“Injured by a natural eccentricity”: The Environmental Significance of Hopkins’s Strange Poetic Style

Two of the first publications of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with prefatory and explanatory notes by Robert Bridges.

Miles, Alfred H., ed. The Poets and Poetry of the Century. Vol. 8. London: Hutchinson & Co. [1891]. ABLibrary Rare X 821.8 M643p v.8.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, now first published. Edited with notes by Robert Bridges. Ed. Robert Bridges. London: Humphrey Milford [1918]. One of 750 copies. ABLibrary Rare X 821.8 H794p 1918.

Rare Item Analysis: “Injured by a natural eccentricity”: The Environmental Significance of Hopkins’s Strange Poetic Style

By Christina J. Lambert

Click here to visit an interactive timeline and map related to this post on Central Online Victorian Educator (COVE).

The first substantial publications of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) appeared after his death—thanks to the work of his friend, Poet Laureate Robert Bridges (1844–1930). Hopkins’s poems first appeared in Volume VIII of The Poets and Poetry of the Century, edited by Alfred H. Miles and published in 1891. You can find a first edition of this book in the Armstrong Browning Library’s Rare Item Collection. In 1918, Bridges published the first extended collection of Hopkins’ poetry—The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins—a first edition of which is also held by the Armstrong Browning Library in their Rare Item Collection. While Hopkins’s readers have Bridges to thank for the first extended publications of Hopkins’s poetry, Bridges’s prefatory material in both of these works involve some harsh criticism of Hopkins’s unique style. To learn about how Bridges’s criticism shaped the contemporary response to his poetry, see “Creating Imagined Community & Critiquing Imagined Incompetence: Two Early Printings of the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins” by Sørina Higgins. And, to learn more about Bridges’s particular criticisms of Hopkins’s rhymes, see “Friend or Foe? Bridges’s Rhyming Woe: How Robert Bridges’s Critical Response Sheds Light on Hopkins’s Unique Rhyme” by Shaye Widger.

In Bridges’s introduction to Hopkins’s poetry in The Poets and Poetry of the Century, he writes that “almost all of (Hopkins’s poems) are injured by a natural eccentricity, a love for subtlety and uncommonness, well denoted by the Greek term το περιττóν” (162). This Greek phrase translates as “the strange” or “the superfluous,” indicating just how Bridges felt about Hopkins’s unusual poetic style, replete with unusual accents and jarring rhymes (“περισσός,” def I.2, II.1). However, the themes of many of Hopkins’s poems dwell on a topic that might seem superfluous to some, though it assuredly is not: the beauty of creation. In this post, I suggest that the uncomfortable elements of Hopkins’s poetic style that Bridges makes us aware of actually help us understand how Hopkins’s strange style is ecologically and theologically significant. Through a close reading of “Hurrahing in Harvest,” we find that Hopkins’s disruption of poetic expectations helps us understand a world that is other than us, and his superfluous style teaches us how to become grateful beholders of the abundant gift of creation.

Before examining the poem, we will consider Bridges’s critiques of the accents, oddity, and rhymes of Hopkins’s strange form. In The Poets and Poetry of the Century, the final sentence of the preface to Hopkins’s section reads: “Some syllables have been accented in the text, as a guide to the reader, where it seemed that the boldness of the rhythm might otherwise cause him to doubt the intended stress” (164). While Hopkins’s poems are written in Sprung Rhythm, he often adds extra accents, leaving the reader in no doubt of the significance of each word. But in The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Bridges makes readers aware that he himself took out a few of Hopkins’s accents, finding them characteristic of Hopkins’s unnecessary style (96). Bridges also points out Hopkins’s “oddity and obscurity”—by which he means Hopkins’s “omission of relative pronouns,” “identical forms,” and “homophones” (97-99). His main critique is that such “ambiguity or momentary uncertainty destroys the force of the sentence” (99). But despite this, Hopkins “would seem even to welcome and seek artistic effect in the consequent confusion” of the reader (99). Bridges also makes note of Hopkins’s strange rhymes, saying, “Finally, the rhymes where they are peculiar are often repellent and so far from adding charm to the verse that they appear as obstacles” (99). For Bridges, these examples of Hopkins’s strange form disqualified him from ranking among the great poets of the day. But while Bridges condemned Hopkins’s strange accenting, oddity, and rhyme, he missed the fact that it is precisely these singularities that allow Hopkins’s poetry to disrupt norms in order to tell a new, intentionally non-traditional story about nature and how we should encounter it.

Turning to Hopkins’s poetry, we will now consider Bridges’s critiques in light of “Hurrahing in Harvest,” a poem written by Hopkins in 1877. Hopkins said that “the Hurrahing sonnet was the outcome of half an hour of extreme enthusiasm as I walked home alone one day from fishing in the Elwy” (The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins 109). We find this enthusiasm in the first stanza, where we read: “Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise / Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behavior / Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier / Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?” (Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works 1-4). In this stanza, Hopkins uses an assortment of strange words to describe his encounter with the brilliant fall day he meets. But we should note that the language he uses is almost all anthropomorphic: the wind is walking, the clouds are pictured as dressed in “silk-sack,” suggesting human clothing, and they are described as willful, ascribing to them a clearly human agency. Finally, they are compared to “meal-drift,” the results of harvest and threshing. In this stanza, the poet is encountering nature, but he is bringing to it all the associations that his world provides—so we might almost say he is making nature encounter himself.

The accents and rhymes in the second stanza begin to reorient this vision of the viewer: “I wálk, I líft up, Í lift úp heart, eyes, / Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour; / And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gáve you a / Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?” (5-8). We receive a very particular story if we read, here, intentionally for the accents. In Bridges’s version, he left out all the accents included in the first line, as we see pictured here:

Lines of poetry with stresses shown

These accents were re-added in the Oxford University Press edition, based on Hopkins’s original manuscripts (Phillips xxxix). If we read for the accents, then we find that the first-person speaker—the “I”—is not emphasized until after he simply beholds and encounters. First, he walks, then he lifts—movements that literally and physically allow him to behold—and only then comes the emphasized “I”. Through the accents, we learn that the speaker’s encounter has become more important than the speaker himself, suggesting that the acts of perceiving precede a true awareness of the subject. This simple inclusion of the accents teaches us something simple yet essential about our encounters with nature—that we must learn how to perceive before we insert ourselves into the picture, allowing nature to shape and affect us, rather than attempting to fit nature into formats that we ourselves understand.

In this stanza we also find a particularly odd rhyme—the kind that Bridges describes as strange or childish. In the second and third lines, we find Hopkins attempting to rhyme the last words and phrases of these two lines, “Saviour” and “gave you a.” The rhyme is dependent upon on the initial “R” of the following line’s first word; for instance, if the phrase “gave you a R” is said aloud quickly, without a break between lines, it might rhyme with “aviour.” This truly bizarre rhyme might make us stop and laugh, but the point is that it makes us pause. We must pause and ask, how has the speaker received this breathtaking encounter with nature? It is the gift of his Savior. The awkward but ear-catching rhyme forces us to think of how this vision is a gift. The accents on “eyes,” “heart,” and “gave” also allow us to contemplate how the faculties by which we see and love nature are the gift of the same Creator who made ourselves and this landscape. Thus, through these strange elements, Hopkins is shifting emphasis from the viewer to the givenness of the view that he encounters.

The poem winds up being a celebration of the given, and in the final stanza, the poem suggests that the only proper response to this gift is to behold and to be moved by this encounter:

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder

Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—

These things, these things were here and but the beholder

Wánting; whích two whén they once méet,

The heart rears wings bold and bolder

And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet. (9-14)

In this last stanza, Hopkins is still using human language to describe the landscape but the “shoulder” here is now Christ’s. Because of his heightened attention, the speaker seems to be able to observe how creation participates in the body of Christ. In this stanza, the meeting of landscape and beholder is emphasized through the accenting of “which,” “when” and “meet,” indicating the importance of this encounter. But the first accent draws our attention to the word “Wánting”. The oddity and obscurity that Bridges makes us aware of is very present here. Is the beholder “wanting”—as in absent from this space until now? Or is the beholder “wanting”—as in lacking in something? The accent makes it clear that this word is important, but we are unsure as to why. I think Hopkins’s obscurity allows us to dwell in both of these meanings: we are each called to behold the world around us, but we are wanting—perhaps too inwardly focused to be able to fully appreciate the gorgeous givenness around us that proclaims Christ. Yet the most direct reading of this line communicates that, despite our deficiency, the landscape calls out for a beholder to come and observe and lift up praises to Christ. The obscurity of this line seems to communicate the mutuality of these realities and the grace of beholding: that humans are given the opportunity to sing the praises of the Creator. Bridges’s observation about Hopkins’s obscurity is correct, but he misses the fact that this obscurity helps us understand the complex but beautiful role of the beholder who, by grace, has received the eyes and heart to perceive and enjoy the world around him.

Hopkins’s accenting, rhyming, and obscurity is undeniably strange, but it has the effect of destabilizing us through form, so that we can re-see our own place in the world from this new vantage point. His poetry allows us to learn what it means for creation to be a part of the body of Christ, along with ourselves and allows us to behold in new ways. Though Bridges might have meant to critique Hopkins’s style, he actually provides us with a helpful tool for analyzing Hopkins’s poetry, and Hopkins’s oeuvre is full of works about the created world. Poems such as “Binsey Poplars” or “Inversnaid” ask to be read in this light, providing a space to further consider how Hopkins’s strange forms makes possible the communication of his robust environmental imagination. Further study along these lines might draw from criticism in the environmental humanities or queer theory to understand how these disruptions make space for the nonhuman. On a teaching level, Bridges’s commentary provides tools for students to learn how to read Hopkins’s poetry on a detail level, learning how to close-read the form as well as the language. Students would benefit from reading a poem like “Hurrahing in Harvest” while looking for Hopkins’s accents, rhymes, and obscurity, learning anew how to encounter poetry and, perhaps, how to behold nature.

Works Cited:

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Edited by Robert Bridges, Humphrey Milford, 1918. Internet Archive,  http://archive.org/details/poemsofgerardman030114mbp.

—. Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works, edited by Catherine Phillips. OUP, 2002.

Miles, Alfred H. The Poets and the Poetry of the Century: Robert Bridges and Contemporary      Poets. Vol. VIII, Hutchinson, 1891. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/poetsandpoetryof08mileuoft.

Phillips, Catherine, editor. “Notes on the text.” Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works, pp.   xxxix-xlii. OUP, 2002.

“περισσός, Adj. I.2 and II.1.” The Online Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon,       http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/lsj/#eid=84682.

Posted in ABL Rare Item Analyses by Students, Armstrong Browning Library

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