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Hopkins The Mystic Poet
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Preface by Rev. Thomas Ryan, CSP Published by Skylight Paths Publishing/VT in 2004
Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2006


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This book of Hopkins' poetry sat on my desk at arm's length unread until one day I was studying Nicholas Humphrey's book Seeing Red and read therein the poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Hopkins. This prompted me to read about this Anglican turned Catholic priest, Jesuit, mystic, and poet of the last half of the nineteenth century, and the selection of his amazing poetry. For example, read these Thoreau-ic lines from "Inversnaid":

[page 3]
      What would the world be, once bereft
      Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
       O let them be left, wildness and wet;
       Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Hopkins will likely inspire any earnest reader to write as lyrically as he does. For example, take what Rev. Thomas Ryan, CSP, writes about mystical experience as having two paths, a day train and a night train.

[page 8] Because Christianity believes in an all-transcendent God who becomes incarnate, mystical experience is both negative and positive, personal and impersonal, characterized by divine darkness and an experience of the other as Friend or Lover. It travels, one might say, by both a night train and a day train. The day train sees and affirms God in all creation. The night train's passage is in darkness and unknowing, requiring one to journey in blind faith that "something is out there even though I can't see it or name it." Both trains deliver one to the station, and both require investment in a ticket of loving service.

The best description of Hopkins' poems comes from an unsigned review in the Times Literary Supplement, London, Jan. 9, 1919, describing the first book published of his work:

[page 16, 17] The whole book thrills with spirit, a spirit that does not disdain sense but heightens it. The poems are crowded with objects sharply cut, and with sounds no less sharp and clashing; you fight your way through the verses, yet they draw you on. There is beauty everywhere without luxury, the beauty that seems to come of painful intense watching, the utter, disinterested delight of one who sees another world, not through, but in this one. It is as if he heard everywhere a music too difficult, because too beautiful, for our ears and noted down what he could catch of it; authentic fragments that we trust even when they bewilder us.

In "A Short Introduction to the Poems" we are treated or rather, tortured by an 1880s piece by Hopkins writing on the rhythm in his poetry. He describes Running Rhythm and Sprung Rhythm, Stressed Feet and Slack Feet, Trochaic and Dactlyic Rhythms (which when mixed become Logaoedic Rhythm), and Reversed Feet which lead to Counterpoint Rhythm. Unless you have a high tolerance for juggling abstract concepts, dear Reader, you would do well to skip over this section.

In Robert Bridges's Preface to the 1918 Edition of Hopkins poems, we find this amazing description of the provenance of the poems included in the edition.

[page 32] An editor of posthumous work is bounden to give some account of the authority for his text; and it is the purpose of the following notes to satisfy inquiry concerning matters whereof the present editor has the advantage of first-hand or particular knowledge.

In other words, Bridges will lay out for the reader of Hopkins' poems the exact source from which he received them. He distinguishes four sources, A, B, D, and H, and delimits his usage of the word autograph to meaning, "a manuscript in the author's own handwriting.":

[page 33] A is my own collection, a MS. book made up of autographs pasted into it as they were received from him, and also contemporary copies of other poems.

B is a MS. book, into which, in 1883, I copied from A certain poems of which the author had kept not copy.

D is a collection of the author's letters to Canon Dixon, the only other friend who ever read his poems, with but few exceptions whether of person or of poems. These letters are of my keeping; they contain autographs of a few poems with late corrections.

H is the bundle of posthumous papers that came into my hands at the author's death. . . . That collection is the source of a series of his most mature sonnets, and of almost all the unfinished poems and fragments. Among these papers were also so early drafts.

The complete description of how Bridges decided which copy of the poems he had from the four sources can be considered as a useful guide to any posthumous cataloger of a person's poems.

Bridges may have had more than a casual acquaintance with the Law as evinced by his exquisite usage of the metaphor of arraignment and conviction to talk about possible errors of taste in some of Hopkins' poems.

[page 36] Apart from questions of taste and if these poems were to be arraigned for errors of what may he called taste, they might be convicted of occasional affectation in metaphor, as where the hills are "as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet," or of some perversion of human feeling, as, for instance, the "nostrils' relish of incense along the sanctuary side," or "the Holy Ghost with warm breast and with ah! bright wings," these and a few such examples are mostly efforts to force emotion into theological or sectarian channels . . .

Bridges indicts Hopkins of two vices, namely, oddity and obscurity, and says:

[page 37] Nor can credit be gained from pointing them out: yet, to put readers at their ease, I will here define them: they may be called Oddity and Obscurity; and since the first may provoke laughter when a writer is serious (and this poet is always serious), while the latter must prevent him from being understood (and this poet has always something to say), it may be assumed that they were not a part of his intention.

Hopkins justifies his "oddity" thus:

[page 38] No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness. I hope in time to have a more balanced and Miltonic style. But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling inscape is what I above all aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer. This vice I have not escaped."

Hopkins above speaks of the theme of my essay, Art is the Process of Destruction. Art, as I aver therein, is the process of the destruction of sameness. This comes about because everyone's inscape is unique. Whether one designs paintings or poetry from one's inscape, the evocation of one's inscape will seem odd because of the destruction of the sameness expected by afficionados of all other extant instances of painting and poetry. Such oddness based on the destruction of sameness is the hallmark of the true artist; such oddness is worthy of the name creation and all other artworks may be deemed worthy only to be called replication or craftworks.

The obscurity stems from Hopkins' propensity to omit relative pronouns, eschewing them as "merely grammatical colorless or toneless elements." Unfortunately, it leaves the reader sometimes searching for a verb and having to choose from several ambiguous monosyllables to fix the grammar into a meaning. Since the aim of grammar is to fix meaning, this inverts the process and leads to obscurity of Hopkins' intended meaning. Here's my example to describe what happens , "Let the reader search the search results for the search verb." There is the word "search" used in one sentence as a verb, a noun, and an adjective. The meaning is clear in the example, but if three different words, each of which could be either of the three parts of speech, appeared in one sentence or poetic phrase, the possibilities of misinterpretation will likely lead to obscurity.

Hopkins wrote in 1883, "Some of my rhymes I regret, but they are past changing, grubs in amber." This is the state of all posthumous literature and artworks they are as frozen as a dragonfly or grub suspended in a translucent piece of amber. We can hold the enbugged amber up to the light and rotate it to view its contents from every angle of its construction and do the same with our own inscape, but the bug will remain silent and unmoved by our inspection. It is the service provided by literature and art that such careful inspection offers nutrition to our soul, and, to my mind, Hopkins's poems certainly qualify as great works of literature.

Hopkins walked to classes on the grounds of Oxford University some five hundred years after Johannes Duns Scotus, the famous philosopher. When Hopkins first read Scotus's writings, he noted that he became, "flush with a new stroke of enthusiasm. It may come to nothing or it may be a mercy from God. But just then when I took in any inscape of the sky or sea I thought of Scotus." This quotation led me into a reverie about the inscape of the poet versus the landscape of the painter which resulted in this poem called, "Words and Hush"(1).

A painter with earthen colors
       oils a landscape within a canvas wall.

A poet with ethereal colors
       coils an inscape within a footless hall.

What was without is come within
       the framéd painter's scape.

Will what was within ever escape
       the poet's footless halls?

There stands the painter's view Behold!
       A thumbnail of the world unfold'd.

Where stands the poet's inscape rare,
       but in the harmonies of footéd air?

Listen with your heart and soul
       if you would hear
       the inscape colors in your ears unfold.

The painter works with oils and brush
       The poet works with words and hush.

One of my favorite of Hopkins' poems in this collection is a five-page poem called "The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe." Here are some sample lines:

[page 51]
       I say that we are wound
       With mercy round and round
       As if with air; the same
       Is Mary, more by name.

[page 52]
       Again, look overhead
       How air is azurèd;
       O how! Nay do but stand

Where you can lift your hand
       Skywards: rich, rich it laps
       Round the four fingergaps.

[page 53]
      Or if there does some soft,
       On things aloof, aloft,
       Bloom breathe, that one breath more
       Earth is the fairer for.

[page 54]
       Be thou then, O thou dear
       Mother, my atmosphere;
       My happier world, wherein
       To wend and meet no sin;
       Above me, round me lie
       Fronting my froward eye
       With sweet and scarless sky. . .

Below is the poem that Nicholas Humphrey included in a letter to a Country and Western singer, Joe King, who had written him, expressing his anxiety whether he would survive death in the spirit world. Humphrey wrote back,"not a chance," and then ended his letter with this poem about a Kingfisher (King-fisher) :

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

      As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
       As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
       Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung
       Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
       Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
       Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
       Selves goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
       Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

Above were the last words of the book. As I read these words I recall that 3 months before I bought "Seeing Red" I had bought a book entitled: "Hopkins" which contained the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. That book had been sitting at arm's length on my workstation. I walked from the patio where I had completed reading "Seeing Red" and picked it up. A quick check of the Index of Poems (by title) led me to page 55 where the above poem appeared, but what is interesting is that the poem had one more stanza a stanza which would belie NH's words, "not a chance."

Here is the last stanza:

       I say more: the just man justices;
       Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
       Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is
       Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
       Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
       To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Here was revealed a hidden message that perhaps Humphrey was hiding from himself, from his scientific colleagues, and from Joe King a belief in the reality of Christ and the existence of the spiritual world. One can only hope that King went fishing for the entire poem in this book, and thus became a "kingfisher" catching fire the fire of the immortal Self, the I Am, the Spirit! Gerard Manley Hopkins was no doubt such a Kingfisher, a Fisher who reeled in many souls with his mystical poems of hope and spirituality.

---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. My autograph of this poem is contained on page 92 of this book written on May 26, 2006.

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.



Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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