An exploration of patterns of creativity and the poetic impulse in Hopkins' poetry at Gerard Manley Hopkins Festival
These broken sentences, with their call to some neo-Platonic or Romantic 'Fancy', express Hopkins's desire both for inspiration and for appropriate expression, yet tell little about how his creativity functions. Their breathlessness is fitting, but the lines are not overly clear.
More explicit is the poem 'Thou Art Indeed Just', dated March 17, 1889. As he looks at the leaves, plants, and nests of spring, Hopkins grieves over his lost inspiration, and imagines creativity in terms of such nature-images as building, breeding, waking, and growing:
'birds build - but not I build'; I 'strain, / Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes'; I need 'rain' for 'my roots'.
Creativity here resembles nature's fertility and growth. The poem also recognizes the divine roots of poetic inspiration, praying to God, 'my friend', for renewed creativity (PW 201).
Even more explicit - and surprisingly detailed - is Hopkins' final poem 'To R.B.'. A poem on poetry, it investigates the poetic impulse, first describing the impetus, or inspiration, for a poem:
The fine delight that fathers thought; the strong
Spur, live and lancing like the blowpipe flame,
breathes once and, quenched faster than it came,
Leaves yet the mind a mother of immortal song.
A poem, writes Hopkins, begins with an inspiration or stimulus - a 'fine delight', a 'strong/spur', a 'sweet fire', a 'rapture' - that is dangerously brief and fragile: it 'breathes' just 'once' and can be quickly 'quenched'. Yet if inspiration is effective, it resembles a fertilizing 'father' who engenders in the gestating 'mother' - the 'mind' - a poem-child which is both 'thought' and 'song'. The poem then needs time and nurture to develop its final form; as in the nine-month gestation of a child, the poet 'wears, bears, cares' for - even 'combs' - his song-child, and shapes the work with a hand 'now never wrong'.
The resulting poem is immortal, and flows like music: 'the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation' . This very process, however, may fail in its attempt to conceive (a 'winter world') or may produce an imperfect child (of 'lagging lines'). But when successful, the process is as natural, organic, and fruitful as human gestation and childbirth (PW 204). Hopkins's understanding of creativity, as expressed in this poem, shows four distinct stages: a pulsing, passionate, yet chancy and fragile, push towards conception;
conception of a poem in the 'mind', already involving 'thought' and 'song' - i.e., involving content/tone, and sound/rhythm;
slow growth requiring both nature and craft, as the poet simultaneously lets his work develop and actively forms it; and a completed poem which flows with song-like unity of thought and sound. Poetic creation is thus as natural and organic as earth's fertility and growth in spring ('Thou art indeed just') or as the conception and growth of a foetus ('To R.B.').
'To R.B.' is a surprisingly explicit - and highly sexual - description of Hopkins' poetic creativity. To complete his description, his letters offer further images and comments about his understanding of poetic creativity.
In presenting these, I follow the four-part process delineated in 'To R.B.'
Emotion, Hopkins wrote, is the prime push or stimulus: 'feeling, love in particular, is the great moving power and spring of verse' (LB66). There are also other 'causes, physical generally, as good health or state of the air or, prosaic as it is, length of time after a meal' (LD216).
Pain can also be effective: in 1885, 'four [sonnets] . . . came like inspirations unbidden and against my will' (LB221). The stimulus need not be spontaneous; the request for a poem 'written to order' (LB292) can engender a creative spark, as in the sonnet 'In honour of St Alphonsus Rodriguez' . A single stimulus may even produce twin poems: 'Harry Ploughman' and 'Tom's Garland', Hopkins writes, 'have also too much resemblance to each other'; but they were conceived at the same time' . Circumstances also affect his creativity. Being 'tired' or 'jaded' is an obstacle (LB178,183; PW186). Leisure, freedom, walks in the country, and fine weather actively help him: 'one windy bright day between floods last week . . . I put work aside and went out for the day, and conceived a sonnet' (LB136; LD157).
2. Conception: The Act of Creation
In describing the moment of creation, Hopkins used varied - often unexpected - images: 'our wits jump!'(LB38); 'my vein began to flow'(LB136,178); 'glowing thoughts and lines'(LB136); 'the fresh heat of composition(LB137); '"the first sprightly runnings"'(quoting Dryden)(LB146); 'I . . . conceived a sonnet'(LD157); 'to beget'(LB222); a 'jet'(LB270); 'a bright light'(LB348); 'a mood of great, abnormal in fact, mental acuteness'(LD216).
Notably original is the phrase 'one's first verjuice' (LB146), which catches in word and image the freshness of spring - 'ver', in Latin. A trained Classicist, Hopkins also reverts to the traditional 'Muse': 'Wales [is] . . . a mother of Muses'(LB227), while a Liverpool poem had 'merit in it but little Muse'(LD33).
The first moment - the act - of creation is both important and fragile. It enjoys an initial 'freshness', which can be lost by recasting (LB164). And the brightness - and words - of the moment easily disappear; one night in 1881, Hopkins wrote, 'I had some glowing thoughts and lines, but I did not put them down and I fear they may fade' (LB136). Sometimes inspiration fits a particular form or length: 'I have had no inspiration of longer jet than makes a sonnet'(LB270). The moment of creation can also urge a rhythm: the 'portrait of two beautiful young persons, a brother and sister, . . . . so much struck me that I began an elegy in Gray's metre'(LD150).
Like a child, the poem quickly passes from conception to gestation. Sometimes the period is brief: 'the Hurrahing Sonnet was the outcome of half an hour of extreme enthusiasm'(LB56). At other times Hopkins needs more time and sets 'two sonnets soaking'(LB73). Longer poems grow slowly: 'we compose fragmentarily'(LB218), and though 'equal to the more stirring and critical parts of the action, . . . about the filling in and minor parts I am not sure how far my powers will go'(LB92). His subject may even work against poetic quality: 'the highest subjects are not those on which it is easy to reach one's highest'(LB179).
During gestation, Hopkins is conscious of rhythm. For 'The Wreck', 'I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realised on paper'(LD14). Sixteen months later he 'composed two sonnets with rhythmical experiments'(LB38). Rhythm can correlate with intensity: 'As the feeling rises the rhythm becomes freer and more spring'(LB212). As for language, Hopkins takes delight in creating new words: 'I have invented a number of new words; I cannot do without them' .
In working on a poem, he writes, 'design, pattern or what I call "inscape" is what I above all aim at'(LB66). but forging a design is difficult, like shaping metal on an anvil: 'a sonnet is hot on the anvil and wants the coda'. Design itself - here, the need for a coda - can force Hopkins to break tradition: 'it is the only time I have felt forced to exceed the beaten bounds'(LB263). For his rhyming, the initial rhyme-word is generally determinative: 'the first rhyme . . . presumably . . . engendered the others'(LB 169).
Hopkins sometimes composes a poem in his head before writing it down: in Dublin in 1887, "such verse as I do compose is oral, made away from paper, and I put it down with repugnance'(FL379). In 1888 at least part of the sonnet 'In honour of St Alphonsus Rodriguez' 'was made out of doors in the Phoenix Park with my mind's eye on the first presentment of the thought'(LB297).
In good time, Hopkins took up his broad-nibbed pen to put thought, rhythm, and sound on paper. Such creation was hard work. In 1881, he was 'sometimes surprised at myself how slow and laborious a thing verse is to me', adding that 'when I am tired things of mine sound strange, forced, and without idiom'(LB136-37). In 1887, he found 'writing prose easy and pleasant. Not so verse'(FL379). And though he saw gestation as feminine, he believed that 'masterly execution . . . is a kind of male gift and especially marks off men from women, the begetting one's thoughts on paper, on verse, on whatever the matter is'; he adds that 'the male quality is the creative gift'(LD133). In working on his texts he always tried to avoid even 'an echo' of other poets' words; such echoes he thought 'a disease, an evil;(LB205-06). But he was willing to continue - and even complete - a poem that he considered 'a compromise with popular taste', as is the case with 'The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe'(LB179).
Hopkins had conflicting thoughts on revision. He could be utterly self-confident: 'I cannot think of altering anything: Why shd. I?', he told Robert Bridges. 'I do not write for the public. You are my public and I hope to convert you'(LB46). Yet at the insistence of Bridges and others he sometimes did revise; he was, for example, willing to 'recast' the poem 'Brothers', even to 'changing the metre, which made it do' (LB106,118). He worried, though, that when 'one seasons over a thing . . . one's first verjuice flattens into slobber and sweet syllabub'(LB146). And in revising 'The Sea and the Skylark' seven years after he composed it, he feared that 'in recasting those lines I had lost the freshness'(LB164).
Sound was always pre-eminent. 'My work is less to be read than heard', he wrote in 1877(LB46). A year later, he asserted that 'The Loss of the Eurydice' should be read 'with your ears, as if the paper were declaiming it at you'(LB51-52). In 1885, he told his brother Everard that poetry is 'the darling child of speech, of lips and spoken utterance: it must be spoken; till it is spoken it is not performed' . And in 1886, he was still proclaiming that 'all my verse . . . [is] made for performance'(LB246). From beginning to end he held his poems in affection: again invoking the image of conception and gestation, he called his poems 'the darling children' of the poet's 'mind' (LD8). And so they were.
In his book The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler, himself a novelist, offers fresh perspectives on creativity. No one, of course, can fully explain the mysterious process, but Koestler offers a useful model for studying this 'act of creation'. I invoke two of his concepts - 'thinking aside' and 'bisociation' - to help explain, first, how Hopkins perceives creatively, and second, how he combines creatively.
For Koestler, to 'think aside' is to step away from normal thought-patterns and think or see in a new way. The normal person, he argues, at any one time thinks in a single 'matrix' or frame of reference - e.g., fathering a family, being in jail, playing a game of marbles. (A matrix is 'any ability, habit, or skill, any pattern of ordered behaviour governed by a "code" of fixed rules'). But a creator is different: before creating, he or she leaves the usual frame of reference, descends into the irrational or unconscious, and temporarily relinquishes 'rational controls in favour of the codes which govern the underground games of the mind'. This act of new-angled perspective - an act that involves both thinking and perceiving - is what Koestler calls 'thinking aside' .
For example, a lay brother watched him stoop to the ground to examine the glitter of crushed quartz after a rainfall . His journal records how at Roehampton he noted how 'the slate slabs of the urinals even are frosted in graceful sprays'. Looking from a bridge at people walking below him, he sketched them only as hats, shoulders, and outstretched legs (JP196,256).
Similarly, his poems show him 'thinking aside' from unusual angles. In 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' he sees the grey clouds of April as downy cows' breasts hugged by the ground (PW126). In 'Moonrise June 19' he describes a crescent moon as if a man had put his finger in front of a candle and watched how the light shone through the edge of his fingernail (PW131). In 'God's Grandeur' the first glow on a horizon before sunrise is not pink or rose but 'brown' (PW139). In 'Hurrahing in Harvest' the viewer - the 'beholder' who finds God through nature - doesn't leap up to heaven but kicks off the earth behind him: 'O half hurls earth for him off under his feet' (PW149). In 'The shepherd's brow', Hopkins' self-portrait shows him mirrored in a common spoon - and mirrored upside down (PW204).
Even sprung rhythm is an act of thinking aside: Hopkins stands outside traditional patterns of prosody and pays attention to only accents 'one stress makes one foot, no matter how many or few the syllables'(LB23). Thus 'Binsey Poplars' is in iambic pentameter though it has only six syllables: 'Áll félled, félled, are áll félled'(PW156). And 'Hurrahing in Harvest' shows Hopkins 'thinking aside' in his rhythm as he stresses the same three words in utterly opposite ways: 'I wálk, I líft up Í lift úp heart, éyes'(PW149).
Koestler's concept of 'bisociation', in turn, enters into the very 'act of creation'. In every such act, writes Koestler, the creator 'bisociates', that is, combines two 'matrices' - two diverse patterns of knowing or perceiving - in a new way. As each matrix carries its own images, concepts, values, and 'codes', the creative person brings together - 'bisociates' - two diverse matrices not normally connected. (A waggish but clear example is the Muppets' 'Miss Piggy': the puppeteer Jim Henson, in an act of comic creativity, took two diverse matrices - an ugly pig and a pretentious woman - and bisociated pig and woman to make Miss Piggy). Such 'bisociation' Koestler defines as 'the perceiving of a situation or idea . . . in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference'(35). 'The creative act', he adds 'always operates on more than one plane'(35-36) as it joins together two 'matrices' not normally imagined together.
Hopkins' creativity links together not only new matrices but often wildly different ones, sometimes many at a time. (Each bisociation, I note, is the result of thinking aside). To explain Hopkins' distinctive creativity, I stress here some of his more unusual matrix-combinations.
Perhaps more than any other English poet, writes a scholar, Hopkins is a poet of metaphor . His bisociations in metaphor are often highly unusual: water 'romped' (JP236), frosts cause a 'downpour of leaf' (JP239), swimming boys dive with 'bellbright bodies'(PW196). In 'The Wreck of the Deutschland', the cold hardness of cobblestones merges with the softness of sheep's wool to make 'cobbled foam-fleece' of the raging Thameswater (PW123). The Milky Way is 'moth-soft', the sky as 'jay-blue' as its birds (PW126). A candle shines 'with yellowy moisture', and like tramrails rolls to the viewer's two eyes and back again ('to-fro tender trambeams truckle at the eye')(PW158,405-06). The Blessed Virgin takes on the matrix of air (PW173-76). Hopkins becomes bitter gall and acidic heartburn (PW181). His cries sound like bleating sheep or lowing cattle (PW182). His warm heartbeat resembles the cold rhythm of his watch (PW186). Life is no more than a boy's ball-pitch in a booth at Fairlop Fair (PW193). Even in moments of humour, Hopkins offers unusual matrix-links, as when a Father
Murphy gives sermons so fierce and hell-fiery
Mothers miscarry and spinsters go mad (PW139)
When Hopkins joins many matrices together, he is similarly creative, prolific, prodigal. In 'The Wreck', Providence becomes a finger, a feather, and a bell (PW127). Stars in 'The Starlight Night' are like flakes, doves, and farmyard animals (PW140). The flying of kingfishers and dragonflies somehow resembles ringing stones, plucked violin strings, and a swinging bell-bow (PW141). A kestrel is compared to a favourite friend, a prince, a rider, a horse, a skate, a plough, and dying embers (PW144). The falls at Inversnaid, themselves like a horse, a road, a coop, a comb, and a lamb, have a froth that resembles a windpuff, a bonnet, and a fawn (PW167). To preserve beauty requires something like a ribbon-bow, or a brooch, or a woven hair-covering, or a clamp, or a lace, or a doorlatch, or a catch, or a key (PW169). Hopkins enjoyed such unusual powers of association that his amassing of matrices can turn bisociation into tri-, qatro-, quinto-, even deca-sociatio.
Hopkins is also prodigally creative in combining words into compounds - a more purely verbal form of bisociation. His inventions are multiple, felicitous, as Joycean as Joyce's. I note just a few: 'mansex', 'Goldengrove', 'wanwood', 'leafmeal', 'betweenpie', 'havoc-pocked', 'Churlsgrace', 'Amansstrength', 'froliclavish', 'yestertempest' (PW161,166,167,186,192, 194,197,198). His imagination is wild, lavish, leaping. And his creativity multipatterned.
I end with a note on the timing of creativity - a recent discovery that surprised its discoverer. In planning his book Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity, Howard Gardner set out to study the creative patterns of seven modern geniuses: Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham and Gandhi. When he finished, he had, as expected, discovered common patterns, but he also experienced a few unexpected surprises, one involving timing.
According to Gardner, the typical creator - he prefers 'the Exemplary Creator' or 'E.C.' - first enjoys a 'major breakthrough' in early maturity. Some time later, Gardner found to his surprise, after giving himself or herself fully to the field, the creator 'has an opportunity for a second breakthrough, which occurs about a decade after the first one. The succeeding breakthrough is less radical, but it is more comprehensive and more intimately integrated with E.C.'s previous work in the domain'. And among these new works, 'a few of them stand out as defining, both for E.C. . . . and for members of the surrounding field' .
Hopkins' work as a poet is uncannily parallel to this pattern of creativity. His first breakthrough took place in 1875-77. It began with the gestation of 'The Wreck of The Deutschland' in 'a new rhythm' that 'had long been haunting my ear'(LD14) and ended with the great Welsh nature-sonnets of 1877 - such glories as 'God's Grandeur', 'As kingfishers catch fire', 'The Windhover', 'Pied Beauty', and 'Hurrahing in Harvest'. Then in 1877 he left Wales - his 'mother of Muses'(LB227) - and entered a creative trough that produced a few fine poems but lacked the fire and inspiration of his first breakthrough.
Precisely ten years after this first breakthrough came his second period of brilliance, beginning with the 'Terrible Sonnets' of 1885-86. Out of deep pain, sonnets sprang forth like 'inspiration unbidden'(LB221): 'I wake and feel', 'No worst, there is none', 'To seem the stranger', '(Carrion Comfort)', 'My own heart let me more have pity on', and 'Patience'. The timing I find uncanny: Hopkins' two periods of high creativity precisely parallel the patterns Gardner found in the seven creators he studies. As a corollary, the pattern even suggests that when Hopkins died at 44, he may well have already completed his periods of brilliance.
In any case these several patterns of Hopkins, Koestler, and Gardner, alternately subjective and objective, offer insight into the creativity of Hopkins. They also offer, I may hope, even new pleasure in his astonishing inventiveness.
1. Abbott, C.C. (ed), The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, London: Oxford UP, 1955, p. 291. (Henceforth, LB)
2. White, Norman, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, p. 255.
3. MacKenzie, N.H., The Poetic Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, p.127 (henceforth, PW).
4. For MacKenzie, earlier drafts 'confirm that imagery is from bird behaviour in spring, their display flights, mating songs, and mating' (p.508). With the word 'combs' the gestational metaphor breaks down; see MacKenzie in PW, pp.507-8 and his A Reader's Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981, pp.208 — 209.
5. See my essay, 'My Dearest Father: Some Unpublished letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins', TLS: The Times Literary Supplement, no.4838, December 22, 1995, pp.13 — 14.
6. Abbott, C.C. (ed), The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, London: Oxford UP, 1955, p. 153. (Henceforth, LD).
7. Abbott, C.C. (ed), Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, London: Oxford UP, 1956, p. 379 (Henceforth, FL).
8. Bischoff, SJ, D.A., (ed) and corrected, 'Three Uncollected Letters', Hopkins Research Bulletin #4, 1973, p. 10.
9. See my essay 'Hopkins in Community: How His Jesuit Contemporaries Saw Him', in Saving Beauty: Further Studies in Hopkins, ed. Michael E. Allsopp and David Anthony Downes, New York: Garland, 1994, pp.253 — 282.
10. House, H. and G. Storey (eds), The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, London, Oxford University Press, 1959, p. 408 (Henceforth JP).
11. Christine Brooke-Rose, A Grammar of Metaphor, quoted in Eugene Hollahan, Hopkins Against History, Omaha: Creighton UP, 1995, p. 7.
12. Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi, New York: Basic, 1993, pp. 360 — 3, esp. p. 362; emphasis mine.
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