Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of the greatest 19th-century poets of religion, of nature, and of inner anguish. In his view of nature, the world is like a book written by God. In this book God expresses himself completely, and it is by “reading” the world that humans can approach God and learn about Him. Hopkins therefore sees the environmental crisis of the Victorian period as vitally linked to that era’s spiritual crisis, and many of his poems bemoan man’s indifference to the destruction of sacred natural and religious order. The poet harbored an acute interest in the scientific and technological advances of his day; he saw new discoveries (such as the new explanations for phenomena in electricity or astronomy) as further evidence of God’s deliberate hand, rather than as refutations of God’s existence.
One of Hopkins’s most famous (and most debated) theories centers on the concept of “inscape.” He coined this word to refer to the essential individuality of a thing, but with a focus not on its particularity or uniqueness, but rather on the unifying design that gives a thing its distinctive characteristics and relates it to its context. Hopkins was interested in the exquisite interrelation of the individual thing and the recurring pattern. He saw the world as a kind of network integrated by divine law and design.
Hopkins wrote most frequently in the sonnet form. He generally preferred the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, which consists of an octave followed by a sestet, with a turn in argument or change in tone occurring in the second part. Hopkins typically uses the octave to present some account of personal or sensory experience and then employs the sestet for philosophical reflection. While Hopkins enjoyed the structure the sonnet form imposes, with its fixed length and rhyme scheme, he nevertheless constantly stretched and tested its limitations. One of his major innovations was a new metrical form, called “sprung rhythm.” In sprung rhythm, the poet counts the number of accented syllables in the line, but places no limit on the total number of syllables. As opposed to syllabic meters (such as the iambic), which count both stresses and syllables, this form allows for greater freedom in the position and proportion of stresses. Whereas English verse has traditionally alternated stressed and unstressed syllables with occasional variation, Hopkins was free to place multiple stressed syllables one after another (as in the line “All felled, felled, are all felled” from “Binsey Poplars”), or to run a large number of unstressed syllables together (as in “Finger of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy” from Wreck of the Deutschland). This gives Hopkins great control over the speed of his lines and their dramatic effects.
Another unusual poetic resource Hopkins favored is “consonant chiming,” a technique he learned from Welsh poetry. The technique involves elaborate use of alliteration and internal rhyme; in Hopkins’s hands this creates an unusual thickness and resonance. This close linking of words through sound and rhythm complements Hopkins’s themes of finding pattern and design everywhere. Hopkins’s form is also characterized by a stretching of the conventions of grammar and sentence structure, so that newcomers to his poetry must often strain to parse his sentences. Deciding which word in a given sentence is the verb, for example, can often involve significant interpretive work. In addition, Hopkins often invents words, and pulls his vocabulary freely from a number of different registers of diction. This leads to a surprising mix of neologisms and archaisms throughout his lines. Yet for all his innovation and disregard of convention, Hopkins’ goal was always to bring poetry closer to the character of natural, living speech.
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