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  • Hopkins’s Material Poetics: Sense and the Inscapes of Speech
  • Michael Rutherglen (bio)

Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, 1879: “But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling ‘inscape’ is what I above all in aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive, and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer. This vice I cannot have escaped” (Corres., 1: 334). Certainly it caught him in “The Sea and the Skylark,” a sonnet that tends toward the sheer musicality it ascribes to its titular bird:

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,  His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score  In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pourAnd pelt músic, till none’s to spill nor spend.

(PW, p. 143; ll. 5–8)

Writing three years later to Bridges, to whom the sonnet evidently gave much trouble, Hopkins blames its opacities on a fascination with cynghanedd, the “consonant chiming” characteristic of Welsh poetry. Consonance may overwhelm the poem’s englyns, or “sense,” which “gets the worst of it” in the confrontation with sound. “In this case it exists,” Hopkins writes, “but is far from glaring.” He then glosses these lines with evident discomfort (“it is dreadful to explain these things in cold blood”) and complains of the trouble their composition cost him (Corres., 2: 551–552). But with the sense of the bird obscured by the very lines meant to render it, the question arises as to what, exactly, Hopkins won by his work. For the lilt of the lines is not that of the lark, nor is their design or patterning meant to mime its flight. Read together, letter and poem raise the question not only of what inscape is but also of what inscapes Hopkins was aiming at.

In light of the intricacy of “sprung rhythm,” the prosody Hopkins developed (and resorted to musical notation in order to explain), distinctive [End Page 167] “design” and “pattern” seem inadequate as answers to the first question. Surely a poet who wrote (again to Bridges), “With all my lin licences, or rather laws, I am stricter than you and I might say than anybody I know” (Corres., 1: 280), and whose poetry seems so continuous with the self-imposed rigors of his poetics, must have coined “inscape” with something extremely particular in mind. But this assumption runs swiftly into the inconsistencies in Hopkins’s use of the term, which make it seem expressively expansive rather than discursively precise. A narrow definition has proved elusive, but the broad and broadly held interpretation of inscape as the essential “distinctiveness” or singularity of a thing remains feasible, despite its falling short of the perceptual intensities to which Hopkins attaches his term. Nonetheless, presuming this interpretation, which is not unreasonable so much as incomplete, the question remains as to his poetic “aim.” Critical consensus, hardened around the idea that his poems are essentially mimetic, holds that he intended them to render the inscapes of stones, clouds, trees, people, and especially birds, to represent these things in all their adamant specificity, and thereby to affirm divinity’s presence in the world. As one commentator representatively has it, “Hopkins actually held that poetry can ‘re-present’ the inscapes he had gleaned as such.”1

Yet this answer contradicts Hopkins’s stated views. “Poetry,” he claimed in the lecture notes “On Poetry and Verse,” is “in fact speech only employed to carry the inscape of speech for the inscape’s sake.”2 It is not the inscapes of the things in his poems but of their words themselves when read aloud, their very aural materiality, that was his aim. The repetition of the sounds of words, he goes on to argue, heightens the sense of this inscape at the expense of other kinds of linguistic meaning—“grammatical, logical, historical”—on which mimetic readings depend. That critics have tended to offer such readings stems in part from their treating Hopkins’s poems as they do his journals, in which he does...


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