Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Mystery of Forgiveness, by Thomas Berenato, University of Virginia
Winner of the 2014 Patrick Scott Prize for Best Graduate Paper
“I grant this is guesswork, but it suggest[s] enquiries…I am quite alive to the hazard of all this; but we must start a hypothesis, enquire, test, verify, nothing venture nothing win” (CW II 763-764; 27 March 1886). So Gerard Manley Hopkins ventures in a letter of March 1886 to his old college friend Alexander Baillie. The hazarding of hypotheses is something of a specialty of Hopkins’s. This particular statement of procedural principle appears in the course of an extended correspondence with Baillie in which Hopkins wildly speculates on the strength of early Egyptian influences on ancient Greek language and culture, considering with exhilarating pertinacity the possibility “that Egyptian civilisation may well have rocked the cradle of the Greek” (CW II 771; 6 April 1886). “Now I do not assert, I only enquire; and it seems to me this line of thought is scientific enough in an enquiry,” he writes again to Baillie the next month (CW II 770; 6 April 1886). A year later Hopkins updates Robert Bridges on his progress on a work that is to advance a theory of overtones in ancient Greek choral odes. “I have written a good deal of my book on the Dorian Measure or on Rhythm in general,” he writes. “Indeed it is on almost everything elementary and is much of it physics and metaphysics. It is full of new words, without which there can be no new science” (CW II 881; 1 May 1887). “Hypotheses” are Hopkins’s medium of invention in “science,” which for him is a mode of “enquiry” encompassing poetry, physics, and, “indeed…almost everything elementary.”
By “hypotheses” Hopkins means “new words.” “And, though I do not maintain it, yet I believe it might be easily maintained, that…” is how a typical hypothesis of Hopkins’s opens in his correspondence with Baillie (CW II 766; 29 March 1886). Hypotheses, for Hopkins, are verbal trial balloons floated to test their own strength in the face of reality. But these are balloons that can’t pop, however rarefied the atmosphere into which they are released. A musicologist to whom Hopkins had sent some of his original compositions for review replied in exasperation: “…my dear Padre I cannot follow you through your maze of words in your letter of last week. I saw, ere we had conversed ten minutes on our first meeting, that you are one of those special pleaders who never believe yourself wrong in any respect. You always excuse yourself for anything I object to in your writing of music so I think it a pity to disturb you in your happy dreams of perfectability [sic]—nearly everything in your music was wrong—but you will not admit that to be the case—What does it matter? It will all be the same 100 Years hence” (CW II 781; 22 May 1886).
The intrinsic value that language bears holds out to its most responsible users—namely, poets and their readers—both a promise and a threat. What it offers them is, in the words of Seamus Heaney, “a response to reality which has a liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit” (2). But at the same time, and by the same stroke, it threatens to colonize their imagination of that reality, to the point of no return by the “individual spirit” to the world. Hopkins never surrenders his scruples about the hazard inherent in the intrepid waywardness of words, his own above all. What permits him to persist in his lifelong love of linguistic hypothesizing is his acute sense of what he calls the “mystery” of language, the capacity of a word to sit on its secret (CW II 619; 24 October 1883). Words, Hopkins believes, conceal as much as they divulge of reality, precisely because they participate intimately in the dynamic of Revelation by which the world is continually hiding the Truth about itself in plain sight. Writing to Bridges about the verse of the American metrist Sidney Lanier, Hopkins remarks “that when American poets introduce native trees, flowers, birds etc into their verse the effect to us is of a ‘ciphering’ note on an organ” (CW II 672; 19 April 1884). A cipher is a note that, by dint of a mechanical glitch inside the pipe-organ, continues to sound beyond its intended value. A “cipher” is susceptible to what Hopkins calls, in a phrase from one of his unfinished lyrics, “time’s aftercast,” a plan a posteriori (PW 191; “On the Portrait of Two Beautiful Young People,” l. 7). Ciphers are bearers of hope as much as of hazard; in entrusting themselves to posterity they bid that posterity trust them in return. Poets, according to Hopkins, accept the privilege and challenge of handling words—and inventing “new words”—as “ciphers,” such that they become unmistakable marks of what Stephen Dedalus will come to call “genius”: as marks-errant that open portals of discovery (Joyce 156). The idea that a man of genius makes no mistakes is deeply Nietzschean. The Overman alone can effect a “reconciliation with time” by “willing backwards,” recreating all “it was” into “thus I willed it!” (Nietzsche 110). And the Overman alone can “will something higher than any reconciliation,” Zarathustra says (112).
The hypothesis of this study is that the genius of language that presides over the transformation of error into invention in poetry and prose goes by the name of forgiveness, which is “something higher” than reconciliation. But why forgiveness? Forgiveness how? By whom? Of whom? For what? Hopkins’s work offers a manifold answer to these questions. Taking up the last question first, it is safe to say to start that Hopkins accepts as a personal affront the injustice he feels the users of language to do continually to its “mystery.” To forgive is to do justice to a mystery, specifically the mystery of sin. But what does it actually mean to justify a mystery, and what exactly is a mystery? In a letter of October 1883, Hopkins reports that Bridges had written to him: “‘Even such a doctrine as the Incarnation may be believed by people like yourself’, as a mystery, till it is formulated, but as soon as it is it seems dragged down to the world of pros and cons, and ‘as its mystery goes, so does its hold on their minds’” (CW II 619; 24 October 1883). Hopkins replies: “You do not mean by mystery what a Catholic does. You mean an interesting uncertainty: the uncertainty ceasing interest ceases also. This happens in some things; to you in religion. But a Catholic by mystery means an incomprehensible certainty: without certainty, without formulation there is no interest (of course a doctrine is valuable for other things than its interest, its interestingness, but I am speaking now of that); the clearer the formulation the greater the interest. At bottom the source of interest is the same in both cases, in your mind and in ours; it is the unknown, the reserve of truth beyond what the mind reaches and still feels to be behind. But the interest a Catholic feels is, if I may say so, of a far finer kind than yours. Yours turns out to be a curiosity only; curiosity satisfied, the trick found out (to be a little profane), the answer heard, it vanishes at once. But you know there are some solutions to, say, chess problems, so beautifully ingenious, some resolutions of suspensions so lovely in music that even the feeling of interest is keenest when they are known and over, and for some time survives the discovery. How must it then be when the very answer is the most tantalizing statement of the problem and the truth you are to rest in the most pointed putting of the difficulty!” (619).
The meaning of a mystery for a Catholic, according to Hopkins, is its capacity to be dwelt upon without exhausting its meaning. Its meaningfulness lies in the fact that, and the extent to which, it calls for, and can bear up under, the stress of a sustained attention that Hopkins terms “explanation.” In a letter of 14 January 1883, with reference to some lines of Pindar to which his friend Baillie had taken objection, Hopkins writes that their justification “turns on their explanation. If the explanation suits them it defends them” (CW II 565). And speaking of the explanation of literature in general in a letter to Bridges of May 1888, Hopkins writes that: “We should explain things, plainly state them, clear them up, explain them; explanation—except personal—is always pure good; without explanation people go on misunderstanding; being once explained they thenceforward understand things; therefore always explain: but I have a passion for explanation and you have not” (CW II 937-938; 25-26 May 1888).
Except “personal” explanation, Hopkins believes, all explanation is a “pure good.” So what might a good “impersonal” explanation look like, say, of a doctrine or of a poem? One hypothesis: It would take its author’s personality for granted. As long as the labor of explanation is restricted to the mystery at hand, considered apart from its provenance in an intentional act, explanation is justified—even necessary if the intentionality of the act is in any danger of going unremarked. Paradoxically, a just explanation proceeds from the assumption that the object of explanation is already justified: that it is the way it is for a reason. To the extent that explanation devotes undivided attention to the deed to be explained, with a show of complete indifference to the deed’s agent, it drives up the “interest” of the agent. Attention to the agent, if only it is avoided in earnest, survives intact its apparent avoidance in the act of explanation. Put differently: Just explanation of a deed justifies the agent’s agency by treating the deed exclusively. Such an explanation would permit the deed to appear as the fullest possible expression of the agency that produced it. Another name that Hopkins gives to the quality of attention that reproduces the object of regard as an objective intention is love.
Instinct with understanding of this principle, Hopkins can write to his former schoolmaster Richard Watson Dixon, who has since become his pupil in the course of a correspondence on the subject of Dixon’s poems: “I am very glad my criticisms have been of service to you: they have involved a labour of love” (CW I 493; 2 November 1881). And when Bridges tells him he would not “for any money” read “The Wreck of the Deutschland” a second time, Hopkins can remind him: “Besides money, you know, there is love” (CW I 282; 21 August 1877). “Obscurity I do and will try to avoid so far as is consistent with excellences higher than clearness at a first reading,” Hopkins tells Bridges in May 1878 (CW I 298; 30-1 May 1878). Clarity of meaning is a function of love’s labors, and insofar as it is held in “reserve,” subject to love’s long, later elaborations, it can be “felt…to explode” (CW I 367; 9 October 1879). Meanwhile, and afterward, the lover-laborer’s mind is left “swinging; poised but on the quiver,” trembling but at “peace” in “the ecstasy of interest” (CW II 619; 24 October 1883). This “interest,” Hopkins explains to Bridges, finds its focus and its source at once in the hypostatic union, the “inseparable combination” of God and man, or rather, he rephrases himself, “the person in whom the combination has its place” (620).
Man’s calling, especially the artist’s, is to render “instréssed” the stress that he feels to be vibrant in Creation regarded as a “mýstery” (PW 120; “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” st. 5, l. 7). In verse, according to Hopkins, the “secret” of this mysterious duty is “realised” in recitation (CW II 748; 5-8 November 1885). Until a poem is spoken, it is not performed, or, as Hopkins puts it intransitively, “it does not perform, it is not itself” (748). The “self” of poetry is inseparable, then, from the “self” of its speaker. The function of the “self” is also its substance: stress. And “stress,” on Hopkins’s theory, is simply “the making a thing more, or making it markedly, what it already is; it is the bringing out its nature” (CW II 629; 7 November 1883). At once inherent in and applicable to Creation, both a sign and an instrument of emphasis, stress is simultaneously an imperative and an act of supererogation, which is to say something done above and beyond the call of duty. “Duty is love” is Hopkins’s exorbitant equation, and forgiveness is its condition (S 53). Hopkins stresses the abiding tension between duty and supererogation in a sermon of January 1880: “[I]t is the mark of a truly good will to do the good God approves of but does not bind us to, to do, in other words, works of supererogation,” he tells his congregation. “[I]t shews that good is loved of itself and freely. And it is the mark of a cold heart, of a poor will, I will not say a bad one, to do nothing that God especially approves, only what he commands or else sanctions: it shews that there is little love of good for good’s sake. And though no one can be lost but for sin, yet those who do the least good they lawfully can are very likely indeed to fall into doing less than that least and so to sin” (S 64). Stress arises wherever freedom and necessity coincide. This is the reason Hopkins can write to Bridges in a letter of August 1884: “It always seems to me that poetry is unprofessional” (CW II 681; 21-24 August 1884). Stress is man’s vocation, not his profession, and as Hopkins remarks to Dixon in November 1881: “I have never wavered in my vocation, but I have not lived up to it” (CW I 493; 2 November 1881). That is, he has never yet sufficiently “instressed” the “stress” he feels.
That Hopkins thrived on, and suffered from, the stress that his “profession” placed on his “vocation,” and vice versa, is evident in the following remark to Dixon of 7-9 August 1886, made less than three years before his death. Dixon had acknowledged the help of Hopkins in a footnote in the third volume of his History of the Church of England: “It will in any case be a pity for S.J. [Society of Jesus] to have been added to my name in the book,” Hopkins writes—“for the letters act like italics, asterisks, or rubric” (CW II 799). This is an additional expression, in another register, of his unresolved worry over “what marks to use and when to use them.” “This is my difficulty,” he tells Bridges in April 1885: “they are so much needed and yet so objectionable” (CW II 722; 1-2 April 1885). In a redeemed world, in which, according to Walter Benjamin, language will have at last “burst the fetters of script,” emphasis of this kind would be superfluous, that is, neither good nor bad to do, since general rubrication will be the order of the day (SW IV 406). But “in a language like English, and in an age of it like the present” stress is something supererogatory, a good whose absence would not be bad, and therefore it calls for instress (CW II 904; 6 November 1887).
To instress the natural stresses of speech is the function of sprung rhythm. To live up to the full potential of this function a poem in sprung rhythm must receive what Hopkins calls a “poetical” recitation. Referring to “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” in a letter to Bridges from Dublin on 11 December 1886, Hopkins writes: “Of this long sonnet above all remember what applies to all my verse, that it is, as living art should be, made for performance and that its performance is not reading with the eye but loud, leisurely, poetical (not rhetorical) recitation, with long rests, long dwells on the rhyme and other marked syllables, and so on. This sonnet shd. be almost sung: it is most carefully timed in tempo rubato” (CW II 842). A “poetical,” as opposed to a “rhetorical,” recitation is one that “dwells”—in a way that forensic speech would never dare, for fear of losing the thread of its argument—on features that strike the eye as much as the ear: rhyme, for instance, and, especially, diacritical marks such as those stress-marks, eccentric to the ear and eye attuned to convention, that Hopkins was in the habit of scattering throughout his manuscripts in blue chalk. Read with “rhetorical” stress, the second half of the last line of “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” for example, would sound like: “thoúghts against thoúghts in groáns grínd.” But consistently across his manuscripts Hopkins instructs the reader to say: “thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd” (LPM 300-301; plates 476-477). Why does he endeavor to induce a shift of emphasis from the elements of the complex (“thoughts,” “groans”) to the mode of their relationship, which the prepositions “against” and “in” indicate? Hopkins enforces an analogous wrong-footing of conventional cadence in the second half of the sixth line of the same sonnet: “self ín self steepèd and páshed—qúite,” the final reading, contains the stress-mark on “in” that carries over to every extant draft of this line after the first (LPM 298-301; plates 474-477).
The hypothesis that arises here to meet this mystery is that Hopkins’s stress-marks are the chief means by which the poet attempts to involve his readers intimately in the idea of forgiveness as he conceives it. “For it seems to me that the poetical language of an age shd. be the current language heightened, to any degree heightened and unlike itself,” Hopkins writes to Bridges in August 1879 (CW I 365; 14 August 1879). Forgiveness, likewise, is, for Hopkins, nothing but the language of everyday kindness, but “heightened” to such a degree that it has become “unlike itself,” alienated from its function, if not its substance, as the currency in which the business of ordinary language is transacted. Forgiveness is kindness taken out of circulation, having become, love, or at least loving-kindness. The offer of forgiveness, if it is made in earnest, is always a gift, the issue of grace, and like any gift that is granted freely, it cannot be repaid, only accepted or rejected. It is the same with Hopkins’s stress-marks. The reader who can no longer love is free, like Zarathustra, to “pass [them] by,” but it is impossible to ignore them (Nietzsche 142). They carry sufficient weight to force the moment of reading to its crisis: the moment of recitation. The importance of this moment for Hopkins is that it always happens in the now. Recitation is what makes a poem really present.
Hopkins’s description of the Catholic Feast of Corpus Christi sheds light on his understanding of poetical “presence.” On June 8, 1882, Robert Bridges watched the Corpus Christi procession at the Roehampton seminary southwest of London, where Hopkins was in residence. Two days later Hopkins writes to him: “I wish our procession, since you were to see it, had been better: I find it is agreed it was heavy and dead. Now a Corpus Christi procession shd. be stately indeed, but it shd. be brisk and joyous. But I grieve more, I am vexed, that you had not a book to follow the words sung.” The hymns, Hopkins adds, are “remarkable words of genius and would have given meaning to the whole, even to the music, much more to the rite.”
Beginning a new paragraph, the last of the letter, Hopkins then looks his friend right in the eye: “It is long since such things had any significance for you. But what is strange and unpleasant is that you sometimes speak as if they had in reality none for me and you were only waiting with a certain disgust till I too should be disgusted with myself enough to throw off the mask…Yet I can hardly think you do not think I am in earnest. And let me say, to take no higher ground, that without earnestness there is nothing sound or beautiful in character and that a cynical vein much indulged coarsens everything in us. Not that you do overindulge this vein in other matters: why then does it bulk out in that diseased and varicose way in this? Believe me your affectionate friend Gerard Hopkins S.J.” (CW II 530; 10 June 1882). A week later Hopkins writes again on the subject of the solemnity, as if to act on his hypothesis that Bridges does in fact take his faith in earnest: “Corpus Xti differs from all other feasts in this, that its reason and occasion is present. The first Christmas Day, the first Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday…Easter, Whitsunday, and so on were to those who took part in them festivities de praesenti, but now, to us, they are anniversaries and commemorations only. But Corpus Christi is the feast of the Real Presence; therefore it is the most purely joyous of solemnities. Naturally the Blessed Sacrament is carried in procession at it, as you saw. But the procession has more meaning and mystery than this: it represents the process of the Incarnation and the world’s redemption. As Christ went forth from the bosom of the Father as the Lamb of God and Eucharistic victim to die upon the altar of the cross for the world’s ransom; then rising returned leading the procession of the flock redeemed / so in this ceremony his body in statu victimali is carried to the Altar of Repose as it is called and back to the tabernacle at the high altar, which will represent the bosom of the godhead. The procession out may represent the cooperation of the angels, or of the patriarchs and prophets, the return the Church Catholic from Christ’s death to the end of time. If these things are mismanaged, as they mostly are, it is not for want of significance in the ceremony” (CW II 531-532; 16 June 1882).
Although the procession Bridges saw was “heavy and dead” when it should have been “brisk and joyous,” such “mismanagement” cannot ultimately diminish the “significance” of the ceremony, which lies not in the character of its performance but in its “mystery,” whose “meaning” lives rather in its capacity for “explanation,” such as the one Hopkins supplies at length. For Hopkins’s explanation is itself a performance, a re-presentation, of the mystery that the rite represents. It is a rehearsal that sets out to restore the “joy” proper to the occasion. Hopkins is at pains to redeem the mystery of “Real Presence” in Bridges’ eyes, and he does so not by attempting a total eclipse of the wooden recital they both witnessed but instead by acknowledging its limitations and then proceeding to propose an extra, or “outriding,” account.
The task of resolving a mystery without utterly dissolving it takes resolve, but then, in the words of John Henry Newman, “great objects exact a venture” (Sermons 154). The very possibility of the venture of re-presentation rests, for Hopkins, on a distinction that he draws in a set of sermon-notes of 11 January 1882: “Man, like the angels, was created in sanctifying grace; then invited to enter into a free contract, covenant, commonwealth / with God, which was original justice.” Creation begins in “sanctifying grace.” Here and now it is the rite of infant baptism that confers this gift. Counterintuitively, it is only later in life, on reaching the “age of reason,” that humans enter into the condition of “original” justice. The original condition is, paradoxically, the goal. It will remain so until Paradise, humanity’s lost original condition, is found again. Meanwhile, however, membership in the Catholic communion guarantees an assenter what Hopkins calls “political justice,” which one can only forfeit by leaving the Church. Sin can endanger what Hopkins calls “personal justice,” but “political justice” obtains as long as belief endures (S 68).
Hopkins’s understanding of the “procession” of grace from personal to political justice corresponds to what he terms the “true punctuation” of one of his cardinal texts, Philippians 2:5-11 (S 170). The Douay-Rheims translation gives this as follows: “ For let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus,  who being in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal with God  but debased himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men and in fashion found as a man.  He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.  Wherefore God also hath exalted him and hath given him a name which is above every name,  that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow of those that are in heaven, on earth and under the earth  and that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God, the Father” (Vulgate 1043-1045).
Hopkins construes this passage for Bridges in a letter of 3 February 1883: “Christ’s life and character are such as appeal to all the world’s admiration, but there is one insight St. Paul gives us of it which is very secret and seems to me more touching and constraining than everything else is: This mind he says, was in Christ Jesus—he means as a man: being in the form of God—that is, finding, as in the first instant of his incarnation he did, his human nature informed by the godhead—he thought it nevertheless no snatching-matter for him to be equal with God, but annihilated himself, taking the form of servant; that is, he could not but see what he was, God, but he would see it as if he did not see it, and be it as if he were not and instead of snatching at once at what all the time was his, or was himself, he emptied or exhausted himself so far as that was possible, of godhead and behaved only as God’s slave, as his creature, as man, which also he was, and then being in the guise of man humbled himself to death, the death of the cross. It is this holding of himself back, and not snatching at the truest and highest good, the good that was his right, nay his possession from a past eternity in his other nature, his own being and self, which seems to me the root of all his holiness and the imitation of this the root of all moral good in other men” (CW II 569).
The ability to see, indeed to claim, divinity as “no snatching-matter” is the mark of true divinity. For Hopkins it corresponds to the more mundane ability of the “gentleman” to distinguish between his personality and his character, a feat that takes what Hopkins describes, in the same letter to Bridges, as “chastity of mind”: “the seeing at once what is best, the holding to that, and the not allowing anything else whatever to be even heard pleading to the contrary” (569). True gentlemen, according to Hopkins, are Christlike insofar as it is “a point of their gentlemanliness, for a gentleman is modest, to feel that they are not perfect gentlemen” (569-570). Poets and “men of art” are, Hopkins is “sorry to say, by no means necessarily or commonly gentlemen” (570). But the readers of poetry may avail themselves of the opportunity that works of art afford them, and afford them anew on the occasion of each reading, to imitate Christ’s gentlemanly example. It is in this sense that posterity, which includes the contemporary reading public, assumes, on the occasion of each fresh reading, the solemn yet joyful charge of forgiving poets for any trespasses against “chastity of mind” they may have made.
On Hopkins’s view, every work of art possesses an “absolute excellence” (CW II 813; 13 October 1886). Every poem written in earnest is created in “sanctifying grace,” and, on rising from the page into the mouths of readers, it enters the sphere of “political justice,” the space of public communion inspired by the stress of breath. This space stays “chaste” as long as the recitation lasts, regardless of any breach of “personal justice” that the poet or the reader might have committed in the past or will in future.
“Poetry—excites us to artificial feelings—makes us callous to real ones,” writes Samuel Taylor Coleridge (90). “Every beautiful poem presents an analogy to the forgiveness of sins,” writes W. H. Auden (504). A synthesis of this pair of hypotheses attempted in the light of a reading of Hopkins might run as follows: The condition of sin that constitutes the common ground on which readers of poetry meet writers of poetry may be identified with what Hopkins calls “common rhythm” (by which he means iambic pentameter), and stress-marks are Hopkins’s way of marking the state of suspension into which recitation puts sin (PW 115; “Author’s Preface on Rhythm”). Stress-marks induce readers to refrain from falling in step with common rhythm. They impose a distinction between the “personality” that common speech-rhythm habitually assumes and the “character” it could be persuaded to play. The terms of the opposition are Geoffrey Hill’s: “If, as it must be, character is something other than personality,” he writes, “each true act of expression is the making of a character, kenotically conceived: an affirmation of selfhood which, even in the instant of expression, is self-forgetting” (Christ 197).
When Hopkins claims of “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” that “it is most carefully timed in tempo rubato,” the idea of “robbed time” that he applies to recitation raises echoes of the “robbery” of Philippians 2:6, where Paul says of Jesus that He “thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” Hopkins’s preferred translation of the Vulgate’s rapinam is “snatching-matter.” This is closer to Ronald Knox’s sense of “a prize to be coveted” than to “robbery” or to “usurpation,” as it is sometimes rendered (Holy Bible 204). Christ, on Hopkins’s account, never entertained the thought of staging a coup on the godhead. Hopkins’s Christ is rather more like Robin Hood, giving to the poor exactly what he takes from the rich, snatching at no cut for himself as middleman. Likewise, reciters who take on the task of expression assume the duty of disbursing evenly every moment they happen to steal from a given syllable with the intention of charging it with emotional emphasis. Hopkins’s stress-marks serve his readers as gentle reminders to do so, forgiving them in advance for the rhythmical injustices that inevitably arise in the pursuit of feeling.
“Only let this be observed in the reading,” Hopkins explains in the “Author’s Note on the Rhythm in ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’”: “where more than one syllable goes to a beat, then if the beating syllable is of its nature strong, the stress laid on it must be stronger the greater the number of syllables belonging to it, the voice treading and dwelling: but if on the contrary it is by nature light, then the greater the number of syllables belonging to it the less is the stress to be laid on it, the voice passing flyingly over all the syllables of the foot and in some manner distributing among them all the stress of the one beat” (PW 118). Hopkins goes on to acknowledge that “[w]hich syllables…are strong and which light is better told by the ear than by any instruction that could be in a short space given” (118). In fact, he attempts to cram the necessary “instruction” into the “short space” between his lines, in the symbolic form of the elaborate system of diacritical marks he designed to ensure that his readers would correctly distribute the stresses. Even so, one of his first “outside readers,” Sydney Smith, only emerged from a reading of the “Wreck” with “a very bad headache” and the conclusion that it was “unreadable” (J 382). Hopkins’s double demand that “stress be made to fetch out both the strength of the syllables and the meaning and feeling of the words” taxed his contemporary readers’ talents for multitasking at a rate that has held steady since.
“Óver agáin I féel thy fínger and fínd thée,” the speaker of “The Wreck of the Deutschland” prays (PW 119; st. 1, l. 8). Hopkins’s marks are his way of poking a hole in the reader’s pretensions about prosody. But his emphatic “finger” never plays the wag. It always indexes its intentions in earnest, the attitude Hopkins often insists upon. Its essential gesture is one of forgiveness, not judgment. It points but does not play for points. It refers to the same “strain of time” as that in which Hopkins locates the “busy working” of the Northern Lights, whose sight he records in a journal entry of 24 September 1870: “My eye was caught by beams of light and dark very like the crown of horny rays the sun makes behind a cloud. At first I thought of silvery cloud until I saw that these were more luminous and did not dim the clearness of the stars in the Bear. They rose slightly radiating thrown out from the earthline. Then I saw soft pulses of light one after another rise and pass upwards arched in shape but waveringly and with the arch broken. They seemed to float, not following the warp of the sphere as falling stars look to do but free though concentrical with it. This busy working of nature wholly independent of the earth and seeming to go on in a strain of time not reckoned by our reckoning of days and years but simpler and as if correcting the preoccupation of the world by being preoccupied with and appealing to and dated to the day of judgment was like a new witness to God and filled me with delightful fear” (J 200). Like the marks Hopkins made in blue chalk on the manuscript of “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” these heavenly lights show themselves to be more faithfully preoccupied with the plane they stress below the more indifferent they appear to its need for correction. The function of the marks that float between the lines of “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” is at once to hasten and hold off the Day of Judgment that the sonnet announces. They invite the voice to “dwell” on some syllables, all the more to “pass flyingly” over others to the end of the line, and on to the end of the poem. A pushmi-pullyu of prosody, they serve to show time under stress as they work busily to “strain” time almost to its breaking-point—to the point where forgiveness might break in.
Hopkins is fully aware of how a reader can and likely will field a given prosodic proposition. To Bridges he writes of a pair of lines in one of the latter’s experiments in terza rima: “I have a few suggestions to make about the rhythm of London Snow, which would make it perfect…I suppose you scan ‘The éye márvelled—márvelled at the dázzling whíteness; [/] the éar héarkened to the stíllness of the sólemn áir’: this is well enough when seen, but the following is easier to catch and somewhat better in itself—‘Eye márvelled—márvelled át the dázzling whiteness; [/] ear heárkened to the stillness ín the sólemn áir’” (CW II 427; 5 Feburary 1881). Hopkins’s “suggestions” constitute a “supererogatory reading” of Bridges’s poem: a just critique by—or, to phrase the thought as an objective genitive: a true critique of—forgiveness. According to Geoffrey Hill, “the technical perfecting of a poem is an act of atonement, in the radical etymological sense—an act of at-one-ment, a setting at one, a bringing into concord, a reconciling, a uniting in harmony” (CCW 4). For Hopkins, however, a “perfect” poem preserves the jolt of creative perversion that, if the poem was worth perfecting to begin with, went into its making. In this sense, composition is precisely not an “atonement”—in neither the Biblical sense of “sacrifice” nor Hill’s “radical” sense of “harmonization.” Rather it is, in Benjamin’s phrase, a “process of forgiveness, though never of reconciliation” (SW I 287). Although forgiveness is a condition of any reconciliation worthy of the name, for Hopkins forgiveness never entails reconciliation. It exists apart, in its native unsettled state. For Hopkins this is the state of manuscript, where the writer’s hand intervenes directly and indelibly in the reception of the text.
For Hopkins reception means oral performance above all. By soliciting stress-marks in the most perverse of places along the line of verse, sprung rhythm invokes recitation as an engine of forgiveness. In a journal-entry of February 1953, Hannah Arendt defines forgiveness as an intervention in an action already underway—in a “direction not inherent to it” (Denktagebuch 312). Five years later, in a brief chapter in her long book on The Human Condition, Arendt elaborates her hypothesis, bringing to bear on the mystery of forgiveness its practical counterpart, the promise: “The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility—of being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing—is the faculty of forgiving. The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises. The two faculties belong together in so far as one of them, forgiving, serves to undo the deeds of the past, whose ‘sins’ hang like Damocles’ sword over every new generation; and the other, binding oneself through promises, serves to set up in the ocean of uncertainty, which the future is by definition, islands of security without which not even continuity, let alone durability of any kind, would be possible in the relationships between men. Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell. Without being bound to the fulfilment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities—a darkness which only the light shed over the public realm through the presence of others, who confirm the identity between the one who promises and the one who fulfils, can dispel. Both faculties, therefore, depend on plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no one can forgive himself and no one can feel bound by a promise made only to himself; forgiving and promising enacted in solitude or isolation remain without reality and can signify no more than a role played before one’s self” (237).
This sober passage may serve as a gloss on “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” “the longest sonnet ever made and no doubt the longest making,” as Hopkins heralds its completion to Bridges in November 1886 (CW II 840; 26 November 1886). It is “the longest by its own proper length, namely by the length of its [eight-foot] lines,” Hopkins explains to Bridges two weeks later, enclosing a draft. Its “long lines are not rhythm run to seed: everything is weighed and timed in them,” as Hopkins had said of an earlier effort in sprung rhythm (CW II 544; 18 October 1882). Note his sly conjunction: “weighed and timed.” He makes the same equation in the “Author’s Preface” he wrote for his poems in late 1883 or early 1884: “In Sprung Rhythm…the feet are assumed to be equally long or strong and their seeming inequality is made up by pause or stressing” (PW 116). And again to Bridges he writes in May 1879: “The poem you send is fine in thought, but I am not satisfied with the execution altogether…I do not think the rhythm perfect…Since the syllables in sprung rhythm are not counted, time or equality in strength is of more importance than in common counted rhythm, and your times or strengths do not seem to me equal enough” (CW I 358; 26 May 1879).
Hopkins’s working hypothesis is that stress can assume the function of time, which, in poetry, is to serve as the medium of verbal density, in which a varying number of syllables may appear in a given space of time. Hopkins replaces, as a reference substance, the fixed unit of time with a measure of stress, which has the advantage over time, from the poet’s point of view, of admitting infinite degrees of significant nuance. This is an advantage only insofar as the poet is keen to allow the reader to partake of the interpretive nuance that stress expresses in the act of recitation. Stress gives time weight; to be sure, it cannot help but unfold in the “current” of time—that is the fate of all mortal utterance—but by counting stresses rather than syllables, Hopkins effectively “heightens” the medium of poetic expression into a more plastic, elastic, call it “forgiving,” version of itself.
“I weigh up my sins, considering the intrinsic foulness and malice of each capital sin committed, quite apart from its being forbidden,” runs one of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (296). The point of this exercise is to assign sin an absolute value, to give it definition in preparation for its purgation. Done right, the meditation takes its time (ponderare), but its end is to conceive of its object of contemplation as timeless. Stressing stress—instressing, for short—is Hopkins’s way of breaking the spell that time casts over all human activity. This spell is precisely what is there to be “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” in Hopkins’s heavy, stress-laden sonnet. Reciters who read it “not slovenly” with their eyes, but with their ears, “as if the paper were declaiming it to” them, will find their voices simultaneously bound by and loosed from the grip of Hopkins’s prophetic speech (CW I 296; 21 May 1878). The “poetical” reading that, like the sonnet itself, in Hopkins’s own description, “essays effects almost musical,” will at once sound the depths of and release itself from “tíme’s vást, | womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night” (CW II 840, 26 November 1886; PW 190, l. 2). It will be capable of “Disremembering” common rhythm in the moment of “dísmémbering” it (PW 191, l. 7).
In explaining to Bridges how to read the sonnet aloud, Hopkins opposes what he calls a “rhetorical” recitation to a “poetical” one. He does not define “rhetorical” directly, but some idea of its character may be read off his description of the alternative. If a “poetical” reading is one that “leisurely” “dwells” and “rests,” a “rhetorical” reading must on the contrary convey a sense of hurry, a feeling that time is short or pressing and is running out. Hopkins’s tempo-marking rubato and his eccentric stress-marks work together to correct the “rhetorical” tendency inherent in the poem to “disremember” its author’s original intention for its recitation (l. 7). To adapt a formula of F. H. Bradley’s from another context: Hopkins’s marks attempt to “get within the judgment [of the reciter] the condition of the judgment,” and it has “involve[d] the essential transformation of [the reciter’s] judgment” (Bradley 265, cited by Geoffrey Hill in CCW 561). The judgment whose day has come in this poem is the question of where and when to lay stress. The condition of the judgment is that stress lies already latent in language, on “reserve” and just waiting to be remarked. The “essential transformation” that Hopkins’s stress-marks effect is the reader’s realization that the placement of stresses in the course of a recitation is an act of supererogation: The reciter needn’t worry about the stresses because the poet’s marks have fetched them out in advance. In this way the poet forgives his readers for their stuttering trespasses upon the poem, or else for their silence in the face of it.
No doubt there is, with reference to the criterion that Hopkins’s marked intention constitutes, a “right” and a “wrong” way to recite this sonnet. But the poet has conjured into awareness here “a world where bút these | twó” ways “tell, éach off the other” (PW 191, l. 13). The stresses that Hopkins marks in the figure “bláck, white; | ríght, wrong” “get within the judgment” of right and wrong the condition of their judgment (l. 12). The condition of the judgment of right and wrong is something that might be called moral vision, and the world’s “dapple” that feeds and fosters moral vision is what the encroaching evening threatens to overwhelm with blackness as the sonnet opens (l. 5). With the chiasmus in line 12, Hopkins re-presents “black” alongside its counterpart “white” in a configuration that, in his own striking phrase, appears “texturally at stress” (S 136). By marking the stresses on “bláck” and “ríght,” Hopkins yokes them together, activating an unexpected audiovisual association that grinds against the benign internal rhyme of “white” with “ríght.” An earlier draft of this sequence runs “bláck, white; | wróng, right”; there Hopkins marks the stresses on “bláck” and “wróng” (LPM 300; plate 476). This is perfectly logical as far as it goes, but, lacking the chiasmus “white, ríght,” it stops just short of venturing a hypothesis that might meaningfully relate black and white to right and wrong in a night in which all sheep are rapidly turning black. Like this earlier version, the final reading parts judgment into two folds: vision to the left of the caesura, morality to the right. But the stress-marks now “fetch out” the “wrong” word-pairs, effectively interleaving what the chiasmus strives to sunder (PW 118; “Author’s Note on the Rhythm in ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’”). Thanks to the marks that Hopkins imposes on it, the sequence becomes, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, “citable in all its moments” (SW IV 390). Where wished-for stress-marks go missing in a given line or, as often, when they appear in full force only to contradict themselves across the surviving manuscripts, this condition only re-presents the essential transformation of the reading-experience into a scene of moral judgment that the presence of any marks at all has brought about from the beginning. But since the judgment falls, at last, to the reader, not to the writer, each mark stands unjustified as a stroke of mercy: a coup de grâce on behalf of the reader and writer alike.
In a commentary on Cicero’s treatise On Duties that he prepared for a class he was teaching in Dublin in the 1880s, Hopkins distinguishes two elements in duty and its counterpart sin: “one the command to do or forbear; the other the goodness, rightness / or evil, badness, wrongness / of the thing bidden or forbidden. We recognise the rightness [of] right, the goodness of good and on the other hand the wrongness of wrong, badness of bad of themselves by an ordinary exercise of thought, just as we re[c]ognise that a line is straight or crooked, a boat trimmed or lopsided, a sheet of linen clean or spotted, either immediately or by applying some standard, rule, or principle; but besides this duty requires further the notion of bindingness and law, sin of unlawfulness, prohibition, and this we recognise in the stress put upon us by that voice of command that Cicero strongly recognises and in other places…beautifully expresses the derivation of duty from one eternal unchange[a]ble divine law binding all; but in this treatise, either through haste or as tak[en] for granted, he leaves that fundamental point untouched” (CW VII 259).
If a moral agent is to be sure that a projected action is the right one, the action’s two parts, the “deed” itself and the “impulse” to commit it, demand analysis and, once their relationship is recognized, a subsequent re-synthesis (CW IV 258). The “wish” to do a deed must be seen to presuppose what is not the same thing: the “will” to do or not do the deed (280). Right and wrong can be read off the world like the names of colors, but only if the reader feels the stress of the condition on which the judgment occurs. Man must act on the intimation that morality “has already begun with him before relations with others arise—scarcely in time but in thought. Conscience of the Imperative working outwards finds its first matter in the man himself…” (259).
In the fifth chapter of the Grammar of Assent, upon which Hopkins asked its author permission to write a commentary (an offer that was gently but definitively rejected), John Henry Newman conceives of what Hopkins calls the “bindingness” of duty as “conscience,” which he hears as a “voice” or as “the echo of a voice, imperative and constraining, like no other dictate in the whole of our experience” (74-75). In a letter to Canon Dixon of October 1878 Hopkins writes: “I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realised on paper”—with the help of blue-chalk stress-marks, as he goes on to explain (CW I 317; 5-10 October 1878). Without the “bindingness” that the marks enforce on the recitation, the morality of a poem can make itself felt, as can its beauty, but not its “moral beauty” (CW VII 259). To bring out the “morally beautiful” under the influence of the markings is to give a “poetical,” which is to say, conscientious, reading (259). In its absence and their disregard, mere rhetoric results. Lacking the “mystery” that a “poetical” reading alone returns to language, “words only are only words,” as Hopkins puts it flatly to Dixon in a letter of July 1888 (CW II 945; 29 July 1888).
In a set of notes he made on retreat with the Spiritual Exercises in November 1881 Hopkins ponders the ambiguity marshalled under the concept of “sanction”: “I see that the word sanction in the sense of permission and that of enforcement is really the same, being the genus of those two species,” he concludes (S 167). “Sanction” means “permission” at the same time as it serves to indicate the “stresses of the lawgiver’s will given as motives to action” (167). Hopkins’s stress-marks stand as sanctions in this double sense. They mark the poet’s intention even as they acknowledge the dependence of that intention on the reader’s performance, whose freedom of range they license.
In a sermon for Friday evening, July 23, 1880, at St. Francis Xavier’s, Liverpool, Hopkins preached on Luke 7:36-50, the story of Simon the Pharisee and the woman who washes Christ’s feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. His exposition of the episode culminates in a reflection on the overdetermined origin of the “forgiveness” that Jesus sanctions this woman, whom the Douay-Rheims translation designates as a “sinner” (Vulgate 343): “She not only loved because she was forgiven, she was also forgiven because she loved: both things are true. When she came she came as a sinner, she had heard no forgiveness spoken, she came to get it, and to get it she shewed all that love: in this way then she was forgiven because she loved. On the other hand she knew of Christ’s love, she knew he offered mercy to the sinner, to the great sinner great mercy, this love of his was first, mercy, forgiveness, offered forgiveness, on Christ’s part came first and because he forgave her, that is offered to forgive her she loved: So then she loved because she was forgiven” (S 83). “Both things are true,” Hopkins insists here. In April of 1886 he would entreat Baillie, his friend the Egyptologist, to “consider that in religion more than in language a thing may have no one origin, it may be at the meeting point of many influences” (CW II 769; 6 April 1886). This “meeting point” is the origin of the “incomprehensible certainty” of the mystery of forgiveness.
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