Hopkins Archive 1987 - 95

First published in Studies. An Irish Quarterly Review, 2 (1995)

Hopkins Poems in the Breviary

Robert V. Caro, SJ Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, USA

Inclusion of a number of Hopkins'poems in the breviary is an indication of their devotional appeal; of their potential for nurturing Christian prayer. This inclusion validates recent academic works.

The four-volume edition of The Liturgy of the Hours widely used in the United States incorporates in its poetry sections seven poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. These include his translation of St. Francis Xavier's 'O Deus Ego Amo Te' and 'The May Magnificat,' which, delightful as it is, Hopkins dismissed as simply an occasional poem (cf. Letter to Bridges qtd. in Poems 272). The remaining five poems, memorable sonnets chosen from Hopkins's mature work, include two of the nature sonnets written in Wales in 1877, two of the sonnets of desolation or so-called terrible sonnets written in Dublin in 1885, and another sonnet of desolation, 'Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord,' composed a few months before Hopkins's death in 1889.

Of these five sonnets, the last appears in all four volumes of The Liturgy of the Hours<. 'My Own Heart Let Me More Have Pity On' appears in three of the volumes. And the second of the terrible sonnets included in the breviary, 'I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark,' is found only in Volume One - for the winter seasons of Advent and Christmas. Of the two nature sonnets chosen for the breviary, 'God's Grandeur' appears in three volumes and 'Pied Beauty' in two. I take the inclusion of these poems in the breviary as an indication of their devotional appeal; that is, as a positive judgment of their potential for nurturing a Christian's prayer. Popular response of this kind validates such recent academic works as Mary Theresa Kyne's study of George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins as spiritual autobiographers (1992) and Rachel Salmon's 'Prayers of Praise and Prayers of Petition: Simultaneity in the Sonnet World of Gerard Manley Hopkins' (1984) . In viewing Hopkins's work as spiritual autobiography, Kyne does not attempt to correlate individual poems (particularly the terrible sonnets) with specific historical events in Hopkins's life. Rather, she understands the poems as recording the alternating consolations and desolations of Hopkins's journey toward God. This view does not deny that often there are external correlatives to these inward movements of the spirit, but it focuses on the movements themselves and not on the external history. Salmon's work, like Kyne's, employs paradigms of prayer and the spiritual life drawn from St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises and argues for a synchronic rather than linear classification of the nature sonnets and sonnets of desolation as, respectively, prayers of praise and prayers of petition. It is precisely this understanding of the poems that the breviary authenticates by putting them forward as examples of Hopkins's prayer and as models of prayer for other Christians.

Just as the inclusion of Hopkins's poems in the breviary confirms the approach of those who study them as expressions of prayer and inner movements of the spirit, so, in a complementary way, the insights of such scholars can enhance the significance of the poems for readers who turn to them primarily for their devotional appeal. In this regard, I have found Salmon's grouping of Hopkins's sonnets particularly helpful. Following her classification and elaborating her insights (themselves inspired by Louis L. Martz's 1954 work, The Poetry of Meditation) , I will analyze Hopkins's breviary sonnets as prayers of praise and prayers of petition. The discussion will be technical, but the fruit of it should be an enhanced appreciation of the prayerful elements at the heart of the five poems.Salmon turns away from a linear, biographical reading of the poems - diachronic mimesis - to propose instead a synchronic hermeneutic - 'one which views the [sonnets of nature and sonnets of desolation] as existing within a relationship of simultaneity that is not contingent upon the order in which they were composed' (384). A synchronic approach, in other words, views the two types of sonnets as expressive of two different but cyclically recurring 'moments' in the spiritual life; and that difference, according to Salmon, can be understood in terms of the distinct ways in which the two groups of poems reflect the Ignatian framework of meditation.In The Poetry of Meditation, Martz demonstrated a correlation between Ignatian meditation according to the three powers of the soul - memory/imagination, understanding, and will - and a threefold movement, which he calls composition, analysis, and colloquy, in the works of certain poets, like Hopkins, influenced by The Spiritual Exercises . Building on the work of Martz, Salmon reasons that the characteristics which distinguish Hopkins's nature sonnets from his sonnets of desolation correspond to the distinction in The Spiritual Exercises between affective contemplations on the life of Christ and the more ratiocinative meditations on sin, death, hell, etc. In either case, Salmon notes, the three powers of the soul come into play, although in different configurations (390). These configurations can be summarized as follows:


In contemplations on the life of Christ, as in the nature sonnets, the composition involves the memory/imagination in setting the scene or evoking a sense of place. Compare, for example, Ignatius's instruction to see 'in imagination the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem' (SE #112) with Hopkins's 'Look at the stars! . . .' (Poems #32) or 'I caught this morning morning's minion . . .' (Poems #36). In poems with this kind of composition, according to Salmon,

. . . memory functions . . . in reference to the past. What is re-composed in the composition of place is something which has already selved . . . . Hopkins makes every effort to capture this selving of otherness: imagery, sound, rhythm, and syntactical devices . . . seek to reproduce it synaesthetically. (391)

In ratiocinative meditation and the sonnets of desolation, on the other hand, the composition is not so much the memory of a past scene or the linguistic recreation of a pattern existing in nature as it is the imaginative projection of a soul, e.g., 'to see in imagination my soul as a prisoner in this corruptible body' (SE #47). Salmon explains how Hopkins applies this notion of memory as imagination of a futurible:

In the [nature sonnets] the 'I' appears as an eye perceiving and composing a scene. In the [sonnets of desolation] the 'I' is the scene or the place of action; not yet selved, it must compose itself within the poem. The composition of place thus becomes . . . the self-creation of the soul [or] . . . the inscape of a rejected self. (392, 394)


In Ignatian mental prayer the imaginative composition (whether the memory of something already known or the projection of what has not yet come to be) is the seedbed for intellectual analysis of the scene or mystery under consideration. In Hopkins's poetry based on this kind of prayer, Salmon sees the work of understanding reflected in different modes of language - representational in the baroque style of the nature sonnets and expressive in the plain style of the sonnets of desolation. Unlike the baroque language of the nature sonnets, 'which seeks to represent the inscapes of created things,' the plain style of the sonnets of desolation 'must carry out the act of creating an interior inscape' (Salmon 398). The struggle this implies is captured in the poems' less exuberant language.


The colloquy is the third part of a prayer or a poem inspired by Ignatian meditative practices. As acts of the will reflecting a speaker's state of soul, colloquies are typically directed to God or one of the saints but sometimes take the form of a dramatic exclamation or imperative addressed to the speaker himself. In Salmon's frame of reference, the colloquies in Hopkins's nature sonnets flow from the affective will (desire or spontaneous inclination toward an object); whereas, the colloquies in the sonnets of desolation flow from the elective will (free choice). In the nature sonnets, 'the soul spontaneously discovers itself in the things of the world at the same time that it discovers the presence of God in all creatures, including itself'; such a soul finds itself in consolation, and 'the affective will sings prayers of praise' (Salmon 399). In the sonnets of desolation, on the other hand, the speaker

construct[s] a placeless place between present and future - the place of the sigh or aspiration. . . . We catch the elective will in the very act which will establish a new affective will. It petitions God to free it; it prays for what may come to be. (400, 403)

The following table presents a handy schematic outline of Salmon's carefully reasoned classification of Hopkins's sonnets as prayers of praise and prayers of petition:

Prayers of Praise Prayers of Petition

Mode Of Prayer-Composition-Analysis-Colloquy Affective Contemplation evokes memory of a place or scenere-presentational; uses baroque styleflows from affective will Ratiocinative Meditationimaginative projection of emerging selfexpressive; uses plain styleflows from elective will.

In 'Prayers of Praise and Prayers of Petition: Simultaneity in the Sonnet World of Gerard Manley Hopkins' (Victorian Poetry 22 [1984]: 383-406), Rachel Salmon proposes a synchronic rather than a diachronic reading of the nature and terrible sonnets. Whereas a diachronic reading is linear, or biographical, and seeks to interpret the two groups of poems in terms of events in Hopkins's life, a synchronic reading sees the two groups of poems simply as different ways - corresponding to different modes of prayer in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises - of doing meditative poetry: different ways of 'selving'; different ways of aligning word and Word; different ways of finding God.

I will now offer an analysis and a commentary on two of the five sonnets by Hopkins included in the poetry section of the American Liturgy of the Hours.

Nature Sonnets: Prayers of Praise

Hopkins's two nature sonnets reproduced in the breviary can be illuminated by reading them in light of the patterns of Ignatian mental prayer as explained by Salmon. They follow these patterns with only one exception, which occurs in the beginning of 'God's Grandeur' (Poems #31). This poem does not seem to have originated, as Salmon's pattern for the composition in the nature sonnets would suggest it should have, in the memory of creatures seen or places visited, but rather in a composition by similitude - the simile in the second line comparing God's grandeur to an electrical charge flaming out 'like shining from shook foil.' In a letter to Robert Bridges of January 4, 1883, Hopkins indicates that the poem was written 'expressly for the image's sake.' He goes on to explain that he uses 'foil' in its sense of leaf or tinsel, and no other word whatever will give the effect I want. Shaken goldfoil gives off broad glares like sheet lightning and also, and this is true of nothing else, owing to its zigzag dents and creasings and network of small many cornered facets, a sort of fork lightning too. (Phillips 176) The simile which provides the poem's opening composition thus suggests a flash of lightning at once illuminating and energizing the world. As in the Ignatian explanation of a composition by similitude (cf. SE #47), Hopkins offers a second comparison, presumably engendered by its rhyme with the first (Phillips 176) and reinforcing its effect. In this second comparison, perhaps evocative of the pressing of olive oil or of the effusiveness and gladness associated with the oil 'falling over [Aaron's] beard' (Psalm 133:2), God's grandeur is said 'to gather to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed' (lines 3 — 4).

These rich and suggestive similitudes of a world charged with the power and beauty of God serve as the composition for Hopkins's reflections. They lead easily to the question, posed in line 4, which initiates the analytical part of his contemplation: 'Why do men then now not reck his rod?' That is, why do people not pay attention to the authority of God? Transposing this question into the language of The Spiritual Exercises, why does the creature turn away from the Creator? Why do people fail to recognize in the beauty of nature the glory of God? Why do men and women neglect to give God the praise, reverence, and service which are his due? No specific answer is given to these questions, but the poem seems to argue, as Norman MacKenzie points out, 'that disowning God leads to an abuse of nature' (65). Thus the second quatrain:

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. (lines 5-8)

The capacity to find God in nature - indeed, to be sensitive to refined feelings of any kind - has been sacrificed to the false gods of industrial progress. Instead of God's grandeur instressing the environment, all nature now 'wears man's smudge and shares man's smell.' The language of this quatrain - with its heavy repetition, its alliteration, its internal rhymes - exemplifies the representational mode which Salmon finds characteristic of the nature sonnets. Intellectual analysis and linguistic virtuosity coalesce as the sounds of the words mime or imitate the wearying, deadening effect of dehumanizing labour. The effect, however, is on man, not God. For in spite of man's abuse and disregard, 'nature is never spent' (line 9). The sestet is filled with hope and the promise brought by each new sunrise because, as at the primordial creation, 'the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings' (lines 13-14).

Although 'God's Grandeur' is not one of the poems Salmon analyzes, it perfectly illustrates her contention that in the nature sonnets 'the soul spontaneously discovers itself in the things of the world at the same time that it discovers the presence of God in all creatures'; the soul thus finds itself in a state of consolation, 'and the affective will sings prayers of praise' (339). This felt harmony with God and nature finds expression in the colloquy-like exclamations - 'Oh' and 'ah!' - of the poem's final tercet. What Peter Milward, S.J. has written in 'Exclamations in Hopkins's Poetry' finds specific application here; namely, that the enthusiasm which such expressions can convey is the outcome of that 'instress' or inner energy which the poet delighted to observe in things and in which he recognized the operation of the Holy Spirit. It is this recognition . . . that leads the poet to come out with exclamations, now sharp in intensity as 'Oh,' now flat in a sigh of satisfaction as 'Ah.' In either case, so long as there is a rising intonation in them, he uses them to express his underlying impulse 'to lift up heart, eyes' to 'that glory in the heavens' where he sees his Saviour. (118)

Sonnets of Desolation: Prayers of Petition

We can turn now to the three sonnets of desolation found in the breviary: 'I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark' (Poems #67), 'My Own Heart Let Me More Have Pity On' (Poems #69), and 'Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord' (Poems #74). Each of these poems, according to Salmon's classification, can be expected to follow the pattern of a ratiocinative meditation, in which the composition is typically an imaginative projection of the emerging self, the intellectual analysis expresses the self's inner struggle, and the colloquy flows from the elective will. In the sonnets of desolation, as in John Donne's Holy Sonnets, we have the sense of being spectators at a deeply personal interior drama. I will illustrate this in a discussion of 'I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark'.

In this sonnet, the 'I' seeking a sense of itself is a soul groping to find its way in the dark. The initial image, appropriately if ambiguously, is tactile. What does it mean to wake 'and feel the fell of dark' (line 1)? MacKenzie calls attention to at least five different meanings of this phrase, including the association of 'fell' with 'fall' and with the Latin word pellis used in the Vulgate Bible for the skins or hides which covered Adam and Eve at their expulsion from Paradise (181-2). This composing image thus suggests an emerging self now far removed from any prior (before-the-fall, before this present desolation) lighthearted innocence. It is a self who wakes to feel the weight of oppressive spiritual darkness - a darkness likened, in Salmon's phrase, to 'the smothering pelt of an unknown creature' (393). Yet the focus shifts in the next quatrain from this heavy, repulsive darkness to an image of the awful sound of silence as 'my lament' - the continuous outpouring of countless unanswered cries - is likened to 'dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away' (lines 6-8).

Who is this lonely, desolate self adrift from life's moorings?
I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste. (lines 9-10)

Images of touch, then of silence, now of taste vie with one another in stimulating the movements of understanding and will that are to be found in the analysis and colloquy of this meditation.By contrast with the stylistic virtuosity of the nature sonnets, the more restrained language of the desolate sonnets expresses the disoriented soul's struggle to understand itself anew - or at least, as in 'I Wake and Feel,' to make some sense of its desolation. The long dark night of the opening lines, both literal and symbolic and seemingly untouched by the light of God's grace, becomes even more anguishing in the second quatrain as the 'black hours we have spent / This night!' (lines 2-3) are recognized as the culmination of years of anguish; indeed, as having become a way of life whose countless cries receive no response (lines 6-8). Even so, desolation does not become despair: letters may be undelivered, yet God is not dead but absent. This glimmer of hope anticipates the poem's final phrase but does little meanwhile to offset the vile self-loathing of the poem's concluding tercets.

Even the resignation to 'God's most deep decree' (line 9) permitting the bitter taste of all that is himself - of all that his flesh and blood and bones might attempt to bring forth and does not palliate the speaker's spiritual suffering. If anything, it adds to his sense of being a victim and to the irony, already implicit in the imagery, of a soul nurtured on the Eucharist experiencing only gall and heartburn and finding its 'selfyeast' (line 12) a souring rather than leavening agent for the Kingdom of God (cf. Kyne 109-10). It occurs to him that those lost in hell, locked up in their unloved and unloving souls, are like the dull, sour lump of dough to which he compares himself, (lines 13-14) their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

This final phrase is telling. However much Hopkins's desolate soul is tempted to believe his self-misery approximates the suffering of the damned, he knows that, as long as he remains on this side of the chasm between temporal life and the eternity of hell, the worst is not yet. His phrase echoes Edgar's speech coming upon his blind father in King Lear, 'The worst is not / So long as we can say 'This is the worst'' (4.1. 27-8).

Hopkins's phrase, like Edgar's speech, is perhaps small consolation, but it is an emphatic expression of the refusal of the 'I' at the center of 'I Wake and Feel' to abandon hope. It is, in terms of Salmon's analysis of the meditative mode of the desolate sonnets, an act of the elective will - an act consistent with the earlier acceptance of 'God's most deep decree' and the realization that God ('dearest him') is not dead but 'lives alas! away' (line 8). Although this poem complains that cries to God are like 'dead letters' and although its colloquies are uttered to the speaker's own heart ('O what black hours we have spent / . . . what sights, you, heart, saw' [lines 2-3]), the language referring to God is affectionate and filled with longing (most poignantly in 'alas!'). These emotions reveal the prayer of petition - for a return of consolation, for the end of God's silence - lurking within the poem's outpouring of spiritual anguish.


The foregoing analysis of some of Hopkins's breviary poems is based on their structural correspondences with the three-fold division of Ignatian contemplations and meditations into composition, analysis, and colloquy. The different ways in which these structural divisions are realized in the nature sonnets and the desolate sonnets - prayers of praise and prayers of petition, in Salmon's terminology - reflect the alternating movements of consolation and desolation in the spiritual life. Yet in spite of their differences, both groups of Hopkins's poems exemplify, I believe, the simplest definition of prayer as the lifting up of mind and heart to God and thus justify their inclusion in the breviary as models of prayer and aids to devotion.


1. The Liturgy of the Hours. 4 vols. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1975.

2. Kyne, Mary Theresa, Country Parsons, Country Poets: George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins as Spiritual Autobiographers, Greensburg, PA: Eadmer Press, 1992 and Rachel Salmon, 'Prayers of Praise and Prayers of Petition: Simultaneity in the Sonnet World of Gerard Manley Hopkins' in Victorian Poetry 22, 1984, pp. 383 — 406.3.Martz, Louis L., The Poetry of Meditation, New Haven: Yale UP, 1954.

3. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Luis J. Puhl, Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1962.

One might include, although Salmon does not specifically mention them, the Ignatian meditations geared toward making an 'election'.Phillips, Catherine, ed. Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Letters, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.MacKenzie, Norman H. A Reader's Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981, p. 64.Milward, Peter, S.J. 'Exclamations in Hopkins's Poetr', Renascence, 42.

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Gerard Manley Hopkins Archive 1987 - 2000