Bonnard as priest, Hopkins as debaucher: inspiration in art & poetry

Landscape was never a subject matter, it was a technique
. . . .
Language was always the subject matter, the idea of God

— from “The Minor Art of Self-defense” by Charles Wright

The poets and painters I like best stand midway between day and night, between tight focus and unmitigated blur, between object and inspiration. Take Bonnard and Hopkins, for instance.

One might describe a painting’s emphasis on its object as a kind of daylight, as if the painter would have been pleased by a viewer’s remark about how realistic a face or an orange or a skyline was. On the other hand, one might describe a painting’s emphasis on abstraction – abstraction not in the stylistic sense but in the painting’s effect on the viewer – and intuition as kind of darkness, as if the painter would have been pleased by a viewer’s remark about how the painting conjured up a mood or insight seemingly at odds with the subject matter. Such a mood or insight may lead a viewer to see the subject matter in a new way or, even better, to transcend the subject matter and to join the painter in viewing the objects of the physical world as a palette for a more substantial world of intuition and feeling through the painting’s gateway of impression or intimation that leads from the object to the mood or insight.

Pierre Bonnard got the gist of his object but left it recognizable to compete with its own essence or, even better, with the painting’s own inscape. In other words, Bonnard’s viewer watches a struggle between the painting’s object and the painting itself. And this daylight and darkness fight it out in such a way that both win and that the viewer learns what it means to see and perhaps to participate in a physical world in harmony with a spiritual one through a kind of faith that leads to understanding.

For Bonnard, the painting’s execution was a struggle between its object and the painter’s original idea, or inspiration. According to Bonnard, “The presence of the object, of the motif, is extremely distracting for the painter at the moment of painting. Since the point of departure is an idea, the presence of the object invariably subjects the artist to the risk of being so influenced by the immediate view that he loses sight of the original idea . . .”

[Bonnard's "White Interior"]

I see Bonnard working out this daylight and darkness in every painting I’ve seen of his, but it’s easiest for me to see this struggle in his interiors and his nudes. White Interior, an example of the former, permits the exotic exterior seen through the interior’s door and window in the painting’s upper-right corner to struggle to assert itself as an exterior; at first the outdoors could appear as some stuff in a cabinet or as part of the room’s décor made to balance the dark pot and plant in the upper-left corner. Likewise, the figure bending beside the table struggles to differentiate herself from the carpet. But neither the object nor the composition wins (at least, that’s how it seems to me); instead, the object and the inspiration are both enhanced.

Bonnard was a priest who had to live in his dark inspiration at the same time that his eyes were fully open to the bright, physical world. He protected his inspiration from his object even as he allowed himself to be overwhelmed by that object. For Bonnard, neither the spiritual nor the physical could win in any sense, for both would have shriveled if one were to preclude the other or if one were to serve merely as an adjunct of or prop for the other. As a result of this struggle, Bonnard’s paintings represent, for me, a mature vision.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, on the other hand, was not a priest but a debaucher. Like Bonnard, Hopkins had equal respect for his bright object and his dark inspiration, but because he was a poet, he couldn’t have been a priest in the sense I describe. A poet doesn’t hold true to or harbor an initial, dark inspiration or idea while doing art (in their case, writing); instead, a poet loses his initial inspiration in the process of writing poetry. Part of the fun of writing poetry is discovering what the poem has to say, and that saying may have little to do with the poem’s initial calling or the poet’s first idea. The poet, then, is not faithful to his fillip.  The poet merely uses his initial inspiration to lead him inside the poem, which, unlike a painting, can have a life of its own in which darkness and light intermingle. The poet seduces his first inspiration and then leaves it in favor of the poem that inspiration brought on. My favorite poets are debauchers in this sense: men and women who compose verse in their heads during sex, people who pick up the pen at the onset of contemplatio.

As a sketch artist, Hopkins acted like a poet. Hopkins was an artist from a family of artists; two of his siblings were professional artists. But Hopkins’s art served his poetry, in a way, and his frequent and promising sketches were rarely if ever fully developed. “Having once discovered the secret inscape of what he has been observing, he is impatient to move on to the next subject,” his biographer Paul Mariani says in Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life (47). Hopkins used his art to discover an affinity he shared with anything created, organic or inorganic. Hopkins didn’t hold his inspiration before his object as the priestly Bonnard did; instead, he sketched his object until he found its inspiration, and then he left off. His relationship with his subject matter was undeveloped and short-lived simply because he was an effective poet.

A painter’s object can distract him from his first idea, Bonnard warned. But poetry is itself distraction from the poet’s fillip, that is, from his first idea, from his inspiration, from his reason for picking up his pen. Bonnard’s inspiration came before he picked up a brush, and the rest was priesthood. Hopkins had to have two inspirations, though: the first would come before he picked up his pen and the second would come while he was inside his poem. He had to forsake the first for the second; he was a poet.

Hopkins pined after a certain kind of fillip. He found lots of it in the countryside and language of Wales where he wrote some of his most famous sonnets, but he found none of it in the slums of industrial Liverpool where he served as a Jesuit priest. He could only compose music in Liverpool, and he complained that his muse had otherwise forsaken him there. He longed for the fillip he found in unspoiled nature, of course, not for nature’s own sake but for the poetry that would result from it.

I do not mean to suggest that Hopkins was insincere in his paeans to nature or God. He wasn’t. His theology was built on a Scotist, incarnate view of God in nature that was not favored by his Jesuit superiors and probably cost him his fourth year of study and his career as a Professed Jesuit. He paid dearly for the views his poems get across.

But it was the inspiration within the poem that meant everything to Hopkins the poet, not the inspiration that led to the poem, as necessary as that was. In a letter to Alexander Baillie, a lawyer friend of his whom he had kept up with from his Oxford days, Hopkins made a distinction between the poetry of inspiration and what he termed Parnassian verse (not the French school of Parnassian poets). Inspired poetry comes from “a mood of great, abnormal in fact, acuteness, either energetic or receptive,” Hopkins wrote. Most verse is Parnassian, however, and is “not in the highest sense poetry”:

Parnassian then is that language which genius speaks as fitted to its exaltation, and place among other genius, but does not sing . . . in its flights. Great men, poets I mean, have each their own dialect as it were of Parnassian, formed generally as they go on writing, and at last, — this is the point to be marked, — they can see things in this Parnassian way and describe them in this Parnassian tongue, without further effort or inspiration. In a poet’s particular kind of Parnassian lies most of his style, of his manner, of his mannerism if you like.

To Hopkins, Shakespeare had the highest inspiration-to-Parnassian ratio of the major English poets; Wordsworth had the lowest. Hopkins, then, did not wish to develop his own style; he wanted, in accordance with his own poetics, to write inspired poetry.  But the bigger point is that Hopkins developed a theory of inspiration regarding the construction of a poem, and this theory has nothing to do with the inspiration he frequently complained that he lacked to begin a poem.

I suggested before that Hopkins’s poetry, like Bonnard’s painting, stands midway between object and inspiration – that object and inspiration intermingle in Hopkins’s poetry, in fact – and I am almost ready to say what I mean by that. I’ve dwelt on Hopkins’s inspiration, but now I must address the object of his poetry. The object of Hopkins’s poetry is neither nature nor God nor despair but speech. For Hopkins the poet, nature, God, or despair is simply the fillip that leads to poetry. That fillip of nature or God or despair also survives as the meaning of Hopkins’s poetry (fillip rarely survives in any sense in most modern lyric poetry), but they are not the object of his poetry. Instead, speech itself is Hopkins’s object. (This is not true for all poets, though all poets deal in words.) Consider Hopkins’s definition of poetry:

Poetry is speech framed for contemplation of the mind by the way of hearing or speech framed to be heard for its own sake and interest even over and above its interest of meaning. Some matter and meaning is essential to it but only as an element necessary to support and employ the shape which is contemplated for its own sake. (Poetry is in fact speech only employed to carry the inscape of speech for the inscape’s sake – and therefore the inscape must be dwelt on. . . .

Poetry is “over and above meaning, at least the grammatical, historical, and logical meaning.” If the words become invisible in the transmission of the meaning, it’s prose and not poetry. Hopkins’s vision of poetry sounds like “art for art’s sake,” and it is. But it is an artistic struggle for humanity’s sake.

Applying Hopkins’s theory to his poetry, then, we find that its meaning is nature, God, or despair, but its object is language. Glenn Everett defines Hopkins’s idea of inscape as “the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things. . .” For Hopkins, a tree’s inscape is what makes it different from anything else and gives it its unique calling. A Hopkins poem about a tree, though, contains not the inscape of the tree but – borrowing from the above passage – “the inscape of speech for the inscape’s sake.”

To say that object and inspiration intermingle in Hopkins’s poetry, therefore, is to say that speech and speech’s inscape intermingle in it. This is done through repetition of sound found particularly in rhythm, assonance, rhyming, and the repetition of words. Consider Hopkins’s entire parenthetical digression in his essay “Poetry and Verse”:

(Poetry is in fact speech employed only to carry the inscape of speech for the inscape’s sake – and therefore the inscape must be dwelt on. Now if this can be done without repeating it once of the inscape will be enough for art and beauty and poetry but then at least the inscape must be understood as so sounding by itself that it could be copied and repeated. If not / repetition, oftening, over-and-overing, aftering of the inscape must take place in order to detach it to the mind and in this light poetry is speech which afters and oftens its inscape, speech couched in a repeating figure and verse is a spoken sound having a repeating figure.) [Emphasis and broken syntax original!]

Hopkins treats his objects (language) the way Bonnard treats his objects (nudes, interiors, portraits, etc.). The objects struggle with the inspiration. Bonnard’s bending figure in White Interior is at once fully herself and fully integrated into – dissolving into – the composition. Hopkins’s innovations – his compound words, his broken syntax, his sprung rhythm, his Welsh consonantal chiming – all threaten to dissolve language; in fact, many of Hopkins’s first critics felt that he had done just that. But the language does not fall apart. It blends with its own inscape and thereby demonstrates that language can be as alive as any tree.

Experiencing an unfamiliar Bonnard painting may involve a few steps: enjoying its colors and composition, struggling to make out familiar objects that alternately assert themselves and collapse back into the painting’s overall impression, and then finally appreciating the participation with Bonnard with this struggle as a participation in Bonnard’s unique vision of the spiritual and physical world. These steps are similar to those taken in experiencing many of Hopkins’s poems.

Experiencing an unfamiliar Hopkins poem may involve enjoying the beauty of its language (As Hopkins repeated to his friends: read it out loud!), struggling with how the diction and syntax compare with “normal” diction and syntax, and then assimilating that struggle into an appreciation of the language’s inscape. Consider how not only Harry Ploughman but the English language itself struggles with its own inscape before coming out triumphant in this, the first stanza of “Harry Ploughman”:

Hard as hurdle arms, with a broth of goldish flue
Breathed round; the rack of ribs; the scooped flank; lank
Rope-over thigh; knee-nave; and barrelled shank—
Head and foot, shoulder and shank—
By a grey eye’s heed steered well, one crew, fall to;
Stand at stress. Each limb’s barrowy brawn, his thew
That onewhere curded, onewhere sucked or sank—
Soared or sank—,
Though as a beechbole firm, finds his, as at a roll-call, rank
And features, in flesh, what deed he each must do—
His sinew-service where do.

After Bonnard and Hopkins, many painters and poets have gone over entirely to night and blur and pure inspiration. Twentieth-century American poetry especially has moved away from a full understanding of its object – i.e., language – and has often become obtuse and unapproachable. Without an object, poetry ends up frustrating readers and turning off entire generations of potential readers. A reader won’t bother struggling with a poem if she doesn’t quickly sense that the poem itself struggles and, further, that the poem’s struggle enriches it and promises also to enrich the slow reader.