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  • Darwinism, Doxology, and Energy Physics:The New Sciences, the Poetry and the Poetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins
  • Marie Banfield (bio)

In our day grand generalisations have been reached. The theory of the origin of species is but one of them. Another, of still wider grasp and more radical significance, is the doctrine of the Conservation of Energy.1

The scientific revolution of the mid nineteenth century in its double aspect provided a matrix for the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins which nurtured his development as a poet responding to nature and as a religious poet. The scientific context of Hopkins' work, firmly established by Gillian Beer, Daniel Brown, Jude V. Nixon, and Tom Zaniello, makes manifest the challenge and the opportunities offered to the poet by the new sciences. In a recent article for Victorian Poetry, Nixon has stressed the significance for Hopkins' poetry of energy tropes drawn from thermodynamics: the anxiety as well as the attraction that the new physical science created for the poet. The tropes are described as admitting a dialogue between the domains of science and literature, across the vast distances which contiguity does not allow.2 The dialogue between literature and science in Hopkins' writing forms a broad debate that crosses cultural as well as temporal barriers, creating new syntheses and paradoxes as the claims of modern science are placed against those of classical philosophy, scholasticism, and aesthetics, while all are set against the demands of religion. In what follows, I will argue that the effort and energy generated by Hopkins' response to the new sciences, to energy physics and to evolutionary biology, produced not only a polarity between attraction and reaction within his work but also a subtle counter-challenge to the perceived hegemony of scientific materialism which transformed not only his poetry but also his poetics.

The theories of Darwinian evolution and thermodynamics together imply a dynamic world of constant change, of flux, of new relations within nature; it is a world that provided Hopkins with both image and energy. The [End Page 175] "grand generalisations," spoken of by John Tyndall, offered new perspectives to his generation as Lyell's geology had done to an earlier one when it opened up alternative viewpoints to Darwin and to Tennyson. In the evolutionary theories of Darwin an "unknown plan of creation" was replaced by a visible "community of descent," a richly diverse, highly individuated, and self-sustaining material world: a biological continuum in which all of animate nature is closely linked in an "inextricable web of affinities."3 The science of thermodynamics developed from a growing awareness in the nineteenth century that various forces were not separate and distinct but manifestations of a single force. Its first law, developed by Hermann Helmholtz and Rudolf Clausius in Germany and by James Joule and William Thomson in Britain, stated that the total energy of a system or a body could neither be increased nor decreased though it could be transformed.4 The fluency of its transformations was described by Tyndall: "Light runs into heat; heat into electricity; electricity into magnetism; magnetism into mechanical force; and mechanical force again into light and heat. The Proteus changes, but he is ever the same" (2:4). The second law, the dissipation of energy, discovered by Thomson and formulated by Clausius, who renamed the process entropy, stated that the availability of energy decreases as it is degraded and wasted in nature (Cropper, p. 101). The gradual dissipation of useful energy throughout the universe was seen to set its limits; it could be perceived to be "running down." The first law of thermodynamics created little general anxiety, seeming to uphold the idea of divine superintendence of the universe; the second law of entropy was more unsettling, appearing to give material substance, through scientific corroboration, to apocalyptic claims (Nixon, p. 132). The second law not only seemed to exclude design but to eliminate "the possibility of human intervention in its relentless processes."5 The temporal limits of the material world set down in hard figures, obtained through calculation, now seemed less negotiable through image and parable.

In his poetry, Hopkins engages with the dense materiality and diversity of the evolutionary world and with...


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