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  • Stem and Skein:Order and Evolution in Hopkins
  • Daniel Williams (bio)

Under a roof in a country villa, a man lies awake; his friends sleep nearby.1 As he reflects, the sound of water coursing through the channel behind the baths strikes him as out of place: “it seemed very strange that the sound of the same running water was at one time quite clear, and again less audible.”2 He ponders the cause until one of his students reveals that he too is awake and can provide an answer: “What do you think … but that leaves of some kind, which continue to fall in abundance in the autumn, block the narrowness of the channel by their volume; and that at times they are dislodged and yield to the pressure of the current, and again they accumulate to stem the flow?” (Augustine, De Ordine, pp. 17, 19). Accepting this answer, Augustine presses his student (the poet Licentius) for philosophical reflections: what is the origin of his own admiratio? the causa of this disorder? the nature of ordo as such? The answer becomes the touchstone for what follows. The sound has a cause beyond the evident order of things (“praeter manifestum …ordinem”), but this is no mystery: “nothing is done apart from order” (pp. 18, 19).

This charming scene, performing the deviation from ordo that the subsequent dialogue tries to explain, begins Augustine’s short treatise on providence, design, and the problem of evil, De Ordine. The first work he composed after conversion, the dialogue was the outcome, to channel the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, of hour upon hour of “extreme enthusiasm” during the summer before his baptism in 386.3 Hosted by his friend Verecundus in the countryside outside Milan, Augustine and his friends met daily, read Virgil, and discussed philosophical and theological questions. De Ordine starts from variation and disorder in nature and attempts to explain the “integral fittingness” latent in the world’s structure (p. 9). The inquiry echoes Augustine’s abiding concerns and patterns of argument—that there is no variation that does not form part of a larger order; that there is no word or sign whose meaning cannot be known through amor, a passionate will to know, operating under the guidance of God’s light.4 “Order is that which will lead us to God, if we hold to it during life; and unless we do hold to it during life, we shall not come to God” (Augustine, De Ordine, p. 53; emphases deleted). [End Page 423]

Hopkins, in the summer before his ordination in 1877, composed many of his nature sonnets, reflections in their way on the structure to be found by contemplating nature’s piedness, variation, and hidden potential—the order to be gleaned from such phenomena as “wilder, wilful-wávier / Méal-drift” (clouds) and “shining from shook foil” (lightning) (“Hurrahing in Harvest,” no. 124, ll. 3–4; “God’s Grandeur,” no. 111, l. 2). Hopkins had his own version of the phenomenon that puzzled Augustine, in “Winter with the Gulf Stream” (no. 7): “hoarse leaves” that “crawl on hissing ground” and a “clogg’d brook” that “runs with choking sound,” “Kneading the mounded mire that stops / His channel under clammy coats / Of foliage fallen in the copse” (ll. 5, 9, 10–12).5 In moments that amount to cognitive and spiritual ignition, Hopkins puts forward, in minutely noticed phenomena, the thought “that all things are upheld by instress.”6 This is his version of order, the subjective apprehension of a structure latent in any inscape (or occurring form). Through the discerning of a beholder, this vision of ordo binds and weaves, and nothing obtains apart from it.

In reflections scattered throughout Hopkins’s journals, sermons, and letters, he probes his conception of order in ways that parallel scientific and philosophical debates in the Victorian period, articulating a via media between overly materialist factions of the scientific establishment and unduly exacting arguments in the tradition of natural theology and design. Scholars including Tom Zaniello, Gillian Beer, Jude V. Nixon, Daniel Brown, and Marie Banfield have amply catalogued these connections.7 “All the world is full of inscape,” Hopkins notes, “and...


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