I’ve always struggled with poetry. As an English student I felt some sort of guilt at my total lack of desire to curl up of a winter’s evening with a bit of Wordsworth, or bathe in the summer sun reading Tennyson aloud. I loved to analyse poetry in groups, bouncing ideas off each other, and I admired a witty turn of phrase or a beautiful arrangement of words, but to sit and read, it had to be prose. I hoped, and still do, that my tastes will change. In the last year alone I have added peppers, asparagus, feta cheese, and red cabbage to the list of foods I like and I like to imagine that my tastes in literature are equally open to evolving.
However, one poet whom I have loved since the moment I first read his work is Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins (1844-89), who converted to Roman Catholicism during his time at Oxford University, was a priest and a poet who struggled to reconcile those two sides of himself. He trained to be a Jesuit and, in order to fulfil the requirements of this austere life, he decided not to publish his poetry; he burnt all his poems when beginning his training. Fortunately, he had sent some to friends before this. Hopkins wrote on and off throughout his life.
The reason I loved his poems was one, because they were short, and secondly, because they sound amazing. For example, this is the beginning of his poem ‘Pied Beauty’ (1877).
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
His use of the sounds of language is wonderful. It was also very intentional. During his years at Oxford, Hopkins shared an interest many had in ‘primitive roots, or in an original language’. Hopkins’ was interested in the ‘musicality of language’. At one point he listed the words, ‘Crack, creak, croak, crake, graculus, crackle’, observing that ‘these must be onomatopoetic’. He followed the idea that words which are linked because of their sound perhaps have, or had, similar meanings. They have the same ‘root sound’, although this original meaning may not be obvious to us. He also had an interest in ‘purity’ of language (a losing battle with English) and learnt Old English. Such theories and interests were influential in his writings. We often see archaic and dialectic words, along with neologisms often influenced by old English. Heavy alliteration and the linking of words by sound, rather than meaning, is common. For example, in ‘The Windhover’ (1877).
I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
Ahhhhh…. Isn’t it lovely!
Hopkins experimented constantly with language, often putting it under massive pressure. In this poem the reader is forced to be acutely aware of words as words. Hopkins makes heavy use of features such as assonance, alliteration and rhyme. The words and their composition in Hopkins’ poetry have a weight and value of their own instead of just referring to reality.
As a priest, Hopkins suffered qualms throughout his life on the morality of writing poetry. However, Hopkins also used his love of language and poetry to glorify a God-made world. Hopkins declares, ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’, in ‘Pied Beauty’ and ends the poem almost like a prayer with the phrase, ‘Praise him’. Hopkins used his poems to give ‘auditory representations’ of how he saw the world. Perhaps Hopkins’ use of language when describing nature is an attempt to capture the glory and awesome nature of God. However, as this is indescribable, human language cannot possible capture it. Therefore, Hopkins much push language to its very limits.
From the beginning of ‘The Windhover’, as Hopkins attempts to pin down the bird’s movements, the lines are almost impossible to read aloud smoothly. The reader is confronted by Hopkins’ deviation from the norms of language. There is extensive use of alliteration as well as a focus on the repetition and shifting of vowel sounds. End rhyme is used throughout the poem – ‘riding/striding’ (2/3) – along with internal rhyme – ‘Stirred for a bird (8)’, ‘Fall, gall themselves (14)’. Not only this, but Hopkins uses sprung rhythm (a poetic rhythm which mimics the patterns of natural speech that Hopkins claimed to have identified in the English poetry, folk song, Shakespeare etc.) to play with the speed of the lines. In its density the language is fore fronted rather than being used to present a representation of a scene.
Hopkins is wonderful to read alone but it is also wonderful once you start to unpack how and why Hopkins wrote what he did. Perhaps he can inspire me to give some more poetry a chance, all I need is a book of Wordsworth and a good, warm fire.
 ‘For the Inscape’s Sake’: Sounding the Self in the Metres of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S. Star, (2009) Literature Compass, 6: 557–564.
 ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins on the Origin of Language’, Micheal Sprinker, Journal of the History of Ideas; Vol 41 No.1 (Jan-March, 1980) pp113-128
plus: ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins’, Wikipedia.org