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‘No Worst There Is None’: Gerard Manley Hopkins.


THE PATH TO Rome sounds like a splendid journey. You might start from some dilapidated suburb, drenched by Albion’s parochial showers, but you end up entering the vivid sunshine of St Peter’s Square. So much radiant symmetry. Then you can step inside and look up at Michaelangelo’s vision of the beginning and end of things. Or look back down again and stare at his Pietà, in which the mother of Jesus would appear to be considerably younger than the redeemer himself. It’s like one of those American cartoons where everything ends up exactly as it started, or slightly better, despite the myriad manglings that have gone on in between. This is the future perfect. This really is something to look forward to.

Critical comment.It wasn’t always like that at all. What Gerard Manley Hopkins and others had to endure was more often a journey from a suburban and dull (but well-funded) church life to a sacramental booth for the proletariat, often immigrant, frequently sordid and unsavoury. Ugly churches filled with kitsch and tat, rudimentary accommodation in the presbytery, ancient leather furniture which had long before rotted and now sported leprous skin. A canon whose closest companion was whisky. The company could be seriously uncongenial. And the weekly rituals of confession did not bring the prodigal son back home, but merely enacted a rehearsal of the tawdry spiritual misdemeanours of the poor. And how those sins recurred – again and again and again.

Like Jesus, he never played the superior to those who came to him, genuinely beseeching restoration and forgiveness.

After the leafy turreted city of Oxford, where his conversion took place, under the distant shadow of John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins endured his priestly serv­ice in Sheffield, Man­chester, Liver­pool and Glas­gow. As his cor­re­spond­ence makes clear, these could be grim enough places in the later nineteenth century. The poor teemed, procreated and suffered; they lean towards a notable consistency in this regard. And they went to see Father when their souls needed absolution; to wash away those gruesome offences that stained the inner life. A poem like ‘Felix Randal’ shows that Hopkins did not condescend to his parishioners. Like Jesus himself, he never played the superior to those who came to him, genuinely beseeching restoration and forgiveness.

Hopkins was a linguistic archaeologist, digging away at the present surface of the language to find the roots and remnants of energy beneath.

He had converted to the Roman faith because he believed it brought him closer to the true source of his belief. It was a terrible wrench, effecting a breach with his family that never healed. But the wish to scrape away the patina of Anglican belief and find the original dogma underlying it was too strong. This passion never left him, despite the undoubted misery of his later years. And the wish to return to fundamentals was a prime impulse in his poetry too. For Hopkins was a linguistic archaeologist, digging away at the present surface of the language to find the roots and remnants of energy beneath. The real energy instinct in Victorian English, he believed, was Anglo-Saxon, and his verse sought, as far as possible, to reclaim that pre-Conquest vitality. To return to it on the page before him.

Hopkins understood well enough how splendid is the language of Shakespeare, or Chaucer before him. But he came to believe that the Old English heritage had been too great a loss, when the Normans arrived, bringing their linguistic gifts along with them. We see the merger at its most lucid in Chaucer. Here we note how the Romance morphologies have been grafted on to the native tongue, providing lexical ambivalence and flexibility. But there was a price (as there always is). Latinate diction takes one a step away from the reality denoted. It is a little less directly perceptual; a little more analytic. A preface is slightly daintier than a foreword, a sheep more rooted in its field than the mutton we slice out of it. There is something more urbane about improvement, compared to the betterment it once displaced. The ancestor has always made it further up the ladder than the forebear he elbowed out of the pecking order. The deer has to go to school before it can re-emerge, properly dressed at last, as venison. And although the displacement is now more or less complete, if you contradict me you are not as close to the native earth as if you gainsay me.

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The above examples show the Anglo-Saxon usages have been in decline for centuries. The Romance words always sounded a little more professional, even a little more fragrant. The poor benighted pig on its final journey might well opt for the abattoir rather than the slaughterhouse. My own grandfather started off as a dustbinman, but later in life he was designated a refuse collector. Like Bottom, he had been translated. At its most egregious this practice can be be seen when governments speak, at the precise time they would prefer to keep silent. So an American administration came up with ‘collateral damage’. Translated, this means: lots of people blown to bits that we weren’t even aiming at. Think what a different world it would be if instead of psychology we turned to soul learning to help us through the remains of the day. ‘It makes me weep to think what English might have been,’ Hopkins wrote to Robert Bridges.

Hopkins never studied Old English as part of any course. He seems to have done it off his own bat. He was at Oxford when the study was blossoming, but he wrote to Bridges in 1882 (long after he had left Oxford), ‘learning Anglosaxon and it is a vastly superior thing to what we have now.’ The Early English Text Society was formed in 1864, and new versions of Beowulf were being produced. In 1851, R. C. Trench published his Study of Words, in which he argued that there had been a loss with the linguistic importations of the Norman invasion. Hopkins cobbled together all that he wanted from the Old English tradition. One thing he noticed, with luminous attention, was our early tradition of accentual metres.

HOPKINS HAS BECOME famous for a particular form of prosody: sprung rhythm. What this means at its simplest is verse that does not count its syllables, but its stresses. The Old English tradition had lines consisting of four strong stresses, separated in the middle by a caesura. The number of syllables involved was variable. Although not strictly syllabic, much English poetry is regular enough to be dominated by a strict count of poetic feet:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea…

Here five iambic pentameters structure each line. You could change some of the feet with substitutions and still retain the overall metre. But there are no extra syllables here so we have two ten-syllable lines. Hopkins found such a poetic convention constraining, not because of the wildness of his temperament, or his stormy emotions, but because the native vigour of the English language was being constrained by an imported tradition.

And in absorbing the Anglo-Saxon tradition, he took on board other aspects of it too. The compounding of words is a Germanic trait. Hopkins followed it. Compound words permit descriptive morphologies. A simple example. One word for body in Old English is banhus. Bonehouse. If you call your body a bonehouse, it has implications. What is being housed? Hopkins took what he wanted: he was never slavish. He said, in a letter, that faced with greatness his inclination was to admire and do otherwise. In another letter, he said the trick was to be independent but not unimpressionable. He formed his own compounds, as Paul Celan would later do in German with coinages like Niemandsrose and Atemwende. And along with the compounds, there was alliteration and assonance — a lot of both.

By 1884 Hopkins was in Dublin, a Professor of Greek and Latin, and thoroughly miserable. He would have preferred to be back in England, where he at least had some friends. He was hard-worked, and his natural conscientiousness would not let him ease up on the unceasing activities of preparing, lecturing, marking, and then starting the cycle all over again. His professorship sometimes felt to him like a dicky-bow on a corpse. Georgian Dublin was largely wrecked by the depredations of civic development. In the city of Guinness, he took no solace in drink. The five years left to him, before his early death in 1889, were never happy ones. Constantly suffering from ill health, with his eyesight fading, he battled on through his duties. And he wrote some of the darkest verse written in English. These are the poems that are sometimes called the terrible sonnets, and this is one of them:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief-
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing –
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
Ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

xxO the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! Creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

One thing is immediately apparent: there is no point counting syllables here. The whole poem structures itself around stresses.

One thing is immediately apparent: there is no point counting syllables here. The whole poem structures itself around stresses. The syllables hang around each stress, like iron filings patterned by a magnetic charge. The poem rushes its first line with the energy Donne employed in his Songs and Sonnets. We might also register a higher proportion of teutonic words than usual. Hopkins fought hard to keep the Latinate words out. Hence the phrase (which he struggled over in manuscript) ‘no-man-fathomed’. He did not want plumbed and he did not want explored, both of which go back ultimately to Rome. So he fashioned his own phrase, entirely out of Old English words. The rhythm is sprung, no line is a dutiful syllable-counter, until the very end when the last three feet are regular iambs: ‘and each day dies with sleep.’ So, after all the turmoil that has preceded it, the sprung rhythm dies at last into the running rhythm. Regularity is restored — with death. Life demands more irregularity.

The savage economy of the phrasing relies on rhythmic pulse and elision. ‘Hold them cheap/May who ne’er hung there.’ If one gets rid of the elision, there is a somewhat more cumbersome statement: ‘Those who have never been to these treacherous regions may disparage the horrors they hold.’ One can see how paraphrase destroys the poetry. Mandelstam put it well: ‘For where there is amenability to paraphrase, there the sheets have never been rumpled, there poetry has never spent the night.’ Hopkins’ economy of expression is possible because of his intensive reading, but also because of his intensive hearing. In ‘Felix Randal’, Hopkins writes: ‘Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended.’ He heard that, in the phraseology of working men. The usage still survives in the northern phrase ‘Any road up’. Hopkins is exercising extreme intelligence inside this text; he is helping the words to locate themselves with maximum vigour and force. This is the ultimate vindication of the task of the philologist-poet. To find eloquence not in smoothness, but in the jagged soundings of potent speech.

And it is potency that accounts for the repetitions. ‘O the mind, mind has mountains…’ This is the staccato vividness of thought, pursuing its own unending circularities. The mind drops its article in the next phrase ‘mind has mountains’. They are ‘frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed’ — all words pulled from the Anglo-Saxon lexicon. They might, at first glance, feel similar to ‘caverns measureless to man’, yet Coleridge’s poem feels tranquil compared to Hopkins’. Here we have mental torment tracing its own feverish movements. Tracing them but incapable of escaping them.

Hopkins was a syntactical inventor. See how he conveys the hideous circularity of mental torment in another of the sonnets:

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.

This is a syntactical ouroboros, manically chewing its own tail. It snakes round and round. If we follow the circle’s logic, there is no end in sight, only more and more beginnings.

Hopkins came to understand that, in poetry, there isn’t a ‘meaning’, which language can merely allude to or employ; meaning must be embodied in language itself…

Hopkins came to understand that, in poetry, there isn’t a ‘meaning’, which language can merely allude to or employ; meaning must be embodied in language itself, dynamically rooted there. Language can too easily refer to a shadow, the shadow of something we call meaning. For this to be avoided, each copula must become incarnational. Hopkins saw clearly that the parables of Jesus are not true because of their content (which was folkloric) but their form. The content is a fabular base. It is the form which reverses the epistemology, and thereby alters the relations of reality. In the formal shift of expectations, there we find the truth. Representation without full linguistic engagement is little more than skidding on language, a trick involving rhythmic phraseology.

Hopkins insisted that his verse was for the ear not the eye. So he must have constantly recited it to himself. How else would one get to hear it? He probably walked the streets of Dublin uttering the verses to himself, until they came right. A few decades later, in St Petersburg, Osip Mandelstam would walk up and down Gorki Street calling out his verse. As he himself observed, no one ever listened, even when he was reciting the ‘Stalin Ode’, the poem that led to his imprisonment, and ultimately his death. People, as ever, had other things to do.

Since we now live in a virtual age, perhaps we should devise a virtual memorial. One for Mandelstam on Gorki Street, making his improvised broadcasts, since he had been officially unpublishable since 1928. And one for Gerard Manley Hopkins on St Stephen’s Green, reciting the terrible sonnets. A Roman Catholic priest in a Roman Catholic town calling out in anguish to a Roman Catholic God. The only comfort that came was in the shape of the poems beseeching it. No replies ever arrived. They were, as he so wonderfully put it, ‘like dead letters sent to dearest him that lives alas! away’.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has now been issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, and now a second collection, this time of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, is now available. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here and a new collection of essays is forthcoming from Odd Volumes.

Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins ‘now first published’, edited by Robert Bridges, is online here.

Note: A minor edit was made subsequent to publication to correct a transcription error.


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Michelene Wandor
1 month ago

Terrific piece on Hopkins. Michelene

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