Gerard Manley Hopkins was among a few individual innovators whose technical experiments and new approach to poetic expression were the result of new imaginative needs; but he was virtually unknown to his generation and had no influence in the nineteenth century.
The Victorians cultivated many kinds of poetry—philosophical, meditative, dramatic, patriotic, hortatory, picturesque, decorative, exhibitionist, using themes derived from history, earlier literature, mythology, personal emotion and circumstance, and nature, with techniques which utilized a great variety of verse forms and exploited rhythmic effects and vowel music with considerable virtuosity. But the virtuosity tended to grow ever narrower, becoming the mere refinement of traditional forms or the clever patterning of rhymes and rhythms: it was rarely the technical response to a new imaginative need, but rather a careful scraping of the barrel of a poetic tradition.
English poetry in the nineteenth century was only in the direction of encouraging a more or less conventional dreamlike verse, which represented an exaggeration of what after all had been an important side of Tennyson. In the twentieth century, however, the Symbolists had a more revolutionary effect and their influence was absorbed in a more radical manner.
The one Victorian poet who made a radical attempt to reconsider the nature of poetic expression was Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poems were not published until 1918, long after his death, and whose influence on British and American poetry of the 1920’s and 1930’s was an important part of the poetic revolution of that period. Received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1866, to become subsequently a Jesuit priest and teacher, Hopkins was never a professional poet; but he gave to both the theory and practice of poetry an intense and dedicated concentration that is reflected in his letters to Robert Bridges and others. His poetic practice was in some essential respects the reverse of Tennyson’s: instead of using imagery in order to achieve an expansion outward into a generalized mood, he used it so as to refer continuously and cumulatively back to the poem until a total structure of meaning was contained in the poem, a meaning that (to use his own term) “exploded” with immense force once it became known. “One of two kinds of clearness one should have,” Hopkins once wrote to Bridges, “—whether the meaning to be felt without effort as fast as one reads or else, if dark at first reading, when once made out to explode.” The explosion is the result of the total impact of the poem, so that sometimes we feel that Hopkins uses language so as deliberately to prevent the escape of premature meanings until the total expression has been achieved. “Obscurity I do and will try to avoid so far as is consistent with excellences higher than clearness at a first reading,” he wrote in another letter.
Hopkins’ endeavor was to achieve the unique and essential meaning of the experience he was embodying; “inscape,” the individual and distinctive design, was for him the true reality and, as it were, personality of a poem. “No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness,” he wrote Bridges, “but as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern or what I am in the habit of calling ‘inscape’ is what I above all aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern or inscape to be distinctive and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer.” He recognized the risk of becoming “queer,” but it was a risk he had to take if he was to write real poetry at all.
One can see Hopkins’ straining after both individuality and immediacy in the opening of “The Wreck of the Deutschland” (1875), his first fully mature poem:
Thou mastering me God! giver of breath and bread; World's strand, sway of the sea; Lord of living and dead; Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh, And after it almost unmade, what with dread, Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh? Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
The normal English word order gives way to the order of emotional preference; the meter is not tapped out in regular feet but is in what Hopkins called “sprung rhythm,” at the same time looser than conventional poetic meter and more closely geared to the emotional pattern of the line; the line lengths vary with the demands of the cumulatively developing meaning; and an almost Anglo-Saxon strength is given to the verse by the alliterative beat. Hopkins looked for new sources both of strength and individuality in English poetic speech. He was never content to rest in accepted poetic feeling. He charged older words with new meanings by the contexts in which he set them; he experimented with word combinations reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon “kennings”; he restored their original meanings to dead metaphors thus providing a shock of surprise.
A full appreciation of Hopkins’ technical brilliance requires a more careful analysis of individual poems than can be carried out in a historical discussion of this kind. One might take any one of at least a dozen poems and show the recharging of language, the vitalizing of rhythms, the counterpointing of colloquial and formal speech, the structuring of imagery into a complex totality of meaning.
Often Hopkins opens a poem with a winning simplicity, in the tone of a courteous stranger seeking our acquaintance. Then, as the imagery is built up, interrelationships of meaning are established, and in the end the meaning becomes both immensely rich and precisely pinpointed.