Hopkins Lectures 2014






Hopkins’ Hidden God: Inscape, Pascal and the Aesthetic Wager

R. Smart, Quinnipiac University

In order to keep this exploratory excursus within the presentation time limits, this paper will be a kind of thoughtful ramble, not unlike Hopkins’ meanderings through the Kildare countryside. I have in mind to triangulate three large areas of understanding: Hopkins’ maturing aesthetic, especially with regards to his notions of “inscape” and “instress.” The second element in my triangulation is the aesthetic theologism of Blaise Pascal, whose notion of a “hidden god” and our need to “wager” on his presence, I will argue, is very closely allied to Hopkins’ inscape, particularly after its realignment in the 20th century as a literary move by French critic Lucien Goldmann. Finally, I propose that our understanding of Hopkins’ work (and life?) might be expanded by a closer alignment of Hopkins’ aesthetic maturation with his spiritual search, and it seems to me that some success can be achieved in this endeavor by comparing Pascal’s search for certainty in a blinkered world with Hopkins’ similar search for God in his own art. When Hopkins’ work first drew the attention of American poets and critics—largely through the work of Yvor Winters and Hart Crane as I discussed last summer at this Festival, it produced pretty divided opinions, not only about the poetry itself, but about the aesthetic vision of the man who wrote it. Hart Crane saw a kindred soul in our lonely Jesuit poet, while Hopkins’ first major American critic—Yvor Winters—was very critical about the work, most especially about one of the most frequently cited poems by Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur.” “It is a curious poem,” Winters claims, “Yet the real theme of the poem is found in the first line of the sestet and, nothing is done with it” (63). After detailing the formal failure of the poem, Winters assesses the whole thing this way: “Hopkins’ method in general is to employ the landscape as an immediate motive for a feeling which is too great for it, and then to append the perfunctory moral as a kind of theoretic justification ” (63). Thus the poem is not only a failure in formal terms but it suffers from an immature application of moral or spiritual nostrums to cover up that failure. One can see why Crane’s friendship with Winters soured shortly after the latter introduced Crane to Hopkins’ poetry. Needless to say, I wish to disagree with Winter’s caustic assessment of Hopkins’ work, not just on formal grounds—where he is decidedly wrong, but also because I think he profoundly misunderstood the modernist aesthetic that drove the work. Hopkins asked of Winters as reader a largeness of understanding that was impossible for the American critic. The first clue for this serious misreading lies in Hopkins’ notions of “inscape” and “instress” and their part in Hopkins’ theory of poetic composition and sympathetic reading, so let’s begin there.

As the main terms of Hopkins’ aesthetic, “inscape” and “instress” are fairly vexed in modern usage, partly because of the paucity of systematic definition for both terms in Hopkins’ letters and journals. I think this is because their value as descriptors emerged from the work itself and did not precede his poetry. Some of the confusion comes from Hopkins himself, as in the following journal description in 1871 of a landscape excursion in Hampstead:

“On this walk I came to a cross road I had been at in the morning carrying it in another ‘running instress.’ I was surprised to recognize it and the moment I did it lost its present instress, breaking off from what had immediately gone before, . . .And what is this running instress, so independent of at least the immediate scape of the of the thing, which unmistakeably distinguishes and individualizes things? Not imposed outwards from the mind as for instance by melancholy or strong feeling: I easily distinguish that instress. I think it is this same running instress by which we identify or, better, test and refuse to identify with out various suggestions/ a thought which has just slipped from the mind at an interruption ” (White 199-200).

What is clear from the references in his letters to Bridges and others and from his journal entries is that “inscape” refers to the essential quality of an object or scene, separate from the engagement of the viewer. In the words of Norman White, “’Inscape’ made the qualities he [Hopkins] described originate with the object, rather than in his reactions, and ‘instress’ transferred the onlooker’s feelings to the object, freeing the onlooker from responsibility” (200). In an 1879 letter to Bridges, Hopkins addressed his application of the terms: “Design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling ‘inscape’ is what I above all aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer.”

One of Hopkins’ later admirers, American poet Denise Levertov, adopted the terms and redeployed them in a well-known essay from 1965 on organicity in poetic form. Using Hopkins as her touchstone, she defined the terms this way: “Gerard Manley Hopkins invented the word inscape to denote intrinsic form, the pattern of essential characteristics both in single objects and (what is more interesting) in objects in a state of relation to each other; and the word instress to denote the experiencing of the perception of inscape, the apperception of inscape” (420). Levertov caught the intensity of experience that Hopkins’ intended in his use of these terms, suggesting that seeing the world this way, this intensely moves the poet to “be brought to speech,” and that is the starting point for the poem itself. There is a certain fluidity to these terms, certainly, but we can discern in Hopkins’ words an attempt to free what the eye and the mind see from the personality of the viewer, and once the emotions and personality of the viewer engage what is seen discretely, the dynamic result is what he calls “instress” or “running instress.” If we push this notion a bit harder, we can see in it an attempt to systematize or at least to name the creative process of the poet or artist and then place it in the service of God’s glory. That after all is the chief aim of art, even dark and terrible art, for through art we are allowed to contemplate and understand the grandeur of God’s creation. The concept of “instress” traces the artist’s aesthetic engagement with this creation and thus becomes a chief element of faith, something we can discern in some of the poems that are most often enlisted in a catalog of instances of inscape, poems like “The Windhover.”

In both the journal entries and in poems like “The Windhover,” the operative verb in the perceptual field is “caught,” in the sense of an irresistible something glimpsed or perceived almost accidentally: “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king- dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing In his ecstasy!” The poem collects the elements of surprise, wonder and discernment together in this expression of divine love and faith. What was not perceivable before the single image of the kestrel was “caught” by the persona becomes clearer and clearer as the broader visual elements of the poem are described: “then off, off forth on swing, As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.” The inscape shifts significantly at “My heart in hiding” into instress, revealing the powerful, parallel movements in the sky and within the heart of the persona. Then in the final stanza, the two merge, inscape and instress, and become revelation, “No wonder of it.” Word, sound, vision and emotion meld into poetry, what Denise Levertov describes in the poetic process as being “brought to speech.”

This complex phenomenological interaction seems to me to share something crucial and essential with Blaise Pascal’s notion of a “hidden god,” an elusive being unattainable, unknowable either through the efforts of the mind or through careful observation of nature. Before tracing the links between Hopkins’ aesthetic and spiritual understanding and Pascal’s theological musing, it’s important to note that Pascal was a 17th Century believer in Jansenism, a primarily French religious school that veered dangerously close to Calvinism in its belief in predestination and in the necessity of God’s grace for salvation. Not everyone, in short, could count on being saved. For Pascal, this set of beliefs provided the occasion for some provocative explorations into the nature of faith under such discouraging circumstances.

At the risk of oversimplification, let me summarize Pascal’s argument thus: in his posthumously published masterpiece Pensees, Pascal explored systematically (he was famous during his lifetime as a mathematical prodigy and influential scientist) the dilemmas that face Christians living in a world that offers few empirical proofs for the existence of God. To resolve the dilemma between faith and disbelief for humans living in a trying world, Pascal advised that we rely upon what has survived as “Pascal’s wager,” a bet on the existence of a hidden God. The result of this existential act is a small bit of certainty in the midst of incertitude, a comfort for the finite mind of man caught in an infinite universe which does not provide answers to our most basic and essential questions about God, faith and fate. We can also choose to not believe, to wager on the fact that God does not exist and so does not demand anything from us, but the despair that this choice engenders is unendurable.

Pascal’s theological argument was “translated” into a code for literary production by the French structuralist critic Lucien Goldmann in his seminal work The Hidden God: a study of tragic vision in the Pensees of Pascal and the tragedies of Racine (1964) . The theoretical knot that Goldmann sought to untie was the question of how does an individual author—like Racine—working in a generation of other French writers retain and assert his individual genius on his work? His fellow structuralists and Marxist critics argued formulaically that “genius” was a category of literary study that could be explained by examining cultural contexts, the history of literary genres and socio-economic, historical moments. For Goldmann, however, “no psychological study can account for the fact that Racine wrote precisely the dramas and tragedies that he did and explain why he could not . . . write the plays of Corneille and Moliere” (157-158).

Goldmann argued that the interpretive contexts of structuralism and Marxism were not sufficient, that above all the formulas and contexts lay something more personal, a wager, something expressed by his Marxist colleague, J.P. Sartre: “In What is Literature?, Sartre wrote, “Each phrase [in literature] is a wager, a risk assumed ” (B14). This wager, derived from his reading of Pascal, was the source of literary genius, the individual character of a Racine, for example, as opposed to his contemporaries. My argument is that we can learn something about Hopkins’ aesthetic journey by seeing it too as a kind of wager: the intrinsic quality of “inscape” suggests that it is a kind of private gamble, a bet on the existence of God that is repaid in the momentary perception of the essential divinity of the world as it is “caught” by the poet (in this case) in his search for faith and truth. For Hopkins, this is not a private affirmation, but something that emerges from an open engagement with the world. In a late discussion of the term, from an 1886 letter, Hopkins offered the following adjustment to his initial descriptions: “The essential and only lasting thing left out—what I call inscape, that is species or individually-distinctive beauty of style .” The sense we discover in some of Hopkins’ poetry while he was in residence in Ireland regarding the drying up of his creative power argues that his poetic insight was never something he could summon or call up at will. Consider the darkness of “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day,” an unpublished poem from about 1885: I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me; Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse. Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see The lost are like this, and their scourge to be As I am mine, their sweating selves, but worse. It’s not difficult to perceive in these desperate lines not only Hopkins’ frustration with the poetic process but something akin to the crises addressed by Pascal in his Pensees. When God appears to have abandoned man, leaving him bereft and barren, where does one find evidence to the contrary, how does one attain faith? Poetically, Hopkins’ crisis is expressed through his fear that his creative source is drying up, leaving him bereft, despairing. As Hopkins himself acknowledges in “To R.B.,” we wager our existence on God’s transcendence, his grandeur, which then replenishes the creative well:

THE FINE delight that fathers thought; the strong
Spur, live and lancing like the blowpipe flame,
Breathes once and, quenchèd faster than it came,
Leaves yet the mind a mother of immortal song.
Nine months she then, nay years, nine years she long
Within her wears, bears, cares and moulds the same:
The widow of an insight lost she lives, with aim
Now known and hand at work now never wrong.
  Sweet fire the sire of muse, my soul needs this;
I want the one rapture of an inspiration.
O then if in my lagging lines you miss
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.

In the final sestet of this intimate sonnet, we sense Hopkins’ turn away from despair, away from being distraught at the exhaustion of his creative Muse: “I want” dominates the movement of this sestet, and it ends with an acknowledgement that wagering, willing it almost, on the grace of God has returned the poet’s “bliss.” So, what can this rereading of Hopkins’ aesthetic offer to us moderns as a useful way to read his poetry? Let’s return briefly to the poem that gave Yvor Winters such trouble seven decades ago, “God’s Grandeur.”

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

    And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.


And for all this, nature is never spent;

    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


In Yvor Winters’ reading of the poem, he compares it unfavorably to work by Donne and Herbert, whom Winters feels Hopkins most resembles. Winters claims that Hopkins’ poem is “shoddy,” both in terms of its formal characteristics as a sonnet and in terms of the language adapted by Hopkins, which Winters finds to be “ungrammatical” and “inexact.” Finally, Winters dismisses the poem by suggesting that “as so often happens, Hopkins is unable to rise to his occasion and he relies on violent assertiveness and violent rhythm to carry him over his chasms” (62-63). I would argue that once framed within the hidden god/poetic wager argument, the poem reveals a much greater integrity matched to a much deeper and moving insight about God and man in nature and in the world.

First, the opening of the sonnet notes the surprising presence of God, whose grandeur blazes like shook (gold) foil and sustains like oil from crushing olives (Norman MacKenzie’s preferred reading) or the crush that produces petroleum. Either way, with this latter image we slip closer and closer to man’s world and the degradation of God’s creation that accompanies the toil of humans: words like “seared, bleared, smeared” and “smudged” highlight this blight which is caused by our ignorance of the hidden grandeur of the Creator (“reck his rod”). Through this dirt and blight, the persona reaches toward Nature and the divine sustenance that it offers us as humans when we ourselves reach toward it. The important elements of this part of the poem are that this divine grandeur is hidden (“deep down things,” “black West”) and must be affirmed by us. The result of this wager, of this affirmation that transcends the dinge of human society, human habitation, is a kind of rebirth, driven by the “morning” brought to us by the transcendence of the Holy Ghost, leading to the brief, personal epiphany of the last line, “ah! bright wings.” To briefly return to Denise Levertov’s lovely expansion of Hopkins’ aesthetic, the poet is thus “brought to speech.”

So, where the landmarks of man’s work might suggest that God has abandoned his creation, the opposite is affirmed by the poem. Where we might be discouraged from finding God’s hand and handiwork around us, Hopkins offers us affirmation in the inscape of the final 3 lines of the sestet. This is where the hidden god of the poem emerges, caught by the poet’s wager. This is most clearly not a poem by a poet “unable to rise to his occasion.”


1. Yvor Winters, “The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, II” The Hudson Review, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 1949), pp. 61-93.

2. Norman White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

3. Denise Levertov, “Some Notes on Organic Form,” Poetry. Vol. 106, No. 6 (September 1965), pp. 420-425. Levertov’s redeployment of Hopkins’ terms is worth reviewing not only for the clarity it brought to the work, but for the way that she uses the concepts of inscape and instress to describe and follow the poet’s work in crafting a poem.

4. Lucien Goldmann, The Hidden God: a study of tragic vision in the Pensees of Pascal and the tragedies of Racine. Trans. Philip Thody. London: Routledge, 1964.

5. Charles Johnson, “The Truth-Telling Power of Fiction,” in The Chronicle Review, Vol, LX, No. 14 (December 6, 2013), pp. B14-B16.

6. http://hopkinsiana.blogspot.com/2012/03/inscape-outscape-and-instress.html (Accessed 2 June 2014).

Biographical Note

robert_smartRobert Smart is the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English at Quinnipiac University, where he teaches advanced writing, Irish and Gothic Studies courses. Smart is the founding editor of The Writing Teacher (National Poetry Foundation), co-editor of Direct From the Disciplines (Heinemann, Boynton-Cook 2006), and author of The Nonfiction Novel (UPA 1984). He has published on Irish and Gothic Studies in several anthologies, and in Postcolonial Text. His most recent publication, Black Roads: The Famine in Irish Literature will be forthcoming from Cork University Press in October 2015.


Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins| Baudelaire, Hopkins and Egan | Desiderata | Hopkins Sermons : Bruno Gaurier | Re-Reading The Wreck |