Hopkins Archive 1987 - 95

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

John Ruskin: Gerard Manley Hopkins's Silent Don

Philip Ballinger Gonzaga University, Spokane, USA

Understanding may come to some seekers as a kind of revelation, but for many it is more akin to the slow growth of roots through soil. The soil in which the understanding of Hopkins may be sought is that of context and influence. What and whose ideas did he encounter, assimilate, reject or transcend? What, or perhaps who, provided him with a foundation upon which his own genius could unfold? Over the decades of Hopkins studies, the question of context and influence has been raised consistently.

To my eye a relative gap remains in the study of influence. Who taught Hopkins, that artist of keenest vision, how to `see?' The answer is immediately encountered upon entering the study of Hopkins - it was John Ruskin.

Ruskin's influence upon Hopkins was as indelible as that of Oxford or even, perhaps, as that of Ignatius Loyola. Certainly it pre-dated both. Yet, relatively speaking, little comprehensive study has been devoted to this essential formative influence upon Hopkins .

Hopkins may well have used Ruskin's The Elements of Drawing when it was first published in 1857 . The book was popular and ran through three editions between 1857 and 1860. Hopkins' family, an artistic clan, certainly knew of The Elements. Moreover, in 1857 Hopkins was thirteen, the age recommended by Ruskin for the use of the book . In any case, Hopkins' journal and letters are full of Ruskinian comments, pronouncements and admonitions. `As Ruskin says' (JP,13,1863) is an underlying mantra for the aesthetic Hopkins of Oxford. Certainly his friend and fellow art enthusiast, Mowbray Baillie, knew of Hopkins' intense interest in Ruskin, for Hopkins was earnest in his efforts to convert his colleague to a `Ruskinese point of view'(FL,56,1863).

Oxford continued to nourish the young intellectual's enthusiasm for Ruskin. Sulloway pronounces Ruskin `the silent don' of Hopkins' Oxford years . Certainly the Master of Hopkins' Balliol College, Benjamin Jowett, as well as Hopkins' tutor, Walter Pater, had a high regard for Ruskin. In Hopkins' undergraduate essays, On the Signs of Health and Decay in the Arts (1863) and On the Origin of Beauty (1864), it seems as if he is quoting Ruskin unconsciously, so imbued is he with the thought of the Victorian aesthete. It is likely that some of Ruskin's ideas came to Hopkins through his Oxford guides, particularly Pater.

Ruskin's influence continued through Hopkins' time of religious distress at Oxford and his ensuing period of poetic silence. Although he left Oxford and his poetry temporarily behind, under the enduring and silent tutelage of Ruskin, Hopkins continued to sketch, verbally and pictorially, the world flooding his eyes. In fact, his sketching continued until 1875, the year he started working upon The Wreck of the Deutschland. Sulloway notes that `these Ruskinian sketches and verbal descriptions form a bridge between Hopkins' last undergraduate poem and his first mature work as a Jesuit, and they helped him develop as a poet during the nine years of poetic silence' .

The Aesthetic Hopkins' descriptive prose, sketches and early aesthetic attitude reflect Ruskin. That this is so cannot be surprising. Ruskin was a Victorian giant whose influence engulfed his society and left few subjects untouched. Victorian England's rising middle class eagerly devoured his works, including Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice and The Elements of Drawing. As we have seen, by 1863 Hopkins probably had read Ruskin's The Elements of Drawing and he included Modern Painters on his February 1865 reading list . The Elements of Drawing, according to Norman White, was the source of many Hopkinsian ideas about nature and of how to look at it .

Ruskin's attention to detail was characteristic of the age. Patricia Ball notes that the science of the first half of the nineteenth century centered upon the collection, classification and close observation of phenomena. It was, in short, obsessed with detail . However, Hopkins' unique obsession with detail stemmed not only from Ruskin's emphasis on recording detail, but also from his stress on seizing perceptions of beauty in the natural world to preserve fleeting reality .

Natural beauty, according to Ruskin, was `unique, momentary, and vulnerable to time and man's impiety' . Ruskin believed that nature's smallest part held grand significance and that one should engage the senses with detail .

Ruskin emphasized uniquely, for his time, the hyperphysical in the physical. The beauteous forms of nature seen rightly, were signs of divinity. He held that the impact of such aesthetic experience was moral, engendering motivation to love and serve God. Ruskin, therefore, believed that the most profound values are learned through the eye. He went so far as to claim that a deficiency in the perception of nature affects the moral and emotional life as well as the whole scale of values in a society. This was, for him, a source of the ills of Victorian industrialized England. Urban dwellers, particularly the lower classes, were isolated from a proper perception of nature and, therefore, of God. Fundamental to Ruskin was a `real, discriminating and complete encounter with material phenomena' as a way to aesthetic judgments and moral insights .

He approached the theological in his belief that only an impartial, intense and fearless seeing leads to `noble emotion' which in turn leads to a revelation of nature as God's work . What is more, Ruskin held that great art conveys the revelation of nature. He said that `all great art is praise' and can be a revelation to humanity if fidelity to fact exists . Ruskin wrote such things of painting and drawing, but Hopkins saw them to be true for poetry. Ruskin wrote that `to find even in all that appears most trifling or contemptible, fresh evidence of the constant working of the Divine power for glory and for beauty, and to teach it and proclaim it to the unthinking and the unregarding' was the `peculiar province' of the artist . This view may well explain the intentionality behind Hopkins' poem Pied Beauty.

In viewing nature as a `holy book', Ruskin fell in with the Romantic tradition. At the heart of this tradition was the need to draw a kind of quintessence from things. Yet he distinguished himself by shifting the emphasis from the subject observing nature to the object observed. Hopkins followed Ruskin in this. They both focused upon `selfhood', but the selfhood of things seen. For Ruskin, and, it would seem, for Hopkins also, emotional, moral and spiritual insight depended, to some degree, on the observer's total submission to the selfhood of the object observed `in the eloquence of its self- expression' . Seeing leads to feeling; fact leads to religious emotion. This approach opposed Romanticism's tyranny of the ego. Ruskin held as conceit the kind of Romantic approach which claimed that it matters little what things are in themselves, but only what they are to the individual. This impoverishing egotism was the `pathetic fallacy' of Romanticism for Ruskin. Perhaps the young Hopkins at Oxford, reading Ruskin's plea to artists to pay the physical universe at least as much honour as the scientist does, took the plea to heart. Certainly, Hopkins was loyal to Ruskin's contention that artists should find their mission in advertising nature's inherent qualities and powers rather than altering nature to suit their anthropomorphic instinct . Of course, under the influence of Ignatius of Loyola and Duns Scotus, Hopkins' definition of inherent became purely Christological. This was not the case for Ruskin.Specific Influence

Ruskin's influence on Hopkins was even more specific, directly touching his genius. The roots of Hopkins' creations, inscape and instress, tap Ruskinian aesthetics . The terms were not originally theological or spiritual. Hopkins coined them before his entry into the Society of Jesus and his discovery of Scotus. He first revealed the terms in some notes he made on Parmenides dated February 9, 1868:

[Parmenides'] great text.....is that Being is and Not- being is not - which perhaps one can say, a little over- defining his meaning, means that all things are upheld by instress and are meaningless without it.....His feeling for instress, for the flush and foredrawn, and for inscape/ is most striking.....But indeed, I have often felt when I have been in this mood and felt the depth of instress or how fast the inscape holds a thing that nothing is so pregnant and straightforward to the truth as simple yes and is .

That Hopkins later integrated these concepts into his theology and that they shaped his spirituality is certain. Nonetheless, we must look for their inspiration in Hopkins' earliest efforts to develop his own fundamental aesthetic principles. Again, the person met on such a search is Ruskin.

As we have discussed, seeing was Ruskin's first imperative. The aesthete must learn, above all, how to see:

Nothing must come between Nature and the artist's sight; nothing between God and the artist's soul. Neither calculation nor hearsay, -be it the most subtle of calculations, or the wisest of sayings, - may be allowed to come between the universe, and the witness which art bears to its visible nature. The whole value of that witness depends on its being eye-witness; the whole genuineness, acceptableness, and dominion of it depend on the personal assurance of the man who utters it. All its victory depends on the veracity of the one preceding word, "Vidi" .

This facility is not natural. The senses must be trained. Uneducated senses cannot discern the truth of nature. Clearly, Hopkins took to heart and followed Ruskin's advice. Through descriptive journaling and sketching, Ruskin held that a person's perceptive powers become refined - Hopkins was clearly Ruskin's disciple in this regard. Ruskin saw nature as a tutor for beauty. By `imitating' nature, at least at first, the aspiring artist could learn what is essential, namely, that `all beauty is founded on the laws of natural forms' . Ruskin held that if the artist can paint a leaf, he can paint the world . He emphasized vegetation as being the best of tutors in this regard. It is not by accident that Hopkins spent so much time concentrating on plants and trees.

Ruskin believed that beauty was a composition of symmetry and variety. This law of composition, so important to art, is embodied in natural forms. In observing natural forms, the artist must first master generic form. `The task of the painter, in his pursuit of ideal form, is to attain accurate knowledge.....of the peculiar virtues, duties, and characters of every species of being; down even to the stone.....' . Thus, Ruskin's first concern was with the `perfect idea of the form and condition in which all the properties of the species are fully developed' . Nonetheless, because of the variations of complexity among individuals within various species (oaks for example), the artist must ultimately focus on the form characteristic of individuals, and must `show the individual character and liberty of the separate leaves, clouds, or rocks'. Therefore, both the law and individuality are essential to masterly work, but the individuality is more essential.

To understand Ruskin `it is important to note that form is characteristic not only of species, but of individuals, and that the truths of specific form are thus the first and most important of all' . Fike demonstrates that Ruskin's `law' refers to regularity while individuality implies irregularity. Beauty is composed of symmetry and variety. Hopkins held this Ruskinian principle. In his 1865 essay, The Origin of Beauty: A Platonic Dialogue, written for Walter Pater at Oxford, Hopkins held that proportion is the source and seat of beauty, and that proportion is the proper combination of regularity (`consistency or agreement or likeness, either of a thing to itself or of several things to each other') and irregularity (`difference or disagreement or change or variety'). He summarized this idea of the nature of beauty by writing that `all beauty may...be called rhyme', for rhyme embodies the principle of regularity in relation to irregularity . Here we see a basic and early influence upon Hopkins by Ruskin. Here we begin to approach the matrix in which Hopkins' inscape and instress developed.

Following Ruskin, Hopkins believed that form has a reality beyond its embodiment in individual objects; that is, `form' has ontological status beyond the physical world independent of a perceiver. As Ruskin taught, the artists first task is to discover the `typical' or ideal forms in the natural objects observed. Hopkins certainly devoted immense effort to isolating these typical forms from the detail that surrounded them. These typical forms paralleled what Hopkins and Ruskin referred to as `regularity' in their aesthetic principles. Hopkins early on identified this aesthetic regularity as a kind of obedience to law . Thus, in searching for the typical forms of things, their regularity, he was searching for their structural law.Throughout his Oxford journal, Hopkins referred to the form or type of particular things. Trees particularly seemed to catch his attention (following Ruskin's preferences).

Hopkins was prepared for his vocation as poet by following the method of Ruskin and accepting the basic tenets of his aesthetics. They highly refined his powers of observation and description. These aesthetics also led him to a unique appreciation of individual realities, of each thing's pristine distinctiveness. In this `contemplative' mode, Hopkins not only validated Ruskin's aesthetic vision, he also created new terms to describe better his heightened experience of beauty in nature.

As we have noted, Hopkins first used his characteristic aesthetic terms, inscape and instress, in the 1868 notes on the philosopher Parmenides which he made while teaching at Newman's Oratory School in Birmingham. There is no indication that the terms were derived from or inspired by Parmenides. In fact, they appear to be familiar terms to Hopkins. We know that Hopkins was still absorbed at the time by the Greek literature and philosophy he had studied for the Classical `Greats' exam he passed with honours at Oxford in June of 1867.

In a February 12, 1868 letter to his friend, Baillie, he spoke of his preference for Plato and Aristotle over modern philosophers. `An interest in philosophy is almost the only one I can feel myself quite free to indulge in still' . It would seem, then, that the use of the terms arose in the context of Greek philosophy. Throughout his life, Hopkins was keenly interested in rooting his aesthetics in sound philosophical principles. It is, therefore, not unlikely that these terms, while exhibiting a Ruskinian core, were created by Hopkins in the context of his study of classical Greek philosophy. As Fike suggests, perhaps the term inscape is a cognate of the Greek verb skopein (to look attentively) or the noun skopos (that upon which one fixes his or her look) . In any case, the essential point is that Hopkins' use of inscape implies many of the elements of Ruskinian aesthetics discussed above. It implies unity and, in that unity, the typical form by which one species of thing is distinguished from other species. It also implies individual form which distinguishes an individual object from other objects of the same kind.

The idea of inscape, then, arose out of Hopkins' aesthetic concerns and, as we have seen, his aesthetics were shaped by Ruskin. Inscape, in its deepest root, refers to beauty. As Hopkins wrote in his sermon on Creation and Redemption: The Great Sacrifice, `....This song of Lucifer's was a dwelling on his own beauty, an instressing of his own inscape.....' . Thus, Ruskin was the central influence on a key aspect of Hopkins' thought.

There is also continuity between Hopkins' instress and his early aesthetic theory. Hopkins used instress variably, but it has two essential meanings. It refers to the force that holds the inscape of an object together as well as to the effect or feeling produced by inscape within the beholder of a particular object. Fike connects the second sense of the term instress to Hopkins' early aesthetic theory derived from Ruskin, namely, that instress, as the effect of inscape, corresponds to Hopkins' views on the apprehension of beauty in an object . Through careful observation and the discovery of law and variety, or regularity and irregularity, in a thing, Hopkins, like Ruskin, held that the artist would experience a sense of beauty and the pleasure accompanying it. This parallels Hopkins' schema whereby the inscape of a thing is discovered through close examination and the corresponding effect of that inscape (instress) is felt. Here we see the objective-subjective polarity that can be found in Ruskin continued in Hopkins' ideas about the perception of beauty. Inscape is the objective reality that exists independent of the beholder while instress is partly the response of the beholder and partly the force of being which links the object and the beholder.

So Hopkins' comment that `what you look hard at seems to look hard at you' is intelligible . Part of the work of the artist is not only to convey inscape, but also to convey the moral and aesthetic energy of a thing, its instress. Inscape, then, centers on seeing as Ruskin defines it, while instress is partially the internal alchemy or response of God's artist that occurs when a thing is truly seen. The artist `feels' a thing's instress as God's plan behind its inscape and internally responds to the divine will expressed there, submits to it. Thus, art, in its truest sense, is more than faithful reproduction of what the artist `sees'. It is also an expression of the divine energy or will in a reality and the artist's response to it .Conclusion

Certainly, Hopkins `changed' after his entrance into the Society of Jesus and his enthralment with the person and thought of Duns Scotus. This affected his interests and the subject matter of his poetry. He leaned more toward explicitly theological concerns. Thus, nature became more and more a revelation of the Creator. Nonetheless, the early aesthetic principles that he formed, refined and applied through his study of Ruskin and, thus, of nature, remained. He refined this early influence in his two new metaphysical terms, inscape and instress. He grew to use them in theological as well as aesthetic contexts. Thus, beauty remained an ultimate preoccupation of Hopkins, but in its association with religious experience. A stanza from his poem The Wreck of the Deutschland (P 28) shows this development:

I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely- asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:
Since, tho' he is under the world's splendour and wonder,
His mastery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

Ruskin believed that the creation of beauty was a duty owed to society. Marcel Proust described Ruskin as an aesthete who dedicated his life to an unswerving cult of Beauty: `This Beauty, to which he elected to consecrate his life, was not conceived as a means of embellishing or sweetening existence, but as a reality infinitely more important than life itself ...' .

For Hopkins, before Ignatius and Duns Scotus there was Ruskin. The awakening Ruskin crafted in Hopkins was the foundation for Hopkins' essential aesthetic. Using the philosophical and theological brick and mortar of Duns Scotus and Ignatius, Hopkins built upon this foundation to create the principles that underpinned his artistry and, ultimately, his theological thought and spirituality.


The only dissertation of note I have discovered is Francis Fike's The Influence of John Ruskin upon the Aesthetic Theory and Practice of Gerard Manley Hopkins [Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford, 1964]. As for published works, even though Ruskin is often mentioned in some studies, only Patricia Ball in The Science of Aspects: The Changing Role of Fact in the Work of Coleridge, Ruskin and Hopkins [1971] and Alison Sulloway in Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Victorian Temper [1972] offer us quality academic grist.

Though I find no reference to a Ruskin work in any remnant collection of the Hopkins family library, G. M. Hopkins' early sketches already point to the influence of Ruskin. Additionally, his youthful poem, The Escorial, eludes to The Stones of Venice, II in stanzas 6 and 7 where Hopkins refers to the Doric, Corinthian and Gothic styles with a Ruskinian judgment in favour of the Gothic (cf. Sulloway, p. 72).

Bergonzi, Bernard, Gerard Manley Hopkins, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1977, pp.20 — 21.

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