Hopkins Presentation Tonight

My poetry group meets tonight, and it's my turn to do a presentation on a poet of my choice. There is some hostility to "traditional" (i.e., Christian) religion in the group, and I'm a glutton for punishment, so I selected Gerard Manley Hopkins--a Jesuit priest whose poetry's focus on the Christian God reminds me of Donne, Milton, and Herbert--as my poet.

As usual, time didn't permit me to study this poet in the depth that I hoped for. But I was able to spend a few days reading over the poems, looking at a few commentaries, and learning (re-learning) some of the "vocabulary words" for reading Hopkins. (He made of a lot of his own words and terms in describing his poetic style).

Contrary to what I said in my opening paragraph, I actually chose Hopkins (1844-1889) for my presentation because I love his poems "Pied Beauty" and "God's Grandeur," and I remember liking him when I read him in college. Other than that, I really wasn't very familiar with his work. Somehow, I made it through graduate school without studying him in any depth, so this was really the first time I've concentrated on Hopkins' poetry since college, many moons ago.

Whew, but this is a hard poet to read at first glance! (And second, third, and fourth glance, too ...) I'm glad I was able to take a few days to study his themes and his own statements about his poetry prior to tonight's poetry meeting.

One of his "vocabulary words" is inscape. I won't attempt to define it here, but will only say that it refers to the essence of a thing ... the "rockness" of a rock, or the "treeness" of a tree. Hopkins was a Jesuit priest and very devout, and "inscape" could be extended to have a religious significance, too. The "rockness" of a rock is that essence that God has given to the rock, and in its "rockness," it reflects some small part of God's glory. Same goes for the tree, and everything else. He has a wonderful line in "As kingfishers catch fire" where he says that everything reflects God's glory, just as He desires, the way a tucked (plucked) string sounds the note that it was tuned to sound. A nice image, even if you don't agree with it.

So what about humans? What about our inscape, our essence? Our human-ness? Hopkins believes that humans are meant to do the same, only their "human-ness" is Christ, or the essence of Christ. In everything we do, we are meant to reflect Christ and what He has done for us: we are His hands, feet, eyes on earth.

I love Hopkins' poetry because, like the Romantics, he focuses very specifically on the wonders of nature--for him, nothing in nature is trivial. But his poetry and his perceptions are always in the context of his devout Christian beliefs, and everything points back to God. A rock may seem a trivial thing, but God gave it its "rockness," and it is up to us to be able to see it, and maybe get an inner glimpse of its greater significance as part of the God's creation.

I remember reading Hopkins during my atheist and agnostic days, wishing I had the belief to be able to see the world and its creatures as having the same great significance and meaning as he did, but I couldn't. Hopkins appealed to me then, and I hope he'll appeal to my poetry buddies tonight.

But I'll leave off my ramblings for now and let Hopkins take over. Yes, you read his "As kingfishers catch fire" a hundred years ago in school, but there's a reason it's so heavily anthologized ... it's really a wonderful poem. (For those less familiar with poetry, the little accent marks above some of the words simply mean that a stress, or slight emphasis, is to be given the word when reading aloud.)

As kingfishers catch fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877


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