The Contemplative Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Contemplative Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

by Maria R. Lichtmann


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In 1989, the centenary of his death, Gerard Manley Hopkins continues to provoke fundamental questions among scholars: what major poetic strategy informs his work and how did his reflections on the nature of poetry affect his writing? While form meant a great deal to Hopkins, it was never mere form. Maria Lichtmann demonstrates that the poet, a student of Scripture all his life, adopted Scripture's predominant form—parallelism—as his own major poetic strategy. Hopkins saw that parallelism struck deep into the heart and soul, tapping into unconscious rhythms and bringing about a healing response that he identified as contemplation. Parallelism was to him the perfect statement of the integrity of outward form and inner meaning.

Other critics have seen the parallelism in Hopkins's poems only on the auditory level of alliterations and assonances. Lichtmann, however, builds on the views held by Hopkins himself, who spoke of a parallelism of words and of thought engendered by the parallelism of sound. She distinguishes the integrating Parmenidean parallelisms of resemblance from the disintegrating Heraclitean parallelisms of antithesis. The tension between Parmenidean unity and Heraclitean variety is resolved only in the wordless communion of contemplation. This emphasis on contemplation offers a corrective to the overly emphasized Ignatian interpretation of Hopkins's poetry as meditative poetry. The book also makes clear that Hopkins's preference for contemplation sharply differentiates him from his Romantic predecessors as well as from the structuralists who now claim him.

Originally published in 1989.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691602653
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #964
Pages: 242
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

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The Contemplative Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

By Maria R. Lichtmann


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07345-3


"Exquisite Artifice": Parallelism in Hopkins' Poetics

Hopkins continually turned to parallelism as his point of departure for discussing poetry. As an undergraduate at Oxford (1863–1867), a teacher at John Henry Newman's Edgbaston Oratory (1867–1868), and a Jesuit teacher of rhetoric at the Roehampton Novitiate (1873–1874), he explicitly invoked parallelism in constructing his poetics. Sprung rhythm, the prosodic innovation Hopkins singled out in what Bridges titled the "Author's Preface," does not exhaust his poetics, as his essays and notes, written over a ten-year span, attest. In light of these essays, we must come to see chiming, alliteration, assonance, and sprung rhythm as aspects of a larger, more inclusive phenomenon, the phenomenon of parallelism.

Hopkins wrote his undergraduate essays in the Oxford of the 1860s, a climate predominantly Romantic in its views of art and religion. Wordsworth and Coleridge in poetry, New man in religion, had contributed to a synthesis whose chief values were subjectivity and emotion. Yet Hopkins, though barely twenty, rather than being swayed by the Romantic synthesis, sought to overcome its "atomism" and "suggestiveness" by a turn to form. Parallelism, the form he chose as generic, displayed for him both order and disorder, symmetry and asymmetry, sameness and difference. Hopkins first found parallelism in nature, as many of his journal entries witness. Parallelism therefore described to him not only the spontaneity of the human heart, which the Romantics had found in the parallelistic language of the biblical prophets, but the very wildness and fecundity of a nature that yet rhymed. For Hopkins, parallelism mimed reality even more than it expressed the self.

Parallelism as Inscape

The word "parallelism" appears in three of Hopkins' undergraduate essays before his first recorded use of the much debated word peculiar to his vocabulary — inscape. Parallelism operates in these early essays in much the same way as inscape operates later on. That is, parallelism is the inscape of poetry, its distinguishing mark or pattern. With its tendency to repeat, parallelism works toward an ontological integration of the poem, making for unity with regard to both space and time. The key word here is unity, perhaps the first word of Hopkins' poetic creed, but one that remains largely unspoken within the poetic corpus. This fundamental need for unity we will identify as the "Parmenidean" element of Hopkins' poetics, concentrating on his Parmenides essay to supply this most inchoate moment. The Parmenidean element exists in tension with an entropic "Heraclitean" one. That is to say, Hopkins' original intuition of unity suffers breakdown at the hands of the disintegrating variety and individuality of reality. It is this Heraclitean element that accounts for the strong emphasis in Hopkins' works on antithesis, difference, and variety. Inscape in Hopkins' theory of poetry is thus a composite of polarities — of order and disorder, symmetry and asymmetry, absolutes and wildness — written into the very structure of poetry. Yet we must remember that neither the Parmenidean nor the Heraclitean element wins a final victory over the poem, nor is the tension between them resolved in the poem; they are left to collide until the reader's contemplative response restores the unity without denying the diversity.

Hopkins' intuitive need for unity is nowhere more explicitly worked out than in his essay on Parmenides, probably written in 1868 while he was teaching at Newman's Oratory. Parmenides was the pre-Socratic philosopher who asserted that "Only Being is" and that "Being and thought are the same"; in so doing he made true being the equivalent of higher logic and reason. In his formula, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "Being and thought are the same," we get a happy, if naive, statement of the coincidence of logos and reality, and of the power of human reason to penetrate reality. His statement, challenged by Plato, finally succumbed in the wake of Kantian agnosticism. Nevertheless, in spite of Kant, some such statement of faith or idealism is necessary if the poetic enterprise is not to founder in subjectivity. The poetic creed of the idealist become realist, and Hopkins was certainly such a realist, is that "I can know the world."

Parmenides' monistic philosophy of undifferentiation, however, intolerant of division, change, or contradiction, seems a curious philosophical counterpart to Hopkins' emphatically differentiated view of reality. Yet it is evident throughout Hopkins' essay that he is in sympathy with this basically mystical vision of the oneness of all. Commenting on Parmenides' things are or there is truth, he says, "But indeed I have often felt when I have been in this mood and felt the depth of an instress or how fast the inscape holds a thing that nothing is so pregnant and straightforward to the truth as simple yes and is." Nowhere is the coincidence between Being and thought more true, the truth of Being more apparent in language, or the conception of Being more idealized, shorn of its involvement in nonbeing or appearance, than in "simple yes and is."

Hopkins is inspired by Parmenides' affirmation of what is to make his first formulation of the peculiar notions "inscape" and "instress." Inscape, here described as a "stem of stress between us and things to bear us out and carry the mind over,"7 an ecs-stasis, is his ontology of an outward form of inward beauty, and instress is his epistemology. Both coincide in the poetic act of saying "simple yes and is." Hopkins, not submitting to the subjectivity either of Kant or of the Romantics, insists that in being borne out and carried over, in ecs-stasis, we can know. Moreover, what we know and acknowledge is Being. "The truth in thought," he says, "is Being, stress, and each word is one way of acknowledging Being and each sentence by its copula is (or its equivalent) the utterance and assertion of it" (Journals, p. 129). The phrase "utterance and assertion of [Being]" contains a rich ambiguity, one that results in a double reading: both we and Being are the utterers of Being. Breaking somewhat with Parmenides' hubristic view that the subject or knower can ascend to the possession of truth, Hopkins adds, "Perhaps it would be better referred to the object and Parmenides will say that the mind's grasp — [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the foredrawing act — ... is to be looked for in Being, the foredrawn, alone, not in the thing named blood or the blood we worded as being red." Being, anterior to the mind, is the true subject of knowing; we are grasped by Being in each act of knowing.

This reference to the object, Being, is fundamental to Hopkins' epistemology, to his poetics, and to his revision of Wordsworth's poetics, as we shall see in the second part of this chapter. As in Parmenides, the mind's grasp surpasses the naming of common language and the things of commonsense experience to get to Being itself. The direction Hopkins indicates is distinctly objective and other-centered. For him, as for the mystics, it is more true to say that Being first and foremost is knowing than to say that knowing, mounting the rungs of the ladder of logic, is Being. Thus, the mind's act is to be self-alienated, to be distanced from itself and foredrawn to Being, and the necessary condition for establishing Being's priority is a kenosis or self-emptying.

This priority of ontology over epistemology sharply differentiates Hopkins both from his Romantic predecessors and from the structuralists who now claim him. Without the stress that carries us over to Being, "not only universals would not be true but the copula would break down even in particular judgements" (Journals, p. 127). Hopkins is thus no nominalist or atomist: universals and the ability to relate them must remain. His Parmenidean belief in the unity of being and knowing closes the gap between universal and particular and between the ideal and the real. Without such unity, all would be atomistic, relative but unrelated. In other Oxford notes, he states that the common element in sophistry and philistinism "is the denying all objectivity to truth and to metaphysics. This denial destroys earnestness in life" (Unpublished Oxford Notes, D8; catalogued in Journals, Appendix F). Hopkins' own earnestness with reality prevented such a sophistic, solipsistic denial.

In another essay, "The Probable Future of Metaphysics," Hopkins points to the loss of unity as a "form of atomism" that hangs on the age when a philosophy of continuity such as Hegel's predominates (Journals, p. 120). He seems to be combating not only Hegel but the relativism introduced by Darwin only a few years earlier. Science, he says, would be "scopeless," that is, "atomic, not to be grasped and held together — without metaphysics." This scoping, or holding together, clearly a variant of inscape, is accomplished by the "simple yes and is," the copula that dares unity between things and the "yes" that affirms relation between ourselves and things.

Hopkins expresses the need for unity in art in his essay, "The Origin of Our Moral Ideas": "All thought," he says, "is of course an effort at unity" (Journals, p. 83; the underlinings were probably supplied by the essay's reader, Walter Pater). He continues, "In art it is essential to recognize and strive to realize on a more or less wide basis this unity in some shape or other." But art tolerates and realizes not only "unity, permanence of law, likeness, but also, with it, difference, variety, contrast: it is rhyme we like, not echo, and not unison but harmony" (Journals, p. 83). Rhyme in Hopkins' view encompasses contrast and is not a mere matter of sameness. "Healthy art," he tells us elsewhere, "is always breaking from [its first attained idealisms], forming new ones, and then again advancing" (Unpublished Oxford Essays, Di). Encountering the real, art's idealism must break down to be won anew within the real. Hopkins' insistence on unity and variety is a statement of what we have been calling the Parmenidean and Heraclitean elements of his poetics. He is willing to risk the submersion of his idealisms in the real, for only there do they become incarnated.

In the same essay, Hopkins draws a distinction between unity as an ideal in art and unity as an ideal in morality. Whereas art tolerates difference, in morality only the "highest consistency" is the highest excellence. The reason for morality's consistency is that "the desire of unity is prior to that of difference" (Journals, p. 83). Why, Hopkins asks, do we desire unity? "The first answer," he says, "would be that the ideal, the one, is our only means of recognizing successfully our being to ourselves, it unifies us, while vice destroys the sense of being by dissipating thought" (Journals, p. 83). The ideal, the one, wherever it is recovered, because it enables us to recognize our true being, leads to the unity of "know thyself." This ethic of self-unification becomes for Hopkins a major goal of his contemplative experience; in the contemplative act, scattered energies are drawn back to Being and to recovery of oneself in Being. Again, being becomes knowing, as in the contemplative tradition. The moral ideal of a oneness of self overcoming a divided, dissipated self is what Hopkins will call in a letter to Bridges that "chastity of mind" that Christ possessed. Paradoxically, this chastened, unified self is the precondition for the discovery of otherness and difference.

Hopkins was not alone in seeing the need for unity arise in a person's life. At about the time he wrote this essay, Pater, his tutor at Oxford, was writing an essay called "Diaphaneite" in which he quotes the Imitatio Christi's "Sibi unitus et simplificatus esse" to illustrate that transparency of character that is "a kind of moral expressiveness." For Pater, unity of self is self-simplification. Further, says Pater, the diaphanous spirit's simplicity is a condition of true seeing, because it "lets through unconsciously all that is really lifegiving in the established order of things." For Pater and Hopkins, the Parmenidean unity achieved in the self lets through and lets be the Heraclitean riot of life, a contemplative response to the world.

In Hopkins, although unity precedes difference as an ontological fact, it is also an activity at work unifying us wherever we discover it as the ideal. In essays written for his tutor, Pater, Hopkins says of Plato that "His aim in all he says about education is to preserve unity in the distracting multiplicity of life" and that "every quickening of the sense of unity will act on morals" ("Plato's view of the connection of art and education," Unpublished Oxford Essays, D3). Hopkins' inscape, whether in nature or art, is unity of being, which, rather than being a static ideal, becomes alive and active, instressing us. Every poem, then, instresses us toward greater unity of being.

Hopkins focuses again on an originating unity in laying out the tenets of a "New Realism," a mixture of Platonism and Realism that he proposes to oppose a Hegelian philosophy of flux. Countering Hegel's principle that knowledge is a "history of growth and mounts from the part to the whole," the New Realism maintains that the Idea is given only "from the whole downwards to the parts" (Journals, p. 120). The consequences of such a patently idealist notion may seem remote from Hopkins' actual poetic practice. Clearly, his is not a poetry of abstract ideals aerially presiding over their particulars. But another reference to unity provides the clue to his actual practice. In notes written in Birmingham in 1868, just preceding the "Parmenides" essay, Hopkins writes of capturing the unity of the whole: "It is however true that in the successive arts ... the whole's unity retires, is less important, serves rather for the framework of that of the parts" (Journals, p. 126).

What we have, then, as we shall see in Hopkins' actual poetry, is a reticent, retiring unity, one that has retired to the framework of the poem rather than being foregrounded in it. That "framework" is actually made up of Hopkins' original Parmenidean intuition of unity and the reader's contemplative recovery of that unity. According to these notes, the word has three moments: its prepossession, its definition, and its application; so too does the poem. And its "prepossession," that which flushes it with enthusiasm, is the same as its application, that which enables us to recognize our being, that which unifies us. Prepossession, Hopkins tells us, bears a "valuable analogy to the soul" (Journals, p. 125). Both the prepossession by the poet and the application by the reader (what Hopkins would come to call the poem's "bidding") are part of that framework of retiring unity. The poem is the actual definition and the passage from the poet's soul to the reader's.

Parallelism within the poem serves Hopkins' need for unity by providing pointers to it. In its capacity to create likeness, symmetry, and law, parallelism provides nodes of the absolute.

An elaborate musical analogy expresses this belief that where likeness and harmony recur, there is the absolute: The new Realism will maintain that in musical strings the roots of chords, to use technical wording, are mathematically fixed and give a standard by which to fix all the notes of the appropriate scale: when points between these are sounded the ear is annoyed by a solecism, or to analyse deeper, the mind cannot grasp the notes of the scale and the intermediate sound in one conception; so also there are certain forms which have a great hold on the mind and are always reappearing and seem imperishable ... and some pictures we may long look at and never grasp or hold together, while the composition of others strikes the mind with a conception of unity which is never dislodged: and these things are inexplicable on the theory of pure chromatism or continuity — the forms have in some sense or other an absolute existence. (Journals, p. 120)

Hopkins marshals both musical and visual analogies to support his belief in a realism with absolutes. It is characteristic of him to make what seems at first a mere sense-reaction ("the ear is annoyed by a solecism") into an intellectual experience as well ("the mind cannot grasp the notes of the scale"). Much of his notion of parallelism, with its joining of sound, grammar, and thought, operates on this correspondence between the sensuous and the spiritual. Those forms that have a great hold on the mind, striking it with the conception of unity, intimate the presence of the ideal amid the real. Hopkins' earnestness with reality does not discount the ideal of unity. This essay makes therefore a philosophical statement of what Hopkins discusses in his essays on poetics under the generic term parallelism. His Platonic realism could be considered a kind of Aristotelianism, where the forms, instead of having a merely ideal, other-worldly existence, become the essences of things. One difference from Aristotle, however, is that these forms result from harmonic relations or proportions, in effect from parallelisms.


Excerpted from The Contemplative Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins by Maria R. Lichtmann. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Acknowledgments, pg. ix
  • Introduction, pg. 3
  • CHAPTER 1: "Exquisite Artifice": Parallelism in Hopkins' Poetics, pg. 7
  • CHAPTER 2: "Meaning Motion": Parallelism in The Wreck of the Deutschland, Part the First, pg. 61
  • CHAPTER 3: "Thoughts Against Thoughts": Antithesis in Hopkins' Sonnets, pg. 100
  • CHAPTER 4: "The Ecstasy of Interest": Contemplation as Parallelism's Praxis, pg. 129
  • CHAPTER 5 : "And But the Beholder": Contemplation in Hopkins' Poetry, pg. 170
  • BIBLIOGRAPHY, pg. 215
  • INDEX, pg. 225

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