Victorian Poetry 40.2 (2002) 189-200
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Toward a Pragmatic Poetics:
The Convergence of Form, Act, and Ontology in Hopkins' "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo"
Andrew Sean Davidson
I WOULD LIKE TO BEGIN BY RECONSIDERING A WELL-KNOWN DISAGREEMENT between F. R. Leavis and Robert Bridges concerning the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. In 1918, Bridges published the first edition of the Poems of Hopkins and appended a "Preface to Notes" where he denounced Hopkins' unusual mannerism and style. According to Bridges, Hopkins' poetry is problematic because it is both extravagant and obscure. He accuses the poems of "occasional affectation in metaphor," "perversion of human feeling," and "exaggerated Marianism" and deplores "the naked encounter of sensualism and asceticism" in the "Golden Echo" as well as Hopkins' efforts to "force emotion into theological or sectarian channels." 1 In Bridges' opinion, such poetic tactics constitute the "rude shocks" of a "purely artistic wantonness." They do not contribute to an overall poetic purpose, but make for "Oddity and Obscurity," aberrations in Bridges' mind that "were not a part of [the poet's] intention" since Hopkins "is always serious" and "always has something to say." Elsewhere, Bridges expresses his perplexity over "the mixture of passages of extreme delicacy and exquisite diction with passages where in a jungle of rough root-words, emphasis seems to oust euphony" ("Preface," p. 99). Bridges' theory of poetics is implied here, but it is also abundantly clear. Poetry must be part of a "continuous literary decorum" (p. 96). It must follow a poetics of intelligibility, striking a balance between all extremes. Affectation and perversion must be cast out and replaced with genuineness and normality. Oddity and obscurity must give way to familiarity and clarity. Coherence must be favored over paradox. In short, poetry must follow the official rules of convention, semantics, and common-sense. [End Page 189]
Bridges comments on "The Wreck of the Deutschland" in a similar vein:
The labour spent on this great metrical experiment must have served to establish the poet's prosody and perhaps his diction: therefore the poem stands logically as well as chronologically in the front of his book, like a great dragon folded in the gate to forbid all entrance, and confident in his strength from past success. This editor advises the reader to circumvent him and attack him later in the rear; for he was himself shamefully worsted in a brave frontal assault, the more easily perhaps because both subject and treatment were distasteful to him.("Preface," p. 114)
While stating that the poem is experimental and, therefore, premature in Hopkins' poetic development, Bridges does not tell us what makes the poem a "great dragon folded in the gate." He says that he "was himself shamefully worsted in a brave frontal assault," but he does not tell us how or why. Nor does he explain what caused the "subject and treatment" of the poem to be "distasteful to him." It is clear, however, that, for Bridges, the poem is something to be overcome rather than enjoyed. In associating "The Wreck" with a forbidding dragon, Bridges prepares the reader for a very specific experience of the poem. We are not only led to anticipate grave semantic difficulties, but are encouraged to negotiate these difficulties through a type of interpretive assault. For Bridges, "The Wreck" threatens to devour readers who make a frontal assault because it catches them off their hermeneutic guard; it discovers them as helpless prey, drifting within "a galaxy of signifiers" rather than "a structure of signifieds." 2 Subsequently, the poemmust be readonlyafter it has been vanquished by a readerly invasion from the rear.
Perhaps the most significant of Bridges' comments in terms of their relation to his theory of poetics is his discussion of Hopkins' various grammatical deviations:
Here . . . is another source of the poet's obscurity; that in aiming at condensation he neglects the need that there is for care in the placing of words that are grammatically ambiguous. English swarms with words that have...