Tuesday 12 December 2017

carried on a wind of change

rebel poet gerard manley hopkins captured the spirit of his time

There have been many attempts at revolution in English poetry but most of them have been futile. The metaphysical poets, inspired by John Donne, set out to make poetry that contained a new kind of imagery: it was of a kind never seen before. Indeed, you could say that it was outrageous. It may have been very inventive but it didn't make sense. The movement didn't last long.

Alexander Pope had his own theories but they were not revolutionary. In his Essay On Criticism he merely expounded his belief that you should express things in a way that brought out their full meaning. It was common sense. As Samson tried to move a rock, the poetry should be slow and heavy.

Then William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge had their theories but they also weren't revolutionary. Wordsworth believed that you could find poetry in simple things and that it was best expressed in simple language. He didn't always follow that precept, but in general he did. Coleridge's Rime Of The Ancient Mariner is a marvellous poem. The poet intended it to be a voyage into the imagination. And so it is. But the rest of his poetry is plain English.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was the first real rebel in English poetry. He was born in the years when the British Empire was at its highest and when England was at its most conservative. He grew up in a middle- class and Protestant family. He converted to Catholicism and became a member of the Jesuit order.


He spent years in parish work and then became Professor of Latin and Greek in Dublin's new University, now known as UCD. He liked the teaching but he dreaded marking papers at the end of the school year. He was too conscientious and could spend a long time dwelling over a single paragraph.

He had no sympathy with Irish Nationalism and thus made few friends in Dublin. It was said that he passed through the city like a ghost. He became friendly with some people in Monasterevin, that pleasant little town of many bridges in South Kildare. There is a public house in the main street christened after him. It is one of the few tributes he received in Ireland.

His poetry never became popular. Indeed, in over 20 years as an examiner with the Department of Education in honours English in the Leaving Certificate, I never came across a mention of Hopkins.

And in my years in Cork University our teachers seemed never to have heard of him. For them, English poetry came to a halt with Matthew Arnold. The major critics accused Hopkins of doing damage to English poetry and to the English language. His crime was that he got rid of stale words and brought back half-forgotten words and at times coined words of his own.

Indeed, not only did he do no harm, he did great good. He was accused of obscurity.

We will take a single line: "Sheer plod makes plow down sillion shine." The irony about Hopkins' poetry is that young people can read it while their elders cannot. The elders have been almost warned off by the critics. The young people come to his poetry without any such condition.

They could read a line like that quoted above and not feel any obscurity.


The ony difficult word is 'sillion'. A child might guess its meaning or look it up in a dictionary. The poet is trying to say that a lot of hard work goes into making a poem, but that is another story. That line can stand on its own merits. Children love to meet strange words.

A boy or girl of 10 years would love to meet that word 'sillion'. They find such words a great relief from plain language.

What turned many people against Hopkins was his theories. He believed that you should read his poetry as you would music: some syllables should be stressed. That is fair enough if you're reading on the stage or to a party but nearly all people read poetry to themselves in their own way. And so that theory was a non-runner.

Summer ends now

Barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise

Around; up above, what wind-walks! What lovely behaviour

Of silk-sack clouds! Has wildful, wilful-wavier

Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

The language there may be obscure but he paints a picture that reminds you of Vincent Van Gogh. They were almost contemporaries as they were with Paul Cezanne.

They were not aware of one another but movement of the mind and spirit do not know any boundaries. It was a revolutionary time in politics and the spirit could not be unaware of what was happening in the so-called real world.

Hopkins died prematurely: of course there was a medical reason given for his death but it is hard not to believe that loneliness and frustration played a part. He must have been as lonely as the last wild wolf surviving in Ireland. The Jesuits did him no good. Not only did they not encourage him, they forbade him to publish some of his poetry.

He is buried in the Jesuit plot in Glasnevin. When you are there, say a prayer for him and you will be in touch with genius.

Fogra: Thanks to Adrian Kenny and Eamon Carr for giving me three exciting books

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