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Hopkins Lectures 2015


cJane Chilcott sees Gerard Manley Hopkins’s need to fall in love, to connect, with a landscape or wild creature as a means of displacing other desires, his struggles with his faith and with unspecified, but easily guessed at, temptations of the flesh and spirit.

“ Only Connect” – a natural anxiety in Hopkins’s poetry of landscape

Jane Chilcott ( BA Oxon )

While reading Helen Macdonald’s masterly “ H is for Hawk “, the Costa prizewinner last year and a must read if you haven’t already, I came across a few sentences that set me thinking about Gerard Manley Hopkins as a poet of nature and landscape, thoughts I would like to put before you today. In “H is for Hawk” Macdonald interweaves her own story of training a goshawk and dealing with the grief of losing her father with that of TH White, author of “The Once and Future King” and also of a less well known work, “The Goshawk”, in which he recounts his own failed attempts to tame a wild creature. White is described as

“ morose, determined to despair. A man whose life disturbed me. But a man too, who loved nature, who found it surprising, bewitching and endlessly novel….He was a complicated man, and an unhappy one. But he knew also that the world was full of simple miracles.”

She goes on to say

“ White wrote one of the saddest sentences I have ever read: ‘Falling in love is a desolating experience, but not when it is with a countryside. ' He had to displace his desires onto the landscape, that great, blank green field that cannot love you back, but cannot hurt you either.”

The resemblance to Gerard Manley Hopkins is uncanny, and the more I thought about this need to fall in love, to connect, with a landscape or wild creature as a means of displacing other desires, or “efforts to force emotion into theological or sectarian channels” as Robert Bridges says of Hopkins’s “affectations of metaphor”, the more I began to see how such an anxiety of connection is at the core of much of his poetry of landscape and nature. In ‘Howard’s End’ there is an often quoted passage about the deep human and creative urge to bring together the spiritual and animal sides of our nature, the id and the ego.

“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height…Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either….will die.”

EM Forster’s words are also uncannilyapposite for a nature loving Jesuit priest and poet, seeking continually to make this connection between the beast and the monk, or as Bridges describes it “the naked encounter of sensualism and asceticism” to bring about, in Hopkins’s case, the exaltation of human love which is Divine love. The urgent need to connect is a physical as well as intellectual one, and infuses the tone as well as the vocabulary of many of the poems. There is a breathless anxiety written into the pleas of “The Starlight Night

“Look at the stars! look,look up at the skies!….
Buy then! Bid then! -What? - Prayer,patience,alms,vows ….

and a desperate pleading in “Spring” to be able to hang on to the “juice” (a startlingly physical metaphor) and the “joy” of innocence

Have, get before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord,

In TH White’s book “England have my bones” there is an explanation of why he was so taken by a hawk.

“Independence – a state of being self-contained – is the only generosity, I thought, the only charity we can claim of a living creature….One could not say,watching a hawk: ‘I ought perhaps to do this for him.’

Therefore not only is he safe from me, but I am safe from him.” Hopkins responds in a very similar way in “The Windhover”, which begins with the words “I caught”, only to contradict itself: it is the uncatchability, the “brute beauty” of the wild bird which stirs his “heart in hiding” and is both lovely and dangerous precisely because it cannot be physically tamed or caught: beast and monk would remain in mutual isolation, safe from each other, were it not for the connection Hopkins draws between the falcon and Christ, the prose and the ultimate Passion, thus legitimising its brute beauty and taming it: making it safe by forcing it into a theological channel.

These “naked encounters” between the sensual and the ascetic sides of Hopkins’s nature are a constant source of anxiety in the poems. Like TH White he is bewitched by nature’s loveliness, and this spills out in the magical word painting of landscape in “Inversnaid”. I hope you’ll forgive me for reading this poem out loud to you, as I think it is Hopkins the landscape poet at his very best.


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 wind-puff bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wildness yet. “

"Wildness and wet “ indeed – Hopkins Unbound. At every turn our senses are bombarded with sights and sounds and smells, in a fashion that even Hopkins himself commented on

“ I opened and read some lines …it struck me aghast with a kind of raw nakedness and unmitigated violence I was unprepared for”: “Kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”, the world is “charged” with the grandeur of God, the thrush’s song

“ does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightenings to hear him sing”

This exuberance is one of the most attractive characteristics of the nature poems, but there is a continuous tension between sensual overload and the anxiety of the poet to channel and control this sensuality within the bounds of spirituality. As Bridges points out, the anxiety to connect the two can lead to affectation or at least a degree of awkwardness of metaphor, but it is a constant preoccupation of the poet: “I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes, Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour” Although the simple miracles of nature and landscape appear a safe blank canvas upon which to paint, the raw nakedness of Hopkins’s own displaced desires can cause alarm, and a distinct ambivalence towards the attractions of chaos and wildness can lead to a jarring note of piety as the poet pulls himself up short from time to time:

“ Lovely the wood, waters, meadows,combes,vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;
Only the inmate does not correspond:”

No wonder perhaps that in “Heaven-Haven: A Nun takes the Veil” sanctuary is sought from any unsettling onslaught to the senses from the natural world:

“I have asked to be Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.”

Helen Macdonald also has a great affinity with landscapes. She describes how they “bring an exhilarating,on-tiptoe sense that a deep revelation is at hand” and talks about the “presumption of organic connections to a landscape, a sense of belonging sanctified through an appeal to your own imagined lineage”.

Hopkins for his part sets out to describe a divine rather than human connection to landscape, a pure rather than an organic chemical reaction between observer and landscape, a sense of belonging to God rather than to humankind:

“These things,these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet”

If the landscape is a blank green field that cannot love you back, it can still act as a literal springboard to the love of God. “These things were here and but the beholder wanting….” Just as Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” could as easily be called “Intimations of Mortality”, so too does Hopkins reveal an anxiety about the permanence or impermanence of the world, which is both fathered forth by God and yet soured with sinning. Helen Macdonald puts it well: “ There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences.Losses. Things that were there and are no longer.” The poignancy of “Binsey Poplars” lies in the physical holes made in our landscape

“Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve/Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene.”

Landscape is thus a symbol of both what has always been there, and what has gone never to return, and this stress is never far below the surface in Hopkins’s depiction of it. Hopkins has documented his own personal struggles with his faith and with unspecified, but easily guessed at, temptations of the flesh and spirit. His landscape of the dark night of the soul is unique and terrifying…

“O the mind,mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

and the vicious circle of anxiety perfectly expressed -“this tormented mind with this tormented mind tormenting yet” A complicated man indeed and, as Catherine Phillips says in her introduction to a collection of his works, “That he experienced severe depression and anxiety is clear from all his writing” But as a Jesuit priest Hopkins would have died in the sure and certain hope of resurrection in the body: “Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound,when found at best, But unencumbered” Spirit and flesh, monk and beast, connected at last. “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.”