Gerard Manley Hopkins – at one with nature

Gerard Manley Hopkins brought a tactile, physical intimacy to his observations of nature and it is perhaps his praise to creation that so delights the reader:

‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.’

His study of nature was to bring his full attention to it, breaking down all possible physical, mental or emotional barriers of understanding so that he seemed to merge with what he was studying. He said ‘what you look hard at seems to look hard at you.’ Here is openness and receptivity and generosity towards what he loved both for its own sake and for its reflection of Divinity.

At times the poet seems through his writings at one with nature. The Robert Bernard Martin biography looks at how Hopkins wrote about coming home from confession one night:

‘In returning the sky in the west was in a great wide winged or shelved rack of rice-white fine pelleted fretting’.

Here the words ‘in returning’ refers to Hopkins himself – not the sky but somehow the use of the words serve to achieve a kind of obliteration of distinction between self and sky.

And again writing about watching the river water he wrote:

‘by looking hard the banks began to sail upstream, the scaping unfolded, the river was all in tumult but not running, only the lateral motions were perceived, and the curls of froth where the waves overlap shaped and turned easily and idly.’

So here the external view of the river becomes the viewpoint of the water and then the mind of the observer Hopkins; this then Martin thinks is Hopkins’ recurrent theme of the unity of the human and nature as parts of Divine creation. For Hopkins, if you look hard enough at a river or a flower or an animal then that which is studied radiates back a meaning – one that is unique. This is about inscape – the inner meaning, the inner coherence of the individual. This is perceived only through close examination or through empathy; it’s not dependent upon being recognized,  instead the extraordinary thing is that it is inherent in everything in the world, whether we notice it or not.

I am reminded here of Thomas Merton speaking about the transparency of God shining through everything – through absolutely every part of creation. Hopkins used the word inscape to indicate the essence of something, arrived at by love and assiduity (meaning close or constant attention). To grasp or perceive inscape was to know what was essential and what was individual in whatever one contemplated. It was a form of identification. For Hopkins nature was not divorced from God, it was a symbol of God and ultimately a part of God,  ‘For Christ plays in ten thousand places.’

This then made the destruction of nature deeply painful (imagine how Hopkins would respond now as we decimate creation). Apparently he was especially sad and desolate whenever he saw a tree being felled. So from his poem Binsey Poplars (trees felled in 1879):

O if we but knew what we do

When we delve or hew –

Hack and rack the growing green!

            Since country is so tender.

And:  from Inversnaid:

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.


(NB Away myself for a holiday in the ‘wet and wildness’ of Scotland – so a short break from the postings)