Friday, August 1, 2008

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins only published a couple of poems during his lifetime. Perhaps they would not have found a home in many publications because they were so far out of the ordinary. Some people say that he was fifty years ahead of his time, a Modern poet before Modernism had arrived.

Much of it is difficult to read. One does not skim through a Hopkins poem. "Light," "playful," and "funny" are words that have never been used in any review of his poems. Yet, if light is taken not as fluffyness but as brilliance, then there is in many of his poems a blinding glare that startles us as it pierces through between the words. It is the glare as "the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

And there is a joyful freedom and playfulness throughout his poetry. It is far from the goofiness of Edward Lear or Shel Silverstien; it is not childish, though in a way it is childlike. Hopkins plays extravagantly with sounds (as young children also do), mixing them up and turning them around. And his verse is heavy with alliteration, taking it to new extremes never before seen and never since done successfully. "Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind Off hér once skéined stained véined variety."

And while the word funny does not describe his poems, there is in them what would once have been called "Wit." It is difficult to describe how it comes about, but often in reading them they evoke a warm mother's-arms glow. They give a sense that although all is not right in the world, still all is right beyond the world and that beyond the world is where we really live , despite appearances to the contrary.

Yet don't take that to mean that they exalt the "spiritual" and denegrate the "physical." Far from it! His poems are extremely physical, in their themes, images, and even in the work to which he puts our tongues, teeth and vocal cords in trying to read them aloud. Hopkins exulted in the meat and dirt of our earthly lives, but in it all he saw sparkles of more than an earthly sun.

His poem Inversnaid contains all of the elements: brilliant light, playfulness, wit, and the glory of the physical.


THIS darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

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