When I think of verse in English in the 19th century, what generally comes to mind is the fairly regular verse of people like the Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley and Byron, or the even more regular verse of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in America, or Alfred Lord Tennyson in Britain. But there are three poets who really break the mold, and set the stage for the modern poetry of the 20th century – these are Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman in America, and Gerard Manley Hopkins in Britain. Of the three, only Whitman was recognized in his day as a poet. Dickinson’s and Hopkins’ verse was primarily published posthumously. Dickinson was an intensely private person, while Hopkins saw his verse as something ego-driven, and as a Jesuit, he felt he needed to keep his ego in check, even though, as a poet, he yearned for an audience.
When he was still at Oxford, and prior to his conversion to Roman Catholicism, Hopkins listed poetry as something he needed to give up for Lent. There was something luxurious about verse which spoke to Hopkins, but which ran counter to the drive in many Catholics (and perhaps especially to those who convert) to pare away the extras in life. I think we can all be grateful that Hopkins was not fully able to restrain his enthusiasm or his poetic impulse. For this man who felt torn between the fervor of religious impulse and a desire for simplicity was very much a man of passion, and that passion comes forth in his verse. And for those who were raised Catholic, it is passion that speaks to us of the divine much more compellingly than strictures and structures.
And there was, in Hopkins, as a poet, a resistance to the structures he inherited. The English poetic tradition from the time of Chaucer on was marked by fixed metrical patterns (often the iambic pentameter). This form gives to poets like Tennyson, and even more so, to Longfellow, a regularity that is comforting to some, numbing to others. Hopkins looked to the verse patterns of the Anglo-Saxon world for inspiration. In Anglo-Saxon poetry, each line is marked by four strong stresses, with any number of unstressed syllables in addition. You very much can hear the beat in an Anglo-Saxon poem like Beowulf, even if the number of syllables from line to line is not the same. In addition, he liked the trochaic meter of folk verse (stressed syllable followed by unstressed, the reverse of iambic meter). And from these two inclinations, he developed what he called “sprung rhythm,” as opposed to the “running rhythm” of conventional English poetry of the day. Starting on the beat and having a more fluid sense of the line results in poetry that commands our attention. We are not lulled into a comforting numbness by Hopkins’ verse. And, to my way of thinking, poetry that grabs our attention and holds it is poetry of a high level indeed.
Hopkins’ most famous poem, “God’s Grandeur,” is an example of a curtal sonnet, a form Hopkins invented. Taking the Petrarchan Sonnet form (8 lines followed by 6 lines) and reducing it by a quarter, we have a poem with a six line section followed by a four and a half line section.
You can hear and see Stanley Kunitz, a great American poet, recite and talk about “God’s Grandeur” as part of Robert Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem Project.” The video is available on YouTube. You can find much of Hopkins’ verse at Poetry Foundation, Poem Hunter, Academy of American Poets, Bartleby, and Gutenberg.
You can also listen to Jeremy Northam read a couple of dozen of Hopkins’ best poems by going to Hoopla and borrowing the audio file. And, in the case of Hopkins, you really owe it to yourself to hear the poems read aloud, especially by someone who knows how to read verse.