Friday, March 6, 2015

meaning motion fans fresh our wits with wonder - quite true, Gerard Manley Hopkins, all too true.

How few poems Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, or how few survived, I mean.  Forty-nine poems that fit in fifty-seven pages (and “The Wreck of the Deutschland" is by itself twelve pages) in the Penguin Classics edition, plus another twenty-two pages of early poems and fragments.  The bulk of the book is filled out with prose, mostly letters.

I say “filled out” as if the letters and journal entries are filler, but they are almost as good as those of – I want to say Keats, but that is not right – let’s go with Swinburne.  And perhaps more useful, since Hopkins defines his specialized vocabulary – “instress” and “quains” and “inscape” and so on – “The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense” (May 9, 1871).  Maybe that is not so useful, actually; maybe the poems do all right without worrying about Hopkins’s accents and sprung rhythms.

from Henry Purcell

Have fair fallen, O fair, fair have fallen, so dear
To me, so arch especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell,
An age is now passed, since parted; with the reversal
Of the outward sentence low lays him, listed to a heresy, here.  (ll. 1-4, written 1879)

“[S]ix stresses to the line,” and I suppose it does help to know that the rhythm is unusual, for example that in the first line every syllable beginning with an “f” gets a stress (“dear” is the sixth).  Still, there are other ways to make the lines sound good.

Maybe it is more important that mostly at the urging of his friend Robert Bridges, Hopkins uses his letters to explain his meaning.  “The sonnet on Purcell means this: 1-4. I hope Purcell is not damned for being a Protestant, because I love his genius” (Penguin notes, p. 231).  Or maybe I would rather not have known that.  How many of the Modernists who fell in love with Hopkins once his poems were published in 1918 really bothered to figure out what he meant. Purcell has turned into a “stormfowl”:

The thunder purple seabeach, plumèd purple-of-thunder,
If a wuthering of his palmy snow pinions scatter a colossal smile
Off him, but meaning motion fans fresh our wits with wonder.  (ll. 12-14)

“The sonnet (I say snorting) aims at being intelligible” (246), writes Hopkins to Bridges about a later poem; that one does come pretty close, although at the cost of some of the pure Hopkins voice, the lines like “Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion” (“The Windhover” l. 14) and

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage
    Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells –
    That bird beyond the remembering his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age. (“The Caged Skylark” ll. 1-4)

I wonder how many errors I have introduced into these lines. I know “free fells” must be correct because of the rhyme.  It does not look right.

Reading some of the contemporaries of Hopkins, especially Swinburne, or maybe I mean Lewis Carroll, has made Hopkins look a little less strange to me.  He is still pretty strange.


  1. I am always impressed by the ways Hopkins pushed and pulled, stretched and compressed rhythms and sounds by means of unique diction choices and arrangements. My favorite is "God's Grandeur." When I have assigned Hopkins poems to students, the response is usually one of bewilderment but a respectful awareness of something different and important. (Note: I suppose that is another way of describing encounters with the Holy Spirit. Hmmmm.)

  2. Read in order, "God's Grandeur" looks like the poem where Hopkins became a great poet. Nice to hear that undergraduates have not become immune to Hopkins.

  3. OK, my dictionary tells me quain means: "adjective describing anything that is crazy and out of control." Is that Hopkins' definition too? Or am I looking at something else? And if I got it right, what is describing as crazy and out of control?

  4. Also, when I look up stormfowl in Yahoo, the second hit is Hopkins' poem to Henry Purcell; it's like that joke in Pale Fire.

  5. For Hopkins, "'quain' means something like the angular excrescences of the conventional star-shape, or any similar pinked, 'fretted', or 'lacy' scaping" (Penguin 249). That starts out helpful and then falls apart. Hopkins uses "starriness" as a semi-synonym. Clouds can have "quains," trees have "quains," and Hopkins wants his own poems to have "quains." Inscapes with quains are likely to have a lot of instress, which is a good thing - beauty, sublimity, insights, all of that stuff.

    Hopkins was a neologist, which leads to a lot of circles. He means the thing he means.