Russell Murphy demonstrates that Hopkins in his life and poetry demonstrates that Catholicism is as a belief system that promulgates an aesthetics so inherently coherent that in it truth and beauty are indeed one and the same.
first published in Studies. An Irish Quarterly Review, 2 (1995): 173-80
An age that thinks that poets do not have to bother about the accuracy of their observations is automatically passing a dismissive judgement on the subjects with which poetry concerns itself. Passing such a judgement by suggesting that those matters are not important in any event except only,of course, as they matter for each of us as individuals. As far as the larger culture is concerned, ours is apparently an age that confuses truth, like science, with fact. As the accepted opinion would have it, individuals today may still require the palliatives of bons mots, but the culture requires facts, hard, fast and accurate. But if we can succeed in avoiding the current intellectual habit of confusing technology with science, then surely we must come to recognize, at the very least, that as much as it is true that the highest calling of human science must finally be toward an understanding of who we are and why we are what we are, then any endeavour which devotes its attention to those questions is a n endeavour of science, of extending the bounds of human knowing in demonstrable terms, and consequently among those endeavours must just as surely be works of poetic investigations into the relationships among things, and between things and humanity, and between creation and its creator.
I would hope that the connection between Gerard Manley Hopkins and the foregoing discussion, as general as it is, is clear to anyone familiar with the 19th century priest and poet's life and work. Indeed, I should think that I would be adding nothing at all to the body of scholarship and commentary that Gerard Manley Hopkins's relatively modest output has inspired when I say that he was, first and foremost, that most true sort of poet, in Rilke's terms, a professor of the five senses.Even the most cursory examination of Hopkins's notebooks and letters reveals, from his earliest youth, an acute observer of nature, obsessed with finding not just the right word but correct detailed observation as well. And yet, for all his painstaking devotedness to taking the precise and verbal and visual measure of the material universe, he was equally keen to express in words those matters that the senses cannot measure or weigh. I refer to spiritual or religious matters. Matter, that is to say, not of belief - for beliefs, like opinions, are all too readily available - but of the particular view of reality which a particular belief expresses.It is intriguing that at the heart of both endeavours for Hopkins was a conscious quest to understand the nature of beauty, and our capacity to perceive it, as an objective principle operating in the physical universe, and that the quest, for Hopkins, ended in the Roman Catholic Church.
I will be forgiven if, for the sake of brevity, I turn to other commentators to establish the general contours of this development. David A. Downes observes that following the chronology of Hopkins's intellectual development, the first awareness to take form was his philosophy of beauty . But the more Hopkins proceeded in that direction, the more he saw the need to work with and from absolute constructs - this required a belief in reality beyond the corruptible or the sensory. Downes continues:
Death in senses led him to see the need for spiritualization of the senses, which is to say, to search for the extension of consciousness beyond the natural, to find immortal beauty. It can be supposed that this lay behind Hopkins's religious development, eventually leading him to the priesthood within the Catholic Church.
James Finn Cotter, though he reverses the order, also finds a key link between Hopkins's spiritual development and his astute aesthetic awareness. He writes:
By education and temperament, Hopkins was religiously oriented, bent on a Christian trust and commitment. There is no question here of a purely natural development that later became spiritualized; his life was one from the start. "All thought is.... an effort and unity," [Hopkins] wrote [in "The Origin of Our Moral Ideas"] ... "It seems also that the desire for unity, for an ideal, is the only definition which will satisfy the historical phenomena of morality".
And yet, this effort is not to be a cold and calculating one of the intellect devoid of feeling, for Hopkins will also assert that finding beauty ... is almost synonymous with finding order, anywhere .
We ought to pay attention when someone is trying not only to discover the truth but to give it an accurate rendering in words and images, and all the more so when the truth one is attempting to discover concerns the nature of beauty. So, indeed, it is remarkable, particularly during a period that virtually spawns T.S. Eliot's famous dissociation of sensibilities, how much Hopkins's spiritual and intellectual growth and development coincide and harmonize, as it were, and they do so largely in his contemplation of and meditations on experiences which we can finally call aesthetic. Whether we believe that his spirituality led to his aestheticism or that his aestheticism led to his spirituality, the fact remains that both apparently led him to the Roman Catholic Church.
I believe that it should be apparent that that is so because the Catholic belief system satisfied the intellectual demands of his spiritual and aesthetic cravings and interests, which, in their turn, had spurred his restless intellect. The only satisfactory centre of salvation would be one that could respect and accommodate soul, and heart, and mind. If it is indeed true, as St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, says, that Man was created to praise, that praise is in finding a beauty, an order, that is perfect and is therefore the only beauty worthy of the effort to be found. Dun Scotus's not only confirms Hopkins's own notion of inscape, but also gives individuality a special value in both the perceiver and the perceived, because the ultimate expression of individuation is the soul in God.
These are not articles of faith any more or less than the haecceitas y are ideas; and therein must have been their appeal to Hopkins, for they legitimatized a natural impulse in him, the quest for beauty, without making that quest a vain pursuit. Rather, these religious and spiritual precepts gave an imprimatur to his aesthetics.
What I would like to propose now is that, using Hopkins's experience for our exemplar, there is a lesson for all of us to be found there and that is that Catholicism as a belief system promulgates an aesthetics so inherently coherent that in it truth and beauty are indeed one and the same. Those who think that I am proposing that the Catholic belief system is more true than any other belief system are misunderstanding. For the sake of our present argument, it need only be proved that it is only more absolutist - and that is the very point. It is.
So we see in Hopkins's intellectual and spiritual quest, as it is recounted in the poetry, the redemptive power of beauty inasmuch as it will lead the true seeker eventually from the thing created to the Creator, who is ever active as the binding force in His creation. The fire of Hopkins's Christ is a billion times told lovelier because it is both of infinitely greater value and because it is infinitely conscious of its greater value. Yet it is willing to endow the minutiae of its creation with hints of that immeasurable value. Those hints are called beauty, and the will is called love. In my title, I refer to the unrevealed Christ. I mean this in the sense of Christ who is not yet revealed in Scripture. Hopkins's aesthetics becomes discovering that undiscovered beauty and truth in creation.
It is this aesthetics which allows for the apparently easy commerce in Hopkins between the concrete and the abstract. It should go without saying that the beauty of a Hopkins sonnet is most often contingent on the breathtaking ease with which he traverses the otherwise apparently impassable infinitude between those two extremes of the transient and sensuous on the one hand, and, on the other, the transcendent and eternal.
Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! the poet exhorts us in The Starlight Night. The imperative is repeated four more times within the poem, a ringing, one dares say strident insistence to use our eyes to see, finally how this piece-bright paling shuts the spouse/Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows (27-28). By way of a contrast, "The Lantern out of Doors" moves from the observable - a lantern moves along the night - to an observation - Men go by me whom ... / / Death or distance soon consumes ... - to an insight relevant to belief whereby lantern and night simultaneously betoken both a poetic trope and a spiritual state that are both then further enlarged by virtue of their being expressed as indicative of a religious truth: Christ minds: Christ's interest... eyes them.. (28-29). This process, whereby the `dearest freshness deep down things' ("God's Grandeur" 27) of May-mess ... [and] March-bloom ("The Starlight Night" op.cit.) are rendered rich but by no means strange - this process allows the natural detail to stand out even when the process is reversed and we start, rather than conclude, with the sacred:
Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a branded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced ....
"Pied Beauty" 30 — 31
For All things counter, original, spare, strange are indeed harmonized, repeated, fulfilled, and made familiar, in this scheme of things, in God. This world of Hopkins, charged with the grandeur of [a] God )"God's Grandeur" op.cit.) whose beauty is [indeed] past change, casts out doubt by the sheer power of its own accumulated beauty impressed upon the perceiver:
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. "Hurrahing in Harvest" 31
And yet such an ecstasy, if that is what it is, is totally Christian for it is totally earthbound and unself-centred, wound up instead in the otherness of the trivial, the minutiae of the everyday and ordinary, as the grandeur of God is wound up not in the trappings of power and majesty but in those very selfsame simple things.
Thus, the windhover, whose flight betokens majesty and price - Brute beauty and valour and act - is dismissed in favour of a Saviour who, though presented with the attributes of royalty and nobility, is finally figured forth in the often overlooked humility of furrowed soil or an ashen ember ("The Windhover" 30). This conceptual pun on humus, betokening as it does in the dirt and ash both the inevitable decay to which the physical is subject and the humility whereby we chastise the spirit through the flesh and seek, in God, an enduring ineffable glory, must give us momentary pause, coming as it does at the end of a poem that finds itself opening with the speaker's breathtaking envy of a transient vainglory embodied in a mindless, soulless bird.
So finally, this Catholic aesthetics calls Hopkins to a view of the human that, like his view of nature, finds grace and beauty in the unlikeliest of places, in frail clay, nay but foul clay. The poem in question, "The Soldier", is a particularly telling one, for the poet, as it were, reveals his hand: all our so-called realities are really our heart's imaginings. So it is that we bless the soldier because the heart that fancies, feigns, deems, dears the artist after his art believes what it sees - must, in other words, trust appearances (or faintly trust the larger hope, as Tennyson so aptly puts it ["In Memoriam" 55.20]):
Since, proud, it calls the calling manly, gives a guess
That, hopes that, makes believe, the men must be no less...
The poem concludes with the rich and startling insight that, like the human heart, Christ, then, must do no less, seeing somewhere some man do all that man can do, than cry:
Were I come o'er again ... it should be this.("The Soldier" 60).
So, then, for the poet there is a truth, not a trope, that he is wooing when he calls the mystery of the Resurrection a heart's clarion:
... world's wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am,....
That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire....65— 66
Through the vitality of what I have called a Catholic aesthetics, Hopkins's is a poetic process that mimics, by and large, the power of the Incarnation — every thing or event in the created universe is, like Christ, both true God and true man, as it were, and thereby, like the Son who is the flesh-born tenor of this mystery, is as well one in being with the Father. The more indeed the thing observed is recognized for itself, the more in this transcendent process it is embued with, and speaks for, an infinitely greater value - in fact, eternal value - and, as a consequence, meaning - because to that degree it is recognized for itself, it is accepted for what it reveals of the unique truth that Christ embodies, who is, meanwhile, not an idea but the very foundation - him that present and past,/Heaven and earth are word of, worded by ... ("the Wreck" 22) — of the selfsame reality that is being bodied, worded forth in the object under observation.
Without the underpinnings of this very particular belief system, with its logical circularity, the poetry could not continue transmuting, as so much of Hopkins's poetry continuously does, not only the actions of life but the sense that we make of those actions, into the likeness of the ultimate mystery that is the Truth rendered knowable, through Christ, only in terms of Himself. Without Christ, we would have only, as it were, the experience but missed the meaning; Hopkins poetry stresses as much (so much so, indeed, that even the so-called Desolate Sonnets find their focus in Christ).
The sonnet "As kingfishers catch fire" reflects this poetic process and its underlying aesthetics so nearly perfectly, I shall round out my examination of Hopkins poetry with it before drawing some final conclusions. For all the unmitigated gorgeousness of its speech, the octet really only calls our attention to the things of this world in all the variegated and equally unmitigated gorgeousness of their individuated beings:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves - goes itself myself it speaks and spell,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
But nature is not a mere cacophony of selfhood, an infinite variety of disseveral stars; it manifests a unifying and moral principle, speaks, as it were, together His Name, even if only the human is privy to this greater Enunciation; and hence the point of the sestet:
I say more; the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is -
Christ — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
As kingfishers catch fire" 5
In his prose-verse essay "Three Academic Pieces", Wallace Stevens astutely identifies the three different kinds of metaphors, or resemblances, to be found in works of the imagination. There is first of all, of course, that resemblance that can be found between two or more parts of reality. Stevens is not attempting to be metaphysically obscure here; he means pretty much just what he seems to be saying; therefore, for example, to say a man is a dog, or is a rat, etc., is to make this first order of resemblances between the real and the real. Then Stevens identifies a second kind of resemblance — between something real and something imagined. His own example no doubt will suffice here better than any other: `between music', he says, `and whatever may be evoked by it'.
Finally, and this last constitutes a most intriguing insight on his part, he says that there are also resemblances between two imagined things; for example, `as when we say God is good, since the statement involves a resemblance between two concepts, a concept of God and a concept of goodness'. Stevens does not account for, nor need he, an aesthetics that does not conceive of God as an imagined thing; much of Hopkins's poetry does account for just such an aesthetics - not, I wish to emphasize, because it is what we call religious poetry, but because it is a poetry that emerges from an absolutist rather than a relativistic or positivistic approach toward the interaction of nature (Steven's `real things') and God - for Stevens an imagined thing, while for Hopkins, through Christ, God is what Teilhard de Chardin might call the hyper-real. So, then, we might use Stevens's next remarks as a way of appreciating the unique aesthetics that informs Hopkins's poetry. `We are not dealing with identity', Stevens continues. Both in nature and in metaphor identity is the vanishing-point of resemblance. After all, if a man's exact double entered a room, seated himself and spoke words that were in the man's mind, it would remain a resemblance . For Stevens, that is to say, two totally identical things are nevertheless different because they are not the same thing.
For Hopkins, all things, though different, are identical inasmuch as they are found in God through Christ. We must see, then, that for Hopkins there is only the resemblance of resemblances. Certainly his poetry testifies to this different or at least other way of seeing. What appear to be metaphors are in fact recognitions on his part of those rich and unique identities, inscapes, haecceitates, which all things, as each thing, share in Christ. This is an aesthetics whose most vital roots are found in that belief system called Roman Catholicism, since it remains, at least among Western European forms of Christianity, the only sacramental faith. But the idea here is larger than the concept of the Real Presence, if that is possible; the idea here is that God exists and that His existence is the only absolute fact of His creation. Hopkins's poetry mimics the dynamics of this relationship between God and creation I will conclude by emphasizing that I have been not attempting to prove that Hopkins, happily or unhappily, came to these conclusions himself; only that the direction of his aesthetic and spiritual life seem to have led him to the same place. The emphasis on finding Christ in nature in Hopkins is not as the result of a moral or religious or doctrinal impulse, although all those impulses may be involved as well; rather, it is the necessary fulfilment, the logical conclusion, of his own aesthetic sensibilities which could not be satisfied serving anything less than the temporal manifestations of an absolute beauty and an absolute truth.
An intelligent and inquisitive man, Hopkins turned to God in Christ.
The Wreck of the Deutschland (Ross Stuart Kilpatrick)
A Feminist Perspective on Gerard Manley Hopkins's Poetry (Lesley Higgins)
Influence of John Ruskin on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Hopkins and John Berryman (Gerry Murray)
Gerard Manley Hopkins and Saint Patrick
Gerard Manley Hopkins Archive 1987 - 2000