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Essay on Poetic Theory

Selections from Hopkins’s Letters (1864)


Gerard Manley Hopkins, author of the poems “God’s Grandeur,” “Pied Beauty,” and “The Windhover,” among others, was one of the most innovative poets of late 19th-century England. Since the posthumous publication of his poetry in 1918, his original poetics has influenced modern and contemporary poets. Hopkins’s father worked in the marine insurance business and wrote poetry; his mother was a well-read, devout Anglican. Hopkins attended Balliol College, Oxford; he was drawn to Catholicism and joined the Catholic Church in 1866. In 1877 he was ordained, and in 1884 he became a professor of classics at University College, Dublin.

Hopkins burned his early poems when he became a Jesuit. Around 1875 he began to write poetry again, prompted to commemorate the deaths of five Franciscan nuns in the wreck of the Deutschland, the ship carrying them when they were exiled from Germany. Hopkins’s work often portrays the feelings of anguish, wonder, despondency, and praise he experienced in his encounters with his faith and the natural world.

In his letters, some to his friend Robert Bridges, Hopkins explains his theories of poetry and addresses the importance of sound and rhythm. In a letter from 1864, he discusses Tennyson and identifies three kinds of language in poetry: “the language of inspiration,” “Parnassian,” and “Castalian”—which is “too characteristic of the poet, too so-and-so-all-over-ish, to be quite inspiration.” By the time of his 1878 letter, he has developed his technique of “sprung rhythm,” a rhythm that is apparent in his own dense, textured poems. Lines using “sprung rhythm” have a specific number of accents (stressed syllables) but a variable number of unaccented syllables. In the final letter, he defines his relatively unknown theory of “bidding”: “I mean the art or virtue of saying everything right to or at the hearer, interesting him, holding him in the attitude of correspondent or addressed or at least concerned, making it everywhere an act of intercourse—and of discarding everything that does not bid, does not tell.”

Hopkins died of typhoid in 1889; most of his poems were first published in 1918, in a collection edited by Robert Bridges.

To Alexander William Mowbray Baillie

Sept. 10. 1864.

Dear Baillie,—

Your letter has been sent to me from Hampstead. It has just come, and I do a rare thing with me, begin at once on an answer. I have just finished The Philippics of Cicero and an hour remains before bedtime; no one except Wharton would begin a new book at that time of night, so I was reading Henry IV, when your letter was brought in—a great enjoyment.

The letter-writer on principle does not make his letter only an answer; it is a work embodying perhaps answers to questions put by his correspondent but that is not its main motive. Therefore it is as a rule not well to write with a received letter fresh on you. I suppose the right way is to let it sink into you, and reply after a day or two. I do not know why I have said all this.

Do you know, a horrible thing has happened to me. I have begun to doubt Tennyson. (Baillejus ap. Hopk.) It is a great argumentum, a great clue, that our minds jump together even if it be a leap into the dark. I cannot tell you how amused and I must say pleased and comforted by this coincidence I am. A little explanation first. You know I do not mistrust my judgment as soon as you do; I say it to the praise of your modesty. Therefore I do not think myself ‘getting into my dotage’ for that, and I will shew why. I think (I am assuming a great deal in saying this I fear) I may shew, judging from my own mind, how far we are both of us right in this, and on what, if I may use the word, more enlightened ground we may set our admiration of Tennyson. I have been thinking about this on and off since I read Enoch Arden and the other new poems, so that my judgment is more digested than if the ideas had only struck me while answering you. I was shaken too you know by Addis, which makes a good deal of difference.

I am meditating an essay, perhaps for the Hexameron, on some points of poetical criticism, and it is with reference to this a little that I have composed my thoughts on Tennyson. I think then the language of verse may be divided into three kinds. The first and highest is poetry proper, the language of inspiration. The word inspiration need cause no difficulty. I mean by it a mood of great, abnormal in fact, mental acuteness, either energetic or receptive, according as the thoughts which arise in it seem generated by a stress and action of the brain, or to strike into it unasked. This mood arises from various causes, physical generally, as good health or state of the air or, prosaic as it is, length of time after a meal. But I need not go into this; all that it is needful to mark is, that the poetry of inspiration can only be written in this mood of mind, even if it only last a minute, by poets themselves. Everybody of course has like moods, but not being poets what they then produce is not poetry. The second kind I call Parnassian. It can only be spoken by poets, but it is not in the highest sense poetry. It does not require the mood of mind in which the poetry of inspiration is written. It is spoken on and from the level of a poet’s mind, not, as in the other case, when the inspiration which is the gift of genius, raises him above himself. For I think it is the case with genius that it is not when quiescent so very much above mediocrity as the difference between the two might lead us to think, but that it has the power and privilege of rising from that level to a height utterly far from mediocrity: in other words that its greatness is that it can be so great. You will understand. Parnassian then is that language which genius speaks as fitted to its exaltation, and place among other genius, but does not sing (I have been betrayed into the whole hog of a metaphor) in its flights. Great men, poets I mean, have each their own dialect as it were of Parnassian, formed generally as they go on writing, and at last,—this is the point to be marked,—they can see things in this Parnassian way and describe them in this Parnassian tongue, without further effort of inspiration. In a poet’s particular kind of Parnassian lies most of his style, of his manner, of his mannerism if you like. But I must not go farther without giving you instances of Parnassian. I shall take one from Tennyson, and from Enoch Arden, from a passage much quoted already and which will be no doubt often quoted, the description of Enoch’s tropical island.

             The mountain wooded to the peak, the lawns
          And winding glades high up like ways to Heaven,
          The slender coco’s drooping crown of plumes,
          The lightning flash of insect and of bird,
          The lustre of the long convolvuluses
          That coil’d around the stately stems, and ran
          Ev’n to the limit of the land, the glows
          And glories of the broad belt of the world,
          All these he saw.                               [II. 572—80]

Now it is a mark of Parnassian that one could conceive oneself writing it if one were the poet. Do not say that if you were Shakespear you can imagine yourself writing Hamlet, because that is just what I think you cannot conceive. In a fine piece of inspiration every beauty takes you as it were by surprise, not of course that you did not think the writer could be so great, for that is not it,—indeed I think it is a mistake to speak of people admiring Shakespear more and more as they live, for when the judgment is ripe and you have read a good deal of any writer including his best things, and carefully, then, I think, however high the place you give him, that you must have rated him equally with his merits however great they be; so that all after admiration cannot increase but keep alive this estimate, make his greatness stare into your eyes and din it into your ears, as it were, but not make it greater,—but to go on with the broken sentence, every fresh beauty could not in any way be predicted or accounted for by what one has already read. But in Parnassian pieces you feel that if you were the poet you could have gone on as he has done, you see yourself doing it, only with the difference that if you actually try you find you cannot write his Parnassian. Well now to turn to the piece above. The glades being ‘like ways to Heaven’ is, I think, a new thought, it is an inspiration. Not so the next line, that is pure Parnassian. If you examine it the words are choice and the description is beautiful and unexceptionable, but it does not touch you. The next is more Parnassian still. In the next lines I think the picture of the convolvuluses does touch; but only the picture: the words are Parnassian. It is a very good instance, for the lines are undoubtedly beautiful, but yet I could scarcely point anywhere to anything more idiomatically Parnassian, to anything which I more clearly see myself writing qua Tennyson, than the words

                                                    The glows
          And glories of the broad belt of the world.

What Parnassian is you will now understand, but I must make some more remarks on it. I believe that when a poet palls on us it is because of his Parnassian. We seem to have found out his secret. Now in fact we have not found out more than this, that when he is not inspired and in his flights, his poetry does run in an intelligibly laid down path. Well, it is notorious that Shakespear does not pall, and this is because he uses, I believe, so little Parnassian. He does use some, but little. Now judging from my own experience I should say no author palls so much as Wordsworth; this is because he writes such an ‘intolerable deal of’ Parnassian.

If with a critical eye and in a critical appreciative mood you read a poem by an unknown author or an anonymous poem by a known, but not at once recognizable, author, and he is a real poet, then you will pronounce him so at once, and the poem will seem truly inspired, though afterwards, when you know the author, you will be able to distinguish his inspirations from his Parnassian, and will perhaps think the very piece which struck you so much at first mere Parnassian. You know well how deadened, as it were, the critical faculties become at times, when all good poetry alike loses its clear ring and its charm; while in other moods they are so enlivened that things that have long lost their freshness strike you with their original definiteness and piquant beauty.

I think one had got into the way of thinking, or had not got out of the way of thinking, that Tennyson was always new, touching, beyond other poets, not pressed with human ailments, never using Parnassian. So at least I used to think. Now one sees he uses Parnassian; he is, one must see it, what we used to call Tennysonian. But the discovery of this must not make too much difference. When puzzled by one’s doubts it is well to turn to a passage like this. Surely your maturest judgment will never be fooled out of saying that this is divine, terribly beautiful—the stanza of In Memoriam beginning with the quatrain

          O Hesper o’er the buried sun,
             And ready thou to die with him,
             Thou watchest all things ever dim
          And dimmer, and a glory done.

                                                 [st. CXXI]

I quote from memory. Inconsequent conclusion: Sheakespear is and must be utterly the greatest of poets.

Just to end what I was saying about poetry. There is a higher sort of Parnassian which I call Castalian, or it may be thought the lowest kind of inspiration. Beautiful poems may be written wholly in it. Its peculiarity is that though you can hardly conceive yourself having written in it, if in the poet’s place, yet it is too characteristic of the poet, too so-and-so-all-over-ish, to be quite inspiration. E.g.

                                                     Yet despair
          Touches me not, though pensive as a bird
         Whose vernal coverts winter hath laid bare.

This is from Wordsworth, beautiful, but rather too essentially Wordsworthian, too persistently his way of looking at things. The third kind is merely the language of verse as distinct from that of prose, Delphic, the tongue of the Sacred Plain, I may call it, used in common by poet and poetaster. Poetry when spoken is spoken in it, but to speak it is not necessarily to speak poetry. I may add there is also Olympian. This is the language of strange masculine genius which suddenly, as it were, forces its way into the domain of poetry, without naturally having a right there. Milman’s poetry is of this kind I think, and Rossetti’s Blessèd Damozel. But unusual poetry has a tendency to seem so at first.

There is much in what you say about moderate men. With regard to Stanley I have always been sorry for the cry, almost the scream, against him from Catholics. He is a man who means well or he is nothing, emphatically he means well. It is however I think easy to see why the kind of moderation visible in him is unsuccessful and distasteful. As to Macaulay it is not because he is a moderate man and an enemy that Addis etc dislike him more than an extreme enemy like Carlyle, but from individual qualities of his; an irritating assumption e.g. that Catholicism or Christianity or whatever it may be is now at last agreed on by thinking men to be an old woman’s fable, which is far worse than to be bellowed at in the fiercest way. Now I hate one sort of extreme men as much to the full as you do. I assure you it fills me with humiliation, almost with despair, to see the excesses of such men as are represented by The Church Times, for unfortunately the letters in that paper shew that its conductors have their likes and peers. I say to you what I would not say to all heterodox, its pettiness, irreverence, vulgarity, injustice, ignorance, cant, may well make one suspect one’s party. And when I think this, more and more I reverence the balance, the heartiness, the sincerity, the greatness of Addis andmen like him wherever they are. I assure you Dr. Newman, the extremest of the extreme, so extreme that he went beyond the extremes of that standard and took a large faction of his side with him, is a moderate man. So is Dr. Pusey, nay, you think he is, I am sure, yourself.

Read if you can a paper on The ethics of friendship in the September Cornhill. It is good and worth reading. Do you read The Mutual Friend? The review will most likely be unkindly severe on it. Dickens’ literary history is melancholy to me, yet to take that view of him which is taken or will be by some people is not just or balanced. You must also read, if you have not done so, Matthew Arnold on The literary influence of Academies in the August Cornill. Much that he says is worth attention, but, as is so often the case, in censuring bad taste he falls into two flagrant pieces of bad taste himself. I am coming to think much of taste myself, good taste and moderation, I who have sinned against them so much. But there is a prestige about them which is indescribable.

What do you think? It occurred to me that the story of Floris in Italy is dramatic, and all of a sudden I began to turn it into a play. It is a great experiment. I shall alter the plot to suit requirements a little. I fancy there is a fascination about the dramatic form. Beside this I have done very little since I wrote last, except three verses, a fragment, being a description of Io (transformed into a heifer.) It sounds odd.

I have been reading the twelve first (which is it? The first twelve then) books of the Odyssey, and have begun to receive Homer in earnest. How great his dramatic power is! Do you know, I am going, not at once of course, to reach Petronius Arbiter. I am though.

You must be tired of Parnassian by this time. I must however add a few words left out. A great deal of Parnassian lowers a poet’s average, and more than anything else lowers his fame I fear. This is in the main what is meant by artificial poetry; it is all Parnassian. When one reads Pope’s Homer with a critical eye one sees, artificial as it is, in every couplet that he was a great man, but no doubt to an uncritical humour and an uncritical flippant modernist it does offer a great handle.

I am ashamed to say I cannot make out the meaning of The Voyage in the new volume of Tennyson, though I have tried hard. Can you? After all, by the bye, perhaps his Flower is the best defence of him that could be written. The Grandmother and Northern Farmer are to my mind the best things in the book. They shew a knowledge of human nature which is less common in him than I could wish. Boadicea improves as one knows it; it is a grand thing, but I have (perhaps your cautions in criticism are here useful) doubts about the metre. Do you notice that the first syllable is always accented, which is not the case in the Latin? I like The Sailor Boy much.

You know, I did not say you were ‘not such a pleasant critic to keep as Bond’. On the contrary Bond would be, was in fact, much more severe; but he has not your great reticence, and blames and praises boldly, so that one knows what he means.

The vasty length this has oozed to forbids my telling you about the swells at Gurney’s.

Why, you goose, did you say at the end of your first letter, that you thought there was nothing in it I could possibly misunderstand? Of course that was very possible to misunderstand, and also made it more easy to find something to misunderstand in the rest of the letter.

In a week or so I shall be at Hampstead I suppose, but now I am at Blunt House, Croydon—my grandfather’s.

And now at last goodbye. Believe me, my dear friend,

           yours affectionately,   Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Sept. 11. Blunt House, Croydon. S.

P.S. Here is a piece of antiquarianism for you. I believe New Inn Hall to be a blunder, a solecism. It should be Newing Hall. I argue this from the consideration of Stoke Newington, that is (the) wood (at the) new town,and the Newingate of some town I read of, I forget what. This is called indifferently the New Gate and Newingate. Newing is an old participle meaning new, from a verb to new (we have renew,unless that is from renovare), and = Medieval Latin novans, as in Troja Novans, Troy-novant, the legendary name for London. Besides New Inn Hall is improbably in itself. What do you think?




To Richard Watson Dixon

111 Mount Street, Grosvenor Square, W.                                   Oct. 5 1878.

Very Reverend and Dear Sir,—

A visit to Great Yarmouth and pressure of work have kept me from answering before yr. very kind letter, and my reply will now not be written at once but as I shall find leisure.

I hope, to begin with, you have quite recovered from the effects of your accident. I escaped from such a one with very little hurt not long ago in Wales, but I witnessed a terrible and fatal coach-accident years ago in the Vale of Maentwrog.

I have forgotten not only what I said about ‘Fr. Prout’ but even that I ever read him. I always understood that he was a very amusing writer. I do remember that I was a very conceited boy.

I have quite lost sight of Mr. Lobb; I do not even know whether he is alive or dead. The truth is I had no love for my schooldays and wished to banish the remembrance of them, even, I am ashamed to say, to the degree of neglecting some people who had been very kind of me. Of Oxford on the other hand I was very fond. I became a Catholic there. But I have not visited it, except once for three quarters of an hour, since I took my degree. We have a church and house there now.

Oct. 6—The other day Dr. Bridges told me he had in vain tried to get yr. volumes of poems, for want of knowing the publisher. I promised I wd. enquire of you. Was it not Smith and Elder?

I quite agree with what you write about Milton. His verse as one reads it seems something necessary and eternal (so to me does Purcell’s music). As for ‘proper hue’, now it wd. be priggish, but I suppose Milton means own hue and they talk of proper colours in heraldry; not but what there is a Puritan touch about the line even so. However the word must once have had a different feeling. The Welsh have borrowed it for pretty; they talk of birds singing ‘properly’ and a little Welsh boy to whom I shewed the flowers in a green house exclaimed ‘They are proper!’—Milton seems now coming to be studied better, and Masson is writing or has written his life at prodigious length. There was an interesting review by Matthew Arnold in one of the Quarterlies of ‘a French critic on Milton’—Scherer I think. The same M. Arnold says Milton and Campbell are our two greatest masters of style. Milton’s art is incomparable, not only in English literature but, I shd. think, almost in any; equal, if not more than equal, to the finest of Greek or Roman. And considering that this is shewn especially in his verse, his rhythm and metrical system, it is amazing that so great a writer as Newman should have fallen into the blunder of comparing the first chorus of the Agonistes with the opening of Thalaba as instancing the gain in smoothness and correctness of versification made since Milton’s time—Milton having been not only ahead of his own time as well as all aftertimes in verse-structure but these particular choruses being his own highwater mark. It is as if you were to compare the Panathenaic frieze and a teaboard and decide in the teaboard’s favour.

I have paid a good deal of attention to Milton’s versification and collected his latest rhythms: I did it when I had to lecture on rhetoric some years since. I found his most advanced effects in the Paradise Regained and, lyrically, in the Agonistes. I have often thought of writing on them, indeed on rhythm in general; I think the subject is little understood.

You ask, do I write verse myself. What I had written I burnt before I became a Jesuit and resolved to write no more, as not belonging to my profession, unless it were by the wish of my superiors; so for seven years I wrote nothing but two or three little presentation pieces which occasion called for. But when in the winter of ’75 the Deutschland was wrecked in the mouth of the Thames and five Franciscan nuns, exiles from Germany by the Falck Laws, aboard of her were drowned I was affected by the account and happening to say so to my rector he said that he wished someone would write a poem on the subject. On this hint I set to work and, though my hand was out at first, produced one. I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realised on paper. To speak shortly, it consists in scanning by accents or stresses alone, without any account of the number of syllables, so that a foot may be but one strong syllable or it may be many light and one strong. I do not say the idea is altogether new; there are hints of it in music, in nursery rhymes and popular jingles, in the poets themselves, and, since then, I have seen it talked about as a thing possible in critics. Here are instances—‘Díng, dóng, béll; Pússy’s ín the wéll; Whó pút her ín? Líttle Jóhnny Thín. Whó púlled her óut? Líttle Jóhnny Stóut.’ For if each line has three stresses or three feet it follows that some of the feet are of one syllable only. So too ‘Óne, twó,Búckle my shóe’ passim. In Campbell you have ‘Ánd their fléet alóng the déep próudly shóne’—‘Ít was tén of Ápril mórn bý the chíme’ etc; in Shakespere ‘Whý shd. this désert bé?’ corrected wrongly by the editors; in Moore a little melody I cannot quote; etc. But no one has professedly used it and made it the principle throughout, that I know of. Nevertheless to me it appears, I own, to be a better and more natural principle than the ordinary system, much more flexible, and capable of much greater effects. However I had to mark the stresses in blue chalk, and this and my rhymes carried on from one line into another and certain chimes suggested by the Welsh poetry I had been reading (what they call cynghanedd) and a great many more oddnesses could not but dismay an editor’s eye, so that when I offered it to our magazine the Month, though at first they accepted it, after a time they withdrew and dared not print it. After writing this I held myself free to compose, but cannot find it in my conscience to spend time upon it; so I have done little and shall do less. But I wrote a shorter piece on the Eurydice, also in ‘sprung rhythm’, as I call it, but simpler, shorter, and without marks, and offered the Month that too, but they did not like it either. Also I have written some sonnets and a few other little things; some in sprung rhythm, with various other experiments—as ‘outriding feet’, that is parts of which do not count in the scanning (such as you find in Shakspere’s later plays, but as a licence, whereas mine are rather calculated effects); others in the ordinary scanning counterpointed (this is counterpoint: ‘Hóme to his móther’s hóuse prívate retúrned’ and ‘Bút to vánquish by wísdom héllish wíles’ etc); others, one or two, in common uncounterpointed rhythm. But even the impulse to write is wanting, for I have no thought of publishing.

I should add that Milton is the great standard in the use of counterpoint. In Paradise Lost and Regained, in the last more freely, it being an advance in his art, he employs counterpoint more or less everywhere, markedly now and then; but the choruses of Samson Agonistes are in my judgment counterpointed throughout; that is, each line (or nearly so) has two different coexisting scansions. But when you reach that point the secondary or ‘mounted rhythm’, which is necessarily a sprung rhythm, overpowers the original or conventional one and then this becomes superfluous and may be got rid of; by taking that last step you reach simple sprung rhythm. Milton must have known this but had reasons for not taking it.

I read Arnold’s Essays in Criticism at Oxford and got Maurice de Guérin’s Journal in consequence, admired it, but for some reason or other never got far in it. I should be glad to read it now if I had time. But I have no time for more pressing interests, I hear confessions, preach, and so forth; when these are done I have still a good deal of time to myself, but I find I can do very little with it . .

Believe me, dear Sir, very sincerly yours    Gerard Hopkins.

Oct. 10.



To Robert Bridges

                                                                                        4 Nov. 1882.

. . . Although on the one hand the action is so good and its unity so well kept and on the other hand the style so beautiful I have doubts about the play’s acting. Experience only can decide; but I do not think it has in a high degree a nameless quality which is of the first importance both in oratory and drama: I sometimes call it bidding. I mean the art or virtue of saying everything right to or at the hearer, interesting him, holding him in the attitude of correspondent or addressed or at least concerned, making it everywhere an act of intercourse—and of discarding everything that does not bid, does not tell. I think one may gain much of this by practice. I do not know if I make myself plain. It is most difficult to combine this bidding, such a fugitive thing, with a monumental style. Your style is monumental. But it can be done: witness Greek plays—and Shakspere’s, but those are more monumental and less in bidding, his more bidding and less monumental. I fancy the French drama eminently succeeds in this combination, but the success is not what we should be content with, the rank of the result not being very high. This will be of more importance in your Nero. . . .

Believe me your affectionate friend

                                               Gerard M. Hopkins S.J.

  • Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Letters. Copyright © 1990 by Oxford University Press, Ltd.  Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Ltd.
  • Originally Published: February 15th, 2010
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of the three or four greatest poets of the Victorian era. He is regarded by different readers as the greatest Victorian poet of religion, of nature, or of melancholy. However, because his style was so radically different from that of his contemporaries, his best poems...

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