Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realise you. Do any human beings ever realise life while they live it?―every, every minute? The saints and poets, maybe―they do some. –Thornton Wilder
I recently read the biography Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life by Robert Martin. It is a detailed portrait of this great Victorian poet and is especially engrossing since Martin takes a heavily psychological approach to his subject. While on balance I appreciated this tack, I sometimes found myself wondering how much the Hopkins presented in the book has been accurately reconstructed from his letters and diaries, and how much was supplied by Martin’s imagination. It is hard to tell. But it is fairly clear that many aspects of his life were, as the subtitle suggests, “very private”: not in the sense that he shared nothing with anyone else―it is thanks to his extensive correspondence that we know as much as we do about him―but rather that he enjoyed solitude, writing poetry, taking long walks in the country and above all communing with nature.
One of Hopkin’s greatest delights was contemplating the quiddity or "thisness" of things. He had an intense awareness of the irreducible uniqueness of each thing and coined the word “inscape” to refer to this property of nature. In a Platonic dialogue On the Origin of Beauty, he attempts to give a systematic account of how beauty arises through the disarming, slight lacks of symmetry in natural objects; half-way through, the treatise turns into a consideration of the quality of poetry. It is a little work that is well worth reading.
Anyone who has read some of Hopkins’s journals will know that he devoted pages and pages to describing the inscape of plants, skies, waters, animals and all manner of natural phenomena in minute detail. Here is an example, selected somewhat at random, in which he recalls how the sea appeared during one of his holidays:
The crests I saw ravelled up by the wind into the air in arching whips and straps of glassy spray and higher broken into clouds white and blown away. Under the curl shone a bright juice of beautiful green. The foam exploding and smouldering under water makes a chrysoprase green.Later on the same day, he observed this sunset:
All the sky hung with tall tossed clouds, in the west with strong printing glass edges, westward lamping with tipsy bufflight, the colour of yellow roses. Parlick ridge like a pale goldfish skin without body. The plain about Clitheroe was sponged out by a tall white storm of rain. The sun itself and the spot of “session” dappled with big laps and flowers-in-damask of cloud.One of the most frequent penances that Hopkins would assign himself was a version of “custody of the eyes”. It consisted not in exercising temperance in viewing the human form, as this phrase normally suggests, but rather in depriving himself of viewing nature. He would keep his eyes to the ground when outdoors and not allow himself to enjoy looking at nature all around him. It was a very difficult but presumably effective penitential practice for him, showing the extent to which he was fed by sights of the natural world.
|Gerard Manley Hopkins|
Some thirty years after [Hopkins’s] death one old lay brother remembered how he would sprint out of the Seminary building after a shower to stoop down on a garden path and study the glitter of crushed quartz before the water could evaporate. “Ay, a strange yoong man,” said the brother, “crouching down that gate to star at some wet sand. A fair natural ’e seemed to us, that Mr. ’Opkins.”As this little anecdote shows, Hopkin’s sensitivity to inscape is not widely shared. He once wrote in his journal:
I thought how sadly 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.As Thornton Wilder recognised, it is only saints and poets who are truly alive to the world around them. Perhaps an acquaintance with Gerard Manley Hopkins can help the rest of us towards our saintly-poetic vocations.