It is no coincidence that the rise of word-painting in the literature of the Victorian period was accompanied by a contemporary movement towards narrative and literary meaning in the visual arts. Ruskin, Rossetti, Hopkins, Hunt, were all figures who (with varying degrees of success) engaged in both literary and artistic debates, and sought in some way to blur the distinction between the two. But what are the ends of these experiments in aesthetic border-crossing? Was it simply the indulgence of a baroque sense of fancy, in which images are to act like words, and words like images, or is there something more at stake?
One answer to these questions may be derived from Ruskin's famous description of the sea in his Modern Painters. Here, an intense, visually conceived description of the natural world works backwards, positing the existence of a perceiving subject, and thus, developing along paths inaugurated by Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets. However, there is a danger in such development that in the long-run, this form of Romanticism works to debase its own aesthetic currency. Thus the French Impressionist painters began with a claim similar to Ruskin's essentially Romantic defense of J. M. W. Turner: truth to reality as the perceiving subject sees it. But as time went on, impressions increasingly became abstractions, and today, Impressionism is widely seen as the cornerstone of Modernism. A similar movement may be seen in poetry. Whereas in Wordsworth, a flutter of emotion may be touching because we (mis)take it for the poet's own, Robert Browning's dramatic monologues like "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess" are both disturbing and effective precisely because the subject's feelings are so clearly not the poet's.
For Hopkins, such a subjective mode seemed at first incompatible with the aims of serious religious poetry, poetry which sought to explore not the dynamic, psychological subject of Browning, but the timeless, objective truths of Christianity. However, from quite a young age Hopkins found his desire to describe the natural world entirely inherent to his being. After deciding to become a Jesuit, he famously went so far as to destroy many of his early poems: a kind of symbolic offering up of his subjectivity to his vocation. In time he found a way to reconcile the two, by adopting a radically innovative marriage of highly compressed word-painting technique, and a broad extension of the techniques of Biblical typology to the phenomena of the natural world, an extension for which he found validation in his study of the fourteenth-century theologian and philosopher, Duns Scotus.
Let us turn now to "The Windhover" for an example of how all of this works:
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, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstacy! then off, off forth on swing.
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on bow-bend: the hurl and the gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, — the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and 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, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
We may be impressed at once by the power and beauty of the language, and the painterly attention to visual detail, but it takes some work to determine what the poem is actually saying, and even then, much remains ambiguous. Briefly, in the opening octet, Hopkins describes catching sight of a bird in flight, which he describes in pictorial terms of great intensity and compression. In the sestet, some kind of epiphany is achieved in lines 9-11 (although it is at first unclear who the "thee" is suddenly being addressed); the last three lines find analogies to what has been described in the action of a plough and the dying of an ember.
Thus, it is only when we discover the poem's more-or-less typological meaning, that the poem really makes sense as a whole. As in typological readings of the Old Testament, the central, unnamed figure of the poem is Christ, to whom it is in fact dedicated. While each of the images (the bird, the plough, the ember) bears some sort of figurative relationship to Christ, it is only in Christ ("a billion times told lovelier") that they find their fulfillment, and their logical relationship to one another. Thus, Hopkin's images point inward toward a perceiving poetic subject, but in doing so, and inverting Ruskin, these images into the totality of a universal intelligence. In the unique dynamic reality, the inscape of the thing, Hopkins sees the presence of objective truth and meaning.
How do you interpret phrases like "dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon" in Hopkins's poem? What role does ambiguity play in his poetry?
Describe how the some of the tight formal patterns of The Windhover work to illustrate the poem's subject.
Compare the uses of typology and imagery in Hopkins and D. G. Rossetti. What ends to they serve in each?
Famously, the bulk Hopkins's poetry was not published until the 20th century, almost three decades after the poet's death. Do you see him more as belonging to the 19th-century Romantic tradition, or as an anticipator of poetic developments to come? In regard to the tradition of religious poetry which came before him, does he fit into that tradition, or stand out of it?
Last modified 11 October 2007