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The O-seal-that-so feature

The only thing better than reading a good poem is re-reading a good poem. Listening to the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins is to encounter in a small space a mind eager to make us aware of marvels. Aware, more aware, totally aware.

It should be the hallmark of any writer of ecology that they reveal marvels. For although skyscrapers of scientific data should be enough to activate humans to protect the natural world, a more certain cause is to instil wonder.

In his diary for April 8th 1873, Hopkins wrote, “The ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first: I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed anymore.”

Inscape was one of his coinages, typical of a man who developed private theories to assist his thinking and writing. It means the thisness or whatness of anything, Duns Scotus called it quiddity, those characteristics of colour, shape and body that make anything unique and special. When we read ‘Binsey Poplars’, a poem emanating from a similar experience, inscape has also come to mean life itself, both the thisness and what could be called the is-ness.

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled.

He laments the loss of “a fresh and following folded rank,” saying, “O if we but knew what we do when we delve or hew.” The more we value the beauty and meaning of creation, the deeper the feeling of loss. Hopkins evolved a method of description that is praise and thanksgiving. We find it everywhere in his writing, a close attention to object and word sounds, a substantial pleasure. ‘Dappled’ became a Hopkins word, as in ‘Pied Beauty’:

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 …

While in the opening to ‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves’, described by the poet as “the longest sonnet ever made”, we sit up when we read of sunset:

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, vaulty, volumninous … stupendous
Evening strains to be time’s vast, womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.

Over-familiarity with Hopkins may lead us to overlook a driving purpose of this poetry. He is asking us to see the whole created world – physical, sustaining, alive – in the same way as in his poem. It is not just that small is beautiful, but that everything in ordinary is a microcosm of the great world. It is there to be marvelled at, protected, and perpetuated.

‘Nature poet’, ‘Romantic poet’, ‘Religious poet’, ‘Language poet’, ‘Love poet’, ‘Beat poet’: these terms, trotted out like job applications, are a way to put people in their place, a mark of literary journalism. Hopkins fits all of these jobs and, like all poets, spent his life filling out the application form. Some may quibble with Language poet, but he is one of the great forerunners of that mode. Others will say it is anachronistic to call Hopkins a Beat poet, but I use it in the sense Jack Kerouac gave, that it is about beating out the words and is short for Beatitude. There is no Victorian poet more deliberative about the beat of the words, which he called ‘sprung rhythm’, and his intended resting place after the poetic act seems to be a state of beatitude.

Hopkins’ writing is an ecological testament, in which every animate and inanimate thing has its own purpose, and everything lives in a state of relationship. Then, virtually every poem asserts, acknowledges, gives praise, or questions the Creator God. Such landmarks of our literature as ‘The Windhover’ and ‘God’s Grandeur’ have this two-fold composition, with an opening representation and a closing address to the Maker. They are testimony and psalm, revelatory praise and then doxology. For all the effect of immediate inspiration, Hopkins’ poems are in fact very carefully constructed sets of images and exclamations, done to expose the essential bind in our awareness between ecology and the reverence due to that which made creation, ourselves included.

Because for Hopkins the world in all its beauty can never be appreciated fully without awareness, acknowledgement, access to God. He is an inheritor of the Keatsian view that beauty is truth and truth beauty, a creed devoutly followed by many ever since, a motto that sent some of his fellow Englishmen bonkers, but he asks

To what serves mortal beauty – dangerous; does set danc-
ing blood – the O-seal-that-so feature, flung prouder form
Than Purcell tune lets tread to?

and answers in conclusion

What do then? how meet beauty? Merely meet it; own
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, God’s better beauty, grace.

It is the very being of the tree that we mourn, not simply its admirable beauty, and how we see that? Nature itself is corruptible and only truly beautiful while a sign of the beauty within its being. However we may take the word, for Hopkins the real answer is grace.

The Victorian cult of beauty was not enough. Another way in which Hopkins thought contrary to his times was in word use. He wrote to a friend criticising what he called Lord Tennyson’s Parnassian English, by which he means the Laureate’s ability to turn on the poeticisms at will, to remain in a show-off elevated state of expression for ages of pages without making any memorable impact. Perhaps this is why almost all of Hopkins’ work consists of short poems. The high-flown was not for him, and in this he is closer to the modernists. To use a favourite word of Seamus Heaney’s, Hopkins writes a pressured line, he packs everything he can into a sonnet without causing it to explode or fall apart. Hence the surprise effects but also the close two-fold structure, where God and creation necessarily exist together. 


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