friday feast: inscape or escape?

“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 cannot have escaped.”
~ Gerard Manley Hopkins (in a letter to Robert Bridges, February 15, 1879)

Like E.E. Cummings, Gerard Manley Hopkins is known for his innovation with poetic form. But with Hopkins there is quite a different inner music, played on taut strings of repression and anguish.

Hopkins started out wanting to be a painter, but soon decided that such a pursuit was “too passionate” for someone seeking an ecclesiastical life. He destroyed his early poems for the same reason. As a Jesuit priest, he didn’t paint, but sketched, composed music, wrote sermons and other religious pieces, and eventually was led right back to poetry.

This conflict between his artistic longings and his devotion to religion resulted in a life of abject misery. He decided never to publish his poems, since to do so would be a function of ego rather than humility. Though he never waivered in his faith, he also never felt worthy of it.

Why did such a promising, sensitive young man, who began writing poetry as a boy and who clearly possessed a keen interest in art, opt for a life of such agonizing denial and submission?

While studying at Oxford, Hopkins became greatly disturbed by the discovery of his homoerotic tendencies. This motivated him to seek an ascetic life, and he eventually converted to Catholicism. Did he seek refuge in religion?

Despite the austerity of his regulated existence, Hopkins’ poetry reveals a man unwilling to conform to prevailing standards. Traditional verse was far too tame, so he experimented with diction, meter, and rhythm. He used archaic words (or coined his own), preferring the older rhythms of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Influenced also by the aural patterns of Welsh literature, he skillfully incorporated alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia. His “sprung rhythm” enabled him to escape the constraints of the more predictable “running rhythm” utilized by his contemporaries.

“The Windhover” is my favorite Hopkins poem, and he considered it to be his best work. While an artist might have painted a landscape, Hopkins word-painted an inscape, the movement and music of which perfectly replicates a single moment when a bird rebuffs a big wind. Just as the Romantic poets before him looked to nature for spirituality, Hopkins saw the miracle of the divine in the falcon.

With every reading, I am amazed anew at the sheer beauty of the language. In the space of this magnificent poem, one senses a soul hovering between heaven and earth, riding the air under the rein of God, then finally breaking free.

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, & striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl & gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, — the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty & valour & act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, o my chevalier!
No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, & blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, & gash gold-vermillion.
(composed in 1877, first published in 1918)

This week’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at HipWriterMama.