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Victorian Poetry 43.4 (2005) 485-496

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Darkening the Subject of Hopkins' Prosody

Hopkins' "Author's Preface" (hereafter AP) is an essential resource for anyone wishing to glean the theory of his prosody.1 It cannot stand alone, however. Its terms and concepts are unfamiliar and inadequately defined: the flurry of references to "hangers," "outrides," "rove over" lines, "sprung rhythm," "counterpoint," "running," "rocking," "rising," "falling," and "reversed" rhythms disorient the reader. As Coventry Patmore complained to Hopkins of a parallel difficulty in Hopkins' poetry, "any one" of these "several" "novelties would be startling and productive of distraction."2 Coming as they do in the AP, the effect is overwhelming for the first-time reader. No wonder, then, that on May 10, 1919, the Spectator found the "metrical effects" Hopkins describes, "not worth the pains bestowed on them."

Not only is the AP confusing and insufficient for the reader who is ignorant of Hopkins' other writings on prosody, it is misleading as well. Yet, too often it is the first and the last primary source consulted on the matter of his metrical theories; or at least, which amounts to the same thing, it remains the authoritative account. There are good historical reasons for this. Hopkins' correspondence with Bridges and Dixon was not published until 1935. The journals and papers were not published for two more years; and it was not until the year after this that the further letters became available. For about twenty years after the 1918 edition of the Poems appeared with the AP, therefore, there was no other ready resource for the critic who wished to grapple with the theoretical basis for his poems. This exclusive reliance on the AP in critical studies set a strong precedent.

Even now that Hopkins' complete correspondence, journals, and papers have been in print for well over half a century, this loyalty persists. This can, in part, be accounted for by the fact that criticism tends to be dialectical. Critics criticize other critics' criticism. And since the literary commentator first seized on the AP (because no other sources were readily available), the dependency stuck. The other obvious reason for the continued disproportionate focus on the AP is that there is still no comparative summary of Hopkins' remarks on prosody in one volume. They remain scattered within five editions, if one includes his complete poems. [End Page 485]

Clearly, neither of these explanations for why the AP is almost always privileged over all Hopkins' other comments on prosody amounts to much more than critical slovenliness: it is taken as authoritative because to do so is convenient and what has always been done. There is a stronger claim for the authority of the AP, but even that, I should like to suggest, is, ultimately, misguided. Consider Paull Baum's expression of this claim:

It might be interesting to follow chronologically the various attempts of Hopkins to clarify and put in order his theories. But to do so would only entangle us in his often conflicting [sic] statements as he tried to convince Bridges and Dixon. I prefer therefore to start with the latest formulation, incomplete as it may be, in the Author's Preface.3

To follow Hopkins' attempts to clarify and put his theories in order could only be justified, Baum suggests, in so far as it might prove "interesting." But the theories are far more relevant and important than this, for the very reason he dismisses them: because they are (or appear to be) "often conflicting." He ignores them on this basis, when he should do the opposite. He should scrutinize them to try to identify some underlying consistency or, at least, some thread of critical development to inform his reading. Baum does concede that the AP is "incomplete," but settles for it as definitive nonetheless—because it is "the latest formulation." Being the "latest" might suggest that it is the most evolved, which in turn might suggest that it is the most accurate source, but this logic is specious. In certain respects (notably regarding scansion), his letters to Baillie, Bridges, Dixon...


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