1. Hopkins’s sonnets typically shift from a personal, often sensual experience rooted in the physical world to moral, philosophical, and theological reflections. Discuss this movement in relation to several poems.
The poetic shift from the world of experience to more abstract considerations reflects the way Hopkins believed all experiences to harken back eventually to the metaphysical, to God the creator. He believed that the world of nature (and even the man-made aspects of the experienced world) were all part of God’s creative expression, and that the spirit of God was infused in his creation. “God’s Grandeur” suggests that the energy of God runs through all things, sometimes welling up to an excess and revealing itself in bursts of brilliance or goodness. For Hopkins, because God infused all the world, the world was a means of access to spiritual truth, a way of getting in touch with God and his will and design. The transition in a poem such as “The Windhover” from the contemplation of a bird to the contemplation of God was therefore a very natural one for Hopkins, and one very deeply rooted in his religious beliefs. The Italian sonnet form is perfectly suited for this kind of poetic argument because it incorporates a turn of tone between the first and second parts.
2. Trace some images of science and technology in Hopkins’s poems. How did he reconcile scientific understanding with religious belief?
In “God’s Grandeur,” Hopkins uses electricity as a metaphor for God’s power and presence in the world. The poem does not explicitly mention lightning, but lightning was one of the poet’s favorite images, and it is certainly suggested in the image of a charge that “will flame out” after “gather[ing] to a greatness.” Electricity was a focus of much research by scientists of Hopkins’s day, and lightning is a good example of a phenomenon that had traditionally been seen as a direct act of God. (Even the Greeks had attributed lightning bolts to the hand of Zeus.) As science began to propose physical explanations for lightning, many people considered such hypotheses a threat to religion and a denial of the existence of God. Hopkins was keenly aware of these sorts of debates, and he engages them at some level by choosing such provocative images for his profoundly religious poetry; yet he does not ponder long over the conflict, but rather swiftly (and summarily?) resolves it. He takes the patterns found in nature, and in the world’s various objects, as testimony to God’s hand in creating an orderly universe.
3. Why do you think the method of “sprung rhythm” appealed to Hopkins? How does it contribute to his poems?
4. How does Hopkins think and write about his religious vocation, and how does that relate to his sense of his work as a poet? What other kinds of work or trades appear in Hopkins’s poem, and what does his attitude seem to be toward physical labor?
5. Think about some of the images that recur in Hopkins’s poems, and discuss why they are appropriate to the themes that most concerned him as a poet.
6. Are Hopkins’s poems at all political? Do they make any attempt to come to terms with questions of history or nation? If so, where and how?
7. Hopkins is famous as a poet of both nature and religion. How does he combine these two traditional poetic subjects, and to what effect?
8. What does Hopkins believe about the presence of God in the natural world? Illustrate your answer with reference to two or more poems.
9. Does Hopkins’s poetry more closely resemble Romantic or Modernist poetry? Explain your answer.
10. Hopkins often said that he wanted his poetic language to be true to living speech. In what ways do his unusual diction and his “sprung rhythm” succeed or fail in this capacity?
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