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Free Long Looking

Thomas Berenato

The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Volume III: Diaries, Journals, and Notebooks, Lesley Higgins (ed), Oxford University Press, 776 pp, £110, ISBN: 9780199534005

 “I think it true to say that it is the lyrical plus the observed that has been, and is, most saving to the men of our common soil and mixed blood ‑ we usually come a cropper with anything other.” This is the judgment, published in 1941, of the Anglo-Welsh poet and painter David Jones. He comes to this conclusion at the end of an essay in retrospective appreciation of the career of his religious and artistic mentor, the English sculptor Eric Gill. Jones acknowledged the “lyrical” side of Gill’s style, but he felt that the oeuvre offered insufficient evidence of the “observed” to outlast its epoch.

Another of Jones’s enthusiasms, the work of the English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, seemed to him to possess the potential missing in Gill’s to “suddenly have fresh relevance and become newly requisite in some quite unexpected context”. These are Jones’s words, from a letter of 1958, on the way in which old Welsh metrical forms enjoy an improbable renaissance in Hopkins’s poetry. How did Hopkins, high Victorian, manage to “make it new” where Gill, Arts and Crafts modernist ‑ and like Hopkins and Jones, also a Catholic convert ‑ did not? A new edition of Hopkins’s diaries, journals, and notebooks ‑ the first in over half a century ‑ gives good grounds for an answer. In these pages, over two decades, Hopkins honed his eye for the “observed”. “What you look hard at seems to look hard at you,” he observes in a journal entry of March 1871. Under this poet’s lyrical “look”, the visual, natural, spiritual, and philological worlds of late nineteenth century England, Ireland and Wales arise to meet the eye.

In his preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, published in 1800, William Wordsworth articulates a principle of lyrical observation for the new century: “to make the incidents of common life interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement”. Hopkins took up this task in earnest, in both his poetry and his daily prose. In one journal entry, from April 1871, he quotes a couplet from Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode: “The young lambs bound [/] As to the tabour’s sound.” And then he takes a harder look: “They toss and toss: it is as if it were the earth that flung them, not themselves.”

Everywhere he bends his gaze, Hopkins goes Wordsworth’s “primal sympathy” one better. Instead of an observer putting an object under observation we behold an ecstatic viewer making himself the medium of what he sees. In this case Hopkins finds himself “flung,” along with the lambs he watches, by a planet that reveals itself to be less platform for than participant in a single, total, irresistible revolution of the heart. Six years on, in the last lines of a late-summer sonnet, “Hurrahing in Harvest”, Hopkins has the heart “half-hurling” the earth in return. Many of his poems may be best seen as attempts, often thrillingly successful, to “catch” (to use Hopkins’s own technical term) in mid-hurl this reciprocal kinesthesis of heart and world. Jotting after jotting here hoards raw material for the translation of motion into diction. “Sprung rhythm”, Hopkins’s great invention of the 1870s for managing the distribution of stresses across a line of poetry, perfects a theory of prosody as cardiac arrest and resuscitation. With it he sets out to “keep” (another of his keywords) an image of a world convulsed by what he calls, in his ode on “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, “heart-throe”. Hopkins was sure he could trace, in language, a “law” regulating the reasons of the heart.

On holiday in Sussex in July 1866, the summer before his last year at Balliol, Hopkins announces in his journal that he has “now found the law of the oak leaves”. He had declared a few days earlier, on July 11th, that “the organisation of this tree is difficult”. Notwithstanding the difficulty, he could say then that in general the tree’s “determining planes are concentric, a system of brief contiguous and continuous tangents”. The fact that “the leaves are rounded and figure out ball-knots” is what, he says in a striking phrase, “keeps up the illusion of the tree”. But to say this is to be insufficiently sensitive to the way this life-form interacts with its environment. Further study, closer observation, is called for, allied to a finer-grained lyricism. By July 19th Hopkins has, as he has hoped, the letter of the “law” firmly in hand:

It is of platter-shaped stars altogether; the leaves lie close like pages, packed, and as if drawn tightly to. But these old packs, wh. [which] lie at the end of their twigs, throw out now long shoots alternately and slimly leaved, looking like bright keys. All the sprays but markedly these ones shape out and as it were embrace greater circles and the dip and toss of these make the wider and less organic articulations of the tree.

The law of the oak in its final form manages to capture the systolic-diastolic rhythm that a breeze sets up in the crown of a tree. Hopkins has “shaped out” to his satisfaction the figure this phenomenon cuts against its background, but the force of this achievement is diluted, rather than concentrated, by his prose-rhythms and the welter of metaphor and simile they toss up. A year and a half later he will hit on a word whose ambiguities he will exploit again and again to assert control over the elusive law: “inscape”. In one of his schoolbooks Hopkins notes that “every word may be considered as the contraction or coinciding-point of its definitions”. A stable definition of “inscape” is probably impossible to pin down, but “law”, as he uses it of the oak, may serve as a synonym. “Prepossession” is another likely equivalent. Hopkins introduces the latter into his private lexicon in the same breath as the words “passion” and “enthusiasm”, which he appears to find “proper” to words. Words don’t bear “prepossession” as a property. Rather, prepossession can be felt to “possess” words by those who utter them, just as the earth can be felt to “hurl” or the heart to “throe”. Inscapes inhere in the perception of the world as it is “flushed” by such energy of organisation, which for Hopkins soon comes to go by the name of “instress”.

In an entry dated July 17th, 1866, written in the midst of his “difficulties” with the oak, Hopkins follows a workaday weather-note with the record of a momentous spiritual insight: “Dull, curds-and-whey clouds faintly at times. ‑ It was this night I believe but possibly the next that I saw clearly the impossibility of staying in the Church of England … ” Hopkins was received into the Catholic church by John Henry Newman on October 21st, 1866 ‑ during, unfortunately, a year-long hiatus in his extant diaries. Surviving correspondence shows that his parents were distraught at his decision to convert. “O Gerard my darling boy are you indeed gone from me?” is how his mother closes the draft of one letter of this period. On October 16,th 1866, Hopkins replied to his father’s request that he postpone his plan to go over officially to Rome long enough to consider the consequences:

You ask me to suspend my judgment for a long time, or at the very least more than half a year, in other words to stand still for a time. Now to stand still is not possible, thus: I must either obey the Church or disobey. If I disobey, I am not suspending judgment but deciding, namely to take backward steps fr. [from] the grounds I have already come to. To stand still if it were possible might be justifiable, but to go back nothing can justify… Only one thing remains to be done: I cannot fight against God Who calls me to His Church: if I were to delay and die in the meantime I shd. have no plea why my soul was not forfeit. I have no power in fact to stir a finger: it is God Who makes the decision and not I.

The “lasting strain towards the Catholic Church”, as he puts it later in this letter, demands for its relief nothing short of absolute and immediate submission. The truth with which Hopkins will never stop wrestling, however, is that the “strain” does not let up for those who once submit to it. The corollary to this proposition is that submission to God’s will is actually a continuous action, not a sometime thing. Hopkins’s peculiar poetics arises from his realisation of this problem, which emerges as such in the course of his daily attempts to itemise the world’s ongoingness in the form of discrete diary entries. In the pages of his journal he learns the lesson to which his contemporary Thomas Hardy, in a chilling phrase from a poem of 1867, also testified: that everything that lives is “alive enough to have the strength to die”. Transience, for Hopkins, is both a condition and an image of holiness.

April 8 [1873]—The ash tree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first: I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.

Hopkins’s poems often strive to smuggle a sense of doom inside the image of enchantment they offer. A lyric entered into his diary on May 15th, 1865, ends with a bid to immortalise a great pang of mortality by assuming the perspective of Pisgah: “There on a long and squared height / After the sunset I would lie, / And pierce the yellow waxen light / With free long looking, ere I die.” Hopkins’s wager is that “free long looking” will be enough to transfix the light of redemption. In any case, it is the one thing needful ‑ and possible. As a Jesuit novice Hopkins once enclosed a feather in a letter to his mother, noting that “no one is ever so poor that he is not … owner of the skies and stars and everything wild that is to be found on the earth”. A look costs nothing, and, as we cannot in fact look away, we might as well let our glance linger.

One of the many familiar terms that Hopkins regularly uses in almost unbearable tension with its typical meaning is the verb “stall”, along with its cognate verbal nouns “install” and “forestall”. The following note of June 13th, 1871, gives a good example of his way of wrenching words to his own purpose ‑ on the way to his discovery of that purpose:

A beautiful instance of inscape sided on the slide, that is / successive sidings of one inscape, is seen in the behaviour of the flag flower from the shut bud to the full blowing: each term you can distinguish is beautiful in itself and of course if the whole ‘behaviour’ were gathered up and so stalled it wd. have a beauty of all the higher degree.

By putting the English language through such lexical contortions Hopkins wishes to “gather up” what is essentially elusive, the relationship of a particular action to the general Passion that forms its background. He has to hand a single word for this relationship: the “doing-be”. This coinage serves to inset an instance of “behaviour” in a pattern of “behaviour”. Poetry was the chief means by which Hopkins sought to bring “behaviour” ‑ his own and that of nature ‑ into relief against itself. “Damasking”, “diapering” and “bossing” are just a few of the terms that Hopkins borrows from the decorative arts to express, in both his poetry and his prose, the figure-ground conjugation that caught his eye everywhere and never ceased to dazzle:

before I had always taken the sunset and the sun as quite out of guage [sic] with each other, as indeed physically they are, for the eye after looking at the sun is blunted to everything else, and if you look at the rest of the sunset you must cover the sun, but today I inscaped them together and made the sun the true eye and ace of the whole, as it is. It was all active and tossing out light and started as strongly forward from the field as a long stone or a boss in the knop of the chalice stem: it is indeed by stalling it so that it falls into scape with the sky.

An obsolete definition of the verb “forestall” exuberantly revived by Hopkins is “to lie in wait for, intercept, cut off”, as a hunter might his prey or a highwayman his unsuspecting victim. Or, more to Hopkins’s purpose, as God waylays the wills of men by putting them under the influence of his prevenient grace. The miracle that God’s will can and does correspond to a man’s without curtailment of the freedom of either was to Hopkins a source of perpetual wonder and the subject of his profoundest meditations. Deepening the mystery is the fact that perceptions and actions of the present can overlay without replacing those that dance in memory. The “instress” of a certain cloud’s size that Hopkins memorialises in an entry of March 23rd, 1870, is palpable not in comparison to other clouds in the cloudscape currently before the eye but rather in the context of “the remembrance of other clouds”. The world, charged as it is with the grandeur of God, puts the heart’s sense of self-possession under continual stress. But our eyes are predisposed to the assaulting stimuli, primed for receipt of them because prepossessed by their own “belonging images”:

It is not in reality harder for the mind to have ken at the same time of what the eye sees and also of the belonging images of our thoughts without ever or almost ever confounding them than it is for it to multiply the pictures brought by the two eyes into one without ever or almost ever separating them (March 23rd, 1870).

These diaries, journals, and notebooks stage one man’s lifelong celebration of the convertibility of mind and eye, word and world, prose and verse. Those who join the festival will come to reflect and, in the words of “The Wreck”, learn how to “read” with “a heart right” and (what may well be the same thing) with a “single eye” ‑ that of a poet in thrall to a world past change.


Thomas Berenato is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Virginia.