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Poems and Prose – Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

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Posted September 4, 2016 by

Poems and Prose – Gerard Manley Hopkins – c. 1863

Reviewed by: Michael Sympson               Date: 9 October 2001

Highly instructive

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—

Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Gerard Manley Hopkins is not everyone’s cup of tea. For more than one reason. In the academic world of mutual masturbation it is a favorite pastime to solve “problems,” like to which century Hopkins really belonged. Was he still a Victorian, or an untimely mutation towards modernism? A topic for graduation essays, but of little relevance. Either way, Hopkins was a consummate expert on Anglo-Saxon prosody and a great talent. He had his shortcomings. The choice of words a poet uses, is the signature that his temperament leaves on his style.

Only a good writer has any signature at all. Lesser talents may still write an exceptional style, but it is a retro-enginered style, bundling up prefabricated elements of already well established provenance, in a sleek and appealing package and without a shred of originality. Hopkins, on the other hand, was an innovator. He brushes the refined reader’s sensibility with hard bristles, and seems not to care for melody and harmony. Reading his poems can be a mouth full. And his religious proclivities and catholic guilt complex don’t help either. It is hard to empathize with Hopkins, if you don’t add an “SJ” to your name.

Tere is an atmosphere of asceticism, of a contorted and awkward nature, of a shy personality. Small talk obviously was not Hopkin’s cup of tea. At least not for the persona of his poems, which is the projection of the poet as he likes to be seen. (And in this sense he certainly didn’t fit in the mould of Victorian exuberance. The circumstances of his time, allowed Hopkins to plug out, and he grabbed this opportunity with both hands. Which is another way of stating, that he has not much to say that reaches even a favorably inclined reader, and T.S. Eliot may have liked him the more for it.

And this is a pity. The man had the power and the language, but to him it was no help to step out of his inner shell:

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things,

For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow,

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls, finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced, fold, fallow and plough,

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange,

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;

Praise him.

Yes. Beautiful, isn’t it? Victorian or not. Hopkins is the father of modern poetry.

Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics)
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