Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins; drawing by David Levine

1.

Of the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins it might be said that he’s difficult only if you try to understand him. A reader might reasonably choose not to. Certainly there are moments—as when you hit a phrase like “Or a jaunting vaunting vaulting assaulting trumpet telling”—whose passionate clamor makes any cool search for meaning look finicky and small-minded.

The main corpus of Hopkins’s poetry is slender—probably fewer than a hundred pages once juvenilia, translations, and fragments are removed. There is the sizable masterstroke of “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” which runs ten or so pages, some thirty sonnets, and a scattering of short lyrics, most of them meditations from that numinous zone where the natural world grades into theology. The poems are, in a double sense, concentrated work: contemplative and dense. They are concentrated, too, in the degree to which this small body of work ramified outward: Hopkins’s influence on the poetry of the twentieth century was both vast and varied. You feel his presence in the poems of W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Amy Clampitt, Seamus Heaney—the list goes on and on.

Hopkins devoted his entire adult life to the Catholic Church, converting from his family’s High Anglicanism in 1866, when he was twenty-two, and eventually becoming a Jesuit priest who, finding parish work overly stressful, spent many years teaching classics. It’s hardly unexpected that theories of art for art’s sake held no appeal for him, given that all art, all everything, derived from God. Nor, under these circumstances, is the notorious obscurity of some of his poems so surprising, since all mysteries are unriddled in God’s eye.

Yet the more you read Hopkins, the clearer it grows how fervently he longed for understanding readers. Although his entire literary lifetime unfolded during Victoria’s reign (his earliest schoolboy verses were composed in the 1860s; his final poem, a sonnet addressed to his friend and literary executor, Robert Bridges, was composed just before his death, of typhus, in 1889), critics frequently group him with his knotty modernist successors like Pound and Eliot. They do so partly because of his experimental prosody, with its protracted lines and syncopated stresses, and partly because of his delayed publishing history. The first collection of Hopkins’s poetry, under Bridges’s editorship, did not appear until 1918.

To view Hopkins as in spirit a twentieth-century poet often makes a good deal of sense (just as it makes sense to treat Blake’s actual birth-date—1757—as a historical accident and to fold him into the nineteenth century). Surely a phrase of Hopkins’s like “hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold/What while we, while we slumbered,” from “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,” bears a closer resemblance to e.e. cummings than to anything in the nineteenth century; the creatures in a line like “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame,” from one of his most famous sonnets, feel more like members of one of Marianne Moore’s bestiaries than of Wordsworth’s. In this passage from one of his most despairing sonnets (“No worst, there is none”), he seems to anticipate the fractured syntax and jolted inversions of Berryman’s Dream Songs:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

And yet Hopkins showed little tolerance for what would be, in the next century, the modernists’ common acceptance of obscurity—especially the idea that certain emotional states are necessarily, rightly ineffable. (It’s hard to picture Eliot or Pound or Moore doing what Hopkins regularly did when Bridges complained that a passage was opaque—he would obligingly supply an abundant prose paraphrase—or to picture them meticulously annotating, as Hopkins did, with accents, double accents, and half a dozen other diacritical marks to demonstrate how he wished a poem to be read aloud.) Even when Hopkins’s words hurtle like a river in spate, he can be counted on to have in mind something quite specific he longs to impart.

This sense of arcane but discoverable meanings lends an air of sharp decisiveness to minute matters of Hopkins criticism. The notes to the most recent Oxford University Press edition of the complete poems (1990) offer learned ornithological debate over what is going on, aerodynamically, with the kestrel glimpsed in the first stanza of “The Windhover”:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dáwn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rólling level úndernéath him steady áir, and stríding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy!

What exactly does it mean for a bird to have “rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing”? Such discussions have point and meaning only if Hopkins’s words are more than words—if, behind all his verbal arabesques, you behold a real bird doing real things.

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Predictably, Hopkins’s penchant for irreducible, literal subject matter had religious underpinnings. He wasn’t merely uninterested in but censorious of any poetry divorced from the world, as his scattered grumblings about Swinburne reveal. He once wrote of him to Bridges, “It is all now a ‘self-drawing web’; a perpetual functioning of genius without truth, feeling, or any adequate matter to be at function on.” Swinburne was insufficiently earnest—a word that, despite its stuffy overtones for modern readers, denoted for Hopkins that combination of gravity, sincerity, and penetration from which most art springs. If our primary human duty is, as he once wrote, to “give God glory and to mean to give it,” any strain of poetry that strays too far from the world of His creation risks flightiness if not ingratitude.

Hopkins saw the very notion of “religious poetry” as something of a pleonasm—a favorite term of his when dismissing somebody’s laxity of thought. While art for art’s sake was predictably far from his interest, the degree to which Hopkins chose to make a spiritual virtue of sharp-sightedness was not necessarily expected. But in a private world like his, where a tiny and easily overlooked bluebell could ring out a message of divine reassurance—he knew “the beauty of our Lord by it”—alert observation became not merely a gratification but a joyfully embraced responsibility.

In one of his sermons Hopkins spoke of the world as “word, expression, news from God.” Surely, given their source, no such bulletins should ever be overlooked and we are all bound to constant vigilance. (Or as he tersely put it, chronicling the day’s weather in one of his journals: “There were both solar and lunar halos, faint: it deserves notice.”) He was pleased to discover “nothing at random” in even the most out-of-the-way places, as another journal entry makes clear:

Looking down into the thick ice of our pond I found the imprisoned air-bubbles nothing at random but starting from centres and in particular one most beautifully regular white brush of them, each spur of it a curving string of beaded and diminishing bubbles.

This notion of an imposed watchfulness may help to explain Hopkins’s passion for ephemera, which he noted in an assortment of diaries and notebooks eventually published as The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was a great one for studying, with a scientist’s calibrating eye, phenomena like melting crystals, rainbows, lightning, rising steam clouds, the iridescence of a pigeon’s neck. The vocabulary of his observations often bore a scientific tinge: “the law of the oak leaves,” “horizontally prolate gadroons,” “very plump round clouds something like the eggs in an opened ant-hill.” Indeed, in much of The Journals and Papers he sounds far closer in spirit to his troubling Victorian contemporary Charles Darwin than to anything we’d expect from a poet-priest. Of all passing natural phenomena, drifting clouds drew him most profoundly, their never-to-be-duplicated patterns serving as one-time-only jottings on the chalkboard of the sky.

Hopkins modestly spoke of his “weather journal,” though its range of entries extended far beyond the sky’s doings. No series of excerpts could do justice to the weather journals’ quiet observations, whose effect depends on an impression of dailiness, of steady aggregation. It certainly sounds surpassingly tedious—a diary of weather conditions compiled by a mostly unpublished priest with literary leanings.

The Journals and Papers offers little in the way of religious comment—little abstract musing of any sort. (It should be noted that Hopkins kept other, presumably more intimate, journals, which were deliberately destroyed, either by Hopkins or by those seeking to protect his memory; the portrait we’re left with is fragmentary.) On most of the pages in his journal there is simply an eye, roving over a largely tame English rural landscape. Admittedly, it’s sometimes difficult to tell precisely what phenomenon Hopkins is describing. Just as ornithologists may argue over the windhover’s flight, meteorologists could have a field day sorting out some of his more eccentric annotations:

Standing on the glacier saw the prismatic colours in the clouds, and worth saying what sort of clouds: it was fine shapeless skins of fretted make, full of eyebrows or like linings of curled leaves which one finds in shelved corners of a wood.

But if readers can’t always picture the cloudscapes Hopkins so painstakingly sets before them, the journal delivers something rarer and more inspiring: all the minute observations eventually add up to a vision of the world, and a portrait of the retiring man himself, in all his susceptibilities and vulnerabilities, his rapturous excitements and imposing self-discipline. (It’s no wonder that another keen-eyed inspector of minutiae, Elizabeth Bishop, was obsessed with The Journals and Papers.) His first glimpse of the Northern Lights is particularly memorable:

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This busy working of nature wholly independent of the earth and seeming to go on in a strain of time not reckoned by our reckoning of days and years but simpler and as if correcting the preoccupation of the world by being preoccupied with and appealing to and dated to the day of judgment was like a new witness to God and filled me with delightful fear.

2.

Little in Hopkins’s background, beyond his family’s general interest in culture, would suggest the makings of a revolutionary writer. Born in 1844, at Stratford in Essex, he was the eldest of nine children. Hopkins’s father, a specialist in marine insurance, occasionally composed highly conventional verses. Two brothers became commercial artists.

Hopkins’s first significant act of rebellion was not artistic but religious: he was still a student at Oxford when he converted to Catholicism—a life-transforming decision from which he never wavered. Hopkins’s college days were suffused by religion. He had arrived in Oxford in the wake of those various attempts both to renew the Church of England and to clarify its lingering connections to the Catholic faith, which collectively came to be called the Oxford Movement, and of John Henry Newman’s celebrated—or scandalous—“going over” to the Catholic Church, in 1845. Various letters reflect just how animatedly Hopkins and his friends—a number of whom converted or flirted with conversion—debated theological issues. It was Newman, England’s most famous convert, who guided Hopkins into the Church and toward his decision, formalized a few years later, to become a Jesuit priest.

Some critics, eager to fix Hopkins in his era, have speculated that he might never have converted had he arrived in Oxford in some other decade. While this may well be true, it is a line of analysis that dismisses Hopkins’s own perspective; he naturally saw his conversion as a response to a divine challenge and invitation (“I cannot fight against God Who calls me to His Church”), all enacted on a scale far grander than mere undergraduate controversy.

Readers familiar with critical work on Hopkins will recognize this as a recurrent tension—a disjunction between an ultimately secular outlook and a divine interpretation of events. It’s a clash of viewpoints at the heart of how we choose to regard Hopkins’s chaste romantic life. Hopkins was apparently homosexual, and one might plausibly interpret his flight to the rigors of the Church as an unconscious strategy for avoiding attractions that claimed and unnerved him. But from Hopkins’s point of view—as his journals and letters intimate—any homosexual longings he discerned in himself were varieties of sinful temptation, to be overcome through prayer and perhaps physical mortification.

Not surprisingly, most Hopkins criticism is secular at heart, though without always acknowledging just how distorted—how weirdly misguided—Hopkins himself would find all interpretations of a spiritual life that were drawn purely from the outside. For him, a failure to see how divine promptings informed his shaping internal life—his “inscape,” his own term for it—was to miss everything of his life that mattered.

Viewed from the liberal mores of our own era, Hopkins can come across as a bit of a prig. This particular literary revolutionary was, whenever he stepped away from his poet’s notebook, a great espouser of orthodoxy. Although he revered Milton’s poetry—perhaps the largest single influence on his own—he had trouble forgiving Milton his support for loosening the divorce laws (“he was a very bad man”), and while he sensed profound affinities between himself and Whitman (“I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any other man’s living”), he avoided Whitman’s poetry as the work of a “very great scoundrel.”

In his letters, he was quick to upbraid friends and family for slippages into inappropriate levity. Where others might have found a tonic irony, he commonly saw corruption, as in this stern admonition of his dear friend Bridges: “And let me say, to take no higher ground, that without earnestness there is nothing sound or beautiful in character and that a cynical vein much indulged coarsens everything in us.”

When The Journals and Papers first appeared, some critics were pleasantly surprised to find nuggets of humor in them. I can’t say I find many. Although he could be amusingly mock-peremptory, Hopkins was a limping humorist at best, as in his few scraps of light verse or a spoof-Irish letter to a sister (“Im intoirely ashamed o meself”). The inchoate roots of much everyday humor—aggression, resentment toward authority, irreverence, sexual tension—were scarcely impulses he meant to foster. Even so, his earnestness may have had an oddly liberating effect: it probably made possible some of his more outlandish experiments with rhyme.

Hopkins regularly concocted rhymes that would seemingly belong more to Thomas Hood or Lord Byron or Ogden Nash than to a grave religious poet who was wrestling with questions of divine justice, spiritual estrangement, the fragility of earthly beauty. How could one possibly employ, as Hopkins did, rhymes like “pain, for the”/”grain for thee” or “ruin”/”crew, in” in a poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” that meditates on shipwreck and tragic drowning? Or “boon he on”/”Communion” in a lyric about initiation into the mystical rites of the Church? Only a sensibility radically extracted from the conventional trappings of humor, from the milieu of snappy banter where everyone’s greatest fear is to be made a fool of, could have resorted to such clownish tools on so grave a poetic mission. In his rhyming, as in so many of his excesses, he was spared that clarity of sight which would have revealed to him just how near to ludicrous he frequently appeared.

3.

Perhaps no other great English poet made it so plain that poetry wasn’t the core activity of his life. While Shakespeare’s apparent indifference to the eventual fate of his poems and plays must forever stand as the most puzzling unconcern in our literature, we have in Hopkins’s case, unlike Shakespeare’s, numerous attestations of how secondary a pursuit poetry was for him.

When he entered the Jesuit novitiate, in 1868, Hopkins burned most of his poems and “resolved to write no more, as not belonging to my profession.” In a letter to a friend, he explained, “I want to write still and as a priest I very likely can do that too, not so freely as I shd. have liked, e.g. nothing or little in the verse way, but no doubt what wd. best serve the cause of my religion.” For seven years he essentially wrote no verse, and when at the age of thirty-one he began again, with the leviathan of “The Wreck of the Deutschland” (his longest poem, and for many people his masterpiece), he did so only at the behest of a superior, who considered the ship’s sinking, which included the drowning of five German Franciscan nuns, a fitting subject for commemoration.

From 1868 to 1877 he was studying and teaching while preparing to be ordained as a priest. Hopkins’s letters and journals abound in equably resigned references to the literary sacrifices his vocation imposed. Although one detects sometimes a touch of wistfulness, a hint of remorse at the poems destined to go unwritten, he never faltered in his conviction that he faced more important tasks than stringing lyrical phrases together: “Still, if we care for fine verses how much more for a noble life!”

Later generations of poets who have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into their art, with far less success than Hopkins had, are entitled to feel a little vexed at his example. As if with his left hand, as a mere sideline, Hopkins secured for himself what most poets only dream of—a share of literary immortality. Yet his subordination of poetry to spiritual betterment is far more than a piquant irony: it permeates the very nature of his peculiar accomplishment. Hopkins’s genius, as reflected both in his poems and in his letters and journals, depended on this notion that every earthly act served a higher cause.

If poetry isn’t an end in itself, but only an instrument for elaborating that praise of God which is our chief mortal duty, then it must forever be testing itself against the empirical beauties of creation. Hopkins was constantly touched by a sensation of falling short. The skies he captured in his journals, the flowers he planted in his poems—their real-life models reproached him with their effortless excellence.

This poet who saw each day as “news from God” stalked through the natural world resolutely fixed on noting its often overlooked perfections—the glistening miniatures, the quiet accords and oppositions of hue and shape, the in-between things for which, as in some pre-Adamic state, there were no names:

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….

He took it as his special mission to extol whatever was “counter, original, spare, strange.” In this he diverged broadly from the tradition of nature verse of his time, and those critics intent on stressing his continuities to Tennyson, Wordsworth, Gray, et al. frequently lose sight of what makes Hopkins so powerful: his originality. (With Hopkins, it takes a while to get past his poems’ unrivaled oddities of appearance and delivery, in order to see just how odd he really is.1 )

There’s a long and exalted tradition of English nature poetry, extended into the twentieth century by poets like Auden and Roethke, in which natural objects rapidly revert to archetypes: trees, flowers, and streams become Trees, Flowers, Streams. But this approach to the universal wasn’t Hopkins’s approach, who observed of his own temperament that “the effect of studying masterpieces” only made him wish to “do otherwise,” and that “more reading would only refine my singularity.” His approach—support for which he found in the medieval theologian Duns Scotus—was by way of ever greater particularity, as in “As kingfishers catch fire”:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes its self;
myself it speaks and spells,
Crying
What I do is me: for that I came.

The determination to take as his subject Nature’s multiplicity, in all its lumpy quiddities, accordingly became fused with an apparent belief that only a new language, a new prosody, was up to the task. The poem in which Hopkins praises creatures “counter, original, spare, strange” is itself a strange animal: a “curtal sonnet,” in which both octet and sestet have been truncated to three quarters their normal length. Even while he embraced that creaky form the sonnet, Hopkins seems to have been almost constitutionally unable to work in conventional forms conventionally. His nature poetry embodies a conviction that, in rendering the teeming biological world, accuracy demands stylistic extravagance—a notion that likewise would have made sense to Darwin, who as he was preparing to publish The Origin of Species remarked in a pair of letters, “Truly the schemes & wonders of nature are illimitable,” and “What a wondrous problem it is,—what a play of forces, determining the kinds & proportions of each plant in a square yard of turf!”

Hopkins’s relentless search for a tighter fit between the observed and the observation led at times to queer, incongruous analogies, as when, in “God’s Grandeur,” divine glory is reduced to a sheet of gold foil or to vegetable oil from a press:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck2 his rod?

When defending himself to Bridges, Hopkins often took refuge in the ideal of accuracy: whatever words or images Bridges happened to question, it would turn out that they held precisely the physical traits that Hopkins wanted, and nothing else would quite do the subject justice. Besides, there was gratification to be found in discerning faraway linkages in the divine web, all those half-hidden congruencies that unite the large and the small, the celestial and the humble. Incongruous? What did the word even mean when, as Hopkins insisted, the “only just judge, the only just literary critic, is Christ,” to whom all connections are manifest? Hopkins’s pursuit of accuracy also bolstered his artistic fearlessness, since in its behalf he was doubly armed: he had a dual sort of faithfulness—both fidelity to the object under his eye and loyalty to a divinely sanctioned task—on his side.

Hopkins’s prosody is a complicated business, partly because he experimented in so many different directions, partly because he wasn’t always clear or even consistent in his rationales. Here and there, particularly in his letters, he seems determinedly mystical and befuddling, as in his discussion of “outrides,” which he defines as an “extra-metrical effect,” a phrase not counted when the line is scanned. “It is and it is not part of the meter,” he explains—and sounds almost like a physicist talking about inherently unplaceable subatomic particles. (Even prosodic issues, which most other poets would regard as purely mechanical, brimmed with religious significance. As he wrote to Bridges, employing some of the eccentricities of punctuation that flourished in his poetry: “I hold you to be wrong about ‘vulgar,’ that is obvious or necessary, rhymes…. It is nothing that the reader can say/He had to say it, there was no other rhyme: you answer /shew me what better I could have said if there had been a million. Hereby, I may tell you, hangs a very profound question treated by Duns Scotus, who shews that freedom is compatible with necessity.”)

The innovation Hopkins took most pride and interest in was what he called sprung rhythm, a prosodic system in which all unstressed syllables (the “slack,” in his designation) are metrically irrelevant: one measures only the number of stresses in a line. The scansion to one of his best-known poems, “Spring and Fall,” is a puzzle until one realizes that all lines, despite their variable lengths and numbers of syllables, contain four stresses (though he only marked some of them):

Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the sáme.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It ís the blíght mán was bórn for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Students of prosody may think of this as “pure stress verse” and trace its English origins back to Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon. In any case, it wasn’t a system that Hopkins claimed to have invented but to have reinvigorated and regularized. Its resurgence, he hoped, might restore English poetry to “the rhythm of prose, that is the native and natural rhythm of speech, the least forced, the most rhetorical and emphatic of all possible rhythms.” In a more exultant mood, he declared: “Sprung rhythm gives back to poetry its true soul and self. As poetry is emphatically speech, speech purged of dross like gold in the furnace, so it must have emphatically the essential elements of speech.”

What Hopkins might justifiably have claimed to invent, had he wished to, was a poetry in which the music of rhyme is turned inside out. He reversed the roles of external sounds (those falling at the end of a line) and internal sounds (those within the line). At least since Chaucer’s day, poets in English have customarily relied on external sounds (usually enhanced by exact rhymes) to create a poem’s primary set of echoes, with internal sounds contributing (through assonance, consonance, the occasional chime of an internal rhyme) an enriching accompaniment. Hopkins, on the other hand, “raised the volume” of the internal music to the point where it became primary and the end-rhymes secondary. (Meanwhile, in America, Hopkins’s contemporary Longfellow was, with less success, turning meter inside out, replacing iambs with trochees in Hiawatha.)

Part of the hypnotizing effect of Swinburne’s music was its amplifying of internal sounds, largely through alliteration and half-rhymes buried within the line, as in “Atalanta and Corydon”:

  The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places

  With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain….

But Swinburne hardly took the effect as far as Hopkins. Influenced by his studies of Welsh poetry, which he began after being transferred to St. Beuno’s in north Wales in 1874, Hopkins often set up an unprecedented internal din, whether contemplating Christ’s omnipresence:

Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
There, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind,
Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend.

(“The Lantern Out of Doors”)

or a farmer at his plow:

Hard as hurdle arms, with a broth of goldish flue
Breathed round; the rack of ribs; the scooped flank; lank
Ropd-over thigh; knee-nave; and barrelled shank….

(“Harry Ploughman”)

or our fallen earth:


And wears man’s smudge, and shares man’s smell, the soil
Is bare now….

(“God’s Grandeur”)

4.

Hopkins’s letters and journals often make painful reading. In the end, the solace of his faith was not always sufficient to buoy the temperament of someone who was apparently constitutionally prone to depression. Toward the end of his short life, he wrote to a friend: “The melancholy I have all my life been subject to has become of late years not indeed more intense in its fits but rather more distributed, constant, and crippling.” His counterpart a hundred years later might well have found some relief in medication. For Hopkins, the only “relief” lay in holding himself responsible:

Soon I am afraid I shall be ground down to a state like this last spring’s and summer’s, when my spirits were so crushed that madness seemed to be making approaches—and nobody was to blame, except myself partly for not managing myself better and contriving a change.

While his correspondence contains instances of greater emotional neediness, perhaps its most affecting moment is a passage written after Bridges disparaged Hopkins’s creative breakthrough, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Baffled by the poem’s per-plexities and eccentricities, Bridges evidently wrote that he wouldn’t read it again for any money. (Because Bridges’s correspondence to Hop-kins has been lost, what he wrote can be recovered only by inference. The wonderful Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges offers the reader an opportunity to picture talent engaged in conversation with genius, to imagine Bridges playing Watson to Hopkins’s Sherlock Holmes—common-sensically pointing out that this or that poetic effect was im-possible, and Hopkins briskly ex-plaining why the seemingly impossible was inevitable.) Hopkins, who could be quite acerbic, if always affectionately so, toward his friend’s shortcomings, responded in a voice of large-spiritedness: “You say you wd. not for any money read my poem again. Nevertheless I beg you will. Besides money, you know, there is love.”

One of the charming aspects of Hopkins’s difficulty as a poet is how easily surmounted it was—in his own eyes. He was forever protesting that obscurities and ambiguities all dissolved if his verses were only read with sensitivity to their underlying rhythms. Doubtless, many readers have come to feel, as I have, that it simply isn’t always possible, even after long examination of Hopkins’s peculiar musical annotations, to hear what their creator had in mind—to detect its auditory inner meaning. (After Shakespeare, Hopkins is the English poet I would most like to hear reading his own verse.) “The Sea and the Skylark” is among my favorite Hopkins’s sonnets, but I’m not sure that even his full complement of diacritical annotations allows me to hear it as he would have me hear it:

On ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.

Readers who fear they cannot always catch Hopkins’s inner cadences may find it consoling that even scholars who have given him a lifetime of study often disagree on how he hoped to sound, or what he meant to say. More consoling still is the realization that, with steady rereading, his lines do seem warmly to welcome you. Hopkins’s landscapes grow more hospitable with time. Their contours show the handsome indwelling harmony of something that has been true to itself. With each new visit to Hopkins country, the rivers run clearer, the birds in the convoluted trees sing with a purer pitch.

This Issue

April 29, 2004

  1. 1

    For a lucid discussion of what Hopkins owed to his predecessors, and where he parted from them, see Virginia Ridley Ellis’s Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Language of Mystery (University of Missouri Press, 1991). 

  2. 2

    “Take heed of.”