“Go forth: amidst our chaffinch flock display
Thy plumage of far wonder and heavenward flight!”
Reading “Poems 1876-89” in The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Fourth Edition), it struck me how much of his verse was not necessarily much more technically interesting than other poets of the Nineteenth century. What remains remarkable are his most famous poems, which seem to typify and embody what he strove toward in other works. Most of his poems employ what he calls “sprung rhythm,” which is simply a dense clustering of stressed or non-stressed syllables in a way that was not typical at a time when two- and three-syllable feet, and especially iambs and trochees, ruled the day. Yet this particular break from convention is not interesting in itself. Hopkins’s work gets most interesting when he focuses so intently on the music of the poem as to push the literal meaning aside, and further compounds, enhances, and transcends any such meaning with revelatory line breaks.
Consider one of my favorite poems:
To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,–the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! And the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
This poem is a variant on the Italian sonnet form with only four rhyming groups spread across the fourteen lines. Yet the dense internal rhythms, rhymes, and alliterations subsume the musical nature of the form, bending it to an even more musical purpose. Much of this happens through the line breaks. Consider the opening, “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king- / dom of daylight’s dauphin.” Here we are set up with a huge expectation of repetition right from the beginning with “morning morning’s minion.” Next we see the word “king” hung on a line, next to the word “minion,” which makes its own kind of initial meaning since the words are opposites. Then it is revealed to be only half of the word “kingdom”–of “daylight’s dauphin” no less, continuing the alliteration, the theme of master/servant, and the theme of morning. So many elements are tightly woven together in only the first eleven lines!
Hopkins uses line breaks like this one as a kind of revelation. He also often employs the colon to similar effect as well as, though to a lesser degree than Dickinson, the hyphen. The point is that the poem itself becomes a revelation, as the meaning of previous lines alters by the time we have read the next line. One of the most exquisite moments of revelation in the poem comes with “the hurl and gliding / Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird,” which, having become so delightfully disoriented by previous lines, we might read as, “the hurl and gliding rebuffed” and then “the big wind: my heart.” The revelation of the speaker’s own heart comes after an immense build-up, and changes meaning before our very eyes. The ending lines speak for themselves, as the crescendo of list-making reaches a dizzying pitch, beyond the realm of conventional meaning, in a kind of bird-Christ rapture.
Strangely enough, for all his metrical genius, Hopkins is a kind of forebearer to free verse, in that he focuses on the same kinds of poetic elements that excited our poetic grandparents like Stevens and Williams. Yet unlike our great-grandparent, Whitman, Hopkins arrived in this territory not by slackening and expanding his lines to make a kind of breathless natural speech, but by compressing them intensely, pushing the boundary in the opposite direction. In doing so, he extracts essential, non-literal aspects of poetry that remain a vital influence.