This is more than fame

[Photo of Dixon]During his three years in a poor but beautiful part of Wales where he would learn the Welsh language as perhaps the single thing he had time to enjoy outside of his theological studies he was assigned to undertake as part of his training to become a Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins began writing poetry again. He had burnt all of his poetry seven years earlier when he had joined the Jesuits.

Hopkins’s rector at St. Beuno’s in Wales, Father Jones, who had a better feel for Hopkins’s true gifting than any of his superiors to date – Jesuit superiors as well as his superiors at Oxford, where he had converted to Catholicism around age twenty – saw how moved Hopkins had become reading in The Times about the foundering of the North German steamer Deutschland off the English coast and suggested that someone at the theologate write an ode celebrating the lives of the five Catholic nuns who drowned in the disaster.  Hopkins volunteered.  The papers were still adding to the public’s knowledge of what happened when Hopkins began writing his ode.

Hopkins sent The Wreck of the Deutschland to The Month, a Jesuit magazine, which took a few months to reject it.  During The Month’s consideration, the pump primed by the Deutschland, Hopkins had written a few sonnets and a curtal sonnet, including three of his most famous poems: “God’s Grandeur,” “Pied Beauty,” and “The Windhover,” the last of which Hopkins always considered his finest poem.  These sonnets contained his sprung rhythm, which was his new system of meter that counted only the stressed syllables in a given line, and the cyngnedd – consonantal chiming – that he had picked up from the Welsh.  He took no steps to publish any of these sonnets.

For the first couple of years after becoming a priest at the end of his stay in Wales, Hopkins was sent to various assignments for short periods, and he rarely had the time or the inclination to write poetry.  Before leaving Wales, though, he had sent some of his work, including the Deutschland, to his good friend Robert Bridges, a doctor who, in his old age, would become England’s poet laureate.

Bridges hated the Deutschland and offered Hopkins little encouragement about it or about another ode about another shipwreck, The Loss of the Eurydice, which Hopkins had written in ways that incorporated some of the criticism that Bridges had offered about the Deutschland.  Still, Bridges was a poetic lifeline for Hopkins: he was an old Oxford friend and a good poet, and the two of them enjoyed their correspondence particularly about English verse, past and present. And Hopkins, for his part, was never less than candid with Bridges about the merits and faults of the latter’s poetry.  Bridges, a more conventional poet, was busy getting published.

Discouraged about his poems’ receptions, Hopkins, then thirty-three years old, remembered an obscure Anglican priest, Richard Watson Dixon (photographed above), a master at the Highgate School while Hopkins was attending it before he matriculated to Oxford.  Dixon had left a book of his own poems with one of the other masters when he left Highgate, and the title caught Hopkins’s eye.  And then, in 1878, about thirteen years after the fact, Hopkins decided to write him.

After introducing himself to Dixon, Hopkins told him how he had taken the book with him to Oxford and became “so fond of it that I made it, so far as that could be, a part of my own mind.”  He also had found another book by Dixon, and treasured that, too.  When Hopkins became a Jesuit, “I knew I could have no books of my own and was unlikely to meet with your works in the libraries I should have access to, [so] I copied out St. Paul, St. John, Love’s Consolation, and others from both volumes and keep them by me.”

“How many beautiful works ‘have been almost unknown and then have gained fame at last,’ he surmises, though no doubt ‘many more must have been lost sight of altogether.’”  Paul Mariani quotes Hopkins in his 2008 biography Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life (202), which I’m about halfway through reading. Mariani continues:

“You cannot but know that I must be deeply moved,” Dixon responded.  “Nay shaken to the very centre, by such a letter as that which you have sent me: for which I thank you from my inmost heart. . . . I can in truth hardly realize that what I have written, which has been generally, almost universally, neglected, should have been so much valued and treasured.  This is more than fame: and I may truly say that when I read your Letter, and whenever I take it out of my pocket to look at it, I feel that I prefer to have been so known & prized by one, than to have had the ordinary appreciation of many.”

A lively correspondence blossomed, benefiting both men.  Six letters into the correspondence, Hopkins forwarded Dixon his two odes at Dixon’s request. Mariani writes,“A week later, a stunned Dixon replies, having read Hopkins’s poems with more ‘delight, astonishment, & admiration’ than he can easily say. ‘They are among the most extraordinary I ever read & amazingly original,’ he gasps, and they must – must – be published” (220).

According to Wikipedia:

Canon Dixon’s first two volumes of verse, Christ’s Company and Historical Odes, were published in 1861 and 1863 respectively; but it was not until 1883 that he attracted conspicuous notice with Mano, an historical poem in terza rima, which was enthusiastically praised by Mr. [Algernon Charles] Swinburne.  This success he followed up by three privately printed volumes, Odes and Eclogues (1884), Lyrical Poems (1886), and The Story of Eudocia (1888).

Dixon’s poems were during the last fifteen years of his life recognized as scholarly and refined exercises, touched with both dignity and a certain severe beauty, but he never attained any general popularity as a poet, the appeal of his poetry being directly to the scholar.

To me, this is the enterprise we enjoy as bloggers and microbloggers.  Not fame, but a knowing: to be someone for another to write for, and in turn to have someone to write for.  I feel so much gratitude for you, my readers, and particularly (naturally) for the one whom, at any given point in my writing, “I have been so known & prized by.”

An update: This morning, while reading the novelist and poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s preface to The Last Poems of Richard Watson Dixon, which volume was published in 1905, I discovered a reference to Hopkins.  In her preface, Coleridge listed a number of well-known poets who had praised the unsung Dixon: Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris among them.  Then this:

There was one who gave more than praise.  A young Oxford student of brilliantly original power loved the poems of Richard Watson Dixon with such devotion that, when he entered the ranks of the Jesuits and was forbidden to take any books with him, he copied out almost all those in his possession.  Such minds as these do not labor in vain; others trust in them, follow their lead.

The world was still pregnant with Hopkins’s fame almost twenty years after his death, and Coleridge did not bother to name him in her preface.  She apparently had had access to Dixon’s papers, though, since she seems to have had access to the letter from Hopkins that had meant so much to Dixon.  I wonder if she read Hopkins’s odes that he had sent to Dixon or if her assessment of Hopkins as possessed of “brilliantly original power” was simply borrowed from Dixon.

But I love how her “more than praise” echoes Dixon’s “more than fame.”  Hopkins’s dedication to Dixon’s poetry was more than praise, and his letter thanking Dixon was more than fame.

The editor of The Last Poems of Richard Watson Dixon was Robert Bridges, who later started his late friend Hopkins down the road to fame by editing The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, published in 1918 by Oxford University Press.  It would take twelve years for that 750-copy, first edition of Hopkins’s poems to sell out.

I wonder how Bridges viewed Coleridge’s reference to his old friend in her preface.


5. Sea

My reading turned to viewing as Wassily Kandinsky in Point and Line to Plane took a period, moved it from its normal spot at a sentence’s end, and made it disproportionately larger than the sentence’s font.  Dead sign became living symbol, and the word became flesh. (See part 1 of this series.)

The same thing happened this past summer at the Portland Museum of Art’s John Marin show.  There I discovered Marin’s painting “The Written Sea.”  A year before he died, Marin had put his paint into a syringe – making that medical instrument into a fat pen – and squeezed out squiggles that suggest sentences that become (apparently) a sunrise along a somewhat overcast Maine coast.  My viewing turned to reading turned to viewing.

Viewing “The Written Sea,” I wasn’t thinking, “the word became flesh”; I hadn’t even read Kandinsky’s theory when I saw “The Written Sea.”  I was simply stunned, the way I was stunned looking at the British Museum’s illuminated manuscripts more than half a lifetime ago.

When I left the Marin exhibit room the first time, I had the usual crass urge to own the painting’s likeness, but the print in the show’s catalog doesn’t start to do the painting justice, particularly the inexplicable emotional impact of the painting’s blotchy white clouds against the white canvas above the written sea.  The clouds could be the culmination of what the sea wrote – heck, maybe of what the thunder had said the night before.  The barest sunrise bleeds through the mottled clouds.  Nothing more needs to be said or written; despite that, there moves the sea, ceaselessly writing, and there I was, for a blessed hour, at least, ceaselessly reading, reading and viewing.

The written sea could be the beautiful, brightly colored rooms of my recurring childhood dream.  The daybreak clouds could be the dream’s culminating room, which was the outdoors itself, the neighbors’ wide backyard and trees.  Something was transcended at the end of that sequence of rooms each night I dreamed it.

Repeating rooms, repeating dreams, repeating waves.  All those waves tearing open, over and over, on the black rocks, long after they’ve made their point.  The poet Bob Lax has it, too:










[from the poem “Solemn Dance” in A Thing That Is.]

In “Solemn Dance,” the repetition of the words becomes the repetition of the waves, and I can begin to hear the waves across Lax’s pages.  The spacing of Lax’s words, particularly at the end, makes the poem even begin to look like waves, just as the “sentences” in “The Written Sea” turn the reader into a viewer.

In writing about art, Kandinsky often wrote about words.  His description of a word’s “inner sound” comes from its wave-like, Jesus-Prayer-like repetition:

Words are inner sounds.  This inner sound arises partly – perhaps principally – from the object for which the word serves as a name.  But when the object itself is not seen, but only its name is heard, an abstract conception arises in the mind of the listener, and dematerialized object that at once conjures up a vibration in the “heart.”  The green or yellow or red tree as it stands in the meadow is merely a material occurrence, an accidental materialization of the form of that tree we feel within ourselves when we hear the word tree.  Skillful use of a word (according to poetic feeling) – an internally necessary repetition of the same word twice, three times, many times – can lead not only to the growth of the inner sound, but also bring to light still other, unrealized spiritual qualities of the word.  Eventually, manifold repetition of a word (a favorite childhood game, later forgotten) makes it lose its external sense as a name.  In this way, even the sense of the word as an abstract indication of the object is forgotten, and only the pure sound of the word remains.  We may also, perhaps unconsciously, hear this “pure” sound at the same time as we perceive the real, or subsequently, the abstract object.  In the latter case, however, this pure sound comes to the fore and exercises a direct influence upon the soul.  The soul experiences a nonobjective vibration that is more complex – I would say more “supersensible” – than the effect on the soul produced by a bell, a vibrating string, a falling board, etc.  Here, great possibilities open up for the literature of the future. [On the Spiritual in Art, chapter 3.]

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet who liked to draw, spoke of an object’s inscape; Kandinsky, a painter, spoke of a word’s “unrealized spiritual qualities.”  Kandinsky is Hopkins in reverse. Together they represent a kind of breaker and backwash, Hopkins writing and hearing the voice of objects, Kandinsky painting and hearing the voice of words.

° ° °

Ken Johnson says some insightful things about the Marin exhibit in a New York Times review, but I’m not sure I agree that Marin was “unable” to break through to abstract expressionism.  I think Marin saw abstract expressionism coming, but his art wasn’t asking it of him. (Kandinsky was similarly slow about moving to abstraction in his art because he waited for an artist’s “internal necessity” to take him there.)  Johnson also suggests that Marin’s canvasses seem small and cramped.  But how large must a page of illuminated manuscript be?  And of course Marin’s paintings do suggest what Johnson calls an “astringent pantheism,” but is that bad?  Marin may hold to the astringent pantheism of Hopkins’s hero, medieval theologian Duns Scotus.

“The Written Sea” will be part of Portland’s Marin exhibit until October 10.  The exhibit will reappear in Dallas and then Andover, after which time, presumably, “The Written Sea” will return home to the National Gallery.  We’re neighbors!

Marin’s picture is at the post’s top. This post is the last of five posts on Kandinsky’s art theory.  Here are links to the series’s first, second, third, and fourth posts.

Ascetic aesthetic

[Black Zodiac cover]What gets me about Gerard Manley Hopkins right now, and the reason I read his bio and reread some of his poems this month, isn’t Hopkins but what Charles Wright can do with him. As far as I can see, Wright loves Hopkins’s repetition and his invented compound nouns and adjectives, but he achieves something different with them. The poet Richard Watson Dixon wrote Hopkins that he agreed with Robert Bridges’s assessment: Hopkins’s poems “more carried him out of himself than those of any one.”  I feel the same way about Hopkins’s poems; there’s something pure and other about them that allows me to connect with him. But Wright takes me not out of myself but into a space within, a void – a sometimes-scary one – a void that feels like contemplation is coming.  For me, then, Wright is pure mirror: all knowing, unknowable, discoverable only as I slowly discover myself.  So he’s kind of like the therapist I had years ago, soft spoken but professional, the tribe’s shaman who always pointed me to an abyss.

I started reading Wright’s Black Zodiac a couple of months ago because I thought he could help me with my writing.  I loved how he makes presence or absence out of uncanny associations, and I’ve always wanted to do that.  Plus, my own poetry has become so crabbed and suffocating that I was drawn to Wright’s open spaces, both his physical white spaces and his inviting, spiritual space that draws me to stay in his poems.  My sentimental favorite, and my first Wright dwelling-place, is a single-page poem, “Thinking of Winter at the Beginning of Summer,” of which I’ll quote the beginning:

Milton paints purple trees.  Avery.
And Wolf Khan too.
I’ve liked their landscapes,
Nightdreams and daymares,
pastures and woods that burn our eyes.
Otherwise, why would we look?
Otherwise, why would we stretch out our hands and gather them in?

My brother slides through the blue zones in enormous planes.
My sister’s cartilage, ash and bone.
My parents rock in their blackened boats,
back and forth, back and forth.
Above the ornamental cherries, the sky is a box and glaze.
Well, yes, a box and a glaze.

He’s got that Hopkins thing going on, and he has a wisdom-writing syntax applied over a kind of dreamscape of deft reverie.  Sort of an Eliot-like playfulness, too; I hear Burnt Norton in the ornamental cherries in the middle of that pseudo-theory (“Other echoes / Inhabit the garden.  Shall we follow?”). In other words, everything I’ve most loved in modern poetry.  Aesthetically, Wright has been a dream come true.

“Thinking of Winter” looked so easy to write that I tried on several occasions to get a similar effect from what I could pick out about the tone, the syntax, the diction, the repetition, the spacing, the associations . . . but I couldn’t come close.  The longer I kept trying, though, the closer I read and the more I felt drawn into the poetry’s considerable space, a space that has made room for (I’ll admit) some of my own poem-like fragments.

It turns out to be a tough space, not graceless but tough like Zen masters and Levantine monks are supposed to be tough.  Quiet and tough.  There’s an ascetic in his aesthetic that I can’t quite pinpoint.  Wright likes religious imagery and themes, and certainly he tries to relate a metaphysical world he finds, a la Hopkins, in nature – even a suburban nature; I’ve lived near and walked down the Charlottesville streets he’s written about. Yet none of this but only the demanding, empty space makes Black Zodiac the most religious poetry I can remember reading.  I blinked my eyes a few times taking in Harold Bloom’s blurb on the book’s back cover, but I agree with him now, to the extent I understand him: “Some of the poems achieve an authentic gnosis in a rapt mode of negative transcendence.”

These lines aren’t typical – they’re rather direct – but they state Wright’s vision, I think, and are spoken in that most masculine voice of his:

Interstices.  We live in the cracks.
Under Ezekiel and his prophecies,
under the wheel.

Poetry’s what’s left between the lines –
a strange speech and a hard language,
It’s all in the unwritten, it’s all in the unsaid . . .
And that’s a comfort, I think,
for our lack and our inarticulation.

Here’s some of his tough stuff (from the last section of “Meditation of Song and Structure”):

Medieval, prelatic, why
Does the male cardinal sing that song, omit, omit,
From the eminence of the gum tree?
What is it he knows,
silence, omit, omit, silence,
The afternoon breaking away in little pieces,
Siren’s equal from the bypass,
The void’s tattoo, Nothing Matters,
mottoed across our white hearts?

One of the book’s finest poems is about Hopkins, a typically unsentimental one-pager called “Jesuit Graves,” written, it appears, after Wright visited his grave in Dublin.  The poem ends:

P. Gerardus Hopkins, 28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889, Age 44.
And then the next name.  And then the next,
Soldiers of misfortune, lock-step into a star-colored tight dissolve,
History’s hand-me-ons.  But you, Father Candescence,
You, Father Fire?
Whatever rises comes together, they say.  They say.

What a tribute.  (Not the poem.)


Posted February 25, 2010.

Apples of dusk

[book cover]There is little proof that Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, contemporaries who led single and relatively reclusive lives writing poetry on opposite sides of the Atlantic, met and wedded and produced children.  In fact, the only proof I’ve found to support this absurd claim is the poetry of Lisa Russ Sparr, which seems to descend from both poets’ work. Sparr shares Dickinson’s cool, ironic personification that becomes story just in time to end.  (There’s something like ice cream in Dickinson’s and Sparr’s essences of abstractions like soul and death and worship: they are scooped more than they are sculpted.)  But Sparr also inherits Hopkins’s diction, chosen both for the heat and force of sound – and both poets’ sound makes meaning – as well as for the subconscious associations carried by the perfect, unfitly spoken word.  For Sparr, maybe, apples of dusk in pictures of cobalt.

Sparr dwells on sky; she draws from blue and the stars and the hot afternoon.  She’ll seemingly choose any subject or feeling or poetic form under the sky so long as her soul can live under that sky and in sight of it.  For me, Lisa Russ Sparr’s poetry shakes with the pervasion of worship and the weighty noun that keeps at the spirit.

Here’s from “Rain”:

After long drought,
with livid muster
and the appearance
of singing, this bruised mizzle

inveigles at last
the dripping saplings
bled boxwoods, towering privet –
its slacked vests shivering –

They kiss at the end.  Anyway, Hopkinsesque.  More Dickinsonian, perhaps, is “Self-Portrait”:

Blandishment of blue
veins in my wrist, I too

am vassal to the heart
with its secret parts

and curtained throne,
its cage of bone

that holds the soul
awhile, above the shadow:

mark of me the sun makes,
then, rising, takes

away – the blue of me –
in perfect verity.

Here are the first and last two stanzas of “Nocturne,” a poem in which I see both Hopkins and Dickinson as well as something more – not better, but Sparr’s own poetic vision:

Yes, Venus, ripe and undeniable fuse
in the evening wine, I have felt love
fill me with God’s furthest time.

* * *
I know it in the lustrous, slow and mating strokes
of the fireflies, in their coded tonguings
of each occidental swag of mistletoe, every bitten branch,

that secret, pelvic recess of stirring leaves.
And though I cannot dwell there, I live
for those illuminated eternities of unharmed hope.

All of these poems are from Blue Venus: Poems, a volume published in 2004 that I picked up in Charlottesville last month.  Sparr has an older and a newer published collection, too, the newer having come out last year.  Sparr directs the creative writing MFA program at the University of Virginia.



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.