkins's example too obviously, or for not being respectful enough of Nigerian voices and rhetorical modes.  But the critics are wrong not to recognize the 'blackness' (or modernity) of Hopkins that makes him attractive to black and/or African poets.  But they are also wrong not to recognize that it is the quality and originality of his or her orality that renders a poet most modern (or most 'black') and, thus, a candidate whose presence on the margins of a canon, is unstable and destabilizing, unless said canon stretches its limits.  That is Hopkins's role, and that is the effect of his most effective disciples.

Works Cited

Abrahams, Roger D.  Singing the Master: The Emergence of African American Culture in the Plantation South.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.

Bloom, Harold.  The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry.  New York: Oxford
University Press, 1973.

Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike.  Toward the
Decolonization of African Literature: Volume I, African Fiction and Poetry and
Their Critics.  1980.  Washington, DC:  Howard University Press, 1983.

Eliot, T.S.  "The Waste Land."  1922.  In The Waste Land and Other Poems.  By T.S. Eliot.  London: Faber & Faber, 1972.  25-51.

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher.  Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Gardner, W.H.  Introduction.  Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose. Ed. W.H. Gardner.  1953.  Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984.  xiii-xxxvi.

Harris, Joel Chandler.  Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation.  1880.  New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1886.

Haynes, John.  African Poetry and the English Language.  London: Macmillan, 1987.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley.  "Hurrahing in Harvest."  Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose.  By Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Ed. W.H. Gardner.  1953.  Harmondsworth:
Penguin Books, 1984.  31.
-----.  "Pied Beauty."  In Gerard Manley Hopkins (1984): 30-31.
-----.  "The Windhover." In Gerard Manley Hopkins (1984): 30.

Pound, Ezra.  Ezra Pound Reads.  1960.  [New York]: HarperCollins Publishers-
Caedmon Audio, 2001.

Rickford, John Russell, and Russell John Rickford.  Spoken Soul: The Story of Black
English.  New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.

Roberts, Phil.  How Poetry Works.  Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1991, 2000.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1948. Black Orpheus. Trans. S.W. Allen.  Paris: Présence Africaine, 1976.

Senghor, Léopold, dir.  Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache.  Paris:
Presses Universitaires de France, 1948.


[i] Now known as John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo. [ii] Nigerian: Come down, let's fight! (Chinweizu, Jemie, and Madubuike, xii).

[iii] That's why anthologies of black poetry exist: Because we collectively bring to English a different sound, but one that makes Hopkins sound like us .

[iv] One wonders whether Gardner's then-teaching post at the University of Natal, in South Africa, amid the black rhetorical and musical universe that always impinged upon apartheid (mitigating its painfulness and mocking its pretentions), rendered him particularly able to hear Hopkins..

[v] See Roger D. Abrahams, Singing the Master: The Emergence of African American Culture in the Plantation South (1992).

{vi] 'See' Ezra Pound Reads (1960, 2001), an audiotape cassette, for examples of Pound's dramatic-or hammy-style.

Read more about The Dragon at the Gate by O Hare here

George Elliott Clarke is the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. Honours include the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award (2004), and the prestigious Trudeau Fellow Prize

Links to 2010 Hopkins Lectures

Wisdon of Cardinal Newman || The Wreck of the Deutchland || Epiphanies and Ecstasy in Hopkins Poetry || African Writers and Influence of Hopkins || Hopkins Musical Notation || Translating Pied Beauty into Finnish || Language