Friday, 26 April 2013

Gerard Manley Hopkins and Inscape

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

Image: micknailspoetry

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
Much of the time, though, he was actively seeking out inscape rather than avoiding it. He would frequently go out of his way to observe something odd or new in nature, often to the bemusement of his Jesuit companions. Martin recounts:
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.


  1. I have enjoyed your post which brings me back to a period of my life where I was immersed in scholastic philosophy and the differences between Aquinas and Scotus, the former with his act of existence and the latter with his haecceity.

    The abstract word quiddity comes from the latin quid (what). Quiddity is applicable to many beings of the same nature, e.g. dogs, cats, trees, humans, etc.

    The abstract word haecceity, coined by Scotus I believe, comes from the latin haec which means this. Haecceity is unique to each individual and not repeatable. The thisness that makes Fido the unique Fido that I have as a pet are not to be found in another dog.

    Of course Hopkins was fascinated by Scotus -- he wrote a poem Duns Scotus' Oxford -- and with the uniqueness of each thing.

    There is a close link between haecceity and inscape, certainly more than between quiddity and inscape. If you google hopkins scotus you will have access to some of the comment on this.

    1. Thanks for clearing up the distinction between quiddity and thisness, which I conflated above.

      Hopkins was more than fascinated by Duns Scotus—discovering him was somewhat of an epiphany for him, for in Scotus he found a philosophical basis for what had previously been only an idiosyncratic opinion. Martin conjectures that one of the reasons why Hopkins was not asked to continue with the long course in theology was that he was too much of a disciple of Scotus. There might be something to this theory, since there is no reason to believe that Hopkins was a shoddy theologian, given his brilliant career at Oxford.

  2. Blessed are those who are able to immerse in nature and drink from it ... to me, Hopkins is a romantic through and through. Thanks for this post.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it. And watch out for a follow-up article on Hopkins by one of my companions appearing on this blog soon!