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A Criticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins

by J. Middleton Murry

Modern poetry, like the modern consciousness of which it is the epitome, seems to stand irresolute at a crossways with no signpost. It is hardly conscious of its own indecision, which it manages to conceal from itself by insisting that it is lyrical, whereas it is merely impressionist. The value of impressions depends upon the quality of the mind which receives and renders them, and to be lyrical demands at least as firm a temper of the mind, as definite and unfaltering a general direction, as to be epic. Roughly speaking, the present poetical fashion may, with a few conspicuous exceptions, be described as poetry without tears. The poet may assume a hundred personalities in as many poems, or manifest a hundred influences, or he may work a single sham personality threadbare or render piecemeal an undigested influence. What he may not do, or do only at the risk of being unfashionable, is to attempt what we may call, for the lack of a better word, the logical progression of an oeuvre. One has no sense of the rhythm of an achievement. There is an output of scraps, which are scraps, not because they are small, but because one scrap stands in no organic relation to another in the poet's work. Instead of lending each other strength, they betray each other's weakness.

Yet the organic progression for which we look, generally in vain, is not peculiar to poetic genius of the highest rank. If it were, we might be accused of mere querulousness. The rhythm of personality is hard, indeed, to achieve. The simple mind and the single outlook are now too rare to be considered as near possibilities, while the task of tempering a mind to a comprehensive adequacy to modern experience is not an easy one. The desire to escape and the desire to be lost in life were probably never so intimately associated as they are now; and it is a little preposterous to ask a moth fluttering round a candle-flame to see life steadily and see it whole. We happen to have been born into an age without perspective; hence our idolatry for the one living poet and prose writer who has it and comes, or appears to come, from another age. But another rhythm is possible. No doubt it would be mistaken to consider this rhythm as in fact wholly divorced from the rhythm of personality; it probably demands at least a minimum of personal coherence in its possessor. For critical purposes, however, they are distinct. This second and subsidiary rhythm is that of technical progression. The single pursuit of even the most subordinate artistic intention gives unity, significance, mass to a poet's work. When Verlaine declares 'de la musique avant toute chose,' we know where we are. And we know this not in the obvious sense of expecting his verse to be predominantly musical; but in the more important sense of desiring to take a man seriously who declares for anything 'avant toute chose.'

It is the 'avant toute chose' that matters, not as a profession of faith—we do not greatly like professions of faith—but as the guarantee of the universal in the particular, of the dianoia in the episode. It is the 'avant toute chose' that we chiefly miss in modern poetry and modern society and in their quaint concatenations. It is the 'avant toute chose' that leads us to respect both Mr Hardy and Mr Bridges, though we give all our affection to one of them. It is the 'avant toute chose' that compels us to admire the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins[5]; it is the 'avant toute chose' in his work, which, as we believe, would have condemned him to obscurity to-day, if he had not (after many years) had Mr Bridges, who was his friend, to stand sponsor and the Oxford University Press to stand the racket. Apparently Mr Bridges himself is something of our opinion, for his introductory sonnet ends on a disdainful note:—

  'Go forth: amidst our chaffinch flock display
  Thy plumage of far wonder and heavenward flight!'

   [Footnote 5: Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Edited with notes by
   Robert Bridges. (Oxford: University Press.)]

It is from a sonnet written by Hopkins to Mr Bridges that we take the most concise expression of his artistic intention, for the poet's explanatory preface is not merely technical, but is written in a technical language peculiar to himself. Moreover, its scope is small; the sonnet tells us more in two lines than the preface in four pages.

  'O then if in my lagging lines you miss
  The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation….'

There is his 'avant toute chose.' Perhaps it seems very like 'de la musique.' But it tells us more about Hopkins's music than Verlaine's line told us about his. This music is of a particular kind, not the 'sanglots du violon,' but pre-eminently the music of song, the music most proper to lyrical verse. If one were to seek in English the lyrical poem to which Hopkins's definition could be most fittingly applied, one would find Shelley's 'Skylark.' A technical progression onwards from the 'Skylark' is accordingly the main line of Hopkins's poetical evolution. There are other, stranger threads interwoven; but this is the chief. Swinburne, rightly enough if the intention of true song is considered, appears hardly to have existed for Hopkins, though he was his contemporary. There is an element of Keats in his epithets, a half-echo in 'whorled ear' and 'lark-charmèd'; there is an aspiration after Milton's architectonic in the construction of the later sonnets and the most lucid of the fragments,'Epithalamion.' But the central point of departure is the 'Skylark.' The 'May Magnificat' is evidence of Hopkins's achievement in the direct line:—

  'Ask of her, the mighty mother:
  Her reply puts this other
  Question: What is Spring?—
  Growth in everything—

  Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
  Grass and greenworld all together;
  Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
  Throstle above her nested
  Cluster of bugle-blue eggs thin
  Forms and warms the life within….

  … When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
  Bloom lights the orchard-apple,
  And thicket and thorp are merry
  With silver-surfèd cherry,

  And azuring-over graybell makes
  Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes,
  And magic cuckoo-call
  Caps, clears, and clinches all….'

That is the primary element manifested in one of its simplest, most recognisable, and some may feel most beautiful forms. But a melody so simple, though it is perhaps the swiftest of which the English language is capable without the obscurity which comes of the drowning of sense in sound, did not satisfy Hopkins. He aimed at complex internal harmonies, at a counterpoint of rhythm; for this more complex element he coined an expressive word of his own:—

'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.'

Here, then, in so many words, is Hopkins's 'avant toute chose' at a higher level of elaboration. 'Inscape' is still, in spite of the apparent differentiation, musical; but a quality of formalism seems to have entered with the specific designation. With formalism comes rigidity; and in this case the rigidity is bound to overwhelm the sense. For the relative constant in the composition of poetry is the law of language which admits only a certain amount of adaptation. Musical design must be subordinate to it, and the poet should be aware that even in speaking of musical design he is indulging a metaphor. Hopkins admitted this, if we may judge by his practice, only towards the end of his life. There is no escape by sound from the meaning of the posthumous sonnets, though we may hesitate to pronounce whether this directness was due to a modification of his poetical principles or to the urgency of the content of the sonnets, which, concerned with a matter of life and death, would permit no obscuring of their sense for musical reasons.

  'I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
  What hours, O what black hours we have spent
  This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
  And more must in yet longer light's delay.
    With witness I speak this. But where I say
  Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
  Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
  To dearest him that lives, alas! away.'

There is compression, but not beyond immediate comprehension; music, but a music of overtones; rhythm, but a rhythm which explicates meaning and makes it more intense.

Between the 'May Magnificat' and these sonnets is the bulk of Hopkins's poetical work and his peculiar achievement. Perhaps it could be regarded as a phase in his evolution towards the 'more balanced and Miltonic style' which he hoped for, and of which the posthumous sonnets are precursors; but the attempt to see him from this angle would be perverse. Hopkins was not the man to feel, save on exceptional occasions, that urgency of content of which we have spoken. The communication of thought was seldom the dominant impulse of his creative moment, and it is curious how simple his thought often proves to be when the obscurity of his language has been penetrated. Musical elaboration is the chief characteristic of his work, and for this reason what seem to be the strangest of his experiments are his most essential achievement So, for instance, 'The Golden Echo':—

  There is one, yes, I have one (Hush there!);
  Only not within seeing of sun,
  Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
  Tall sun's tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth's air,
  Somewhere else where there is, ah, well, where! one,
  One. Yes, I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,
  Where, whatever's prized and passes of us, everything that's fresh and
                    fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and
                    swiftly away with, done away with, undone,
  Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet clearly and dangerously sweet
  Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matchèd face,
  The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
  Never fleets more, fastened with the tenderest truth
  To its own best being and its loveliness of youth….'

Than this, Hopkins truly wrote, 'I never did anything more musical.' By his own verdict and his own standards it is therefore the finest thing that Hopkins did. Yet even here, where the general beauty is undoubted, is not the music too obvious? Is it not always on the point of degenerating into a jingle—as much an exhibition of the limitations of a poetical theory as of its capabilities? The tyranny of the 'avant toute chose' upon a mind in which the other things were not stubborn and self-assertive is apparent. Hopkins's mind was irresolute concerning the quality of his own poetical ideal. A coarse and clumsy assonance seldom spread its snare in vain. Exquisite openings are involved in disaster:—

  'When will you ever, Peace, wild wood dove, shy wings shut,
  Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
  When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I'll not play hypocrite
  To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
  That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace….'

And the more wonderful opening of 'Windhover' likewise sinks, far less disastrously, but still perceptibly:—

  'I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom 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 ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a 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!'

We have no doubt that 'stirred for a bird' was an added excellence to the poet's ear; to our sense it is a serious blemish on lines which have 'the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation.'

There is no good reason why we should give characteristic specimens of the poet's obscurity, since our aim is to induce people to read him. The obscurities will slowly vanish and something of the intention appear; and they will find in him many of the strange beauties won by men who push on to the borderlands of their science; they will speculate whether the failure of his whole achievement was due to the starvation of experience which his vocation imposed upon him, or to a fundamental vice in his poetical endeavour. For ourselves we believe that the former was the true cause. His 'avant toute chose' whirling dizzily in a spiritual vacuum, met with no salutary resistance to modify, inform, and strengthen it. Hopkins told the truth of himself—the reason why he must remain a poets' poet:—

  I want the one rapture of an inspiration.
  O then if in my lagging lines you miss
  The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
  My winter world, that scarcely yields that bliss
  Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.'

Book: Reflection on the Important Things