G. M. Hopkins's Early Poems

Hopkins's early writings show the general influence of romanticism weighted toward ascetic themes, a sensibility associated with the Tractarian movement: as in his portrayal of the Escorial, martyrdom, and beautiful but distant mermaids. The pervasive themes of religious renunciation suggest an influence of George Herbert and Christina Rossetti. Hopkins was also indebted to romantic predecessors such as Coleridge, Shelley and Keats; the influence of Keats is especially apparent in his diction.

Later influences would include the poetry of the Pre-Raphaelites in general, and in particular, that of a fellow religiously-inclined Pre-Raephaelite, R. W. Dixon, who also became his friend; and he seems to have read and admired (though critically) the poery of Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, and Walt Whitman. His classical studies provided many antecedents, perhaps most strikingly the heavily rhythmed choric poetry of Aeschylus. Even in these early works the paradoxical attraction to opulence and aestheticism is apparent, a tension expressed in much of his later writing, and which motivated many of the conflicts of his adult life. Moreover, though lacking the formal pyrotechnics of his mature poems, his early poems anticipate virtually all the major themes of his later poems except that of the direct confrontation with Christ.

Hopkins's early poems show a considerable range of experimentation in stanza form and theme, and are of striking quality for one so young. He seems to have routinely submitted his early poems for publication, thus showing his desire for an audience; before entering the Jesuit order, however, he destroyed what seems to have most of his early efforts.

"The Escorial"

What does "The Escorial" reveal about the sensibility of the young poet?

What can you see as features which will reappear in his later poems?

What seems to be the poet's attitude toward ornate luxury? Is it condemnatory, admiring, or both? (a frequent tension within Victorian Romanticism--both aesthetic and moralizing)

Does the poet seem to take a clear political position toward the causes of the events described?

What religious attitudes and identifications are expressed in the poem?

--feels a general identification the martyr and his monastery

From this early work, can you discern some of the poetic and other literary influences on Hopkins?

--among Romantics, Keats and Byron

--Tennyson, as in "The Palace of Art"

--Pre-Raphaelitism and Victorian romanticism in general, with its emphasis on describing pictures and buildings

--Romantic and Victorian motif of the decaying building;

--John Ruskin's "The Nature of Gothic" and respect for medieval traditions; Modern Painters

--myth and legend

What is the Escorial, and with what events has it been associated throughout history? What were some reasons for his choice of this topic?

How is the building described? (seems more beautiful through memory of its former hopefulness)

Does the poem come to an adequate closure?

"A Vision of the Mermaids" What are some Keatsian aspects of the descriptions of this poem? What are some differences?

--the poet experiences a vision of many little people

--he has no interaction with the objects of his vision, remaining a remote viewer

--great emphasis on metaphors and descriptions of jewellry

--the beautiful dream vision disappears, a common Romantic motif

Do we ever see the mermaids distinctly? Is it important that we do not see them individually, nor hear them speak?

What are some images, descriptions or settings which will appear in the later poetry?

--glorious sunset

--hidden observer

--shipwreck, p. 11

--romantic nostalgia, p.11

--sad music, p. 11 --vision disappears, p.11

Does the poem employ color extensively, and if so, in what way?

What kinds of songs are sung by the mermaids? Would Hopkins have found any antecedent for this motif in Romantic or contemporary poetry? (they sing sad songs, similar to chants, 11)

In "Winter with the Gulf Stream," what types of landscape and imagery seem to attract the poet?

--bare boughs of trees, tracery

--bird, moon, sunset fire

--delicate flowers

--brindled, mottled, flecked surfaces

--colors, esp. gold, silver, blue, red, purple

"Spring and Death," cmp. earlier Romantic motifs, his own later poetry (esp. "Spring and Fall")

What seems to be the theme and message of "A Soliloquy of One ofthe Spies Left in the Wilderness"?

What attitude toward sensuality does the poem express?

Can you see parallels with Alfred Tennyson's "The Lotus-Eaters"?

On "To Oxford," "Where Art Thou Friends," "The Alchemist in the City," "Lines for a Picture of St. Dorothea," "The Habit of Perfection," "Nondum":

In "To Oxford," what seem to the poet the most attractive features of Oxford? (again, views church in privacy)

How does this poem contrast with the later "Duns Scotus's Oxford"?

Does the poet meditate with others or alone? Is this distinction a vexed issue to him?

In "Heaven-Haven," what seems the speaker's ideal? How is it defined? (definition by opposites, 19)


What are features of the diction and stanza forms in these early poems? Were most of these forms common within Romantic poetry?

In what ways is the young poet not a Romantic, or a Romantic only in religious contexts? (use of incidents from the Bible and from history represents a shift from the mythological world of Keats and even Shelley; for a classicist the traces of the ancient world are slight, but will increase in his later poetry)

--imagery of harvest, threshing, treading grapes, altar, wine, tree; joy as a result of sacrifice

How does Hopkins's conception of triumph through sacrifice differ from Keats's conception of melancholy as the bidding adieu of joy?

--for Hopkins the element of violence is always involved; joy-pain and separated; don't blend or fuse gently into each other

--for Hopkins the notion of pain much more literal in its reference--e. g. in "New Readings," Christ ascends through suffering and struggle

What are some ways in which Hopkins' early poems resemble "The Wreck of the Deutschland"? Are there common themes?

What seem to you the chief forms of difference, in style and content?

What view of nature seems expressed in these poems? Of religious experience?

In what contexts does Hopkins generally present women? References to sexual experience?

These early poems have been compared to those of Christina Rossetti; is this an accurate parallel?

What seem to have been the young poet's chief preoccupations?

--concern with renunciation of sensuality as expressed in ease and receptivity to nature, an unKeatsian response but one he shares with other early Victorians such as Tennyson (in the 1842 Poems) and Christina Rossetti.

Hopkins' Journals and Letters


What are some unusual features of his sensibility as revealed in the Journals? How do you see these reflected in the earliest poetry?

--interest in tale of martyr

--need for solitude

--interest in male friendship

--repression of passions, 169

--convinced of his own rightness, 178 (!)

--sense of loss of beauty, time passing (170, 172)

--interest in doctrines of the incarnation and the sacred heart

What features of nature most attract him?

What is his mode of self-denial? (121 penance through denying love of vision)

More generally, what are some features common to the journals and poems?

--interest in onomatopoeia, 90, throughout all poems

--attraction to outlines of objects with intricate parts, 90-91: formations of leaves, clouds, water; tufted, clustered, puffed;

--constant sense of motion within natural patterns; flight of birds 105, 106

--fascinated by brutal, violent act 105, history of Fra Dolcinus, cmp. "Wreck of Deutschland"

--interest in pain, martyrdom

--projection of self into nature, accompanied by reticence concerning self; happiness or unhappiness is viewed through the selection of natural detail, but his own situation is described very little

--intense response to loss of pattern, 124, 125, 128, cmp. "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire" --sudden and intense response to sorrow, depression, 118, cmp. "Wreck" and sonnets; sense of darkness, nature falls apart, cmp. "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves," "Carrion Comfort," 131, "Thou Art Indeed Just"

--must be alone in nature to feel ecstasy (the reiterated setting and experience of his poems); intress comes when he is alone, 127

--he assumes ecstasy, has not mentioned it before, implies the pressure of his daily life which seems to lack this possibility, "Even with one companion ecstasy is almost banished: you want to be alone and to feel that, and leisure--all pressure taken off." When Hopkins perceives inscapes he is happy.

some parallels

--newly turned sods, cmp. "God's Grandeur," "Windhover" 106

bluebells, violets, rose-coloured clouds 106

fruit trees 107 chestnut trees 107 oaks 108

sworling configurations purple sky 108-Henry Purcell; fiery sunsets ("Wreck," dapple-with-damson west) puts hands up to sunset 109 ("Wreck")

waterfalls, cascades, movement of falling water, combs foam sea described 130

pied, mottled, fickled, freckled, who knows how

pealing of bells 125; bells ring throughout sonnets

skin of white snake square, pied with black 115

response to sudden striking expression 118, cmp. sonnets and "Wreck"

rising of clouds 119, cmp. "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire"

wimpled 119 -- like ruffling, cmp. "Windhover" sunsets and sunrises, Turneresque in their intensity

attraction to bright and flashing light 119 sudden flashing enthusiasm 126

preoccupation with pattern, inscape 119; and with interrelated patterns; defines instress

bluebell makes statement, mixed strength and grace, like the ash, 120; shows love of trees throughout

the combination of power and suppleness his ideal, cmp. "The Windhover"

intense response to loss of pattern, 128

damasking 122

simple distress 122

striking out in sudden colour 122-23

many references to inscape 124-25; sees one essential pattern to all things

brindled heaven 125, cmp. "Pied Beauty"

depression 130 (cmp. dark sonnets)

How does Hopkins seem to deal with the emotions of his conscience? Why do you think he may not deal with them more directly?

How does Hopkins' use of nature resemble the prescriptions of Ruskin in Modern Painters or "The Nature of Gothic"?

--like Ruskin admires redundance; clarity of outline; use of natural foliage; Ruskin's "rigidity" seems quite similar to inscape, inscape resembles Ruskin's interpretative absolutes, sense that there is one primary pattern to things. In Ruskin, this is a matter of interpretation, in Hopkins a physical pattern which also embodies its moral configuration, cmp. 134 to Ruskin)

Walter Pater was Hopkins' tutor at Oxford. Can you see any resemblances between his aesthetic responses and those of his tutor?

--in Pater's Conclusion, each moment a form perfect in itself, an outline or shape forms itself within nature; compare this to Hopkins's urgency find inscapes before they disappear.

By contrast with Hopkins Pater lacked an eye for precision of outline; in this regard Hopkins combines the sensibility of Ruskin and Pater.

--Pater proclaims that we are elements within (the force that rusts iron and ripens corn), cmp. "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire"; divided in the prison house of world (cmp. Hopkins' solitary observer)--both have a sense of paradox within human identity--it both releases and constrains.

--Hopkins shares Pater's sense of loss in the dissolving of identity and existence within threatening changes of time. Some more detailed correlations with Hopkins' poetry:

15, admiration for Millais

16, speaks of sudden astonishment and passion in the face of specific features of nature; 45, sudden effect

18, centrality of real presence in sacrament makes Christianity loveable

19, inspiration--thoughts strike into brain, poet capable of exalted moods and mental states, a theme recurrent throughout Hopkins's poetry

23, 30, 32, concerned with celebration of Christ's death, fasting; 45, scene of Agony in the Garden evokes sudden response, release of repression, a physical response

23, bright newly turned sods

23, describes colors of sky, "mallory red," etc.

24, flight of birds

24, blossoming of apple trees; 60, blue bloom, a sort of meal

27, feeling that his life is ineffective, an early emotion--sense of helplessness and fatedness despite his great brilliance

30, himself passive agent, God makes decision

31, feels attractiveness of Catholicism's array of saints and authority

33, 39, great inerest in describing leaves and oak and elm trees, 56, mourns ash tree felled; 59, elm tree

37, had once wanted to be painter, p. 15, interest in brightly colored pictures

40, use of "ness"

41, use ofsuccessive metaphors to epress outlines in nature, on mountain,

41, 42; lines within nature, 44, 50 43, interest in water fountains, esp. tempestuous waters, 49; 56, combs

56 concern with unusual colors of sky, orange, purple, rose, 63

46, dappling, 51, fretting; 57

47, "delightful fear" of judgment, effects of light in sky

48, use of flush

50, concern with cloud formation, 50-51, 63, primroses, 50

51, ropes, burly ridges; braiding, 60; flowers, 54, esp. bluebell

55, barn, 57, thundercolor 56, death of tree

57, likes to describe birds-cuckoo, peaches, pigeons, starlings, 63

58, storms

59, formations in sky, comet, 59

59, motion, surging, wind

61, mention of Wales, Welsh

62, rise of heart as he views clouds

62, description of well

63, many descriptions of mountains, 63, 41-42 64,

periodic language of poems

increasing use of terms "inscape" and "instress"


1. What do these reveal about his view of poetry? What are some of his descriptions of qualities in poetry which attracted him?

--thoughts generated by stress and action of brain or strike into it unasked, 154

--beauty takes one by surprise, 155 --strike with original definiteness, 157 --some language suddenly forces itself without right, 158

--likes pathetic and tender in poetry, 185 Hopkins emphasizes (at least in his interpretation) the inner feeling self above moral or aesthetic judgments; contrast Arnold, "sweetness and light"; Pater, "strangeness," clarity and sweetness

--stressed rhythm, 187

2. To what extent are Hopkins's critical assumptions those inherited from Romanticism?

3. How does his religious calling affect his view of his obligations as a poet? represses passion 169 can write little verse as priest

4. What are Hopkins's opinions on the poetry of Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth? On which of his contemporaries does he comment? What does he think of D. G. Rosstti and C. Rossetti?

--D. G. Rossetti, 158; C. Rossetti, 174; John Ruskin, 169; Thomas Carlyle, 172; Edmund Gosse, 177

5. Does he respond to drama? Does this suprise you in a future lyric poet? Why do you think this may be so?

6. What prompts his interest in defining features of the greatest literature? ("touchstone" method encouraged in Arnoldian criticism)

7. What features of Catholicism seem to attract him? Why according to his letters did he renounce thoughts of an artistic career?

8. Are there other features of his character which suggest the qualities of his poetry?

--feels for unrecognized talent, 183, the lost scapes of things, 183

9. Did Hopkins suffer from lack of an audience?

--sense of isolation, feels need for an audience, 210-11

10. How does he define "sprung rhythm" in his letters?

Letters from G. M. Hopkins to Robert Bridges

Bridges destroyed his own letters, and though asked by Hopkins to published an edition of his poems posthumously, he delayed doing so for many years, even when prompted by others. Perhaps as Poet Laureate he felt his prior association with Hopkins was somewhat discrediting.

There is a lapse in the letters from August 1871 to January1874, then from February 1875 to February1877. The first lapse occurs after "Communist" letter, but this estrangement was more likely due to Hopkins's taking of orders.

pp. 27-29, on "Communism"

pp. 33-35, his letter rather harsh for one written to a sensitive author

p. 46, sprung rhythm not used in "The Wreck"; should resemble rhythm of prose

p. 50, on reading Deutschland for the first time

p. 54, rejects criticism

p. 85, believes Windhover his best work

p. 86, on Purcell sonnet

pp. 95-96 expresses his admiration and love for Bridges's poetry

p. 137 disliked Browning and dramatic poems 1

03, has invented new style in music

126, on his eccentricities of language

Hopkins was to be influential on many poets of the next century, among them C. Day Lewis, W. H. Auden, Ruth Pitter and Sylvia Plath (Colossus, "Cloudrack and owl-hollowed willows . . . ."), though the period of greatest influence was from the 1930s (when the second edition of his poems appeared with a more sympathetic introduction) and the 1950s.

General Remarks on Hopkins's Poetry

It is interesting to try to assess why Hopkins's poetry was almost completely unappreciated in his own day and shortly thereafter, but extremely influential in the mid-twentieth century. Paradoxically he was all the more respected in the years when his poetry was believed to be virtually incomprehensible, in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, when he was considered chiefly for his experimentation with language and representation of emotion, a view the devout Hopkins might have found partial. It is an irony that the earliest edition of his poems, edited and published by his former friend, the current Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, twenty-three years after his death, perpetuated errors in transcription which made the poet seem more arbitrary and incomprehensible than he had wished to be.

The ecstatic and affirmative effect of his poetry is created by intense rhythms and overlapping, multiple binding devices, which form a kind of individual and communal song to God. It can be argued that in the most extreme cases, as in "The Wreck of the Deutschland," the simplicity of heavy beats and a swaying, discharging effect might otherwise limit the subtlety of the effect of the these rhythms, but instead the intricate onomatopoeia and intelligence of the microparts makes reading a complex experience. One is forced to resolve a puzzle even while one celebrates; the sense of eccentricity reinforces the sense of a particular identity and selfhood amid vastness. Hopkins's method of experiencing self in separateness forms a kind of counterpoint to Whitman's creation and description of a self which merges into and incorporates a larger whole.

The rhetorical variations of the narrator's point of view give the reader a sense of multiple identity, identificatory participation in the vastness of God, and temporary freedom from the constraints of time, space, and point of view. This sublimity--sense of power and vastness--also makes it hard to discern the speaker's stance, which shifts spontaneously and beyond the reach of analysis, shifts essential to the thematic effects of his poetry. Hopkins was quite unique in his choice of diction. Informed by the study of several ancient and medieval languages according to the current historicist paradigms, his words are often both regal and quaint, marked by his gift at pithy coinages. He has the ability to convey affection through the use of the unexpectedly homely and dignified--"Dame at our door drowned"--formally distanced and unpsychologizing love breathes in his language. A constant joyful and unrestrained onomatopoeia works through not despite its frequent shock value.

Hopkins's poetry presents an unusual combination of rigidity and freedom of structure, since his use of language is both widely allusive and precise; its syntax seems to move outward toward the cosmos while embodying a clear and intricate pattern associated with the nature around him. Repeatedly within his poems things seem to fall apart, but then to cohere at the end of his poems, a kind of inverse of the effects created by Whitman. Both Hopkins's direct emotionality and his obliquity are very Victorian (cmp. Browning's "Childe Roland")--as in "The Windhover": "Ah, bright wings! and blue bleak embers, ah, my dear, fall, gall themselves, and gash gold vermillion!" These traits are united with a more modern emphasis on concision and concentration of language. The Victorians wrote elegies: Tennyson's "In Memoriam," Rossetti's "House of Life," Arnold's "A Summer Night," among others, were preoccupied with time passing. Hopkins merges this anxiety with the desire to convey a process, kinetic energy, the movement of one element to another, as in "That Nature Is a Heraclitian Fire" and "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves."

The union witth God/Christ sought by Hopkins is not the peaceful harmony of George Herbert or many mystics, but more troubled, brooding, and romantic, an alternation of response and self-abnegation, distaste and vicaroious ecstasy in the contemplation of an image of creative and destructive force. Hopkins is as close to the worship of a "life force" heralded by G. B. Shaw and late century evolutionists as to a Keatsian joy in the concrete sensuousness of nature; there is something fierce and demanding in Hopkins's mastering "world's strand," the "father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung." In view of his life-long struggle with external and internalized exacting male authority-figures, he seems as ideal a poet for psychoanalytic explorations as for analyses of language, but there may be dark corners of his sensibilty in which we should leave the poet to his own dignity and privacy.

In his role as prophet in the Victorian sense of "sooth-sayer," at least, the poet attains an admirable control over himself, but his epiphany is defined as tragically fleeting, its cost isolation and its successor death. At his bleakest, it is hard to see a "solution" which has no correlative source or presence in the world as much more than stoically controlled abnegation. Hopkins does find epiphanic moments within natural creation, however; these show their Creator's scape but are subject to dissolution. The presence of God within nature brings ecstasy, his absence, terror. Nature without the animation of God is a great void; it "whelms, whelms, and will end us," man becomes dust, his mark on mind is gone.

Of major Victorian poets, Hopkins along with Tennyson perhaps best expresses the beauty of human consciounsess and the horror of its extinction. The poet finds harmony by identification withwhat he isn't--the bird; Christ in the bird; the perfect doctrine of the immaculate conception; Duns Scotus in Oxford. If of all the Victorian poets he seems capable of achieving the most immediate and intense sensations of delight, his poetry also embodies acute self-abasement, dependence on an hypothecized ideal being, a sense of the absence of self-worth, and the yearning for abnegation and separation from a divided, troubling, and mortal self. More than the others, he postulates and projects love only for a God without the essential mediation of man (except through Christ), and more than for others, even for Arnold, for Hopkins man's essential frailty and corruption arouses more fear and revulsion than love.

The nineteenth century was a period of metrical variation and strong poetic rhythms, and although Hopkins is concerned to assert precise terminology for his effects (instress, inscape, sprung rhythm, counterpoint) he uses techniques of sound and rhythm relatively common in his century, with antecedents in the poetry of Coleridge and other Romantics, and among his fellow Victorians, Browning and Swinburne. In him these are carried to a much greater degree, even to the edge of self-parody, in the use of rising and strong stress patterns, with crescendos of spondees and phyrric feet uncommon in English. For example, excited and varied odes were common in the century, but his "Wreck" is arguably the most excited of all, to the point where eccentricities of syntax cloud the meter on a first reading, though they also force the reader's attention and involvement (as in the long and emotion-fraught debates over the word "buckle" in "The Windhover").

An unexpected and complicated feature of this Jesuit poet's world view his somewhat unorthodox view of the nature of divinity--his insistence, at least in "The Wreck of the Deutschland," that God is revealed not despite but through disaster. The assertion that God causes destruction and death [not permits it in the service of a higher good, as is the orthodox Christian position regarding God's essential goodness and beneficence] is quite startling from an ethical point of view. In Hopkins' ecstatic vision of a destructive as well as healing creator there is both something mildly shocking and the recognition of a certain genuine paradox at the heart of all metaphysical optimism.

Indeed his poetry seems to contain the doctrines of judgment, evil, and original sin by rendering them rhapsodic and terrifying, for a dramatic purpose; evil is quickly transmuted in some way quickly into its opposite. This act is not only melodramatic but enables him to contain some contraries, and indicate a greater range of experience compactly and by a repeated code, as it were. One has the sense of reality bearing quickly in on one in a short space, with its real, startling novelty and significance.

The poetry embodies a sense of involvement in all parts of identity--the sensuous, passionate, fearful, ordering, and ratiocinative. His poems are atypical in that they are so often expressed directly to God---indeed, his is one of greatest series of love poems to God as hero and desired object ever written, perhaps, and certainly in English. This creates sometimes a quite unusual effect in the dissonance between divine and human intended auditors, as in the somewhat strange admonitions to God in "The Wreck": to Be God, to Be Himself! The speaker and (by force of his demand) reader is forced to participate in God's self-affirmation, as it were, his self-knowledge and self-celebration. Elsewhere the poet tells us how to feel in response to God, but he seldom presents himself as the comforted recipient of God's grace. His poetry is at least as much the witness of conviction, sadly, as the exemplification of experienced happiness.