Hopkins Archive 1987 - 95

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

Influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins on Ivor Gurney

Mark William Brown Jamestown College, Maryland, USA

An impressive catalogue of internal evidence shows the huge influence of Hopkins poetry on the poetry of Ivor Gurney. Indebtedness, imitation, influence - the terms may or may not be interchangeable, and their relationship to originality is a troublesome question.


first published in Studies. An Irish Quarterly Review, 2 (1995): 173-80

Ten years ago Michael D. Moore described Ivor Gurney as `the first poet of any significance [apart from Robert Bridges] to exhibit the apparent influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins' . While in no way pretending that his `little essay' was a `thorough comparative inquiry' into the subject, Moore was able to compile an impressive catalogue of internal evidence from Gurney's recently published Collected Poems . Indeed, Richard F. Giles , who edited the monograph in which Moore's essay appeared, pronounced Gurney the one poet `who most fully assimilated the influence of Hopkins,' inasmuch as `Gurney's poems are sometimes original within the bonds [sic] of the Hopkins presence, a feat that most other twentieth-century poets who attempted to imitate Hopkins found impossible' . Be that as it may, Giles was echoing the judgment of Donald Davie , who had written two years previously: `The influences . . . are discernible but never for certain, because so thoroughly assimilated and turned to purposes that the originals would not have contemplated' . For Giles as well as for Davie, it was Gurney's powers of assimilation, not `[t]he possible debt of Gurney to Hopkins,' that commanded the most attention. Indebtedness, imitation, influence - the terms may or may not be interchangeable, and their relationship to originality is a troublesome question that I hope I may be pardoned for setting aside, at least for now. If we take influence, however, in its broadest sense, as a verb meaning generally `to affect,' there can be little doubt that Hopkins influenced or affected Gurney's writing. Consider, for example, the following unpublished poem. It was written late in 1922 in a private asylum to which Gurney was committed prior to being transfered to the City of London Mental Hospital . Like many of his asylum writings, the poem is an appeal for release from conditions that Gurney, who prided himself on being a composer, a soldier, and a `war poet,' felt that he did not deserve. It belongs to a group of poems that Moore has likened to Hopkins's `terrible sonnets' .

Much has he not desired, and has courteous
Been to poor men; dug, laved his body of mornings.
Run, leapt; noway deserving these present scornings -
Will one not save? A soldier who has faced death,
Cries for the justice of freedom, and not thus
To wear his life in pain - to waste his breath.

Since we know fairly precisely what prompted Gurney to write this poem and under what conditions he wrote it, we may well be inclined to question its similarity to poems by Hopkins such as `No Worst, There Is None,' of which the motive behind the emotion and the circumstances of composition remain obscure . From a technical standpoint, on the other hand, the similarities are numerous; the last line of the octave appears to have been modelled on the final line of Hopkins's sonnet `In the Valley of the Elwy': `Being mighty a master, being a father and fond'.

However discernible (or even`for certain') Hopkins's influence may be, and although Hopkins might well have contemplated the purpose to which his original line has been adapted, Gurney has not slavishly imitated Hopkins's example. On the contrary, he has, in Davie's words, `thoroughly assimilated' the influence; for, nothwithstanding the repetition of being and the use of alliteration, Gurney has transposed the accented and unaccented forms of the present participle and, in place of Hopkins's chiasmus, substituted three approximately parallel terms, with the result that wretched, like confined and rounded, sounds remarkably like a past participle. Thus, though the influence is unmistakable, Gurney has so strenuously turned Hopkins's line to his own purposes that the line, if not the whole poem, transcends a pastichWith internal evidence as abundant as Moore has found in the Collected Poems, and as compelling as the line from the poem I have just cited, it is surprising that documentary evidence of Hopkins's influence on Gurney should be so scant. Among Gurney's 469 published letters, Hopkins is mentioned only once, and then only to be criticized for his `crazy precious diction' . Among the published poems he is not mentioned at all. In fact, we have no hard evidence that Gurney ever saw more than the half dozen scraps of Hopkins included by Bridges in his wartime anthology, The Spirit of Man .

We may, of course, attribute Gurney's seeming reticence about Hopkins to `the anxiety of influence,' although failure to acknowledge his debt to a fellow `maker' would have been inconceivable for Gurney, so obsessed was he with giving (and receiving) the `honour' he believed to be due to poets ; and the only influence with regard to which Gurney is known to have experienced real anxiety was neither literary nor even human. A sounder explanation of Gurney's silence would be to say that he considered the influence of Hopkins to be secondary to that of another poet: a poet whose works Gurney had rediscovered almost a year before his first acquaintance with Hopkins and whose influence appears to have caused Hopkins himself some anxiety, and who has also left his mark on the otherwise Hopkinsian poem previously quoted. I am speaking, of course, of Walt Whitman.

In saying that Hopkins's influence was secondary to Whitman's, I do not mean to imply that the two influences were incompatible. As Michael Hurd has remarked, speaking of the effect of Hopkins and Whitman on Gurney's `mature style', . . . such effect as they had on his writing was rather to confirm a naturally `loose' manner of expression than to stimulate any active concern for technical experiment. Thoughts about the nature of `sprung rhythm' or the problems of `free verse' do not seem to have interested him in any real sense. He was a poet and composer of instinct rather than calculation; and this is one reason why he is so difficult to categorize .It is precisely this lack of interest in technical experiment, that attests to the primacy of Whitman's influence; for whereas the free verse of Whitman encourages looseness, sprung rhythm, at least as Hopkins conceived it, it does nothing of the sort . Indeed, if we must classify our poets as being either instinctive or calculating, surely Whitman and Gurney fall into the former category, Hopkins into the latter.But such categories are misleading and not very useful in dealing with Gurney. Nevertheless, if we turn to a poem such as `The Lock Keeper' , which, according to Moore, `bears comparison in object and manner with "Felix Randal" or "Harry Ploughman"' , we can detect, in addition to unmistakable echoes of Hopkins, something of the manner, and perhaps something more of the object, of Whitman's poetry:

Men delight to praise men; and to edge
A little further off from death the memory
Of any noted or bright personality
Is still a luck and poet's privilege.
And so the man who goes in my dark mind
With sand and broad waters and general kind
Of fish-and-fox-and-bird lore, and walking lank;
Knowledge of net and rod and rib and shank,
Might well stretch out my mind to be a frame -
A picture of a worthy without name.
You might see him at morning by the lock-gates,
busy in the warehouse on a multitude
Of boat fittings, net fittings, copper, iron, wood,
Then later digging, furious, electric
Under the apple boughs, with a short stick,
Burnt black long ages, of pipe between set teeth,
His eyes gone flaming on the work beneath -
He up-and-down working like a marionette.
Back set, eyes set, wrists; and the work self-set.

Or Fish-and-fox-and-bird lore, though transparent compared with similar compound constructions in Hopkins, nonetheless reminds us of his, as does up-and-down working a few lines later; and though Gurney employs rib and shank in a nautical rather than anatomical sense, these words, along with lank, all occur in `Harry Ploughman.' The interrupted syntax, by which we painfully gather that the `short stick' is in fact a pipe stem and not the handle of some farm implement, is likewise reminiscent of `Harry Ploughman,' the syntactical difficulties of which Hopkins himself acknowledged . Finally, phrases such as boat fittings, net fittings and Back set, eyes set recall Hopkins's `hangers' or `outrides' and fondness for `counterpoint rhythm'.In general, Gurney displays the same avid interest that Hopkins took in `all trades, their gear and tackle and trim. Moreover, the intense physical activity depicted in the last six lines quoted above is comparable to passages in the poems by Hopkins that Moore has named. But the fascination with various occupations and with energetic movements of the human body is equally suggestive of Whitman, who may, in the latter regard, have influenced Hopkins as well. Likewise Gurney's rhythms: although doubtless more regular (and more taut) than Whitman's are commonly supposed to be, the overall movement of Gurney's lines, like the body of the lock keeper, is `lank'; Hopkins's farrier, and his ploughman even more so, are muscle-bound by comparison. For Gurney wishes to convey not only the range of the lock keeper's interests but also his ease and freedom of movement, of mind and body alike. Indeed, the labours of this `worthy' - and the absence of irony here is conspicuous - are, significantly, `self-set'.Gurney's affinity with Whitman becomes even more pronounced in the section that follows:

His afternoon was action but all nebulous
Trailed over four miles country, tentaculous
Of coalmen, farmers, fishermen his friends,
And duties without beginnings and without ends.
There was talk with equals, there were birds and fish to observe,
Stuff for a hundred thoughts on the canal's curves,
A world of sight - and back in time for tea;
Or the tide's change, his care, or a barge to let free.
The lowering of the waters, the quick inflow,
The trouble and the turmoil; characteristic row
Of exits or of river entrances;
With old (how old?) cries of the straining crews,
(Norse, Phoenician, Norse, British? immemorial use.)

The rhythm slackens as the action becomes `nebulous,' or expansive, and as the focus shifts from the lock keeper himself to the larger community of labourers. But what the passage loses in intensity it makes up for in inclusiveness: like the lock keeper, it is `tentaculous' of various types of men and terrain.Tentaculous, a Gurney coinage, may strike us as Hopkinsian, especially as it forms a somewhat egregious rhyme with nebulous; and though the cadences of some lines (e.g., the fourth, fifth, and eighth) sound as light as anything Bridges wrote in sprung rhythm, the last two lines are heavily counterpointed and seem to echo `Harry Ploughman' (`one crew, fall to; / Stand at stress'). But when we read of the lock keeper's cross-country rambles, of his `talk with equals,' and of his operation of the locks - for the junction of waterways is depicted not merely as a hub of local activity, but as something like an axis of geographical space and historical time - we are reminded once again, inescapably, of Walt Whitman.The `four miles country' of `The Lock Keeper' may seem microscopic compared with the endless vistas of `Crossing Brooklyn Ferry' or `Passage to India,' but the atmosphere is less close, less stifling than that of the `random grim forge' in `Felix Randal'; and had Gurney more nearly approximated the rhythms of `Harry Ploughman,' he would have all but hamstrung the hero of his poem. For Gurney is not interested in the `inscape' of the lock keeper except insofar as it is flexible enough to comprehend a multitude of `inscapes.' This flexibility, this comprehensiveness?-this tentaculousness - is Whitmanian, not Hopkinsian.Hopkins's influence on Gurney's poetry cannot, of course, be denied, even if Gurney saw no more than the six selections that appeared in The Spirit of Man. There he would have read not only `In the Valley of the Elwy,' but `The Candle Indoors' and `The Handsome Heart.' In addition to such `crazy precious diction' as `to-fro tender trambeams truckle,' these poems would have introduced Gurney to `common rhythm sprung and counterpointed,' variants of which he employed in both `The Lock Keeper' and `To America'.

That Hopkins himself would probably have deprecated these unlearned attempts at sprung rhythm is beside the point. That such attempts were unlearned is equally undeniable. Given the priority of Gurney's acquaintance with Whitman, moreover, and the extent to which his Hopkinsian qualities complement rather than contradict Whitmanian traits, it seems no exaggeration to say that Gurney's acquaintance with Whitman prepared him to assimilate the influence of Hopkins.But if Gurney assimilated Hopkins, Whitman assimilated Gurney. Though he could be `Whitmanesque and magnificent' in `As They Draw to a Close,' an asylum poem whose Whitmanian title may appear to belie Gurney's mastery of the Whitmanian mode, by 1926 he was mired in a mad attempt to `revise' the whole of Leaves of Grass, an abortive project that issued in some fascinating but appalling specimens of Whitmanian pastiche. For just as Whitman's influence preceded and prepared the way for that of Hopkins, so it lingered like an illness long after Gurney's poetry ceased to sound anything like Hopkins. If he experienced no anxiety over the influence of Hopkins, these late asylum writings are enough to convince us that prolonged exposure to Whitman was not good for Gurney.

Nevertheless, it is regrettable that Michael D. Moore should have arrived at the following conclusion:

Gurley's importance in the larger history of poetry will always be relatively slight; his work is too singular, febrile, disorderly, and experimental (and too notoriously that of a madman) for either the popular or the scholarly taste. But for students of Hopkins's legacy he provides early evidence of the Victorian poet's energizing contribution to the voice of modern literature .

Admirers of Hopkins have never forgiven Bridges for postponing the publication of his friend's poems until thirty years after his death, on the grounds that the Jesuit's work would fail to receive popular or critical acclaim. Nor have they forgiven Ezra Pound for slighting Hopkins's achievement by regarding him as a `sideline' of Bridges. Yet Moore's treatment of Gurney in this passage displays a similar lack of sensitivity and insight. By relegating a poet who `most fully assimilated the influence of Hopkins' - whose poems, indeed, `are sometimes original within the bonds of the Hopkins presence' - to comparative obscurity for being `too singular,' too `experimental'?-in other words, too original - Moore has condemned the very poet whose influence he would have us respect and admire.For some readers Gurney will never be anything more than a `mad poet' or, worse still, the `war poet' grudgingly accommodated by the editors of our standard anthologies. But the ten years that have elapsed since Moore published his `little article' have witnessed a popular celebration of the centenary of Gurney's birth, the publication of his Selected Poems, and the appearance of a number of critical appreciations, including one doctoral dissertation. The month of August will witness the inauguration of the Ivor Gurney Society at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. How long it will take before Gurney is generally recognized as `a poet whose achievement . . . demands a re-writing of all the accepted accounts of English poetry in this century' it is impossible to say. Hopefully, this `little article' will help to hasten that recognition.


Hopkins among the Poets: Studies in Modern Responses to Gerard Manley Hopkins , ed. Richard F. Giles, International Hopkins Association Monograph Ser. 3 (Hamilton, ON: Intl. Hopkins Assn., 1985) 36.

Moore p. 36.

Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney , ed. P. J. Kavanagh (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982).

Introduction, Hopkins among the Poets v. Gurney's Flood,' rev. of Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney,
ed. P. J. Kavanagh, and Ivor Gurney: War Letters, ed. R. K. R. Thornton, London Review of Books 3-16 Feb. 1983: 7.

Moore 36 (emphasis mine).

In Dartford, Kent, where Gurney would spend his last fifteen years.

' Hopkins and Gurney ', p. 38.

G 15 (61), Ivor Gurney Archive, Gloucester Public Library, Glos., England.
The MS is signed ` I B Gurney / Praying for Freedom / and Chance of Work / or to be granted Death '.

Cf. Yvor Winters, `The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins', The Function of Criticism: Problems and Exercises , Chicago: Swallow, 1957 p. 108.

`To Mrs Voynich,' 28 Aug. 1916, letter 120 of Ivor Gurney: Collected Letters , ed. R. K. R. Thornton Ashington, Northumb.: Mid Northumberland Arts Group; Manchester: Carcanet, 1991 p. 140.

See the letter cited in note 12, above, where Gurney mentions reading Hopkins in The Spirit of Man (1916).

Jeremy Hooker has discussed the significance of this word in ` Honouring Ivor Gurney ', PN Review 17 (1980): pp. 16 - 9.

See Gurney, `To Mrs Voynich,' late Sept. 1915, letter 46 of Collected Letters pp.41-2.
The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney 200.

Cf. Hopkins, `To Richard Watson Dixon', 22 Dec. 1880, letter 12 of The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, ed. Claude Colleer Abbott, London: Oxford UP, 1935, p. 39.

Collected Poems pp. 103 -6.

`Hopkins and Gurney' , p. 40.

`To Robert Bridges' , 6 Nov. 1887, letter 155 of Letters 265.

Davie, ` Gurney's Flood ', p. 7.

`Hopkins and Gurney' , p. 41

Davie, `Singing the Praises of Gloucester ', The Independent 1 Sept. 1990

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