Hopkins used poetry to express his religious devotion, drawing his images from the natural world. He found nature inspiring and developed his theories of inscape and instress to explore the manifestation of God in every living thing. According to these theories, the recognition of an object’s unique identity, which was bestowed upon that object by God, brings us closer to Christ. Similarly, the beauty of the natural world—and our appreciation of that beauty—helps us worship God. Many poems, including “Hurrahing in Harvest” and “The Windhover,” begin with the speaker praising an aspect of nature, which then leads the speaker into a consideration of an aspect of God or Christ. For instance, in “The Starlight Night,” the speaker urges readers to notice the marvels of the night sky and compares the sky to a structure, which houses Christ, his mother, and the saints. The stars’ link to Christianity makes them more beautiful.
Hopkins’s early poetry praises nature, particularly nature’s unique ability to regenerate and rejuvenate. Throughout his travels in England and Ireland, Hopkins witnessed the detrimental effects of industrialization on the environment, including pollution, urbanization, and diminished rural landscapes. While he lamented these effects, he also believed in nature’s power of regeneration, which comes from God. In “God’s Grandeur,” the speaker notes the wellspring that runs through nature and through humans. While Hopkins never doubted the presence of God in nature, he became increasingly depressed by late nineteenth-century life and began to doubt nature’s ability to withstand human destruction. His later poems, the so-called terrible sonnets, focus on images of death, including the harvest and vultures picking at prey. Rather than depict the glory of nature’s rebirth, these poems depict the deaths that must occur in order for the cycle of nature to continue. “Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord” (1889) uses parched roots as a metaphor for despair: the speaker begs Christ to help him because Christ’s love will rejuvenate him, just as water helps rejuvenate dying foliage.
According to Hopkins’s theory of inscape, all living things have a constantly shifting design or pattern that gives each object a unique identity. Hopkins frequently uses color to describe these inscapes. “Pied Beauty” praises God for giving every object a distinct visual pattern, from sunlight as multicolored as a cow to the beauty of birds’ wings and freshly plowed fields. Indeed, the word pied means “having splotches of two or more colors.” In “Hurrahing in Harvest,” the speaker describes “azourous hung hills” (9) that are “very-violet-sweet” (10). Elsewhere, the use of color to describe nature becomes more complicated, as in “Spring.” Rather than just call the birds’ eggs “blue,” the speaker describes them as resembling pieces of the sky and thus demonstrates the interlocking order of objects in the natural world. In “The Windhover,” the speaker yokes adjectives to convey the peculiar, precise beauty of the bird in flight—and to convey the idea that nature’s colors are so magnificent that they require new combinations of words in order to be imagined.
Many of Hopkins’s poems feature an ecstatic outcry, a moment at which the speaker expresses his transcendence of the real world into the spiritual world. The words ah, o, and oh usually signal the point at which the poem moves from a description of nature’s beauty to an overt expression of religious sentiment. “Binsey Poplars” (1879), a poem about the destruction of a forest, begins with a description of the downed trees but switches dramatically to a lamentation about the human role in the devastation; Hopkins signals the switch by not only beginning a new stanza but also by beginning the line with “O” (9). Hopkins also uses exclamation points and appositives to articulate ecstasy: in “Carrion Comfort,” the speaker concludes with two cries to Christ, one enclosed in parentheses and punctuated with an exclamation point and the other punctuated with a period. The words and the punctuation alert the reader to the instant at which the poem shifts from secular concerns to religious feeling.
To express inscape and instress, Hopkins experimented with rhythm and sound to create sprung rhythm, a distinct musicality that resembles the patterns of natural speech in English. The flexible meter allowed Hopkins to convey the fast, swooping falcon in “The Windhover” and the slow movement of heavy clouds in “Hurrahing in Harvest.” To indicate how his lines should be read aloud, Hopkins often marked words with acute accents, as in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” and “Spring and Fall.” Alliteration, or the juxtaposition of similar sounds, links form with content, as in this line from “God’s Grandeur”: “And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil” (6). In the act of repeating “red,” our mouths make a long, low sound that resembles the languid movements of humans made tired from factory labor. Elsewhere, the alliterative lines become another way of worshiping the divine because the sounds roll and bump together in pleasure. “Spring” begins, “Nothing is so beautiful as Spring— / When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush” (1–2).
Birds appear throughout Hopkins’s poetry, frequently as stand-ins for God and Christ. In “The Windhover,” a poem dedicated to Christ, the speaker watches a falcon flying through the sky and finds traces of Christ in its flight path. The beauty of the bird causes the speaker to reflect on the beauty of Christ because the speaker sees a divine imprint on all living things. Similarly, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” meditates on the innate behaviors and patterns of beings in the universe: the inscape of birds manifests in their flights, much as the inscape of stone manifests in the sound of flowing water. Christ appears everywhere in these inscape manifestations. In Christian iconography, birds serve as reminders that there is life away from earth, in heaven—and the Holy Ghost is often represented as a dove. “God’s Grandeur” portrays the Holy Ghost literally, as a bird big enough to brood over the entire world, protecting all its inhabitants.
Hopkins uses images of fire to symbolize the passion behind religious feeling, as well as to symbolize God and Christ. In “God’s Grandeur,” Hopkins compares the glory of God and the beautiful bounty of his world to fire, a miraculous presence that warms and beguiles those nearby. He links fire and Christ in “The Windhover,” as the speaker sees a flame burst at the exact moment in which he realizes that the falcon contains Christ. Likewise, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” uses the phrase “catch fire” as a metaphor for the birds’ manifestation of the divine imprint, or inscape, in their natural behavior. In that poem too, the dragonflies “draw flame” (1), or create light, to show their distinct identities as living things. Nature’s fire—lightning—appears in other poems as a way of demonstrating the innate signs of God and Christ in the natural world: God and Christ appear throughout nature, regardless of whether humans are there to witness their appearances.
Trees appear in Hopkins’s poems to dramatize the earthly effects of time and to show the detrimental effects of humans on nature. In “Spring and Fall,” the changing seasons become a metaphor for maturation, aging, and the life cycle, as the speaker explains death to a young girl: all mortal things die, just as all deciduous trees lose their leaves. In “Binsey Poplars,” the speaker mourns the loss of a forest from human destruction, then urges readers to be mindful of damaging the natural world. Cutting down a tree becomes a metaphor for the larger destruction being enacted by nineteenth-century urbanization and industrialization. Trees help make an area more beautiful, but they do not manifest God or Christ in the same way as animate objects, such as animals or humans.