Friday, September 15, 2006

Poetry Friday 18

Last week's Poetry Friday offering elicited a comment about Gerard Manley Hopkins, and as a consequence I thought I would share with you this poem:

Binsey Poplars (felled 1879)

MY aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
     Of a fresh and following folded rank
           Not spared, not one
           That dandled a sandalled
     Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
     When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
     Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
     Where we, even where we mean
           To mend her we end her,
     When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
     Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
     Strokes of havoc únselve
           The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Bisney is a small village in Oxfordshire.

Gerard Hopkins was born July 28 1844, the first of nine children. His parents were High Church Anglicans and his father, a marine insurance adjuster, had just published a volume of poetry the year before his son's birth. At grammar school in Highgate GHM won the poetry prize for "The Escorial" and a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford; his tutors there included Walter Pater and Benjamin Jowett. At one time GMH wanted to be a painter-poet like D. G. Rossetti, and he was strongly influenced by the aesthetic theories of Pater and John Ruskin, and by the poetry of the devout Anglicans George Herbert and Christina Rossetti. However, even more insistent was his search for a religion which could speak with true authority; whilst at Oxford, he came under the influence of John Henry Newman, who had converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1845, and provided GMH with the example he was seeking. In 1866, therefore, he was received by Newman into the Catholic Church. In 1867 he won First-Class degrees in Classics and "Greats" (achieving a rare "double-first") and was considered by Jowett to be the star of Balliol.

GMH had felt that the practice of poetry was too individualistic and self-indulgent for a Jesuit priest who was committed to the deliberate sacrifice of personal ambition, so he burned his early poems. But when he was studying the writings of Duns Scotus in 1872, he decided that his poetry might not necessarily conflict with Jesuit principles. Scotus was a medieval Catholic thinker who argued that individual and particular objects in this world were the only things that man could know directly, and only through the haecceitas ("thisness") of each object. Hopkins' independently-arrived at idea of "inscape" was thus bolstered by Scotus and he was able to begin writing again.

In 1874, whilst studying theology in North Wales, he learned Welsh and was later to adapt the rhythms of Welsh poetry to his own verse, inventing what he called "sprung rhythm." The event that startled him into speech was the sinking of the Deutschland, whose passengers included five Catholic nuns exiled from Germany. His poem The Wreck of the Deutschland is considered a tour de force and contains most of the devices he had been working out in theory for the preceding few years, but it was too radical in style to be printed at the time.

Sprung Rhythm is GMH's term for a complex and very technically involved system of metrics, derived partly from his knowledge of Welsh poetry. It is specifically opposed to "running" or "common" rhythm, and provides for poetic feet of lengths varying from one syllable to four, with either "rising" or "falling" rhythm. Inscape can be considered as an individual distinctive beauty.

No comments: