Hopkins Archive 1987 - 95

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

A Religious Poet in the Modern World

Cary H. Plotkin Barnard College, Columbia University, USA.

The problem confronting a religious poet in the latter half of the nineteenth century was how to go beyond sentiment and attitude to uncover transcendence in a world whose intelligibility was passing from theology to science, a world with no place for transcendence.

The problem confronting a religious poet in the latter half of the nineteenth century was not how to express religious feeling or an attitude of religious meditation in the world: the lesser poets of the time (Keble, Patmore, and on a higher level Christina Rossetti, for example) all found an apt register in the given resources of language and representation of their day. Rather, the problem was how to go beyond sentiment and attitude to find or uncover transcendence in a world whose intelligibility was passing, definitively, from the realm of theology to that of science. And the world that science conceived had little or no place for transcendence.

On the contrary, nineteenth-century science was precisely the progressive uncovering of immanent principles in all the physical phenomena of the world.Now, the movement from theology to science began in the Renaissance: and we may take Galileo's infamous trial - in which he was forced to maintain that his discovery (that the earth moves) was only an hypothesis - as an early monument to an inevitable conflict.

But certain developments in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries brought the crisis close to ordinary people, whose understanding of the world was still fundamentally shaped by biblical history - the narrative of which Michael Allsopp spoke. But when we speak of narratives, we must always also speak of interpretations. And I think it is fair to say that, despite the inroads of the higher criticism, such interpretations tended still to be strongly literal. We have come to designate the shift that led to this crisis by referring to the publication in 1859 of Darwin's Origin of Species, and it is true that this work is a crowning expression of the new idea; but in fact evolutionism was in the air far earlier: we may perhaps locate its origins, for convenience of reference, in Goethe's notion of the Urpflanze and in the rising incidence of the use of the organic metaphors in the philosophical and scientific discourse. But the danger of this new idea was clearly foreseen by Kant in his General Natural History (Allgemeine Naturgeschichte) and in his early essay ' On the Various Races of Human Beings.' He notes that there is no account of organic development that would correspond to his own account of the development of the solar system from a primordial gaseous state.

In the latter he `recoils' from the thought of just such an extrapolation: the notion that one species developed from another and that all of them developed from one original species would lead to ideas so monstrous that reason recoils from them, trembling'. But if evolutionary thinking had been in the air since the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Darwin's theoretical contribution was none the less new, and shattering: for he located the principle of this process in a totally immanent process of natural selection in the struggle for life. Indeed the full title of his first great work announces this explicitly: On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of the Races in the Struggle for Life. Darwin's title realizes precisely what Kant had faintly intimated and greatly feared - an entirely material account of the natural world that neither required nor indeed led to any principle of transcendence.In order to grasp clearly the nature of Hopkins's poetic situation (or predicament) and his solution, one must recall a simultaneous scientific development that was in the intellectual air that Hopkins breathed.

This too has a long and interesting history. Charles Lyell in his Principles of Geology (1830-33) examined the frequency and kinds of fossil remains in geological strata; he was able to explain the development of the earth that, like Darwin's work later, showed not the hand of a benevolent or even an intelligent creator but an impersonal natural process, one that stretched the human sense of time exponentially into virtually unimaginable realms. If Lyell was right - and his evidence was vast and his arguments were rigorous - then biblical history, the narrative of creation, was reduced either to the merest metaphor or to a primitive, if quaint, fiction. Where does all this leave an unshakably religious nature poet at mid-century? For John Keble, writing in the 1820s and '30s, the issue did not yet present itself unavoidably. His Christian Year (1827), probably the most widely read book of poetry in the nineteenth century, turns to Romantic nature unproblematically as the `book of nature,' an idea implicit in St Augustine and familiar to medieval philosophers and theologians. In this view the world is a forest of symbols and signs pointing to God by means of analogy. But by turning to such a view, Keble is acknowledging the force and influence of a particular vision or understanding of nature - notably that of Wordsworth.

Indeed, Keble dedicated his Oxford lectures on poetry, Praelectiones Academicae (1832-41), to Wordsworth, the `poet and seer,' `prophet,' and `religious guide.' The power of Wordsworth's vision and influence on mid-nineteenth-century religious poetry has been discussed by G. B. Tennyson. But Hopkins himself was to write that in the Immortality Ode Wordsworth had `seen something,' and that this insight or vision had dealt human nature a shock. The `something' was the presence of transcendence in the immanent - of God in nature - not analogically or symbolically but really. We know, however, that Wordsworth rarely speaks of God in the poetry of his that we read today; and even in the Wordsworth we do not read but that his Victorian readers did - the later, conservative, and often dull Wordsworth of, say, the Ecclesiastical Sonnets - Wordsworth himself is remarkably cagey when broaching the subject of the God of Christianity. Indeed the Ecclesiastical Sonnets are in fact a verse history of the Church in England from mythical times onward rather than a religious meditation. And elsewhere, too, Wordsworth is more at ease with the generalized terms of deism than with anything resembling a `sacramental system' (in G.B. Tennyson's words) - a system, that is, that theologizes and sacramentalizes Wordsworthian nature by means of analogy.

Nature for Wordsworth contains intimations of a transcendental something which the poet best perceives and so communicates: poetry is, indeed, the only source of such intimations. Now Keble starts out from this view but specifies that nature contains symbols and signs that refer to God analogically. This is like that. Nature is an analogue of God. This will not prove sufficient for Hopkins.There is a characteristic of Keble's poetry which complements and completes the analogical relation between nature and God. This is the idea of Reserve developed most fully by Isaac Williams in Tract 80 of Tracts for the Times, entitled `On Reserve in Communicating Religious Knowledge.'

There is no need to describe here the details of this doctrine beyond noting that just as God did not declare himself fully in nature but `held back,' so to speak, so poetry could lead to God only by indirection. This `holding back' and indirection were termed `Reserve' - and we might note in passing that it corresponds quite well to a characteristic of English poetry generally (which is more comfortable on the whole with litotes or understatement than with hyperbole).How did Hopkins resolve the problem of religious nature poetry in an age in which scientific certainties were supplanting religious ones. This problem would indeed have been more pressing for him than for the generation of Keble and the Tractarians in that the evidence of Lyell and Darwin had by his time begun to penetrate and trouble even popular awareness. I say his mature poetry because, intriguingly, the poems he wrote before the Wreck of the Deutschland (and before his conversion), while often charming, contain little of the density and charge by which we now recognize him. It should be plain to see why.

First, he breaks entirely with the doctrine of reserve: his poetry holds nothing back but, on the contrary (and in his own words) `explodes.' Second, he does not look at nature as an analogue of God, as G.B. Tennyson and, of course, Marshall McLuhan have argued. I would propose, on the contrary, that Hopkins's nature poetry is as anti-Tractarian as Newman himself had proved ultimately to be. Yet he quite clearly turns to nature for his poetic object.How, then, does he appropriate nature from the claims of the age of Darwin, from the genuine anguish of Tennyson's In Memoriam? How does he sail between the Charybdis of Wordsworthian deism and the Scylla of evolution and Lyell's geological uniformitarianism? One way, of course, would have been to ignore them. But it is impossible that so rigorous a mind as Hopkins's, one so interested in scientific phenomena, should have taken that path. How, then, are we to explain the smooth dismissal of the growing conflict between science and religion that we may read in his letters? `I am amused to find,' he writes to Baillie in 1865, `how very far the advancement of thought or science is from being on every side an encroachment on Christianity.

I think I see them retiring from old positions on important points.' (FL 227). Is this merely the superciliousness of an undergraduate? Nine years later he writes in the long post-script to a letter to his mother: `I do not think, do you know, that Darwinism implies necessarily that man is descended from any ape or ascidian or maggot or what not but only from the common ancestor of ascidians, common ancestor of maggots, and so on: these common ancestors, if lower animals, need not have been repulsive animals. What Darwin himself says about this I do not know' (FL 128). This shows an acquaintance with some of the issues of Darwinism but not much of an acquaintance with Darwin's writings themselves. It is also curiously neutral about the Darwinian threat to the orthodox views about creation and matter.

Could it be that our perspective on the controversy sharpens the antitheses more than they were by Victorian thinkers on both sides of the argument? We tend to remember the famous or infamous debate in Oxford between Samuel Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley but not to remember that for many years serious thinkers and indeed natural scientists did not find the theory of evolution to be unalterably at odds with Christian belief. Newman himself did not see in Darwin's writings either an assault on belief in God or a refutation of the essentials of Christian belief. And St. George Jackson Mivart, an English Roman Catholic biologist, tried in his own work to harmonize Darwinism with Christianity by propounding a sort of special creationism for the human mind, hence removing human beings from the orbit of natural selection. (He died, I should add, both excommunicated and insane.)

I do not mention Newman and Mivart at random, of course: the Newman-Hopkins relation is obvious, and it is to Mivart's writings that Hopkins refers his mother in the letter cited above: `You should read St George Jackson Mivart's Genesis of the Species: he is an Evolutionist though he combats downright Darwinism and is very orthodox'.What permitted orthodox thinkers to entertain evolutionism was therefore either (a) a re-location of divine intention behind evolutionary process or (b) an exception claimed for man. But what is Hopkins's own position in all this? The explicit evidence for an answer is slim. Less than a year before his death, he closed a letter to Robert Bridges with an intriguing and humorous reference to the notion that everything is Darwinism. But especially a ship. However the honeycomb is not quite so plain a matter as you think.

The learned, I believe, are divided on the question whether the shape of the cell is really to be called a matter of mechanics. For observe: the cell can only be symmetrical, with a true hexagonal section and so on, by the bees being stationed at equal distances, working equally, and so on. . . . But this implies something more than mechanical to begin with. Otherwise the hexagonal etc. cell wd. be the type tended to only and seldom or never arrived at; the comb wd. be like the irregular figures of bubbles in the froth of beer or in soapsuds. Wild bees do, I believe, build something like that. But grant in the honeybee some principle of symmetry [italics mine] and uniformity and you have passed beyond mechanical necessity; and it is not clear that there may not be some special instinct determined to that shape of cell after all and which has at the present stage of the bee's development nothing to do with mechanics, but is like the specific songs of cuckoo and thrush. (LB 281)

Tom Zaniello, when he comments on this passage, is careful to remark that what Hopkins here refers to as special instincts are not identical with instincts as Darwin conceives them . But this late letter picks up a strain of thought that finds partial expression in one of Hopkins's last Oxford essays, `The Probable Future of Metaphysics.' Here his reasoning leads him to take issue with the positivism and atomism which he sees as prevalent in his time. They are reducible, he argues, to materialism; and materialism, despite its claims, will never be able to account for the spiritual: `Material explanation can not be refined into explaining thought and it is all to no purpose to show an organ for each faculty and a nerve for each idea, because this only shows in detail what no one doubted, to wit that the activities of the spirit are in those of the body . . . (JP 118).

That is, the spiritual is conveyed by the material but is neither identical with it nor reducible to it??just as the form of cells in a honeycomb cannot be mechanical but must instead reveal `some principle of symmetry or uniformity,' explainable perhaps by `some special instinct'.But there is more. Here, in this early essay, Hopkins presents an argument against uniformitarianism in nature and in favor of certain fixed points and `absolute types.' And his argument takes a significant turn: for the very principle that determines such absolute types also makes them uniquely intelligible to or graspable by the human mind:

To the prevalent philosophy and science nature is a string all the differences in which are really chromatic [i.e. continuous or uniform] but at certain places in it has become accidentally fixed, and the series of fixed points becomes an arbitrary scale.Against this Hopkins proposes a counterposition:

. . . in musical strings, the roots of chords . . . are mathematically fixed and give a standard by which to fix all the notes of the appropriate scale: when points between these are sounded, the ear is annoyed by a solecism, or to analyse deeper, the mind cannot grasp the notes of the scale and the intermediate sound in one conception.

From the example of music Hopkins proceeds to those of art and nature:

There are certain forms which have a great hold on the mind or are always reappearing and seem imperishable, such as the designs of Greek vases and lyres, the cone upon Indian shawls, the honeysuckle moulding, the fleur?de?lys, while every day we see designs which do not live and are at once forgotten and these things are inexplicable on the theory of pure chromaticism or continuity - the forms have in some sense or other an absolute existence. [JP 120]

This returns us to the discussion of the honeycomb some twenty years later. In both instances Hopkins is developing an argument against the mechanical necessity and accidents that underlie both uniformitarianism and evolutionism. `It may be maintainable, then,' he concludes, that species are fixed and to be fixed only at definite distances in the string, and that the developing principle will only act when the precise conditions are fulfilled. To ascertain these distances and to point out how they are to be mathematically or quasi-mathematically expressed will be the work of . . . metaphysics.

And we may add that discerning, drawing out, catching, and conveying these in language will turn out to be the work of Hopkins's poetry. What is at work in nature, in Hopkins's view, transcends the mechanics of matter and embodies a principle of form that is `in some sense or other absolute' and that seeks perfect expression which we recognize because it is uniquely graspable by the mind. This is indeed an early avatar of the notion of inscape that Hopkins would shortly begin to elaborate. It is by this form - or these forms - that transcendence finds its way into nature in the age of Darwin and Lyell.

The poetic means by which Hopkins is able to exploit this view begins to come into focus if we look at what distinguishes his poetic practice from the principles underlying Tractarian poetry. While it may be possible to detect the Tractarian principles of analogy and reserve at work in Hopkins's early poetry - `He hath abolished the old drouth,' `Lines for a Picture of St Dorothea,' `Myself unholy,' `Let me be to thee as the circling bird,' `Easter,' `Rosa Mystica,' and so on - his mature poetry is clearly working along quite different lines, lines that I think it is fair to call anti-Tractarian: explosive rather than reserved, this poetry does not look at nature for signs or symbols referring to God by analogy. Rather, it finds God in nature as a real presence, not a metaphoric one, and it finds in nature a direct expression of transcendence, and not an indirect one. A passage from his notes on the `First Principle and Foundation' draws this position into theoretical focus: `God's utterance of himself in himself is God the Word, outside himself is this world. This world then is word, expressing, news of God. Therefore its end, its purpose, its purport, its meaning, is God, and its life or work to name and praise him' (SD 129). The relation between nature and God is not analogical, symbolic, or metaphoric; it is a relation of identity and transcendence at once. Hopkins's poetry is likewise not symbolic or metaphoric in its general design: it is a poetry of looking, seizing, naming and praising.

Much of Hopkins's poetry embodies structurally this real, as opposed to metaphoric, relation between nature and transcendence in that it consists, typically, of two moments: in the first, he catches a beauty in nature; in the second he discovers that this beauty is precisely the presence of transcendence in immanent nature. Examples are not far to seek and include `Starlight Night,' `As kingfishers catch fire,' `The Windhover,' `Pied Beauty,' and possibly `Spring.' `Hurrahing in Harvest' offers a particularly clear example. In the first quatrain, he seizes and is seized by the scene: stooks rising around, wind-walks of silk-sack clouds above. In the second, he looks up to heaven to glean his Saviour. So far, except for the beauty of the poetry, there is nothing exceptional in this.

But now Hopkins makes a move that no other religious poet of the time, to my knowledge, would have made, and certainly none of the Tractarian poets. He neither looks upon nature as a source of incitement to prayer nor compares its beauties to those of God. Instead, he expresses the transcendence really present in nature as an identity: `The azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder.' In such poetry as this, the world of nature does not refer us to God as in Tractarian poetics: it is charged with the grandeur of God. The windhover is not a symbol, it is an instance, of transcendence in immanent nature. Rarely, I think, can a conversion in religion have been so clearly embodied in a change in poetics. Temporarily at least, Hopkins resolves the problem of a religious poetry of nature in an age and climate in which material science seemed to be gaining possession of the spiritual field; he resolves the problem by ceasing to think of the world-God relation as a metaphorical one and by replacing mechanical necessity with a principle of absolute forms as the driving force in nature.

He replaces the impersonal and immanent mechanics of evolution and geological uniformitarianism by a principle embodying divine purpose. `The world is full of inscape,' he wrote in his journal in 1873 - 'and chance left free to act falls into an order as well as a purpose' (JP 230). The order of nature is not mechanical, therefore, but purposeful??and this purpose is transcendent. What appears to be the mechanics of evolution and geological change is in truth the expression of a principle embodying divine purpose. Notions like inscape and instress are ways of conceptualizing an objective spiritual ordering really present in the world, behind appearance, and one that is not the object of materialist scientific enquiry.

Hopkins alone among the religious poets of the nineteenth century finds a way past the deus absconditus of deism and the impersonal immanence of scientific law by discovering a way of looking at nature that does not deny these laws but does not accept them as final truths. They are indeed part of a purposeful ordering. By refusing the metaphorical split or dualism that informs Tractarian poetics, he restores to nature its power as an object of religious poetry. In Hopkins's nature poetry, the world of nature does not refer to transcendence by indirection; on the contrary, nature is the immediate self-expression of transcendence in the world.

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

Overview of the Gerard Manley Hopkins Archive