In light of the critics’ comments discuss Gerard Manley Hopkins’ presentation of spirtual grief and despair, with reference to the ‘sonnets of desolation’.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was always fascinated by the unique nature of personal thought and experience. As W. H. Gardner explained, Hopkins’ ideal was a poem, a work of art, which was ‘beautiful to inviduation.’ He used language as a way of dipping as deeply as he could into his bank of feelings; of awe, of wonder, of disappointment, of confusion, of alienation, of certainty and of doubt.
While some of the greatest works of literature have thrived on a detached, elsewhere and sometimes even a deliberately anaemic narrative voice, Hopkins delivered his poetry through his entire being, displaying the purest of desires and the most expressive of convictions. His sensualism is revealed in original metaphors such as ‘mealed-with-yellow sallows’, ‘piece-bright paling’, and while he is widely classed as a ‘nature poet’ perhaps ‘mood poet’ would prove a more expansive and accurate term. Therefore, coupling a ravenous appetite for describing the distinctive and individual, and a noticeably present mood and feeling, Hopkins’ poetry have qualities that set him aside from his contemporaries – something that Hopkins sought and indeed cultivated.
These are not the only factors that successfully marks Hopkins as a unique poet in a tradition all of his own. His desire to transport the reader into the place and mood of the poem lead to experiments with sound and metre – and the eventual prominence of Sprung rhythm throughout his works. The nature of regularity – be it adhering to a prescribed metre or vernacular – did not arrest Hopkins. Instead he bounded toward the unknown – toward the undescribed, the unheralded. He wanted the experience of reading to be transmutable, and embraced the more expressive and playful areas of poetry – notably alliteration and internal rhyme – when others considered them to be hackneyed or gimmick-ridden.
However, though his poetic style is widely revered, Hopkins is primarily recognised through his subject matter. It is his meditations on and with God that provide the bricks and mortar for his words and images. The poetry that Hopkins produced in the last five years of his life is widely recognised as the ‘terrible’ sonnets, or the Sonnets of Desolation. Although criticism of Hopkins it is not uniform enough to solely belong to one of two schools, the central critical response to his work, and in particular to his ‘Sonnets of Desolation’, derived from one of two starting points; the first being Hopkins’ innovative and irregular use of language and metre; the second, the role his Jesuit faith played in his subject matter.
W.J. Turner claimed His work has no philosophical or intellectual content; it is purely physical and verbal.Such a statement sounds like stinging criticism, but perhaps it is something to be wished. There is a visceral quality about Hopkins – his staccato bursts carry a danger – like a sudden noise in the night or a cry in the next room: ‘Soul, self: come, poor Jackself, I do advise/ You, jaded, let be’. Hopkins himself described the writing of the Sonnets of Desolation as ‘ like inspirations unbidden and against my will’. In such bleak moments it cannot be about philosophy but about what is immediate; flesh and thoughts, however unpolished.
There is little self-proclaimed lucidity in Hopkins – he is not providing answers for individual consumption and group dissection. Whether it be extolling the wonders of the season in ‘Spring’ or casting aspersions in ‘To What Serves Moral Beauty’, the reader hears the fallible human voice of Hopkins – a man inspired to talk not of truth but of belief. There is no light to be shone on any experience than on the one unfolding in the poem. In this respect Hopkins honours his own original desire: to deal with each instance on its own unique terms.
While his earlier works exclaimed the presence of the divine, this last period of his life left Hopkins clambering for any tangible sense of the faith that had inspired his work and life. Essentially, the redemptive quality of faith seems to have deserted Hopkins in this group of sonnets. He is, in this episode of his life, a man exposed to doubt; a man who has dedicated his life to something that he cannot communicate with on his own terms. In this respect, the placebo-like effect of faith is no longer aligned to his mental state, and he is struggling with justification for himself and his God. Such theological trauma is a non-starter for ‘Hopkins the Jesuit’ – the second-guessing of one’s vocation is a visible slight against himself, his position, and, more importantly, his God. In ‘Carrion Comfort’, therefore, Hopkins is battling an enemy who compels him to face his own inadequacy; and Christ, perfect in His selflessness, is trying to overpower the poet by force of divine example. The dialogue between man and God is a constant feature of Hopkins’ poetry. Whether in the guise of God ‘talking to’ Hopkins through nature, or Hopkins singing back his joyous bewilderment to the heavens, there is an immediate sense of connection between the mortal and the immortal; in these later sonnets it is as though the sense of inter-coil harmony has temporarily lost its key. The human voice calls out; ‘Comforter, where, where is your comforting?’ and is left scrambling for a response. Indeed, the ‘comforter’ that the poet requests has no intrinsic identity – an ambiguity that is furthered in the subsequent plea ‘Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?’ Seemingly, the lack of finite guidance has left Hopkins with no discernible object other than a broad theistic concept. Such a declamation is consistent with the desperate cries of a man in the darkness – searching for the smallest thing to orientate him.
Until the time comes when science can not only prove the existence of God, but explain it, then faith and reason will always be somewhat at odds. Equating these two conflicting schools provides a great deal of meditation for someone as educated and pious as Hopkins. And yet, there are no immediate answers – only further anomalies and questions. It is the unavoidable quandaries of the human mind that further stoke the fires of faith: ‘O the mind, mind has mountains’. In this moment, man is elevated halfway to the heavens – a place of great physical and spiritual beauty, and yet of ultimate risk; the sense of danger, the lack of control, the vastness of the world – all of these things are evoked by thought. Faith is often described as a leap into the unknown – the fall from a mountain. But in this instance it seems that the mountain is an obstacle that he cannot pass – an obstacle of his own creation. Therefore the sense of role reversal is complete; while in his earlier poems there prevails a wondrous celebration of nature, here Hopkins has bastardised the physical property of nature by creating a negative man-made parallel – the very thing that used to be his joy and certainty is now his doubt and downfall.
While his earlier poetry repeatedly deals more explicitly with his response to external stimuli, the sonnets that Hopkins wrote in the mid-1880s are self-reflective – they deal with his response to himself, and more readily to his body and his mind. Indeed, Hopkins seems to exist purely as matter with a mind; he uses images of defeat and decay – ‘I am gall, I am heartburn’ – which conjure up a sense of stillness – of a man waiting for judgement or execution. Ultimately, Hopkins recognises the shortcomings of his human body and mind, and yearns for transformation. He has become wearied by the struggle between selflessness and selfishness that takes place in the souls of all men and calls for an end to the mental and physical struggle. The central conflict of the ‘terrible’ sonnets is a clash between impulses within the poet. He is caught between his desire to reach spiritual fulfilment and his reluctance to surrender human identity.
The episodic nature of Hopkins’ search for spiritual calm and enlightenment is further outlined in ‘Patience, hard thing!‘ The ephemeral nature of human thought and emotion can sometimes be abused by the unrelenting constancy of time, and here Hopkins recognises that patience is the pathway to peace and salvation.
Hopkins has the canon of Jesuit teaching in his grasp, and this dictates his levels of grief and despair. The paradoxical concept of dedicating your life to a God, and yet retaining control of that life so that it is to all intents and purposes ‘yours’, provides the central conflict for Hopkins. While struggling to identify and communicate with the divine, all he has to delineate his purpose is the human. This desire for the ‘elsewhere’, and the frustration that accompanies such a fixation, leads Hopkins into the realm of emptiness; the crippling ping-pong battle between divine-doubt and self-doubt.
Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose int. W.H. Gardner, Penguin, 1953.
Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems ed. Margaret Bottrall, MacMillan, 1975.
Gerard Manley Hopkins Paddy Kitchen, Hamish Hamilton, 1978.