my hopkins paper

An Essay By Naomi // 5/31/2005

Though I realize Ben is the apricotpie expert on G.M Hopkins from his junior-year study of that great poet, I’m taking my chances and posting this paper. . . As with others I've posted, e-mail me via the comments address if you would like to see my works cited page to make sure I'm not making up those quotations or something. . .

Abandonment and Incarnation: Christian Mysticism in Hopkins’s Verse

From the glorious, soaring sense of inscape in poems like “The Windhover” to the profound emptiness and gloom of the “terrible sonnets,” Gerard Manley Hopkins manifests many spiritual truths in his poetry. The vast difference between these apparently opposing sets of poems seems to make them contradictory. On the one hand we have the joy and beauty associated with instress in a lifting up of the heart through nature to God; but on the other hand are the descending notes of despair and denial of all things. Richness of imagery contrasts with a lack of imagery. Yet in this seeming contradiction lies the surprising complement between the joyful poems of inscape and the darkling sonnets of desolation. To find the spiritual congruence of these two interdependent realities, we must examine Hopkins’s integration of the tradition of Christian mysticism in his poetry—hearkening to the philosophy of St. John of the Cross and looking ahead to writers such as T.S. Eliot and Charles Williams. Within the mystic concept of the via negativa and the via affirmativa we find the paradox of spiritual schooling reflected in Hopkins’s poetry: that both the “way up” (in affirming creation’s images as a means to find God) and the “way down” (denying oneself the pleasures of created things to the point of giving up selfhood) intertwine in the harmony of the twofold yet single path of abandonment integral to the Christian life.

Hopkins’s poetry—in its crafting and underlying philosophy—embodies key elements of the via affirmitiva. Charles Williams defines this “way up” as beginning with three parts—“an experience, the environment of that experience, and the means of understanding or expressing that experience” (qtd. in Smit). Together these three intermingle into one complex image that ultimately results in the “inGodding of man” (qtd in Smit). Williams’s “inGodding” sounds much like Hopkins’s “instress”—that understanding and emotional or spiritual response demanded by the inherent quality of every created thing, ultimately leading to Christ. According to Hopkins, the “affirmation of images” involved in instress comes about by recognizing each element of creation’s unique “inscape”—a kind of divine essence meant to point one towards God.

Individual inscapes, as channels of instress, have a deeper essence and greater potential than mere signposts directing one to the divine. As Margaret Ellsberg says in her book Created to Praise, “Natural objects did not remind [Hopkins] of God . . . they were, in a sense, God” (74). This “sacramental physicality” of his poetry—which mirrors the elements of the incarnation infused throughout creation—forms the foundation of the vibrancy, vividness, and glory in much of Hopkins’s verse (Ellsberg 74). Through embracing and exulting in the stuff of earth and abandoning himself in this transcendent beauty, Hopkins exalts God by affirming His imagination: his poetry celebrates each created thing in a voicing of inscape that focuses upwards toward the divine. Thus with his verse Hopkins paves a path of beauty leading to glory and grace in the pattern of the mystic via affirmativa.

In many of his joyous poems we find Hopkins intertwining inscape and the incarnation, achieving the via affirmitiva sense of abandonment to invoke and describe an experience of instress. “Spring” expresses Williams’s threefold “way up”: the experience of spring, its environment of natural beauty, and the poetical expression of inscape in Hopkins’s voicing of his felt instress. In the newness of life, hints of the incarnation manifest themselves in even the homeliest things: “thrush’s eggs look little low heavens” (line 3); the divine inhabits the earthly to create inscape reaching up towards God. Spring and Hopkins’s embodiment of it in his poem become distinct inscapes (made of up other inscapes) to channel us to the transcendent experience of divine Beauty. The “inGodding” of creation transforms us with Hopkins to wing our way on the pinions of instress up the skyward path of the via affirmativa.

Through startling, intense imagery, “God’s Grandeur” lifts our hearts and minds along the “way up” to ultimate Beauty by affirming the incarnational aspect of creation; yet this poem also gives us a glimpse of the necessary, paradoxically congruent “way down.” From the beginning we see the incarnational emphasis: the world is “charged” with God’s grandeur in an electrifying sense of the divine presence in nature. Strong verbs hurl us imaginatively heavenward—this grandeur “[flames] out,” shines like lightening reflected from “shook foil,” and “gathers to greatness” (2-3). Our mind’s eye follows the sharp imagery of upward streaks of light, delights in the richness of the gathered glory—but then plummets with the defeat of the word “crushed” (4). W.H. Gardner, in his critical commentary Gerard Manley Hopkins¸ explains the significance of this sudden change: "The shaking of the foil signifies an important doctrine: life itself must be shaken, disturbed, jarred, before the deepest instress can be felt and the heroic virtues (the highest beauty) can appear . . . ‘Crushed’ is the verbal link between the omnipotent World-Wielder and the pitiful, obtuse human agent, who so easily forgets both the source and the true purpose of all this power." (230-231) Thus Hopkins juxtaposes the way of affirmation and the way of negation—showing the necessity of both in discovering true self-abandonment to the divine. One must experience the jarring desolation in the denial of beauty and self as well as the uplifting splendor in embracing creation’s images. Only then might one become the “man of single eye and pure heart” who finds the incarnation of God’s attributes in that “dearest freshness deep down things” (10) (Gardner 233).

Created beauty’s reality—infused with the ultimate reality and beauty of Christ’s incarnation—splinters our self-consciousness into God-consciousness in its inscapes. Hopkins claims creation’s ability to lift us from self-focus to self-abandonment through both the via affirmativa and the via negativa. As we desert our ownership of personhood for an experience of the higher Personality incarnate in nature, we climb the via affirmativa to find the true meaning of “self” in God. But as we feel forsaken in the desert of despair and denial of imagery, we find the alternate side of abandonment: our own abandonment of earthly beauty and our sense of being abandoned by God. This taste of the “dark night of the soul” of which St. John of the Cross speaks is poignantly evident in Hopkins’s “terrible sonnets,” which deal with a different—yet complementary—look at reality, imagery, and incarnation in the path of self-denial and the spiritual schooling of mortification.

Reality’s iconoclastic nature can—in the via negativa sense—“shatter” our images of the divine. True encounters with Beauty may be terrible; a true meeting with God, while in one sense affirming our little patchwork pictures of Him through His creation, may also overwhelm and destroy such threadbare imagination in light of His utter reality (Smit). When met with ultimate Personality, our personhood can only attain true individuality by rejection of self and embracement of Him. In order to achieve this, however, the road of denial must often complement the road of affirmation. Whereas creation itself emulates little incarnations by manifesting divine beauty in the glory of God’s creativity, there is a sense in which actuality shatters the potentiality of our glimpses: God’s dark—as well as His light—dispels shadows. As C.S. Lewis said, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great Iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?” (qtd. in Smit).

Such providential iconoclasm of God’s awful presence seems to Hopkins in his “terrible sonnets” an absence or antagonism. These poems express deep internal suffering and a sense of isolation from God. Like Job, Hopkins asks the age-old yet ever-significant “why?”: “Comforter, where, where is your comforting?” comes his anguished cry of “No Worst, There Is None” (3). Darkness prevails and pulses through almost every line of these agonized poems: “What hours, O what black hours we have spent / This night!” (“I Wake” 2). The overtones of unrelenting grief, misery, and loneliness undergird the overall mood of gloom, becoming an oppressiveness—almost a throbbing ache of distress—in a perceived eternity of suffering: “. . . where I say / Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament / is cries countless . . .” (5-7). Hopkins’s turmoil and torment manifested in these sonnets testify to his experience of spiritual drought—of the dolorous yet necessary path of the via negativa.

Drawing from the philosophy of St. John of the Cross, T.S. Eliot describes the via negativa as a “descending lower, into the night of the soul,” where “there is a different darkness: a conscious stripping of identity’s props, knowledge and emotions, and, most risky, of identity itself” (Gordon 106). Eliot expresses his own acting out of this path of denial in his poem East Coker: “I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God” (Gordon 109). In Hopkins’s “terrible sonnets” this “darkness of God” seems impenetrable; yet we may come to see it as His purposeful mercy after the manner of Francis Thompson’s realization in The Hound of Heaven: “Is my gloom, after all, / Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?” (178-179). For Hopkins, the via negativa in his poetry reveals the overshadowing of God’s hand as it casts a darkness ultimately meant for our enlightenment.

We see Hopkins particularly wrestling with the crucial concept of identity, abandonment, and the via negativa in “[Carrion Comfort]” and the darker “No Worst, There Is None.” In the latter poem the manifestation of the “way down” pivots upon the spiritual discipline found in the dark night of the soul—as Hopkins says, he is “schooled at forepangs” in this state of emptiness and desolation (2). “Comforter, where, where is your comforting?” (3) he cries—echoing the tone of Christ’s words on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His dark despair becomes a taste of Christ’s suffering—Hopkins’s schooling in the path of self-abandonment begins with a sense of God’s abandoning him. Thus this experience of the via negativa paradoxically becomes incarnational as Hopkins partakes, in a sense, of the body and blood of the Lord: the sweat, pain, despair, and forsakenness Christ experienced is resurrected on a smaller scale in the poet’s misery.

As the sonnet progresses, Hopkins speaks of internal suspense on the “frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed” cliff of despair (10). Yet though the suffering and apparent hopelessness lead to a seeming wish for utter negation (“Life death does end and each day dies with sleep” [14]), Hopkins never goes so far as to doubt or curse God. Rather, he reaches an “unwilling suspension of hope,” knowing that the school of grace is often hard-handed and unfathomable (Gardner 337). As he says in his diary, “I saw how my asking to be raised to a higher degree of grace was asking also to be lifted on a higher cross” (Gardner 334). Thus ultimately we see an underlying sense of acceptance in Hopkins’s perception of the necessity of the via negativa; the costly path up the “mountains” of mind-anguish leads to a higher fellowship with and conformity to Christ through the sharing of His sufferings.

“[Carrion Comfort]” also involves the schooling of the via negativa as Hopkins voices the instress of deep spiritual purification, focusing on man’s conflict with God and the purgative crisis of self-abandonment and fulfillment. Though beginning with staunch rejection of despair (“. . . I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee” [1]), Hopkins again asks his “why?”: “. . . but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me / Thy wring-world right foot rock?” (5-6). He sees God as his fearsome adversary, whom he in turn questions, battles, and flees. Through his nightmarish struggle Hopkins gains new sight as the reality of God’s terrifying awesomeness and chastising love iconoclastically crash through his former images and conceptions. In the sestet he answers his own question to the painful years of suffering: “Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear” (9). God wishes—and enacts—His children’s holiness; but it requires a process of mortification to purge the wheat from the chaff.

Like the Biblical Jacob, Hopkins wrestles with God in “[Carrion Comfort]”; this inner war of wills to determine identity culminates in his question of whom to “cheer”: the “Hero” who “flung [him], foot trod / [him]” or he himself “that fought [Him]” (12-13)? Yet looking back at the struggle he discovers underlying divine purpose—bringing out of rebellion and chastisement a clearer perception of selfhood and surrender. Hopkins “[kisses]” the rod and the hand, symbolizing his submission and intimacy with God (2). Peering back upon the stretch of the via negativa now behind him, he sees the gravity of his earlier struggle: “I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God” (14). Amidst his dismay, Hopkins reaches resolution as his self-abandonment in surrender to God becomes, in reality, self-fulfillment. In lauding the Hero and His heavy hand, Hopkins catches a glimmer of the heroism he now is called to also: that valor to pass through refining fire and pursue Christ-likeness. He has gained a proper conception of himself—a “wretch” without the rod and hand—as finding true selfhood in God (12).

Abandonment characterizes the paradoxical harmony and interdependency of the via affirmativa and the via negativa in Hopkins’s poetry, and nowhere are these complementary paths so gloriously fused than in The Windhover. Through the inscape and imagery surrounding the “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon,” we delight in following Hopkins’s implied mandate to abandon ourselves to the joy and beauty of God in His creation (2). Yet the incarnational element runs much deeper: amidst the “hurl and gliding”—the “brute beauty and valor”—the falcon comes to symbolize Christ, our “chevalier” (6, 9, 11). In Him we see abandonment perfectly personified in a beautiful paradox: on the one hand He embraces creation’s images and thus Himself in them, and on the other He abandons them to God’s will—to become forsaken in His ultimate sacrifice. In the end, however, the sacrifice and suffering of the via negativa—the “[buckling]” and “[breaking]”—result in a fiery joy “a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous”—a transformed beauty that stabs the soul with wonder and paves the path, once more, of the via affirmativa (10-11). Our hearts, too, stir—desire to soar with our Lord; but we can only climb the heights if we also descend the depths: only when the “blue-bleak embers . . . / Fall, gall themselves,” do they “gash gold-vermillion” (14).

Throughout his poetry Hopkins voices the fundamental Christian paradox of abandonment—from the joyful embracing of God’s creativity in creation to the agonized denial of its imagery in darkness and purgation. Christ calls us to follow His example in both means of self-abandonment—fullness and emptiness—the via affirmativa and the via negativa. One without the other leaves the spiritual schooling incomplete, for the experiences of both the joyful poems of inscape and the despairing “terrible sonnets” teach of God’s love and grace. From the cliffs to the valleys, from struggles to tranquility, from despair to delight, Hopkins learned the beautiful, terrible significance of self-abandonment to find true personhood in Christ—that Hero, that chevalier, that champion who “[heaven-handles]” our hearts to bring us home.

Comments

Works cited

Hi naomi. I was wondering what works you cited for this paper. it is very well written and thoroughly researched and i was hoping to see which sources you used.

thanks.

Anonymous | Mon, 10/27/2008

Paper on Gerard Manley Hopkins

I have just read your paper on Gerard Manley Hopkins, and I must say that it is excellently written. Your contrast of the via affirmativa and via negativa is quite brilliant. It was, and will remain to be, a memorable read.

Alexander Peck

Master of Divinity student

Brisbane

Queensland

Australia

Anonymous | Mon, 08/30/2010

Paper on Gerard Manley Hopkins

I have just read your paper on Gerard Manley Hopkins, and I must say that it is excellently written. Your contrast of the via affirmativa and via negativa is quite brilliant. It was, and will remain to be, a memorable read.

Alexander Peck
Master of Divinity student
Brisbane
Queensland
Australia

Anonymous | Mon, 08/30/2010

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