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  • Hopkins, in Three Words
  • Lesley Higgins (bio)

The best compliment that Gerard Manley Hopkins could bestow on fellow poet Coventry Patmore was that "[t]o him one word calls up a world of things."1 In Hopkins's canon, the words that, first poem to last, articulate his spiritual and aesthetic preoccupations include master, flesh, comfort, heart, fear, and stress. Also calling up "a world of things" are dangerous and dapple. Yet three other terms and their cognates take one to the core of Hopkins's efforts to explore and express the interconnectedness of human experience, nature, and the divine: kind, sweet, and earnest. However plain they may seem—homely, in fact, and thus quite the opposite of flourishes such as "dapple-dawn-drawn" and "chancequarrièd, selfquainèd hoar-huskèd"2—there is "a prestige" (Corres., 1: 72) about kind, sweet, and earnest because, as I hope to demonstrate, they become the nexus from which his personal morality and moral aesthetic are textually generated. And in that way, they function, for Hopkins, similar to ways in which the good, the beautiful, and the true frame Plato's philosophical discourse. Kindness is the personal attribute, the epitome of thought, behavior, and disposition; it is a quality of character that Hopkins admires in others, desires for himself, and too readily finds wanting in his own youthful actions. Sweet is the poet's word, happily inherited and redeployed; in the process, its metaphorical significance multiplies rhizomatically (and its antinomies, such as sour and bitter, take root). Earnest expresses a truth of being and a model for selving; increasingly, after ordination, it anchors Hopkins's ethical discourse. Tracing the textual operations of this triad will confirm how attentively Hopkins absorbed the advice of Walter Pater, his Oxford "coach" in 1866 and 1867. According to Pater, the writer must build "the right vocabulary" and thereby "restore not really obsolete or really worn-out words but the finer edge of words still in use."3 Pater also endorses "eclecticism," the need to "intermix readily" "[r]acy Saxon monosyllables, close to us as touch and sight" with " those long, savoursome, Latin words, rich in 'second intention'" (p. 13). When depending on the sturdiness of kind, sweet, and earnest, Hopkins is never more Victorian. [End Page 27]

"Hereafter kind"

It might be difficult to appreciate how kind, kindly, and kindness have any "edge," fine or otherwise; they might seem like the lexical refuge of a milksop rather than a discerning demand for agency informed by compassion. After all, Lady Macbeth fears that her husband, "too full o' the milk of human kindness" (1.5.15), is insufficiently ruthless to be truly " great" (and yet how quickly he is weaned from said sustenance). Hopkins, however, spends a harrowing undergraduate year castigating himself for being "unkind" and in his Dublin poems presents someone desperately unable to give and meet a sustaining and "kind love" (Corres., 2: 991).

To understand the cultural significance of kindness in Victoria's realm—how the desire for it in oneself, in others, functioned within a bourgeois sensibility—one should turn to chapter 8, "Temper" (that is, temperament), in Samuel Smiles's Character (1889). "Kindness is indeed a great power in the world," Smiles insists, because it comes "from the heart. . . . [The] kindness of true sympathy, of thoughtful help, is never without beneficent results." 4 Not surprisingly, the author of Self-Help (1859) subscribes to a vigorous—even manly—definition of the attribute: kindness "must not be confounded with softness or silliness," Smiles advises. "In its best form, it is not a merely passive but an active condition of being" (pp. 251–252).

For Hopkins in his late teens and early twenties, in the full flush of his Oxford experiences, the instrumentality of unkindness was his pressing concern. In spring 1865, "unkind talking" and "unkind wds." were frequently "cast by conscience" onto the pages of his diary.5 During an August 1865 reading party, he was guilty of repeated "unkindness" to Phillimore, a friend; throughout the next six months, Hopkins also berated himself for "unkindness," "unkind feeling and petulance," and "unkind wds." toward Mamma, his brother Cyril, a locale curate, family friends, and...


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