Selected Sonnets and Other Lyrics by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Notes on Selected Sonnets and Other Lyrics by Gerard Manley Hopkins. This set of Tower Notes is 55 pages long and is sold as a fully illustrated PDF file.

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The poems covered are: God’s Grandeur , The Starlight Night , ‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame’, Spring , The Windhover , Pied Beauty †, Hurrahing in Harvest , The May Magnificat ,* Binsey Poplars ,* Felix Randall , Spring and Fall ,* ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’, ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief’, (Carrion Comfort) , ‘Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray’, ‘My own heart let me have more pity on’, Harry Ploughman ,‡ Tom’s Garland ,** That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection ,†† ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend’. All are sonnets except those poems marked*; † indicates a ‘curtal’ sonnet; ‡ a sonnet extended with ‘burden lines’; ** a ‘tailed’ or caudate sonnet; †† a ‘tailed’ sonnet extended with an extra coda.

A free sample, text only, taken from the beginning and middle of the notes is provided below.

Introduction: The Poetry of Sound

Hopkins wrote in his Journals that the language of poetry should be enjoyed for its sound rather than its meaning. The first thing to remember here is that Hopkins’ statement reads that poetry ‘should be enjoyed for its sound’ (italics added), not that sound is necessarily more important than meaning. This is an important distinction. It is frequently through sound that Hopkins communicates meaning, and an overly-rigorous pursuit of exact meaning can mistake the essence of his poetry. Sound, therefore, is often the gateway to a deeper appreciation and understanding of Hopkins’ poetry.

There is, however, a case to be made for the view that his preference for sound over meaning can sometimes mar his poetry. The opening of Harry Ploughman provides a good example of both the best and worst of Hopkins in this respect: ‘Hard as hurdle arms, with a broth of goldfish flue/ Breathed round.’ The first phrase here is beautifully crafted in terms of sound: ‘Hard’ and ‘arms’ assonate; ‘Hard’ and ‘hurdle’ alliterate; ‘hurdle’ is a great choice of words, as it is drawn from the agricultural world of the ploughman, but also has an energy about it suggested by the practice of racing over hurdles, and, perhaps, by the word ‘hurtles.’ The next phrase is far less appealing, however. Hopkins wants to describe the just visible golden hairs on Harry’s arms as though they were a kind of misty reddish blur ‘Breathed round’ the man’s skin. He wants ‘broth’ to alliterate with ‘Breathed;’ he adds ‘-fish’ to ‘gold’ to create a connection with ‘flue.’ All this makes sense in terms of sounds, but, semantically, there is little cohesion or communication. A ‘broth’ is a kind of thin soup, and so how can this be related to something ‘Breathed round’ a figure’s arms? The intrusion of ‘goldfish’ – a noun forced into service as an adjective, and something totally foreign to the lexical field we might expect in a poem about a ploughman – also seems strained, if not slightly comical.

Despite such occasional lapses, however, sound provided a crucial guiding principle for Hopkins when he composed his poetry. In Spring , there is a good example of this in the line: ‘Where weeds in wheels shoot long and lovely and lush.’ The word ‘wheels’ seems chosen primarily for its auditory resemblance to ‘weeds’ (with which it both alliterates and assonates). We might even suspect that ‘Thrush’s’ from the next line is chosen for its near rhyme with ‘lush.’

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Gerard Manley Hopkins