Gerard Manley Hopkins Poems In Musical Adaptations
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Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poet And Green Prophet?
by Dr Philip Crispin

Whenever I read Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry, I am filled with wonder. He was a man with an exquisite sensibility, fine-tuned to beauty. And because he had faith, all the beauty he perceived across the face of the earth led him to wonder at that beauty's creator. "Glory be to God for dappled things", he would write, exulting in a glut of detail, of skies of coupled colour as of a brinded cow, of kingfishers catching fire and dragonflies drawing flame. A Wildean dandy up at Oxford, he fell under the influence of Newman and resolved to become a Jesuit. In his early years in the Society of Jesus, not least when in St Beuno's, Wales, he would write his glorious sonnets which pulsate with a dynamism and an immense joy, affirming that the World is charged with the grandeur of God.

So many of his poems are epiphanic. That is to say that the sensitive, utterly observant Hopkins registers all of nature's variety and abundance, whether in motion or at rest, and this observation reveals to him God's irrepressible spirit and grace welling up in nature.

In his mostly short poems (always excepting the extraordinary 'Wreck of the Deutschland'), Hopkins manages to rivet onto the page a stream of intense excitement as he seeks to express his sacramental encounter with the divine.

He created his own poetic form in order to do this – what he would call instressing the inscape. That is to say, in a precise "thisness of experience", he would apprehend God's spirit surging up from within nature (the inscape). Instressing was how his poetry sought to contain and express this pure energy.

So when he sees a kestrel hovering and then soaring away on the wind ("The Windhover"), his heart in hiding stirs for a bird. All creation seems to fall in on itself – "here/Buckle" – such is the intensity of his feeling. The bird is somehow at the centre of the divine mystery, the divine energy which charges life itself.

And this is the greatness at the heart of Hopkins: his ability to exquisitely observe individual moments and elements and characters – "Each mortal thing ... Selves–goes itself; myself it speaks and spells" – whilst connecting them all up into a greater whole and locating their spiritual connectedness – "For Christ plays in ten thousand places." Of course, the motto of the Society of Jesus is "Deus Meus et Omnia" – My God and my All.

At a time of relative poetic decadence, Hopkins also revolutionized poetic form with his 'sprung rhythm'. He saw this in fact as an attempt to recapture 'the naked thew and sinew of the English language'. He sought to animate his lyrics with alliteration and muscular Anglo-saxon words – 'degged with dew... flitches of fern' - and to make his lines span by accent rather than syllabic regularity.

He chose the sonnet form above all others because, as a busy priest, scholar and administrator, he only allowed himself a few hours a week to write poetry. So the lines of his verses travelled and niggled away in his head until he came to write them down.

As our planet stares ecological disaster in the face, Hopkins speaks to us with a eco-prophetic voice:

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.

Or again, 'My aspens dear, felled, felled are all felled.' Of course, such a sensitive and exquisite soul, whilst full of empathy for those who were suffering and recognising dignity and beauty in the unsung and the ordinary ("This Jack, joke, poor potsherd ... Is immortal diamond"), was also profoundly aware of loss, of decay, of ugliness. His joy was countered by much personal suffering which could verge on despair. Such polarities of feeling can be found in his poetic dialogue between the despairing leaden echo and the ever hopeful golden echo. But this latter always beckons yonder. So for all his apprehension of a divine presence within each individual and throughout creation, Hopkins the suffering servant also pines for what can only be identified as a transcendent union with the godhead.

In his later years, his depression and suffering increased. Terrible sonnets from this time attest to his own dark night of the soul. He wakes and feels the fell of dark; cries heave world sorrow on an age-old anvil. He feels at a third remove. Birds build not he, time's eunuch. He pleads with himself, 'My own heart let me more have pity on'.

In truth, he was spent with exhaustion and ill health and too much administration (the society had appointed him to the Chair of Latin and Greek at University College, Dublin), anathema to his soul. Nevertheless, that he could express his anguish in such beautiful, stark and haunting words is a poetic marvel. He would continue to wrestle with his God, his God, until he died of typhoid in 1889 at the age of 45.

Unsung and unrecognised as a poet during his life, his poems only emerged several years after his death. What a precious legacy they are, what nourishment to the soul in all their vibrant sorrow and joy, their accuracy and constant struggle with mystery.

© 2006 Philip Crispin
Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems to music by Sean O'Leary