"Almost unmade": Hopkins and the body apocalyptic.
This essay has two main claims. The first is that Hopkins' poetry seeks to bring about an experience that is potentially apocalyptic both in its ability to reveal divinity and in the necessity that it interrupt the self. Understanding apocalypse etymologically as a revelation as well as in its more commonly held meaning as a catastrophe or cataclysm, I contend that Hopkins wishes his poetry to pass along an excessive experience that reveals the divinity inherent both in the world and in the reader. That experience, however, threatens to disrupt and displace the subject who could make sense of it. The coming into awareness of the world's divinity, as I show in a reading of "As kingfishers catch fire," dissolves the self in an excessive mode of apprehension that breaches sensory and semantic boundaries; it is this excess that Hopkins' poetry aims to express as it re-produces in the reader the disruptive experience of inscape's revelatory force. It is, after all, the burning of "nature's bonfire" that yields in "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire" to a recognition, "In a flash, at a trumpet crash," of "the comfort of the Resurrection" that is promised in the poem's title (ll. 9, 21). (4) Such comfort arises from the radical equation of the experiencing subject with Christ; however, that equation is possible only with the experience of the disruption of the potentially devastating "Million-fueled" world (l. 9). Not only does recognition of potential natural catastrophe provide the means to awareness of divinity, but it also allows the subject to recognize his own access to such divinity within himself.
Insisting on the necessity of subjective apocalypse, Hopkins hopes that such an experience will convert his reader to both an openness to the divine in the world and to a recognition of the validity of his own poetry and poetics. Though obviously a loaded term, the "conversion" Hopkins invokes in this context, as I will discuss, does not aim to produce a subject who has accepted doctrine or dogma but rather one who is open to a potentially apocalyptic encounter with the world. Experience precedes and occurs even in the absence of the doctrine on which Hopkins bases his own theorization of it, making an encounter with divinity possible to the subject who allows himself to experience the disruptive excess Hopkins works to produce (and reproduce) through his poems. Hopkins' aim in his desire to convert his reader is the production of a subject open to excessive phenomenal experience and therefore also open to that which exceeds phenomenal experience. Such an openness potentially annihilates the subject's ability to ascribe meaning to the experience Hopkins' poetry seeks to effect as it depends on a conversion that utterly changes the self.
However, the disruption that Hopkins wishes his poetry to produce is not one to occur only once. Like the "Disremembering, dismembering" that "whelms, whelms, and will end us" in "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves," the disorganizing experience of the self's openness to the world happens repeatedly (ll. 7, 8). There, "thoughts against thoughts in groans grind" as the speaker struggles to contend with the falling of what appears to be a singular and final darkness: "earth her being has unbound; her dapple is at end" (ll. 14, 5). "Our evening is over us," Hopkins writes, and the possessive pronoun suggests the arrival of a profound evening, an evening to end all evenings (1.8). At the same time, however, that the poem threatens the finality of a cataclysmic darkness, it also relies on the phenomenally regular experience of a normal evening. If what has arrived is merely an evening among other evenings, then the catastrophic undoing that suggests the end of the world is one that will happen again tomorrow night and every night thereafter. Similarly the conversion experience for which Hopkins calls is to be felt as final and cataclysmic even as it demands its own repetition in another form. Even conversion is not total; it is an experience that calls for its own repetition and thus necessitates that it be survived. To the extent that such an experience is apocalyptic, it risks dissolving the self entirely, leaving no one in its wake. However, there would be no experience, and no reader of poetry, if there was no self remaining in the aftermath of the excessive experience for which Hopkins calls.
The second claim of this essay, then, is that Hopkins uses the body as the figure that saves the disrupted subject from total dissolution. What remains in the wake of the apocalyptic experience of conversion is the body, and it is the body that becomes the reminder to the self of his or her own survival of the experience of conversion. Not only does Hopkins' poetry aim to produce a disruptive and potentially annihilating experience but it also seeks to make possible the recognition of what remains in the aftermath of such an experience. As I will show, Hopkins' use of the body to explain the desired effects of his verse demonstrates more than simply the use of metaphor to explain his prosodic system; rather, the role of the body in the experience of meter makes possible the survival of the apocalyptic experience Hopkins hopes his poem will produce in the reader. In making possible a self that remains, the metrical system Hopkins proposes also makes possible the conversion experience, since the experience could not be named as such were its annihilating effects to be total.
Hopkins will insist on the performance of his poetry, claiming in an 1885 letter to his brother that his poetry "must be spoken; till it is spoken it is not performed, it does not perform, it is not itself." (5) The poem takes shape only in its performance. The poem even takes on its own agency: through its being performed, it comes to perform as itself, suggesting that the act of speaking the poem gives the poem a way to speak. In the act of its performance, the poem takes its place within the body of its reader, and it is that body that allows the poem to become itself in sound. In its being spoken, the poem becomes "itself" as it is pronounced by the lips and received by the ear. Not only does the body become the vehicle for a proper performance of the poem but it also becomes the sign that the subject remains in the wake of that performance, which disrupts the poem's reader even as the poem takes on agency and performs itself through the body of the one who reads it. The bodily experience of the poem will allow the reader to remain despite the destabilizing and apocalyptic transmission for which Hopkins works throughout his poetry. Hopkins' desire for his poems to take their place within the body of their reader reveals an effort to recuperate the apocalyptic threat residing within his poetic aims. The poem made body will remain the sign that something has been left intact, as the body will save Hopkins' reader from the violence that his poetic effort of conversion seeks to enact.
Recent criticism has turned to Hopkins' use of rhythm as it seeks to produce affective and even spiritual results in its reader. However, little attention has been paid to the crucial role he lays out for the body in his prosody. (6) In his insistence on his poetry's performance, Hopkins aims to transform the act of reading from a hermeneutic act of deciphering meaning into a physiological act of encountering it. If poetry is to pass along an experience that fundamentally disrupts, and even potentially destroys, the subject that experiences it, the location of the performed poem in the lips and ears of the reading subject allows the subject to remain in the wake of that apocalyptic threat. The body becomes the figure that keeps conversion from destroying the converted subject; in its stability and continuity, the body allows the subject to survive the interruption that is the experience of divine revelation. In that act, the reader finds a way to remain intact, converted but always ready to be converted again.
Apocalyptic Transmission and the Charge of the World
In his poetry, letters, and journals Hopkins bears witness to belief in the presence of divinity in the world. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God," begins the 1877 sonnet "God's Grandeur" (1. 1). Both describing the world's immanent divinity and naming the task for the human subject, charge becomes simultaneously legible as a quasi-electrical force that acts in and on the world and as an assignment to recognize divine power] Just as divine charge fills the world, delineating the world's objects, so too does the responsibility to announce that charge define the human subject. Hopkins repeats and re-emphasizes this point in his meditations on the Ascension:
All things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God and if we know how to touch them give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of Him. (8)
All things are given energy through divine presence and love just as all things are duty bound to and for that love. The objects of the world come into their full potentiality when the proper touch causes them to declare themselves, to emerge as signifiers of divinity as they provide visible, tactile, and auditory evidence of the charge they hold. The task of being in the world, Hopkins suggests throughout his writing, is to find a way to encounter the charged things of the world in such a way that they announce themselves in a proliferation of phenomena resulting in signifying sound that can "tell of" God. While the possibility of this task's completion remains conditional--things will announce God only if one knows how to touch them--the responsibility for the task is emphatically declarative.
In his description of charge, Hopkins gestures toward inscape, the organizing principle that, if perceived, makes apparent the divine structure of the world. (9) Indeed, as Nixon has pointed out, the charge that appears in "God's Grandeur" and in the meditations on the Ascension becomes another way to understand the divine force within the objects of the world that gives those objects their integrity. (10) "All the world is full of inscape," Hopkins writes in his journal, "and chance left free to act falls into an order as well as purpose." (11) Revealed in the objects toward which Hopkins directs his attention, inscape is the order that presents itself in apparent disorder if one knows how to perceive it. The possibility of such perception, both "God's Grandeur" and the Ascension meditation suggest, depends on a particular ability. The experience of "the dearest freshness deep down things," as named by the poem, and the meditation's "sparks," "drops," and telling of God, is available to the one who "knows" how to touch the things of the world, in the meditation, and who knows to "reck his rod," in the poem (ll. 10, 4). Inscape reveals itself to the one who knows how to find it. Interestingly, such knowledge often emerges in what seems to be an accidental passivity; inscape is caught rather than willed, as in the most famous example of Hopkins' celebration of inscape's revelation in "The Windhover." When the speaker of that poem celebrates what he has "caught this morning," he rejoices not only that he has gotten to see the ecstatic soaring of the falcon he calls "morning's minion" but that he has witnessed, in the "fire that breaks" from the bird, a revelation of Christ ("O my chevalier!") made available in the momentary and apparently accidental glimpse of the bird (ll. 1, 10, 11).
The apprehension of inscape, while it may occur only infrequently, reveals to the canny observer divine presence in the world. However, as Hopkins laments elsewhere, though inscape inheres in all objects it is unavailable to many observers:
I thought how sadly the beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people and yet how near at hand it was if they had eyes to see it and it could be called out everywhere again. (JP, p. 221)
Inscape is ever "near at hand" and reveals itself to the viewer who possesses the ability to see it. However, it is the task of the viewer to have the eyes necessary to see inscape and thus to "call" it forth again. As in the meditations on the Ascension, a proper mode of apprehension--here, vision with certain adapted eyes; in the meditations, a certain touch--will pronounce in sound the divine order inherent in the apparently randomness of the world. Both inscape and charge call for a mode of perception in which the experience of one sense produces a simultaneous experience of another; tactile or visual apprehension produces the auditory announcement of the sound of divine presence. That mode of perception will make possible the "catching" of inscape, the potentially passive act in which inscape reveals itself as divinely inspired order.
Hopkins links his affirmation of immanent divinity to the possibility of an experience in excess of the bounds that limit the senses from one another. The proper touch of the things of the world will cause the things to re-produce themselves in other sensory modes, as visually available light, tactilely available water, and the auditory excess of ringing sound. In the journal, similarly, simply seeing inscape with the proper eyes causes it to be "called out." Such a transfer occurs in other of Hopkins' poems as well--in the "meaning motion" that defines the music of Henry Purcell, for example, and allows that music to transmit "abrupt self" through the "forged feature" that "throngs the ear" of the listener (ll. 14, 7, 8). In "Henry Purcell," Hopkins praises the ability of Purcell's music to transmit the "abrupt self" requisite to inscape as both "motion" and "features," that is, as both movement and sight--and both somehow transmitted as sound. Similarly, in "Spring," Hopkins describes the song of the thrush, which "strikes like lightnings" and contributes to "all this juice and all this joy" defining the edenic scene of spring's beauty as a confluence of sensory phenomena (ll. 5, 9). These announcements of divine meaning are received passively; they require no work on the part of the perceiver as the perception of one sense transfers organically into the acknowledgment of another sense.
The experience of divinity that Hopkins claims occurs in the recognition of inscape is a synaesthetic apprehension that collapses the limits of the body's perceptual organs. Such an apprehension allows for the instantaneous transfer from one sense to the other. It also, however, potentially disrupts the perceiving subject by troubling the organic division of one sense from another that makes possible the shaping of experience into knowledge. (12) Understood as a literally occurring phenomenon, synaesthesia threatens the possibility of the subject's continued coherence by collapsing the distinctions between the senses on which knowledge depends. It replaces categories of sensory information with an experience that defies the efforts of consciousness and language to name or describe it. Paradoxically, the apprehension of inscape, an organizing principle, occurs through the disorganizing experience of synaesthesia. The experience of inscape that Hopkins claims is available in the world emerges as apocalyptic--both in revealing the divinity that inheres in inscape as the charge that holds the objects of the world together and in threatening the evacuation of knowledge in the one to whom such divinity is revealed.
The apocalyptic ramifications of Hopkins' notion of inscape's revelation become clearer in a close inspection of his undated "As kingfishers catch fire." The opening octave of this sonnet provides a description of inscape in and as action. It also suggests, like the examples cited above, that inscape is revealed in a transfer of the data of one sense into another. The scene described in the poem's opening octave uses the perception of external phenomena to arrive analogously at an explanation of subjective experience. Both the perception of the world and the experience of the self within that world result in a synaesthetic excess that dissolves the self as it reveals the divine presence providing its order:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; As tumbled over rim in roundy wells Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; Each mortal thing does one thing and the same; Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves--goes its self; myself it speaks and spells, Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
Presenting both the phenomenal likenesses of the actions described and an adverbial notation of simultaneity, the octave's governing "as" foregrounds both the implicit similarity of the actions by which the things of the world reveal themselves and the constancy of such activity. (13) The things of the world are always revealing themselves; their actions constitute a constant present. In that present, the octave's logic of analogy suggests, the transmission of "selving" occurs in the same way that light reflects from kingfishers and dragonflies and that sound is produced by stones falling, by strings being plucked, and by the bell's pendular movement. Selving is both like sight and like sound; it occurs as an ever-present synaesthetic excess making its activity available to all sensory perception at once.
The individuation that makes the self apparent interrupts the cohesion of the selving object at the same time that it asserts the cohesion that allows for such identity in the first place. As each thing "goes its self" in expressing its inscape it makes itself perceptible as that which acts most absolutely as itself; that is, each thing "goes" as "its self," and its actions and movement express the identity of self with self that "selving" implies. However, simultaneous with such self-identical movement, as each thing "goes itself" it also potentially leaves itself, producing an absence of self that coincides with its availability to others. Thus, as each thing "selves" and makes itself available as an object of perception, it both becomes itself and evacuates itself; it makes itself perceptible through an activity of self-erasure. This suggestion of self-evacuation echoes the potentially catastrophic reading of the event in which kingfishers "catch fire." Kingfishers, in transmitting their inscapes, might also burst into flames, exploding in a climax of simultaneous demonstration and dissolution. The cataclysmic violence of such a reading implies an apocalypse that lies at the heart of the self's expression of itself. Selving requires un-selving, or the destruction of the self that makes it perceptible. In its selving, the object reveals itself to be defined by that which is in excess of its own boundaries. And yet, that object is, paradoxically, most itself in its expression of that which is beyond it. Each object's inscape, in that it is determined by the activity of God within it, exceeds the object proper. The charge transmitted in the expression of inscape, both to the extent that it happens as a result of a certain passivity and to the extent that it occurs as a potentially violent act, depends on the dissolution--or at least the radical threat of it--of the very self that selves. (14)
The material objects whose production of light and sound Hopkins compares with the action of announcing the self produce their perceptible phenomena--fire, flame, sound--through simultaneous activity and passivity. When kingfishers catch fire, they might do so by the mere chance of their location in relation to the sun's rays. However, the word "catch" also implies their active role in the production of the light they reflect. (15) Like the witness to the falcon's flight in "The Windhover," both kingfishers and dragonflies catch the light that allows them to reflect themselves to an observer, implying both activity (putting themselves in a particular relation to the sun by choice) and the passivity of merely having been in the right place at the right time. Dragonflies that "draw flame" do so, like kingfishers, by their position in relation to the sun. And, like kingfishers, they have an implied active role in their production of flame; they may perform some action that makes their reflection of the sun's rays more likely--thus drawing its rays toward them. Similarly, the objects that produce sound do so by virtue of being acted upon. The string must be plucked and the bell must be swung by a power outside of itself. Having been acted on by force, both the string and the bell produce sound in metaphorically active ways, as the string "tells" and the bell "finds" its tongue. All acts of selving rely on activity that produces an effect on the world at the same time that it responds to the world's impact.
As each object depicted in "As kingfishers catch fire" produces the visual and acoustic phenomena rendering its "self" available to sensory apprehension, it also announces itself in language. The "selving" that makes up the action of "As kingfishers catch fire" equates the production of sensory phenomena and the emergence of non-phenomenal and yet increasingly specific linguistic signification. When each thing "selves" or "goes itself," it also, Hopkins writes, "speaks and spells." As in the previous examples from poems like "Spring" and "God's Grandeur," the apprehension of inscape relies on a transfer or coincidence of sensory phenomena and signifying sound. However, just as Hopkins' description of the visual phenomena produced by selving marks the object's dissolution at the moment of its expression, so too does this production of signification. The interruption of self effected by selving results in sound that is quickly equated to the meaningful expression of speech. Even though this speech is marked as the cry of selving, the passivity and dissipation that provoke its occurrence suggest that the speech in fact comes from something radically other than the selving object. At the very moment of its expression, the object seems to "speak and spell" itself in signifying sound that cannot be quite its own. Moreover, as Michael Sprinker points out, the fact that this speaking is also spelling indicates the further complicated effect of a disarticulation into letters, marks which serve as placeholders that lack the significance of inscape and that are no longer assimilable to the phenomenal world in which the event of selving occurs. Sprinker emphasizes the radical split between the action of speaking the self and of spelling it; the act of spelling, he claims, "abolishes precisely that unity of the self in its action that speaking accomplished." (16) To "spell" the self is to participate in its dissolution as a named thing, to render it unrecognizable in the very moment of its self-expression. The passivity necessary for the activity of inscape to present itself as objects "selve" results in an excessive and apocalyptic apprehension that both articulates and disarticulates the subject. The experience of inscape thus produces an encounter with the charge of God--that which determines and underlies the self that selves--that is excessive and disruptive. If the poet's task is the transmission of inscape or of God's charge in language, that task becomes apparent as the transmission of dissolution. To express God's charge is to dissolve into the increasingly disarticulated light and letters that await both kingfishers and every other "mortal thing" as each "Deals out that being indoors each one dwells."
"As kingfishers catch fire" has the bipartite structure of the Petrarchan sonnet. Its initial octave makes and illustrates a claim while its sestet explains the grounds on which that claim can be made. (17) The octave describes the paradoxical activity of selving in its dual tendencies toward cohesion and dissolution as the action by which objects in the world render themselves perceptible. The sestet responds to the octave's potential crisis by explaining the mechanism and ground for the act of selving:
I say more: the just man justices; Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces; Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is-- Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his To the Father through the features of men's faces.
When the just man acts, he produces justice; he justices. Such a tautological equation of internal essence and external activity is possible because, the sestet suggests, within the just man is that which exceeds him. In the sestet, the passivity that coincides with the activity by which the figures in the first part of the poem produce their inscapes becomes the passivity through which Christ acts. When things--kingfishers, humans, strings--express and articulate their inscapes, they provide a site within themselves for activity that exceeds them; that is, in selving they make apparent that which is well beyond their selves. In their own expression of inscape, they are erased and disarticulated by the radical interruption of divine activity. Christ is reflected back to God through the "features of men's faces" just as he is reflected in the fire that the kingfishers catch. Divine charge allows self-expression to occur but also interrupts the continuity of the self. In their expression, the objects of the world demonstrate the divinity that informs their inscapes and allows them to express themselves as coherent and ordered wholes. However, in the disarticulation that accompanies their speech, they demonstrate their dissolution and potential disappearance at the very moment of expression. The activity of selving produces a "cry"--"What I do is me: for that I came"--that marks self-expression as a crisis. The self's disruption by the disarticulation that accompanies its articulation makes the cry always possibly a lament as well as an exclamation of joy.
For Hopkins, divine charge inheres in the objects of the world; it is that charge that causes them to cohere. However, as the coherent order inherent in objects finds its expression, divine charge also potentially tears them apart. As revealed in this poem, in the thoughts on the Ascension, and in the consideration of inscape found in his journals, the task of Hopkins' poetry is to transmit the expression of inscape. Poetry should transform the revelation of inscape into the signifying sounds of language. Such a task must contend with the paradox that the articulation of inscape is always also its disarticulation. This paradox underwrites the problem inherent in Hopkins' poetic endeavors: how can a poet transmit a fundamentally disruptive experience? And, if such a transmission is successful, how can its recipient (the reader) have further experience of the world? How is the self to survive the excessive and apocalyptic force of selving?
Poetic Conversion and "verses in the flesh"
The transmission of apocalyptic apprehension and the ability to survive its experience depend on sound. In his repeated theorizations of sprung rhythm and in his recurrent insistence that his poems must be read aloud Hopkins privileges the act of performance, repeatedly claiming that, like the things of the world the proper touch or sight of which will produce a sound that tells of the divinity within them, his verse will achieve its aim only in its being performed. (18) In that insistence on a proper performance Hopkins locates the poem in the body of his reader. Though the experience he aims to make available is one that threatens to disrupt the subject by rendering the body--and particularly, the physiologically distinct organs of perception--irrelevant, Hopkins seeks to return his poem to the body that the poem aims to interrupt. It is that effort to place the poem within an embodied self that offers the possibility of the self's continuation even after the disruptive experience he aims to transmit. The incarnated poem will remind the reader of his own embodiment, thus reminding him of his status as a subject in the wake of the disruptive experience Hopkins seeks to pass along.
"The true nature of poetry," Hopkins writes to his brother, is not to be found in the tendency to read poetry alone and silently; poetry is "the darling child of speech, of lips and spoken utterance" (SL, p. 218). The proper experience of his poems, Hopkins declares, requires that words on the page be uttered aloud. Such a desire is not necessarily a surprising one for any poet to have for his own poetry. For Hopkins, though, who claims that "'inscape' is what I above all aim at in poetry," the act by which a poem becomes "itself" is the successful transmission of the excessive experience of inscape's revelation. (19) In becoming itself, the poem potentially undoes the self of its reader. However, if the transmission of inscape is to make possible further experience, the poem must find its place within not only the reader's "speech" but also his "lips." The poem is most itself not as sound in air but as sound produced by corporeal activity. In order to achieve its goals, Hopkins' poem must become bodily.
In a letter to Robert Bridges, on the occasion of having sent him the poem "The Starlight Night," Hopkins offers to his friend and correspondent one of many lessons in the reading of his poetry. As in many of the discussions of his own poetry found throughout his letters, Hopkins emphasizes the necessity that his poems must be performed. Hopkins reminds him,
Of this long sonnet above all remember what applies to all my verse, that it is, as living art should be, made for performance and that its performance is not reading with the eye but loud, leisurely, poetical (not rhetorical) recitation, with long rests, long dwells on the rhyme and other marked syllables, and so on. This sonnet shd. be almost sung. (LB, 246)
Like music, the poem has its own temporal duration, and to experience it properly one must read it aloud rather than "with the eye." Such reading allows the poem to progress through time rather than allowing for the hermeneutic return made possible by reading it silently. To read the poem only with the eyes is to divorce it from the time it requires and to refuse Hopkins' demand that it be allowed to "perform" itself as a linguistic and sonic entity. The particular poem that Hopkins includes with these notes to Bridges contains, as do many of his poems, diacritical markings and notes for its proper performance. Such markings indicate to the reader a proper method of recitation. Hopkins' poems function like musical scores, directing their readers to the proper performance that will allow the poems to become themselves. (20)
This performance is inseparable from Hopkins' insistence on sprung rhythm, the rhythm that he claims "gives back to poetry its true soul and self" (SL, p. 218). (21) While sprung rhythm was not Hopkins' invention, his efforts to formalize it are among his greatest legacies, and to discuss these efforts could well overtake the current argument. (22) Throughout his explanations of sprung rhythm in his Author's Preface to "The Wreck of the Deutschland" and in letters to both Robert Bridges and Canon Richard Watson Dixon, Hopkins underscores the similarity of such rhythm to music in its systematic nature. These discussions also repeatedly highlight the importance of performance to any understanding of Hopkins' poetry. For the purposes of this essay, what is important is not merely Hopkins' interest in somewhat idiosyncratic prosody but an understanding of his vehement insistence on this prosody's crucial relation to his other poetic aims. In a recent article, Joshua King discusses precisely this question, claiming, "Sprung rhythm is more than a metrical novelty: in it Hopkins finds a means for apprehending and recommending to a reader kinds of affective and cognitive experience."> Similarly to the current argument, King discusses sprung rhythm as Hopkins' effort to produce an experience; for King, the affective or cognitive experience of the poems will produce the "impression" of God's grace. King claims that Hopkins wishes his poetry to effect an event in which "poetry and the experienced world are 'uttered' by a person through intensive mental engagement and received by him as stresses of affective and cognitive energy" (p. 209). My argument here, while certainly sympathizing with King's interest in locating a theological intention in Hopkins' use of rhythm, contends that, far more than "mental engagement," Hopkins calls for a physical engagement, an experience of poetry that is, while certainly both affective and cognitive (though perhaps not at the same time), primarily physiological. Without the body, the fundamentally disruptive event that Hopkins hopes his poetry will bring about would leave his reader with nothing, without the continuity requisite to the ability to make sense of (or even to achieve) affect or cognition.
While Dixon, Hopkins' friend and fellow poet, seems to have accepted Hopkins' efforts to revitalize the forgotten system of sprung rhythm, Bridges put forth more resistance to what he deemed Hopkins' prosodic oddities. In an early letter describing sprung rhythm, Hopkins expresses his faith that Bridges could come to accept this rhythm as the proper mode of poetic practice. Hopkins tells him, "I think if you will study what I have here said you will be much more pleased with it and may I say? converted to it.... You are my public and I hope to convert you" (LB, p. 46). Once heard, Hopkins insists, this rhythm will transform its hearer, and the poet who hears sprung rhythm will become the poet who writes in it. More than a way to explain the aesthetic cohesion of his poetry, Hopkins' insistence on sprung rhythm is an insistence on the ability of his poems to have a profound effect on their reader's comprehension of the world. (24) In marking that effect as the transformative and potentially disruptive event of conversion, Hopkins reveals that more is at stake in his theorization of sprung rhythm than the aesthetic appreciation of his own poetry.
Hopkins poses sprung rhythm as a catalyst for conversion, for a change in its reader that will produce that reader as a writer of sprung rhythm, as well as (at least potentially) a subject capable of perceiving the inscape Hopkins laments not all can see. A convert himself, Hopkins often turns to the figure of conversion in his poetry, whether such conversion happens, "as once at a crash," as in the sudden, revelatory conversion of Paul, or in the "lingering-out sweet skill" of Augustine's (comparatively) more gradual one, both of which Hopkins invokes in "The Wreck of the Deutschland" (ll. 77, 78). (25) Also in "The Wreck," Hopkins calls to God in the act of conversion to "melt him but master him" (l. 76). Conversion occurs as an apocalypse, a dissolution of self that makes available new modes of experience. Conversion, like the explosion of selving that is also an evacuation of self, empties the self in order to make divine charge apparent. God "masters" the self and in doing so, annihilates it. While conversion calls into question the possibility of a stable subject, it also depends on the assumption that there is still a subject in its aftermath. Despite the melting or dissolution or explosion that is understandable as disruptive and even violent, in order for conversion to be said to have occurred, the subject must remain, renewed perhaps and utterly changed, but continuous nevertheless. (26)
It is important to linger here on this question of conversion. Some readers have understood Hopkins' intention to convert Bridges as a desire that Bridges would turn to the Catholic faith, as Hopkins himself did in 1866. For example, Ron Hansen in a recent article claims that Hopkins' statement is "a play on words" expressing not only Hopkins' desire to "persuade Bridges of the beauty and propriety of his innovations," but also his concern for "the state of Bridges' soul, for his Anglican faith was never orthodox and he seems at times an atheist." (27) Similarly, Joshua King points to the "slippage between conversion to sprung rhythm and conversion to Catholicism," as "hardly ... accidental," and demonstrates an understanding of conversion as necessarily and fundamentally evangelical (p. 224).
However, what Hopkins says is that he hopes Bridges will be "converted" to his rhythm--not to his dogma. Thus, while he alludes to his own doctrinal or liturgical commitments he does not in fact include them in his own sentence. Similarly, when he refers to Bridges as his "public" he assigns him the role of audience to poetry; "public" is a word more applicable to a literary audience than, for example, a congregation. While I certainly agree with King's point that the "slippage" from poetics to doctrinal assertion may be far from "accidental," both Hansen and King seem to overlook what it is that Hopkins actually writes. Rather than an effort to assert the truth of Catholic liturgical doctrine, Hopkins' poetry and discussion of it seeks to convert his reader to a proper mode of perception and experience. Such an experience, according to Hopkins, would indeed reveal to the reader the presence of divine order in the world, thus potentially showing such a reader the underlying truths behind the doctrinal assumptions that Hopkins himself maintains as a Catholic and a Jesuit. However, the point of the conversion is to make a particular experience possible, not to transmit the doctrines. Indeed, while there is a great deal of explanation of his own faith in his letters to Bridges, Hopkins rarely seems to work to affect Bridges' liturgical commitments. Here, what he says quite literally is that he seeks to "convert" Bridges to a certain poetic praxis, an openness to sprung rhythm. That is, rather than an effort to convert his reader to the doctrines held by the Catholics who share his faith, Hopkins aims to convert Bridges to a mode of experience that is open to the perception of the world as "charged," as "instressed." While such an experience would reveal to the reader--according to Hopkins--the divine order of the world, it would do so regardless of and even in the absence of the doctrines Hopkins uses to describe and explain it. The point of conversion, itself an apocalyptic event for the experiencing subject, is to make the convert open to the apocalyptic profusion that is everywhere around him.
When, after years of "study"--during which time Hopkins writes him several letters of instruction on how his poems are to be read--Bridges is yet to be convinced of sprung rhythm's precedence, or converted to it as the rhythm for his own poetry, Hopkins reminds him again of the necessity that the rhythm be heard in order to be recognized. Upon receiving Bridges' critical response to his "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo" Hopkins defends his concerted poetical efforts: (28) "For that piece of mine is very highly wrought. The long lines are not rhythm run to seed: everything is weighed and timed in them. Wait till they have taken hold of your ear and you will find it so" (LB, p. 157). Sprung rhythm, Hopkins suggests, is a poetic system that will "convert its hearer" by taking hold of his or her body, via the ear. In a letter to Dixon, Hopkins similarly acknowledges the difficulty of understanding his prosodic experimentation merely by the account of their theorization. Such experiments will be more understandable with the experience of the poems themselves, an experience marked by a performance that brings the poems into the body of the one who reads them. Hopkins writes, following an extensive explanation of sprung rhythm, "But all that I have said is of course shewing you the skeleton or flayed anatomy, you will understand more simply and pleasantly by verses in the flesh." (29) Superficially, this metaphor is easily understandable; as opposed to the abstract descriptions of the poems, Dixon must experience the poems themselves, "in the flesh." However, at stake in Hopkins' use of this metaphor for presence is his insistence on the bodily experience of poetry. Just as Hopkins claims that in its performance his rhythm, and his poetry, will "take hold of" Bridges' ear as it converts him, here Hopkins describes the proper experience of his poetry as bodily. The performance of his poetry brings the poem into the body, and the poem becomes "verses in the flesh" as it is incarnated in the body of its performer. Hopkins' claim suggests that the poem will effect an inhabitation or even a possession of its reader. That inhabitation, paradoxically, would both signal the disruptive dissolution of conversion and allow the reader to survive it, open now to further potential experiences of dissolution.
In its performance, Hopkins claims that his poem (here, "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo," but potentially any of his poems) participates in the activity of selving in which Hopkins claims all things participate. In becoming itself, it leaves behind its semantic or referential content to become the sound of its telling of itself, a telling that is also the announcement of the divine charge Hopkins insists inheres within it. Such an announcement, in order to be received, requires that the reading subject be given over to the apocalyptic explosion that Hopkins describes in the kingfishers and dragonflies of the poem previously discussed. While Hopkins admits that his own observation of inscape's unveiling cannot be transmitted with anything like exact similitude--largely due to the exigencies of a language that can only speak in generalities--the poem aims to produce an experience analogous to that of kingfishers themselves, as well as to the witness to their catching fire. (30) That experience relies on a sensory overload that bridges or surpasses bodily boundaries in its synaesthetic excess. However, in order to exceed such boundaries, the poem must first remind the subject of the body that constitutes his ability to have such an experience. The poem comes into the body via the circuit of lips that speak it and ears that hear it. It is the embodiment made apparent in the poem's performance that allows the reader to experience its excessive force; it is also that embodiment that allows the reader the possibility of further experience.
On the one hand, Hopkins exhibits a rejection of much bodily experience, calling the body, for example the "scaffold of score brittle bones" or, more startlingly, "carrion." (31) In fact, the emphasis on the synaesthetic experience of inscape in the world may well be understood as an effort to bypass the body entirely, allowing the imagination to produce the sensory overlap that the body renders logically improbable. However, on the other hand, for Hopkins it is the human body that provides the most striking reminder of God's activity in the world. Christ's reflection back to God through the "features of men's faces" in "As kingfishers catch fire," for example, occurs as a result of the fact of embodiment. In his poem, "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection," Hopkins returns to the flame and fire that defines the selving of kingfishers and dragonflies. There, as "nature's bonfire burns on," natural objects succumb to mutability, and man, nature's "clearest-selved spark," is blotted out, in "an enormous dark/ Drowned" (ll. 9, 10, 12-13). What is does not remain, and all acts of selving and expression are erased in the darkness that follows. While it is the "comfort of the Resurrection" that provides solace for the understanding of nature as ever variable, the Resurrection is meaningless without the Incarnation that precedes it and makes it possible. The poem ends with the "heart's-clarion" that is the Resurrection, the thought of which sends away despair at natural flux and dissipation by reminding the poem's speaker that "I am all at once what Christ is I since he was what I am" (ll. 17, 19-20). The thought of Christ's resurrection produces the reminder of Christ's incarnation, a reminder that God had to take on a body in order to give it up. (32)
Hopkins' desire for his poetry to become itself in its proper performance thus becomes more than an aesthetic wish. It becomes legible as a theological aim. The proper performance of the poem allows the poem to inhabit the body of the one who speaks it, who metaphorically births it with the lips of a speaking body. In that performance, the performer not only arrives at the proper appreciation of the poem that will offer convincing evidence of the appropriateness of Hopkins' prosody but also arrives at an awareness of the poem's status as belonging most properly to the body in the first place. The performance of the poem that aims to transmit revelatory experience reminds the reader of the body that is there to be surpassed. Without such a reminder, without the poem being brought into the body of the performing subject, there would be no possibility of experience.
In the opening stanza of "The Wreck of the Deutschland" Hopkins emphasizes the role of the body in the stunning and potentially devastating experience of divine mastery that Hopkins invokes in the poem as the event of conversion. "Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh," Hopkins writes, "And after it almost unmade, what with dread, / Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh? / Over again I feel thy finger and find thee" (ll. 5-8). The poem thus begins with an acknowledgement of the crucial role played by embodiment in the possibility of a subjective continuity that persists despite interruption. The bones and veins binding the speaker of the poem allow the speaker to remain, touched "afresh" after the "dread" that has threatened to unmake the speaking subject. The body makes it possible for the speaker to be only nearly undone, "almost unmade," by the terror that arrives from the encounter with divinity. However, at the same time, lingering in the line resides an alternate reading. The diacritical marks indicating the stresses in the line emphasize the first syllables of both words. In accentuating the first syllables of these two words--which, one might note, would be stressed even in normal pronunciation--Hopkins introduces the possibility of a pause, however slight, between their first and second syllables; he makes the first syllable audible on its own. That pause makes possible a more devastating understanding of the event he describes. For at least a moment, the reader can understand the speaker to be entirely undone, "all most unmade" by the divine encounter. Within Hopkins' own description of conversion, then, resides a tension between the sight made possible by reading and the sound made apparent by performance. The reader sees that the speaker was nearly dissolved in his experience and hears that he was entirely so. The performance, the vocalization of even this single line, reveals the synaesthetic tension between the disruption and the continuation of self in the apocalyptic event of conversion. That tension is reflected in the insistent physicality of the stanza's last line, in which the body that allows for the self's continuity also reveals itself as inhabited by that which remains outside the self. Despite the flesh that "fastens" him to his existence in the world, the finger the speaker feels at the end of the stanza becomes God's finger, Christ's finger, a finger not his own even as it belongs to the same body that has "bound" in him the bones and veins that constitute his existence in the world. It is this radical duality that the body makes possible for Hopkins. Even as he risks his own unmaking in the dissolution of self that is access to divinity, even as the pronoun that would allow him to claim his own finger disperses and is replaced by a second person pronoun indicating God's ownership, the finger that allows him to "find" God in the world is his own.
(1) Jude V. Nixon, "'Death blots black out': Thermodynamics and the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins," VP 40, no. 2 (2002): 146.
(2) Nixon makes a similar argument in his essay "'Read the Unshapeable Shock Night': Information Theory, Chaos Systems, and the Welsh Landscape of Hopkins's The Wreck of the Deutschland," Merope 14, nos. 35-36 (2002): 111-149. There, Nixon turns to information theory to align the chaotic dissipation of entropy with the arrival at newly organized information, claiming that in "The Wreck," "randomness ... eventually succumbs to order, and structure can emerge from the chaos of non-linear, complex systems" (p. 142). By the end of this remarkably detailed essay, Nixon has suggested that the reorganized information emergent in the chaos surrounding the loss of the Deutschland allows Hopkins to arrive at a salvific divine order.
(3) Michael Lackey, "'God's Grandeur': Gerard Manley Hopkins' Reply to the Speculative Atheist," VP 39, no. 1 (2001): 88.
(4) The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Norman H. Mackenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). All references to poems will be to this edition.
(5) Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Letters, ed. Catherine Phillips (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 218. Further references to this text will be indicated by SL.
(6) Though James I. Wimsatt's recent book on sprung rhythm, Hopkins's Poetics of Speech Sound: Sprung Rhythm, Lettering, Inscape (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2006), devotes a chapter to the relation of the body to sprung rhythm, Wimsatt's interest in the body lies primarily in its connection to emotion or affect.
(7) Here, the divine charge that I am discussing bears a great resemblance to Hopkins' own term, instress, with which the poet is charged with expressing (see "Wreck," stanza 5). Instress refers both to the force that maintains cohesive form within a given object and to the activity by which that form is made available to an observer.
(8) The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Christopher Devlin, S.J. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1959), p. 195.
(9) There are several very helpful explanations of Hopkins' understanding of inscape, ranging in scope and ideological commitment. See J. Finn Cotter, Inscape: The Christology and Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1972). Also see Cotter's more recent "The Inshape of Inscape," VP 42, no. 2 (2004): 195-200. For inscape in relation to Scotist theology, see Bernadette Waterman Ward, "Philosophy and Inscape: Hopkins and the formalitas of Duns Scotus," Texas Studies in Language and Literature 32, no. 2 (1990): 214-239. For a more critical reading of the theological underpinnings of inscape, see Dennis Sobolev, "Inscape Revisited," English: The Journal of the English Association 51 (2002): 219-234.
(10) Nixon connects charge to the "energy of instress," which he describes as the "energy sustaining inscape" ("'Death blots black out,'" p. 144).
(11) The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Humphry House (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1959), p. 230. Further references to this text will be indicated by JP.
(12) Synaesthesia is commonly understood to refer to a state in which sensory perception is not differentiated into separate categories and normally distinguishable sensory experience is replaced by a "union of the senses," as in the title of Richard E. Cytowic's classic study of synaesthesia as a neurobiological phenomenon. See Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002). Though John Harrison points out in his recent book on synaesthesia that contemporary neuroscience shows that "the walls between our senses are not as solid as we generally believe" (p. 2), nevertheless such an assertion depends on the assumption that we "generally believe" our senses to be quite separate; see John E. Harrison, Synaesthesia: The Strangest Thing (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001). Long fascinating to creative artists, synaesthesia has recently become of great interest to neuroscience as the disorder may offer insight into understanding normative perception and cognition.
(13) For a compressed analysis of the "textual metastasis" in this very rich poem, see Jerome McGann's use of it as an example of the "paradoxical articulation" on which poetry depends ("Visible and Invisible Books: Hermetic Images in n-Dimensional Space," Literary and Linguistic Computing 17, no. 1 : pp. 61-75, 68-70).
(14) An analogy could be drawn here as well to the insistence in "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo" that the function of beauty is to be dispelled. "Despair," Hopkins writes in the voice of the maidens of St. Winefred's Well, "Be beginning to despair, to despair" that young women's beauty, "whatever's prized and passes of us, everything that's fresh and fast flying of us," will be "done away with, undone, / Undone, done with" (ll. 15, 24-25). The undoing of beauty emerges as the function of beauty, which is to be given "back to God" (l. 35). Beauty is "fast flying" out of those who exhibit it, and beauty's expression or appearance is simultaneous with its impending disappearance.
(15) Hopkins uses the word "catch" frequently in his poetry, as its simultaneously active and passive meaning resonates with his theology. The most famous example is that of "The Windhover," the opening line of which places the word in capital letters: "I CAUGHT this morning morning's minion."
(16) Michael Sprinker, "Poetics and Music: Hopkins and Nietzsche," Comparative Literature 37, no. 4 (1985): 339. In this article, Sprinker describes the way that such "spelling," in its indication of literal disarticulation, undermines Hopkins' belief in a unified signification of divine presence by rendering incommensurate the action that the poem performs and the assertion that it makes.
(17) In her article "The Allegory of Form in Hopkins's Religious Sonnets," Nineteenth. Century Literature 47, no. 1 (1992): 32-48, Jennifer A. Wagner discusses the relationship of octave to sestet in Hopkins' sonnets as a trope of "intensification" providing an allegory for divine sacrifice; in the sonnets she considers "the infinitude of God is bounded by the finitude of the world and of the poem itself" (pp. 33, 42).
(18) For a consideration of whether the poem can be a "thing" in the world, see Rebecca Melora Corinne Boggs, "Poetic Genesis, the Self, and Nature's Things in Hopkins," SEL 37, no. 4 (1997): 831-855.
(19) The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, ed. Claude Colleer Abbott (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 66. Further reference to this text will be indicated by LB.
(20) J. Paul Mariani considers the emphasis on "the act of singing rather than the singer" as Hopkins' effort "to escape his own self-consciousness" ("Hopkins: Towards a Poetics of Unselfconsciousness," Renascence 50, no. 3-4 : 244). Claiming that Hopkins' emphasis on performance erases the self by providing a means to embrace the all-encompassing presence of divinity, Mariani asserts that Hopkins finds a way "out of the dilemma, of the self" by coming to "sing in harmony with the chorus" (p. 244). Such a claim resonates with the current argument; however, the performance of the poem also crucially provides a way for the performer to remain a coherent entity even in the wake of the sacrifice to which Mariani points.
(21) Hopkins also claims, perhaps more famously, that sprung rhythm is that of "all but the most monotonously regular music" (Poetical Works, p. 117).
(22) For a consideration of the relation of Hopkins' consideration of sprung rhythm to poetic tradition, see Elisabeth W. Schneider, "Sprung Rhythm: A Chapter in the Evolution of Nineteenth-Century Verse," PMLA 80, no. 3 (1965): 237-253.
(23) Joshua King, "Hopkins' Affective Rhythm: Grace and Intention in Tension," VP 45, no. 3 (2007): 209.
(24) For an extended discussion of Hopkins' poems as performative, see the work of Rachel Salmon Desher. An early essay, co-written with Kinereth Meyer, underscores the role of poetic performance "not only as describing but also as enacting conversion" ("The Poetry of Conversion as Language Act: Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot," in Gerard Manley Hopkins and Critical Discourse, ed. Eugene Hollahan [New York: AMS, 1993], p. 235). See also Rachel Salmon Desher, "Reading across Hermeneutic Traditions: A Spelling of Hopkins' Leaves," Religion and Literature 34, no. 1 (2002): 21-49, which ends by asserting that "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves" "enables us to read it mimetically as a reflection of Hopkins's state of mind and soul, but it also allows us to read it performatively as the creation of such a state of mind and soul in the titterer (poet or reader) of these words. The consequences of such a reading of the poem go beyond doctrinal agreement or disagreement; the utterer has projected, entered, and become implicated in a language act which creates such a world" (p. 41).
(25) For an extended discussion of Hopkins' relationship to Augustine, see James Finn Cotter, "Hopkins and Augustine," VP 39, no. 1 (2001): 69-82.
(26) Here one might consider the striking sonnet "Felix Randal," which emphasizes the role of the diminished body in the event of conversion. Felix Randal, having nearly succumbed to his "fatal four disorders," is described as progressing from his initial curses to a "heavenlier heart" that recognizes his status as "anointed" (ll. 4, 6). However, what Hopkins describes in this poem seems to be the role of the devastated body in the event of spiritual conversion, rather than the necessity of the body to remain after the event. Hopkins mourns the loss of Felix Randal's "boisterous years" even as he suggests that it was the sick body, once "big-boned and hardy-handsome," that led Felix to the conversion that allows him to die at peace (ll. 12, 2). Somewhat similarly, in "The Bugler's First Communion," Hopkins praises the "limber liquid youth" of the Bugler's body at the moment of the sacrament that solidifies his conversion (l. 22). There, the body makes conversion possible as it allows for the act of sacramental consumption that announces conversion has occurred. Both of these poems describe implied acts of strictly liturgical conversion and thus not the more poetic or even prosodic conversion of which I am here speaking. Both poems also raise questions concerning the role of Hopkins' own gaze as implicated in his poetic and doctrinal interest in the bodies of others; fascinating though such questions are, they remain outside the purview of the current discussion. See Peter Swaab, "Hopkins and the Pushed Peach," Critical Quarterly 37, no. 3 (1995): 43-60, esp. pp. 50-53, which analyzes Hopkins' potential homoerotic gaze in "The Bugler's First Communion." For a critical summary of the place of "Felix Randal" in work examining Hopkins in relation to Queer Studies, see Valentine Cunningham, "Fact and Tact," Essays in Criticism 51, no. 1 (2001): 119-138, esp. pp. 127-137.
(27) Ron Hansen, "Art and Literature: Hopkins and Bridges," Logos 7, no. l (2004): 91.
(28) Bridges' response to "The Leaden Echo" was not in fact negative; however, he did compare the poem to one of Walt Whitman's, a comparison to which Hopkins took great exception. Hopkins had a complicated reaction to Whitman, whom he considered "a very great scoundrel" and yet whose mind he believed to be "more like [his] own than any other man's living" (LB, p. 155). For an extended consideration of Hopkins' relationship to Whitman, see Eldrid Herrington, "Hopkins and Whitman," Essays in Criticism 55, no. 1 (2005): 39-57. Also, F. O. Matthiessen, "Hopkins and Whitman," in Hopkins: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Geoffrey Hartman (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1966), pp. 144-151.
(29) The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, ed. Claude Colleer Abbott (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1935), p. 23.
(30) As he writes in his journal, "all names but proper names are general" (JP, p. 125).
(31) "The shepherd's brow, fronting forked lightning" (l. 5); "[Carrion Comfort]," (l. 1). Hopkins also turns to the traditional trope equating the spirit to a bird in its cage when he in "The Caged Skylark" names the body in which the spirit is imprisoned, man's "bone-house, mean house" (l. 2).
(32) Marie Banfield, in her "Darwinianism, Doxology, and Energy Physics: The New Sciences, the Poetry and the Poetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins," VP 45, no. 2 (2007): 175-194, offers a brief reading of this poem claiming that in it, Hopkins' invokes Heraclitean flux only to redeem it through his turn to the Resurrection, which allows him to believe that in the wake of such change, "the material will at last be subsumed into the divine" (p. 185).
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|Title Annotation:||Gerard Manley Hopkins|
|Author:||Goss, Erin M.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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