- Introduction: How to Read Hopkins
Have you read the poems of a man, who is dead, called Gerard Hopkins? I liked them better than any poetry for ever so long; partly because they’re so difficult, but also because of writing mere rhythms and sense as most poets do, he makes a very strange jumble; so that what is apparently pure nonsense is at the same time very beautiful, and not nonsense at all. Now this carries out a theory of mine; but the poor man became a Jesuit, and they discouraged him, and he became melancholy and died.” So Virginia Woolf introduced Hopkins to her former Greek tutor, Janet Case, in July 1919.1 Clearly Woolf was intrigued by the volume that Robert Bridges published in 1918 and not put off by the poet laureate’s rather baleful introduction, which famously warned the would-be reader of Hopkins’s “purely artistic wantonness,” “definite faults of style,” and “peculiar” and “often repellant,” sometimes false or “vulgar or even comic” rhymes. When “he indulges in freaks, his childishness is incredible,” Bridges admonished. Yet he was not fully dismissive—he had, after all, preserved the manuscripts since the 1870s, and ensured their publication. To put readers “at their ease,” Bridges defined Hopkins’s “extravagances” thus: “[T]hey may be called Oddity and Obscurity; and since the first may provoke laughter when a writer is serious (and this poet is always serious), while the latter must prevent him from being understood (and this poet always has something to say), it may be assumed that they were not a part of his intention.”2 Since 1918, each generation of Hopkins’s readers has responded variously to the tantalizing and experimental oddity, the “strange jumble” of his poetry. Similarly, critics have enjoyed the challenges of bringing light to the shadows of his verse—without entirely dispelling them. As for the poet’s “intentions,” the astute reader of Hopkins should remember his words of caution to Alexander Mowbray Baillie: “I cannot but think it a little weak of you in this and other cases, so entirely to be engrossed with one side of a question that you cannot even see that another side exists” (Corres., 1: 45). The multifacetedness of Hopkins’s texts—prose as well as poetry—render them available for analyses that continue to grow in richness and diversity.
To take further guidance from Hopkins, one finds in his correspondence extensive evidence of an astute and self-aware critic. In April 1871, while [End Page 105] undergoing “a hard course of scholastic logic,” Hopkins realizes, “I find now too late how to read—at least some books, e.g. the classics: now I see things, now what I read tells, but I am obliged to read by
glimpses snatches” (Corres., 1: 204). Six years later, Hopkins discerns how “each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s / Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name” (PW, p. 141). Reading critically—the text, the world—is a constant dialogue: a “telling” on the part of the observed and a profound receptivity on the part of the observer. Hopkins has in mind an active receptivity: not one of glimpsing passively but snatching, catching, instressing. When Hopkins’s speaker asserts, “I caught this morning morning’s minion,” he celebrates intelligent receptivity as an apprehension of the other on its own terms, “the mastery of the thing!” (PW, p. 144). Instead of the critic’s impulse to proclaim “mastery” of the text, the poem insists on a dynamic exchange between speaker and bird, or reader and text.
As early as 1864, Hopkins was trying to define that “great, abnormal in fact, mental acuteness, either energetic or receptive, according as the thoughts which arise in it seem generated by a stress and action of the brain” (Corres., 1: 67–68). He was focusing on creative “inspiration,” but we are suggesting that critical endeavors demand inspiration as well as “deep insight,” “great delicacy,” and “liberality”: “the first requisite for a critic is liberality,” he told Baillie, “and the second, liberality, and the third, liberality” (Corres., 1: 46). One hundred years after the...