I am all at once what Christ is, says Gerard Manley Hopkins

After a little poking around, I discover without a speck of surprise that everyone (and the dog as well) has seen the mark of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry on the poems of Dylan Thomas. Having just read the collected poetry of Hopkins, I am ready to announce that I find much of Thomas' work baffling and impenetrable in the same way I find much of Hopkins' work. I call that real progress, the ability to point to one poet and see an ancestor poet, an influence. I can only do this with Thomas and Hopkins, but it's a start, you boys. Though it's true that there are plenty of other poets whose work I can't understand. I should rewrite this entire paragraph, add a little structure and sense. Alas.

I am also ready to announce that I find much of Hopkins' baffling work to be quite a lot of fun on the level of localized wordplay, of rhythm, and of rhyme even if I can't beat much sense out of the poems (or: even if the poems can't beat much sense into me). I can't say that I have that much fun with the baffling works of Dylan Thomas, but I have also not read that many of Thomas' poems; I could probably list them all in a short space if I could remember the names. Almost none of this is what I'd intended to write. I have not been a good reader of Gerard Manley Hopkins, is what I'd intended to write.

My ignorance of the Victorian Age allows me to skip right past Hopkins' references to the growing sense in England that Nature is just another machine, to be dealt with using more machines, and I am mostly blind to (unless I really search for it) Hopkins' growing insistence that Nature and the particularity of each individual thing within Nature is a road to spiritual perfection and grace (in the Catholic sense, that is). Most of that is lost on me; I know it's there because smarter readers, biographers and editors say it's so. I can see the poems invoke Nature and natural forces and I can see when Hopkins stretches and extends Nature into metaphor to evangelize, like he does in "The Starlight Night":
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
    Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
    Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
shocks here refers to a collection of twelve sheaves of wheat, so the Apostles, you heathen you. This is one of those poems where some of it is for me mere fun with phonics rather than anything I can clearly understand. Check out the middle of the thing:
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
    Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
    Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
I'm hazy as to what most of that intends to convey. Stars shining overhead and fields of grain maybe, snow like flying chicken feathers, sure. But what about them? I donno, not really.

In the end, I can't say I've gotten much out of Hopkins' poems. Though maybe it's too early to tell. After all, what do I mean by "gotten much out of," anyway? Certainly my initial response to many of the later poems was one of confusion, that of a man who stares at a sign writ in an unfamiliar tongue. But there are things like "Inversnaid," where I find
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
and that's quite fine, Hopkins keeping the complexity of the sounds themselves while leaving the grammatical complexity behind so that a simple guy like me can see Hopkins' weeds and agree with him that we should keep it all with us, the wet and the wildness. Hopefully, someday I will be comfortable with complexity in poetry the way I am with complexity in prose. How can I declare Finnegans Wake beautiful while declaring Hopkins impenetrable? I don't know. I do like this, though:
                                         ...Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world's wildfire, leave but ash:
                                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                                            Is immortal diamond.
That one's easy to get something out of. Maybe I'll write about Hopkins again, in a year or two, after I read him another time. It could happen.


  1. What a fine, sensible, reader-response approach to the poetry, Scott. I also find Hopkins to be challenging. When I "attempted" Hopkins, I settled for pleasure through sounds rather than sense through sight and meaning. Perhaps that is a half-assed approach to a poet who deserves more, but I have my cognitive limits, and some writers operate at levels too far above my paygrade. Hopkins is one. I know too little about Thomas's poetry to pass judgment on him or my ability to read him. Well, the bottom line is this: I very much enjoyed your posting.


    1. Somehow I missed your comment! Last weekend we had a houseguest, a poet who was quite familiar with Hopkins. She certainly understands his poems a lot more than I do. I've been reading some of his letters and his sermons but that doesn't seem to help with the poems.

      The next poetry I read will be a collection of British poetry from WWI, written mostly from the trenches, I think. "In Flanders Field," that sort of thing.
  2. Now you mention it, I too don't really understand Hopkins. But I am happy to let his works affect me in the same way as music does: his sounds and rhythms seem to me utterly intoxicating.

    I did say yes

    O at lightning and lashed rod;

    Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess

    Thy terror, O Christ, O God;
    Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:
    The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
    Hard down with a horror of height:
    And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.

    What does it actually mean? I honestly don't know. And I'm not sure I care that much. I just find the verbal music of something like this irresistible.
  3. Irresistible, yes. I can get something from the poem above, but I'm mostly swept up in the rhythms and the forward drive of it. You can see how powerfully the formal innovation swept up the Moderns, and why. I confess that too much of this sort of poetry (or of any Modernist poetry) leaves me feeling sort of beaten up and bruised.

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