Amuse-bouche: Sunday 6 December 2020

This week: some thoughts on the untimely timeliness of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Douglas E. Christie, early on in his The Blue Sapphire of the Mind, contrasts John Muir on a sugar pine with Ronald Reagan on the redwood. For Muir, the tree before him is “an inexhaustible study and source of pleasure” noting how “at the age of fifty to one hundred years it begins to acquire individuality, so that no two are alike in their prime or old age. Every tree calls for special admiration.” On the other hand, running to be governor of California, Ronald Reagan (in)famously observed, “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.”

However much Reagan’s words express an entire culture, what Christie’s juxtaposition brought to my mind was, first, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ notion of “inscape”, that which individuates each thing as the unique, singular thing it is, what Muir perceived in the mature sugar pine and what Reagan and his ilk are insensitive to. Hopkins’ sensitivity to the singularity of individuals expressed itself in a number of ecopoems avant le lettre. One thinks of his lament for a felled grove, “Binsey Poplars”, or the more profound, radical grappling with the destruction of the natural world, “God’s Grandeur”, a poem I’ve long had by heart. Hopkins’ sensibility in this regard breathes the same spirit as what inspires Christie’s attempt to find common ground between contemplative traditions, primarily those of antique and medieval Christianity, and contemporary ecological thought and concerns.

Of course, Hopkins’ poetry is not only precocious in its concerns, but in its formal innovations. On the one hand, he was motivated by the etymological fascinations with the then-new discipline of philology to dig into the roots of the English language and the prosody and potentials of the soil from which it sprang to develop his own markedly singular style, characterized by its alliteration, “sprung rhythm”, and coinages. His poetic oeuvre is rife with examples, one dazzling as it dense being “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection”. Such sensitivity to language as poetry’s material ground and the invention that it motivates makes Hopkins a precursor of that poetics that finds its most extreme expression in the coinages of Celan, for instance, or the metrical inventions of, surprisingly, William Carlos Williams in his searching out the “variable foot” proper to the American vulgar tongue. Little wonder Jerome Rothenberg includes Hopkins in the opening selections of his assemblage Poems for the Millennium, volume one.

Finally, it strikes me that Hopkins is also ahead of his time in possessing and presenting a sense of what today goes by the more general rubric of “mindfulness” (something Williams, too, expresses as early as 1921 in his poem “Thursday”). The meditative, contemplative mindset is most emphatically attentive, as Hopkins was, to the individual (rather than then type) and the material (as something in-itself rather than merely as for-use, the way his language stands forth rather than retreating into meek transparency). It does, however, also, culture empathy, kindness, and self-compassion of the kind Hopkins ventures to offer himself in one his “dark sonnets” “My own heart let me more have pity on…”.

Hopkins was one of the first poets I was exposed to in school that turned me on to poetry. It’s good to be reminded of how enduring and inexhaustibly rich his work continues to prove to be.

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