Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I have to confess: I still don't fully understand the mechanics of sprung rhythm, much less its metaphysics. I suppose this makes me unqualified to write (or read) Hopkins, but it is fun.

Well, a strange and somewhat aesthetically perverse form of fun, but enjoyable in its own way.

Here you may see what I mean. "The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo" (at least read "The Golden Echo" section) illustrates quite well the intensity of a Hopkins line, and although the uneven line lengths is somewhat uncharacteristic of Hopkins,
the imperious disregard for the comfort of the reader is well-captured.

Hopkins would rather break a line than mend a thought, and with that kind of attitude, one can imagine his feelings about the reader's pleasure. Hopkins is enormously resistant to the vagaries of his material, even though he professed, like Wordsworth, to be bringing poetry closer to the rhythms of common speech. If you ever meet someone who speaks like a Hopkins poem, run the other way.

Here is another (shorter) Hopkins poem, called (though not by him, I think) "Carrion Comfort":
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
The diacritical marks are gross authorial interventions, compensations for a God who has refused to intervene—in language or anything else.

Yet these interventions are not intended to exert or assert a demiurgic poetic power or principle, but to restrain it and preclude the possibility of Hopkins imagining it. Donne takes charge of his Holy Sonnets by drawing God to him (commanding the Deity, famously, to ravish him); Milton tortures his syntax so, God resigns himself to occupying whichever foot Milton desires; but Hopkins intervenes principally to make trouble for himself—trouble from which only God can save him.

I cannot scan very well, but I believe that sprung rhythm features a certain amount of indiscretion between lines—that is, the length of a foot in a given line may intrude upon the next. And at any rate, Hopkins's added diacritical marks are ways of shoehorning a whole thought into a place it cannot fit metrically, and his commitment to the thought's coherence will cause further metrical problems down the road. Either way, I believe it is right to say that the more Hopkins sticks his fingers into the poem, the more holes he creates which he must somehow fill in.

Note the relative profusion in this poem of interjections. Metrically, I believe these solidify the lines, stutter-stepping their way to the proper stride. They also, I would argue, manifest or reveal the touch of God, or represent that manifestation in the poem. Take, for instance, "Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod"—is this not the momentary ignition of conscience? This conscience is not internal, but is broken out of Hopkins, like the grain left bare when the Lord blew the chaff away. And then in the last line, we see again the
poet's impulse toward impertinence and self-justification checked—the parenthetical "(my God!)" is the poet's recognition, once again forced upon him, of just who he's dealing with. The numerous ohs and ahs also are moments of taking note of the Divine, and mostly (it seems) at his insistence.

Hopkins creates metrical heresies (the intensity with which he describes his "invention" of sprung rhythm sounds a great deal like a heretic hawking his mad ideas, and one of the title pages of the 1918 volume bears the word "Catharinae") so that God may have a place in his poetry. For purely religious poetry is hermetic, and sealed against God. God must have room and reason to throttle the poet, and this demands heresy.

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