To the Editors:
Brad Leithauser makes the important point that Gerard Manley Hopkins was in no way an obvious literary descendant of Words-worth or Gray [NYR, April 29]. Hopkins thought “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” a very great poem, but his own unique style does not use the classical diction that Wordsworth, or for that matter Chaucer or Pope, have as the basis of all their work. But I think the argument can be made that Hopkins had a very immediate ancestor in Keats.
One of the most distinctive qualities of his style, the compounding of words into participles as in “bell-swarmed, lark-charmed, rook-racked,/river rounded…” in “Dun Scotus’ Oxford” is one he shares with Keats. An example from the latter’s “Ode to Psyche” is:
Mid hush’d, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,
Blue, silver-white and budded Tyrian,
They lay calm-breathing on the bedded grass…
The tendency of this style is to contract words into each other and thereby intensify their meaning. What may be lost in immediate comprehension is made up by the energy forced into images by the compression of verb and noun and adjective into phrases like “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon.” We linger over the image and see the words and the object in an unforgettable way. Hopkins’s elaborate use of diacritical marks, which Mr. Leithauser notes, sometimes seems to me almost a smokescreen for his refabrication of words, something he saw in earlier poets, including Keats and Shakespeare, and that continues in poets who follow him, as when Dylan Thomas describes “the heron/Priested shore.”
Brad Leithauser replies:
My thanks to Mr. Dugan for his thoughtful note.
Hopkins admired Keats-the-philosopher as much or more as Keats-the-poet. (Near the end of his life, Hopkins wrote in a letter, “He was, in my opinion, made to be a thinker, a critic, as much as a singer or artist of words.”) As Mr. Dugan’s letter suggests, all those compounds beloved by both poets—those chunky word-clusters stapled together by hyphens—ultimately reflect a restless, deep-rooted, philosophical conviction that language must continually be remade if it is to reflect reality.
September 23, 2004