Perhaps one of the signs of greatness in a poet is the number of different readings you can find in his/her work. Hopkins is certainly great enough for this, and here I'd like to propose a new way of looking at his spirituality, his vision of something greater than himself, which he saw as God.
This vision, this sense of the Divine, was not unique to Hopkins, of course, though perhaps rare in Victorian England. It is induced by anything which shocks the thinking mind into stillness, if only for a brief moment. Into this void flows the deepest thing we can know — which is É what? Zen might call it a mild form of satori, or enlightenment. Others might say it is a feeling of transcendent joy, or ecstasy, or a meeting with the Divine. It's different in degree, but not in kind, from the very highest forms of mysticism: mystic union with the Ultimate.
For some it comes unasked throughout their lives, for others it is triggered by physical love, by art (poetry, music painting), or by landscape. For Hopkins poetry and landscape — either individually or together — were two of the biggest things which stopped his mind in its tracks and let him glimpse eternity.
You can see both at work in his lament for the cutting down of aspen trees by the Thames near the Oxfordshire village of Binsey:
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandaled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering
But he was transported not just by landscape but things as well. Take for example "Pied Beauty." He asks us to praise God for:
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough.
But, also, in the very next line:
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
Yet the pragmatic Victorians and the language of his day gave him no vocabulary with which to analyse what was happening. He had to fall back on his own coinages and on the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus. Scotus contributed haecceity or this-ness while Hopkins came up with 'instress' and 'inscape' — attempts to pin down the power of particularity before it enters and stops the mind and changes a person forever.
Hopkins also understood that only the highest kind of poetry can do this, as he made clear in a letter of September 1864 to his friend Alexander Baillie while still a student at Oxford. He divided verse into four categories. At the bottom is the Delphic, or mere verse. Next comes Parnassian, after Parnassus, Apollo's mountain. This is real poetry, but not the highest kind. It is the routine work of a true poet, marked by his/her unique stamp, but you could imagine others writing it. Slightly higher is Castalian, from the well of inspiration on the flanks of Parnassus. This time, you can't conceive of anybody but the poet composing it.
The highest level he calls "poetry proper, the language of inspiration" when words come unbidden in a burst of creativity. It is this which induces that mental shut-down. His sonnet, "Felix Randall," contains an example. Felix was a real man, a blacksmith or farrier in Victorian Liverpool, and like all such men physically strong. How distant, the poet tells us, was the dying man stricken by illness from the one who
at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!
And click! It never stales — bright and battering sandal — and always has the power to effect the mind. Sandal is a strange word to use for a horseshoe but it works once you get used to it.
The letter was written by candlelight on either side of midnight and is a bit hurried and unrevised but what he's saying is quite clear He talks of "a mood of great, abnormal in fact, mental acuteness." Was he aware that something mind-altering was happening? I think so, particularly when you add these words to his obvious ecstatic delight in the things of the world ("Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!"). Here, I suggest, we are dealing with a universal human phenomenon, more implicit than explicit in the spirituality of the West, but openly expressed in philosophy-religions like Zen and Taoism which aim to calm the mind until it sees into the heart of things. Haiku, which was unknown to the Victorians, was often written specifically to induce this state of mind. It deals in concrete images and these alone, even as prose translations, can have an effect:
a view of the sea through summertime pines and a temple lantern cut from stone.
It's been said that Hopkins had one of the finest minds of his generation; a brilliant classical scholar with a glittering career ahead of him. He gave it all up to become a poor — and, it has to be admitted, an unsuccessful — Jesuit priest. But central to the Jesuit way of life are retreats and contemplative exercises. In this mind-calming contemplation Hopkins must also have encountered the God he found in landscape and poetry.
His life and work raise some interesting if unanswerable questions. Is his vision peculiar to a certain kind of introverted temperament, or can the rest of us share it? How valid is it? What might have happened to English-language poetry if he'd been published in his lifetime and had to compete with Tennyson, Swinburne, and Browning? (Hopkins corresponded with three fairly minor poets: Robert Bridges, Coventry Patmore and R. W. Dixon.) Instead he came to public notice only after the Great War when his rival was T. S. Eliot, a later Victorian, and an American.
© Dick Sullivan
London NW1 3JT
020 7387 7286
Last modified 3 April 2006
Last modified 3 April 2006