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The Poetry of Gerard Hopkins

by Robert Cortes Holliday

THAT Gerard Hopkins is today little known, even among rhymers, is an inevitable result of his manner of life and work. He was a priest of the Catholic Church and a member of the Society of Jesus. His faith was the source of his poetry, but his arduous labors in its service left him little time for celebrating it in verse, and made him so indifferent to applause that he never published. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch put his "The Starlight Night" in the "Oxford Book of Victorian Verse," and he is represented in Orby Shipley's "Carmina Mariana" and H. C. Beeching's "Lyra Sacra." Several of his poems are included in Volume VIII of "Poets and Poetry of the Century" with a critique by his friend Robert Bridges, and Miss Katherine Brégy has made him the subject of an illuminative essay in her admirable book "The Poet's Chantry." A scant bibliography indeed for a genuinely inspired poet, the most scrupulous word-artist of the nineteenth century!

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out like shining from shook foil.

These opening lines of a sonnet illustrate clearly Gerard Hopkins' spirit and method. Like that other Jesuit, Robert Southwell, he was a Catholic poet: for him to write a poem on a secular theme was difficult, almost impossible. He sang "the grandeur of God," and for his song he used a language which in its curious perfection is exclusively his own.

One may search his writings in vain for a figure that is not novel and true. He took from his own experience those comparisons that are the material of poetry, and rejected, it seems, such of them as already bore marks of use. For him, the grandeur of God flames out from the world not like light from stars, but like "shining from shook foil." He writes not of soft hands, nor of velvety hands, but of "feel-of-primrose hands." He writes not that thrush's eggs are blue as the sky, but that they "look little low heavens." The starry skies of a winter night are "the dim woods quick with diamond wells," or "the gray lawns cold where quaking gold-dew lies." In Spring "the blue is all in a rush with richness," and Summer "plashes amid the billowy apple-trees his lusty hands."

Now, it may be that these exquisite figures would not entitle their maker to high praise if they were isolated bits of splendor, if (like the economical verse-makers of our own day) he had made each one the excuse for a poem. But they come in bewildering profusion. Gerard Hopkins' poems are successions of lovely images, each a poem in itself.

This statement may give its reader the idea that of Gerard Hopkins' poetry may be said, as Charles Ricketts said of Charles Conder's pictures, "There are too many roses." No one who reads his poems, however, will make this criticism. The roses are there of right—all of them. They are, it may be said, necessary roses. They are the cunningly placed elements of an elaborate pattern, a pattern of which roses are the appropriate material. And the red and white of their petals come from the blood and tears that nourished their roots.

It is the overwhelming greatness of this theme that justifies the lavishness of his method. The word "mystic" is nowadays applied so wantonly to every gossiper about things supernatural that it is to most people meaningless. For the benefit of those who know the difference between Saint Theresa and Miss Evelyn Underhill, however, it may be stated that Gerard Hopkins was more nearly a true mystic than either Francis Thompson or Lionel Johnson. The desire, at any rate, for the mystical union with God is evident in every line he wrote, and even more than his friend Coventry Patmore he knew the "dark night of the soul."

This being the case, his theme being God and his writing being an act of adoration, it is profitless to criticize him, as Mr. Robert Bridges has done, for "sacrificing simplicity" and violating those mysterious things, the "canons of taste." A sane editor of a popular magazine would reject everything he wrote. A verse-writer who does not know that "The Habit of Perfection" is true poetry is not a poet. Here it is:

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear;
Pipe me to pastures still, and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark,
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street,
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-colored clothes provide
Your spouse, not labored-at, nor spun.

Walter Pater, Gerard Hopkins' tutor at Balliol, had no keener sensitivity to the color and music of language. Gerard Hopkins' purpose—a purpose impossible of fulfillment but not therefore less worth the effort—was "to arrange words like so many separate gems to compose a whole expression of thought, in which the force of grammar and the beauty of rhythm absolutely correspond."

There will always be those who dislike the wealth of imagery which characterizes Gerard Hopkins' poetry, because they do not understand his mental and spiritual attitude. Perhaps for some critics an altar cloth may be too richly embroidered and a chalice too golden. Ointment of spikenard is "very costly."

Book: Reflection on the Important Things