Hopkins Lectures

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

Style in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Brian Arkins National University of Ireland, Galway

Hopkins's style must be viewed against the general nineteenth century background. Romantic poetry espouses an idealist view of language which assumes that the object is known as a category of mind, but by the time of In Memoriam in 1850 Tennyson was expressing deep anxiety about the total dissolution of language: 'For words, like Nature, half reveal / And half conceal the Soul within' (In Memoriam, V).

An Ontology of Grammar

The language of Hopkins's contemporary Swinburne serves to show how language had become radically unstable and tended to degenerate into sound; as Pound said, 'He neglected the value of words as words and was intent on their value as sound' .Hopkins clearly recognized this problem and believed that other nineteenth century writers had dissolved the link between language and the world of objects, which are for him fixed and vital in themselves, and for which words are substitutes or equivalents. Such a view of language insists, like the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides, on an intimate link between real being and language, on what Armstrong calls an 'ontology of grammar' : the statement 'x is' guarantees the existence of x. As Nietzsche saw, when he asserted 'I feel we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar'.

So in Hopkins the word is irreducibly concrete; it expresses the Scotist haeccitas or thisness of things; and it, therefore, in Hulme's phrase 'hands over sensations bodily' . But Hopkins was also aware of the idea of language as arbitrary sign and, because of lack, anxiety, and desire, language is often threatening to break down in his poetry (as in stanza 28 of The Wreck of the Deutschland).The question of how language relates to 'physical' reality was not the only linguistic problem Hopkins faced. In some Romantic poetry, syntax tended to become one damn thing after another and this resulted in a jejune fluency that could be exacerbated by rhyme. Consider, for example, the opening stanza of Wordsworth's poem 'The Daffodils':

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Lifeless effusions of this kind, which hardly provid 'What Hopkins the Jesuit and Scotist needed, then, was to construct a style that would validate as living form the world of nature, of human beings, and of God. The style that Hopkins chose is unusual: he combines a syntax that is distinguished by types of syntactic inversion found in Greek and Latin with a vocabulary that is almost entirely Anglo-Saxon. In Hopkins this combination is what Russian formalism calls the dominant, defined by Jakobson as 'the focusing component of a work of art; it rules, determines and transforms the remaining components' . Hopkins' originality here can be seen if we compare him to other poets: Milton used both Latin syntax and a Latinate vocabulary; Yeats used Latin syntax and a vocabulary that is both Anglo-Saxon and Latinate.Hopkins' Greco-Latin syntax involves two main types of hyperbaton, 'a figure of speech in which the natural order of words or phrases is inverted, especially for the sake of emphasis' described by Longinus (On the Sublime, p.192) as bearing 'the genuine stamp of vehement emotion'. These are the use of embedded sentences in which one subordinate sentence is contained within another main sentence, and the placing at the start of a sentence of material that would normally come later.Hopkins' use of Anglo-Saxon words also involves syntactic devices. The pervasive use of asyndeton - a device that omits connecting words such as 'and' and 'but' - produces tremendous compression and energy from the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, as does the use of new compound adjectives that often replace relative clauses.The difficulties of Hopkins' poetry are largely stylistic; as he himself said. For part of what Hopkins does with language is much more akin to Shakespeare's practice than to Milton's: he keeps living English as his base, but departs widely from current idiom (notably in his last sonnets). As Hollander says, 'The ear responds to the dimension of natural experience, the eye to that of convention' .The first aspect of Hopkins' idiolect to be examined is his pervasive use of embedded sentences. Embedding is defined as 'the process of including one sentence within another; or a construction where this operation has taken place'. Embedding, then, involves the use of a matrix sentence, defined as a 'superordinate sentence within which another sentence is embedded' , and another sentence surrounded by the two parts of the matrix sentence, with the result that the subject is separated from the predicate. So in the sentence 'the car that was stolen is in the street', the matrix sentence is 'the car is in the street' and the embedded sentence is 'that was stolen'.

The effect of embedding on the readers is to postpone their ability to understand the sentence; it is only when the entire sentence is complete that the statements in it can be decoded.In Hopkins' poetry embedded sentences usually elaborate on some aspect of what is contained in the matrix sentence. Notable topics here are beauty, sorrow, and God which will be considered in order.The opening of poem 'the Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo', which deals with beauty, provides one of the most spectacular examples of an embedded sentence in Hopkins, 'making the audience terrified for the total collapse of the sentence' (as Longinus says, p.193). The basic question being asked is how to maintain beauty against the ravages of time: 'How to keep . . . Back beauty?' but between the first three words 'How to keep' and the words 'Back beauty' that complete the question, are no fewer than 26 other words. This vast expansion in the syntax implies both the extreme difficulty of the task and the variety of means that might be used to achieve it:

How to keep - is this any way, is there none such, nowhere
known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace,
latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty . . .

Next, embedded sentences in Hopkins that relate to sorrow. At the beginning of Hopkins' ecological poem 'Binsey Poplars', the cutting down of the personified trees is made more poignant by an embedded relative clause that describes how they were able to overcome the sun and with their shimmering leaves quench its fire:

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are felled . . .

At the beginning of 'No worst, there is none', the fact that Hopkins' pangs (already regarded as very severe) will get worse is indicated by their prior practice and language enacts that prior practice by having it precede the getting worse:

Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.

In the sestet of his sonnet to Bridges, Hopkins complains of lack of poetic inspiration. To describe his unhappy situation, he uses two embedded phrases - the first about lack of happiness, the second about his resulting sorrow - that neatly link the themes of an unsatisfactory situation and the lack of creativity that follows:

O then if in my lagging lines you miss

The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.

Bridges once complained to Hopkins that 'the grammar should expose and enforce the meaning, not have to be determined by the meaning , but Hopkins' complex syntax, in this poem and elsewhere, enacts in the language the situation it sets out to portray and does so in a very rich and effective way.

So it is in Hopkins' poem about God. In the sestet of the sonnet 'St. Alphonsus Rodriguez', we find a notable example of an embedded sentence. Hopkins is asserting that God may honour those whose lives appear uneventful - 'God . . . Could crowd career with conquest' - but immediately after introducing God, he adds a long relative clause that shows how God creates the wonders of nature in a very gradual way. Here as the embedded sentence makes the progression of the main sentence gradual, it enacts the process that is being described:

Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest . . .

The next form of syntactic inversion to be examined is the placing at the start of a sentence of material that would normally come later. Word order in English in the basic sentence pattern of subject - verb - object is inflexible: to express the concept of a canine creature sinking its teeth into a male human being, 'dog bites man' is the only possibility. But a Greek or Latin version of that sentence can invert the word order without changing the meaning, because these inflected languages have a variety of case endings: in Latin virum edit canis, man (accusative case) bites dog (nominative case).

It is precisely this syntactic possibility that Hopkins exploits at line 69 of 'The Loss of the Eurydice'. He recounts how another boat saved from the water Sydney Fletchers (one of only two survivors of the wreck), but inverts the normal English word order with a view to highlighting this man and inserts an embedded phrase for good measure:

Him, after an hour of wintry waves,
A schooner sights, with another, and saves . . .

A very striking example of a noun being displaced to the beginning of a sentence occurs in 'Spring and Fall'. Since the young child Margaret is upset about the falling leaves in goldengrove, Hopkins starts the poem's second question with the word 'Leaves' and makes us wait for the verb that governs it. MacKenzie's prosy prose gloss reads 'You with your fresh thoughts can care for leaves, can you, like the things of man?' But Hopkins' poetic syntax gives us energy:

Leaves, like the things of man, You
With your fresh thoughts care for, Can You

We move on to Hopkins' vocabulary. Hopkins was indeed obsessed with words and Leavis is right to assert that 'every word in one of his important poems is doing a great deal more work than almost any word in the poems of Robert Bridges' .Hopkins' vocabulary is characterised by the use of words that are almost entirely Anglo-Saxon; by neologisms in the form of compound adjective and of the conversion of words to new grammatical function; by words that derive from English dialects; and by the linking of these words through the device of asyndeton and through types of repetition such as alliteration, assonance, and rhyme.In producing poetry that used language in this radically new way, Hopkins rejected Victorian poetic diction that provided a model for writing in clichés what Emerson called 'fossil poetry'. What Hopkins advocated was a heightened version of the language of his own day: 'I cut myself off from the use of ere, o'er, wellnigh, what time, say not, (for do not say), because, though dignified, they neither belong to nor ever could arise from, or be the elevation of, ordinary modern speech. For it seems to me that the poetical language of an age should be the current language heightened, to any degree heightened and unlike itself, but not (I mean normally: passing freaks and graces are other things) an obsolete one. This is Shakespeare's and Milton's practice and the want of it will be fatal to Tennyson's Idylls and plays, to Swinburne, and perhaps to Morris' .It is important to be clear about what is at stake here. Hopkins rejects both Victorian poetic diction and the language of educated people in favour of the colloquial speech of ordinary country people that may include dialectal elements (this is the linguistic version of his preference of lush country over mean towns). His language has therefore nothing to do with archaisms, poeticisms, or perversity, and everything to do with the effort to forge a living speech for poetry. Hopkins' interest in words must be related to 19th century research into philology, into the history and similarities of languages, which brought about a major improvement in knowledge of the history and dialects of the English language. So his enthusiasm for Anglo-Saxon words relates both to the purist movement of Saxonism and to the study of English dialects. The movement to keep foreign and especially Latin words out of English and to maintain a completely Anglo-Saxon vocabulary (what Percy Grainger calls 'Blue-eyed English') was taken to extreme lengths by the Rev. William Barnes, whose work Hopkins knew.Hopkins' preoccupation with English dialects was bolstered by the views of the distinguished philologist Max Müller. Stressing that languages change and reinvent themselves, Müller held that 'The real and natural life of language is in its dialects' and that these dialects were not just of regions but also 'of shepherds, of sportsmen, of soldiers or farmers' .

As the dialect of Hardy and the army language of Kipling attest, Hopkins was keenly interested in regional dialects of England in counties such as Lancashire and Oxfordshire, an interest which led him to make contributions to Writht's great English Dialect Dictionary; he was also interested in the technical vocabulary belonging to occupations such as farming.Hopkins' vocabulary, then, is characterised by the prevalence of Anglo-Saxon words. Since about half the vocabulary of English derives from Latin (or French), it is, of course, impossible to avoid Latin-based words entirely. But Hopkins makes a very definite effort to keep Latinisms to a minimum. What is involved in his use of Anglo-Saxon words is shown by the short poem 'Pied Beauty'

Glory be to God for dappled things -
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
he fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

This curtal sonnet exemplified in a very clear way Hopkins' commitment to an Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. In the first sentence of 'Pied Beauty', 37 of the 45 words are Anglo-Saxon in origin; in the second sentence, 22 of the 29 words are Anglo-Saxon. These remarkable statistics - 59 words out of 74 - show that in the poem over 80 per cent of the vocabulary is Anglo-Saxon.The most obvious and most remarkable way that Hopkins produces neologisms is by means of compound words. To produce compound words in English, we simply add together any two roots or stems and, since the roots of a language are virtually limitless, a very large number of compounds are possible. But Hopkins goes far beyond the facility English has for producing compounds and treats English as though it were a language such as Greek or German that has an enormous capacity to manufacture such words. Indeed the Athenian tragedian Aeschylus, whose 'swell and pomp of words' Hopkins refers to, provided a model for the English poet's use of compound adjectives And the principal function of these new compounds in Hopkins is to bring about a very great compression. The vast majority of compounds in English are of the endocentric type where the meaning of the centre is restricted by the non-centre element: gunpowder is powder that is used in guns; gardenparty is a party that is held in a garden. This type of compound achieves compression by suppressing the relative clause. Hopkins' compounds are sometimes a combination of two adjectives that are co-ordinate, but not linked by the connective 'and': 'kindcold'; 'rash-fresh'; 'lovely-felicitous'; 'wild-worst'. Occasionally, Hopkins combines two nouns: 'martyr-master'; 'knee-nave'; 'heaven-haven'. But he usually produces endocentric compounds where one word is subordinate to another: 'rockfire' is fire caused by rock. In the poem 'Duns Scotus's Oxford', Hopkins puts together a succession of five new compound adjectives of the endocentric type: 'Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed, lark-charmed, rook-racked, river-rounded'. Here he makes heavy use of compression: not only is there no connecting 'and' between the five adjectives (the device of asyndeton), but each adjective is itself reduced from the format of a noun followed by a relative clause: city that echoes with cuckoos. A further means of extending the vocabulary of English is functional conversion, a device in which a word has a new grammatical function without changing its form. Now it is, of course, the case that English has many words that have one form for noun, adjective, and verb - 'counter', 'slow', 'spare' - Bridges objects to Hopkins making such words grammatically ambiguous .

English swarms with words that have one identical form for substance, adjective and verb; and such a word should never be so placed as to allow of any doubt as to what part of speech it is used for; because such ambiguity or momentary uncertainty destroys the force of the sentence.But functional conversion is a different matter: Hopkins takes words that we normally expect to see used as nouns and turns them into verbs (or vice versa). A procedure anticipated by Shakespeare, who makes Cleopatra say, as she anachronistically foresees her impersonation by child-actors on the Elizabethan stage, 'I shall see some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness'.Two examples of functional conversion occur in The Wreck of the Deutschland. In stanza 11 Hopkins writes of a personified Death that 'storms bugle his fame'. Drawing on the use of the bugle in the army as a signal, Hopkins makes the statement vivid not only by converting the noun 'bugle' into a verb, but also by making its object the abstract noun 'fame'. When Hopkins envisages the conversion of England in the last stanza of The Wreck, he writes of Christ 'Let him easter in us' and the noun turned verb vividly suggests that Spring and Resurrection should be experienced now and in England. Finally, examples of dialect words in Hopkins' poetry, words that delineate authentic places and authentic occupations. To describe the delicate pink or red spots on trout, Hopkins in 'Pied Beauty' employs the dialectal sense of 'mole' as 'spot' or 'stain': 'rosemoles all in stipple upon trout that swim'. Two striking words from Lancashire dialect occur in the poem 'Inversnaid' that deals with the waters near Loch Lomond in Scotland: Hopkins says that the foam of the water 'tuindles', which means either 'to double' or 'to divide in half', and that the hillsides are 'degged' with dew, which means 'sprinkled' and is, like many such words, of Scandinavian origin.Sometimes Hopkins rings changes on a dialect word. When in stanza 19 of The Wreck of the Deutschland Hopkins writes of the nun that 'The rash smart sloggering bring / Blinds her', the verbal form 'sloggering' is a coinage of Hopkins. Drawing on the fact that in Northern usage 'to slogger' means 'to hand loosely and untidily', Hopkins makes his new imitative word suggest 'the sound of the breakers dashing against the ship and then drawing back with the sucking, gurgling noise' .


The analysis of Hopkins's style just advanced makes no claim to be comprehensive. Indeed Dylan Thomas has eloquently explained why no technical analysis of poetry can ever be adequate to its mysterious power .You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick, and say to yourself, when the works are laid out before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes and rhythms. 'Yes, this is it. This is why the poem moves me so. It is because of the craftsmanship'. But you're back again where you began. The best craftsmanship always leave holes and gaps in the works of the poem, so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in. Nevertheless, Hopkins' mastery of language is clear. It is significant that, when Hopkins' tutor at Balliol, R.L. Nettleship, a man renowned for getting his students to think, called him 'one of the cleverest and most original men at Oxford in his time', he drew attention to Hopkins' delicate perception of language. This subtle use of language by Hopkins may not appeal to those who champion what Bridges called 'a continuous literary decorum', but decorum in poetry, as in life, can be overrated. Instead, Hopkins offers us a syntax and a vocabulary that challenges Victorian orthodoxy in those matters, and so achieves that defamiliarization in the use of language that is so crucial to serious poetry.


Eliot, T.S., (ed), Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, London: 1960, p. 292.

Armstrong, I., Victorian Poetry, London/New York: 1996, p. 420.

Nietzsche, quoted by J. Tambline, What is Literary Language? MiltonKeynes/Philadelphia: 1988, p.56.

Hulme, T.E. Speculations, London: 1958, p. 134.

For Hopkins' style see J. Milroy, The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins, London: 1977.Jakobson, quoted by R. Selden, A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, Brighton: 1985, p. 15.

Hopkins, quoted in The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, eds. W.H. Gardner and N.H. MacKenzie, Oxford/New York: 1970, pp. 240/41;

Hollander, quoted in R. Bradford, A Linguistic History of English Poetry, London/New York: 1993, p. 80.

D. Crystal in International Encyclopaedia of Linguistics, ed. W. Bright, Oxford/New York: 1992, 4.295; 4.315.

Bridges, quoted in Gardner and MacKenzie (note 6), p. 241.

Leavis, F.R., New Bearings in English Poetry, Harmondsworth: 1963, p. 134

Abbott, C.C. (ed), The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, London: 1935, p. 89.

Müller, quoted in Milroy (note 4), p. 83, 92.

Stanford, W.B., Studies, vol.30, 1941, pp.359 - 68.

Bridges, quoted in Gardner and MacKenzie (note 6), p. 242.

Milroy (note 4), pp. 83 - 92.

Thomas, quoted in Leech, A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry, London/New York: 1969, p. 227.

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