Gerard Manley Hopkins has not generally been considered to be a poet, or indeed a man, of his age, both because of his undoubtedly innovative poetic technique and his ideas about art and religion, which tended to run contrary to the contemporary tide of opinion. Whilst his notions of ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’ and the style of his work certainly set him apart from other nineteenth century poets, Hopkins as a man was affected by many of the same concerns and personal crises as his contemporaries – he simply dealt with them in a different way, both in his poetry and in life.
The spirit of the Victorian age was itself a shifting thing, almost indefinable in its diversity; perhaps this quality can be said to be one of its only reliable distinguishing characteristics. The rapid progression of science and technology and the changes in society wrought by subsequent industrialisation led to a breakdown of social, religious and intellectual unity as long held certainties of faith, class and value were questioned.
Much contemporary poetry addressed contentious issues such as these, whether deliberately or simply through their influence on the author, and poetry maintained its cultural authority in spite of the rise of the popular novel during this period. Much of the work could be described as the poetry of doubt; witness the agonisings of Tennyson and Arnold over a world without a god or Browning’s questioning of the very nature and purpose of humanity.
Many eminent Victorians underwent years of inner conflict and uncertainty as they attempted to reconcile polaric ideas and attitudes in order to achieve a unity of vision and a decisive moral standpoint from which to view this world, struggling to discern what Matthew Arnold called the spirit of the whole1. Hopkins himself did not want to emulate the work of his immediate predecessors or that of his contemporaries. He found their subject matter old fashioned and their treatment of it uninspiring, their language archaic and their style tired.
His own view was that ‘a perfect style should be of its age’2, meaning that in the Victorian period it ought to be new and quite different from anything that had been used before, to have the ability to startle the reader and represent fully the diversity of the period. Although he wrote most often in the sonnet form, he constantly sought to test its limitations by experimenting with language, syntax and most obviously, metre, with his invention sprung rhythm.
This gave him much greater freedom as the poet counts only the stressed syllables in a line instead of every beat, allowing him to position multiple stressed or unstressed syllables together and to control the speed and effects of his lines far more easily. Words can be arranged as best represents their meaning as opposed to having to fit them to the metrical form, and is more reminiscent of the easy rhythms of ordinary speech.
The striking effects of this can be seen in Binsey Poplars3 where it allows Hopkins to group stressed syllables together to create various onomatopoeic effects, as in lines eleven and twelve where the repeated stressed syllables suggest the blows of an axe When we delve or hew Hack and rack the growing green!. In the final lines of the poem however the technique is used to evoke a soulful chanting reminiscent of the numb grief of bereavement The sweet especial scene Rural scene, a rural scene, Sweet especial rural scene..
This clustering of stressed beats often results in the charges of obscurity levelled by Hopkins’ poetic confidante, Bridges, as the poet alters the natural syntax in order to create other, less obvious, effects, often disposing completely with conjunctions and prepositions, as here in The Lantern out of Doors Death or distance soon consumes them: wind What most I eye after, (lines 9-10) where the superficial sense is subordinated to the meaning that is conveyed not just by the words themselves, but by the effect that they give when placed together in such an order.
Such linking of the syntax with the imagery is probably a result of the influence of the Welsh poetry Hopkins learned to read whilst studying theology in north Wales in the mid 1870s, as this accumulation of images to represent one central idea is common in such work, and can be seen very clearly in the first line of That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection Cloud- puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows flaunt forth, then Chevy on air- Built thoroughfare.
Hopkins believed that poetic language should be equally startling and special in order to fully convey the inscape of an image. He said that it ought to be ‘the current language heightened, to any degree heightened and unlike itself, but not (I mean normally: passing freaks and graces are another thing) an obsolete one. ‘4. He goes on to cite Shakespeare and Milton as embodying this, suggesting his opinion that other Victorian poets used dull and archaic language, whereas he felt that a certain degree of strangeness was needed in the language to alert and excite the reader.