15. hopkins and the religion of the diamond body


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Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves - goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

In ringing and telling of itself, the creature rings and tells of God, who, according to St. Ignatius, made the creature for the purpose of helping men to praise him. Knowing how to touch things means, therefore, identifying and taking into one's heart whatever distinctive quality of the creature most matches a quality of Christ or God. Only this could explain Hopkins' inordinate enthusiasm for 'St. Patrick's Breastplate', a translation of a fifth-century poem ascribed to St. Patrick, which Hopkins described in May 1870 as 'one of the most remarkable compositions of man':
I bind unto myself to-day

The virtues of the star-lit heaven,

The glorious sun's life-giving ray,

The whiteness of the moon at even,

The flashing of the lightning free,

The whirling wind's tempestuous shocks,

The stable earth, the deep salt sea,

Around the old eternal rocks.

What Hopkins touches and seeks to bind unto himself is usually a distinctive form of beauty, (with a particular preference for effects of light, as in the first half of the St. Patrick quotation), or of power (as in the second). He is not, it seems to me, saying that everything a kingfisher characteristically does gives God glory, or even that everything it does is a revelation of its innermost being, and therefore of God's purpose in creating kingfishers. Rather, he is attempting to isolate one characteristic, and that a visual effect upon an implied watcher, as the sole purpose of the existence of kingfishers (or dragonflies, or kestrels, or any other creatures). 'And the world is full of things and events, phenomena of all sorts, that go unwitnessed [Correspondence 7]'. Hopkins regrets this 'want of witness'. Nothing has meaning for him without it. Just as it needs the human participant to tumble a stone over the rim of a roundy well or tuck a string, so it needs him to register the kingfisher catching fire or the dragonfly drawing flame. Kingfishers and dragonflies are particularly appropriate because their distinctive colouring is not pigment but structural colour, depending on the reflection of light (from the sun symbolizing God) striking the creature at a certain angle, into the eyes of the beholder. As it is the sole purpose of a man to keep grace, so it is the sole purpose of the kingfisher to help him to do so by flashing through beams of sunlight when he happens to be watching, or of a kestrel to hover on a big wind when he happens to be watching. This, to the non-Catholic at least, is somewhat absurd - absurdly anthropocentric. Kingfishers do not flash through sunbeams in case someone might be watching, but as part of the process of catching fish. Hawks and kingfishers speak and spell themselves in their efficiency as killers. This need not, as Hughes has shown, compromise their sacredness. Hughes' kingfisher catches both fish and fire:

Through him, God

Marries a pit

Of fishy mire.

And look! He's

- gone again.

Spark, sapphire, refracted

From beyond water

Shivering the spine of the river. ['The Kingfisher']

Hopkins discounts the whole of the rest of the life of the kingfisher, including that characteristic action after which it is named, and of which the flashing between trees is an incidental part, and even the catching fire goes for nothing if the beholder is wanting. He discounts all the creatures which are never seen at all, because they live too remote from human beings, or are too small to be noticed. Descartes had clearly stated the problem:
It is not at all probable that all things have been created for us in such a manner that God has no other end in creating them. ... We cannot doubt that an infinitude of things exist, or did exist, though they may have ceased to do so, which have never been beheld or comprehended by man, and have never been of any use to him.

[quoted by Lovejoy, 188]

Gray had made the point in the famous lines:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear;

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

But what was for Gray merely an unquestioning anthropocentrism was for Hopkins a theological tenet, that all non-human creatures had been created solely as revelations to man of aspects of the beauty and glory of God. Yet Hopkins seems to have been oblivious of the wastefulness of creation, if indeed it had been created purely for men to witness. In the year Hopkins entered the Jesuit order, Alfred Russell Wallace was writing his account of the birds of paradise he had seen in the Malay Archipelago:

I thought of the long ages of the past, during which the successive generations of this little creature had run their course - year by year being born, and living and dying amid these dark and gloomy woods, with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness; to all appearance such a wanton waste of beauty. It seems sad, that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man. Many of them have no relation to him. The cycle of their existence has gone on independently of his, and is disturbed or broken by every advance in man's intellectual development; and their happiness and enjoyments, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone.

[The Malay Archipelago and the Birds of Paradise, 223-4]

Hopkins also discounts everything which is not counted beautiful or in some other way impressive to human sensibility (or current fashions of sensibility). But if the world is charged with God's grandeur, how can one creature be counted more beautiful than another? Sir Thomas Browne wrote:
I hold there is a general beauty in the works of God, and there is no deformity in any kind or species of creature whatsoever. I know not by what logic we call a Toad or a Bear or an Elephant ugly; they being created in those outward shapes and figures which best express the action of their inward forms. [Religio Medici]
One might have expected this position to appeal strongly to Hopkins, but he is locked into an aestheticism which deduces, rather, the inward beauty (or otherwise) from the outward.

The principle that 'outward beauty is the proof of inward beauty' seems to Hopkins to sanction his obsession with youthful good-looks, his loathing of the poor on account of their ugliness, and his admiration for soldiers on account of their scarlet uniforms, as if the raison d'être of soldiers were to look 'manly' on parade, rather than to kill and be killed. In glorifying 'the spirit of war' he sets up Christ as example:

Mark Christ our King. He knows war, served this soldiering through;

He of all can reeve a rope best. ['The Soldier]

Why not 'thrust a bayonet best'? Hopkins has to admit that in assuming that all redcoats are manly 'the heart ... makes believe ... feigns', for even 'our redcoats, our tars' are 'but foul clay' ['The Soldier']. A bugler boy 'breathing bloom of a chastity in mansex fine' kneels 'in regimental red' for his First Communion. Hopkins prays for his safety with pleas which 'Would brandle adamantine heaven with ride and jar, did / Prayer go disregarded' ['The Bugler's First Communion']. But Hopkins calls his own sincerity in question when he writes to Bridges: 'I am half inclined to hope the Hero of it may be killed in Afghanistan' [92].

But when Hopkins turns his attention to the unfallen world of non-human creatures, such feigning is no longer necessary. He can proclaim with absolute conviction that the apparel proclaims the beast.

In his commentary on the Spiritual Exercises Hopkins claims that although other creatures are able to give God less glory than man, since they do it unknowingly, 'nevertheless what they can they always do' [Sermons 239]. It follows that the kestrel gives God glory in all its actions. Can we allow Hopkins, in retrospect, to divorce the hovering of the kestrel so totally from the predatory purpose of that hovering? In 1872 Hopkins had recorded that 'a big hawk flew down chasing a little shrieking bird close beside us' [Journals 221]. What did that tell him about God? What God made the tiger? What of the God who demands of Job

Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the


Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high?

She dwelleth and abideth on the rock, and the strong place.

From thence she seeketh the prey, and her eyes behold afar off.

Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there is

she. [39:26-30]
The God who answers Job out of the whirlwind ridicules his hubristic claim to understanding, and his anthropocentric view of the natural world. God's purposes stretch far beyond the human world 'to cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is; on the wilderness, wherein there is no man'. He asks Job, and through him mankind:
Wilt thou hunt the prey for the lion? or fill the appetite of the young


When they couch in their dens, and abide in the covert to lie in wait?

Who provideth for the raven his food? when his young ones cry unto

God, they wander for lack of meat. [38:39-41]

Hopkins cannot cope with such a God, the chief of whose works is Behemoth. He faces the problem of mortality and the problem of suffering, but he turns away from the problem of predation. Even Tennyson, (Alfred Lawn Tennyson as Whitman called him), a frippery poet for the most part, his 'thoughts commonplace and wanting in nobility', had in that 'divine work' In Memoriam registered with compelling power and honesty that Nature 'red in tooth and claw' shrieks against a creed such as Hopkins', a creed of love, beauty, and purposes centred exclusively on individual human beings.

The nearest Hopkins comes to the problem is in a curiously and uncharacteristically evasive passage in one of his Liverpool sermons [25 October 1880]. Here his attempt to demonstrate his anthropocentric view of creation collapses with a whimper:

Therefore all the things we see are made and provided for us, the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies to light us, warm us, and be measures to us of time; coal and rockoil for artificial light and heat; animals and vegetables for our food and clothing; rain, wind, and snow again to make these bear and yield their tribute to us; water and the juices of plants for our drink; air for our breathing; stone and timber for our lodging; metals for our tools and traffic; the songs of birds, flowers and their smells and colours, fruits and their taste for our enjoyment. And so on: search the whole world and you will find it a million-million fold contrivance of providence planned for our use and patterned for our admiration.

But yet this providence is imperfect, plainly imperfect. The sun shines too long and withers the harvest, the rain is too heavy and rots it or in floods spreading washes it away; the air and water carry in their currents the poison of disease; there are poison plants, venomous snakes and scorpions; the beasts our subjects rebel, not only the bloodthirsty tiger that slaughters yearly its thousands, but even the bull will gore and the stallion bite or strike; at night the moon sometimes has no light to give, at others the clouds darken her; she measures time most strangely and gives us reckonings most difficult to make and never exact enough; the coalpits and oilwells are full of explosions, fires, and outbreaks of sudden death, the sea of storms and wrecks, the snow has avalanches, the earth landslips; we contend with cold, want, weakness, hunger, disease, death, and often we fight a losing battle, never a triumphant one; everything is full of fault, flaw, imperfection, shortcoming; as many marks as there are of God's wisdom in providing for us so many marks there may be set against them of more being needed still, of something having made of this very providence a shattered frame and a broken web.

Let us not now enquire, brethren, why this should be; we most sadly feel and know that so it is. [Sermons 90]

Hopkins had no answer to the passage in David Hume's Dialogues of Natural Religion (1779), where Hume demonstrates that the existence of God cannot be proved by the argument that design in Nature implies a designer:
One would imagine, that this grand production had not received the last hand of the maker; so little finished is every part, and so coarse are the strokes, with which it is executed. Thus, the winds are requisite to convey the vapours along the surface of the globe, and to assist men in navigation: But how oft, rising up to tempests and hurricanes, do they become pernicious? Rains are necessary to nourish all the plants and animals of the earth: But how often are they defective? how often excessive? Heat is requisite to all life and vegetation; but is not always found in the due proportion. On the mixture and secretion of the humours and juices of the body depend the health and prosperity of the animal: But the parts perform not regularly their proper function. What more useful than all the passions of the mind, ambition, vanity, love, anger? But how oft do they break their bounds, and cause the greatest convulsions in society? There is nothing so advantageous in the universe, but what frequently becomes pernicious, by its excess or defect; nor has nature guarded, with the requisite accuracy, against all disorder or confusion. The irregularity is never, perhaps, so great as to destroy any species; but is often sufficient to involve the individuals in ruin and misery.

Hopkins badly needs a Trickster figure to account for what went wrong without having to blame God. But the rigid dualism of good and evil prevents Satan from playing this role in Christianity. Hopkins has to choose between a totally good creation by God or a totally evil one by Satan. At the outset he chooses the former, but remains deeply troubled by inescapable discrepancies until, in his final despair, he swings perilously close to the latter, a belief that Nature is a Heraclitean fire deserving no better than to be reduced to ashes, and redeemable, somewhere elsewhere, only by the Resurrection.

* * *
Hopkins is a master of rhythm. I do not mean of the theory of rhythm, but the instinctive matching of rhythm and sense which could not be fabricated in terms of any theory. So expressive is his rhythm that there are places where one feels one could get the essential meaning from the rhythm alone. A particularly striking example is the ending of 'Felix Randall'. In 'child, Felix, poor Felix Randall' the rhythm loses all impetus, is drowned in grief. Then comes the steady accumulation of rhythmic power to the triumphant and inevitable conclusion:
How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,

When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,

Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering

But perhaps his most expressive rhythms are to be found in the poem in which he departed furthest from any kind of rhythmic regularity and the stringencies of the sonnet form - 'The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo', of which he said 'I never did anything more musical'. Under the text he wrote: 'I have marked the stronger stresses, but with the degree of the stress so perpetually varying no marking is satisfactory. Do you think all had best be left to the reader?'

It was this poem which prompted Bridges to comment on the similarity between Hopkins and Whitman, which provoked Hopkins' 'De-Whitmanizer':
I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman's mind to be more like my own than any other man's living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession. And this also makes me the more desirous to read him and the more determined that I will not.

[Letters to Bridges, 155]

It is no coincidence that most of Hopkins' favourite poets were 'scoundrels'. Tennyson, he claims, 'has not that sort of ascendancy Goethe had or even Burns, scoundrel as the first was, not to say the second; but then they spoke out the real human rakishness of their hearts and everybody recognised the really beating, though rascal vein' [The Correspondence of G.M. Hopkins and R.W. Dixon, 25]. But how could this ascetic dedicated priest, this lonely, disciplined writer of highly-wrought poems, recognize such kinship with a pagan sensualist, a loafer on the open road sending his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world? The very qualities Whitman accepted in himself, fostered, inflated, Hopkins tried to sacrifice. Yet Hopkins knew that these differences were but superficial, that in their response to nature, in the seriousness of their commitment to writing from the heart, in religious sensibility even, they were akin.

There are plenty of parallels in the poetry, but it is in their informal prose, when stylistic differences are at a minimum, that Hopkins and Whitman come closest. Hopkins did not know Whitman's diaries which record inscapes almost interchangeable with his own:

July 14, 1878. My two kingfishers still haunt the pond. For nearly an hour I indolently look and join them while they dart and turn and take their airy gambols, sometimes far up the creek disappearing for a few moments, and then surely returning again, and performing most of their flight within sight of me, as if they knew I appreciated and absorb'd their vitality, spirituality, faithfulness, and the rapid, vanishing, delicate lines of moving yet quiet electricity they draw for me across the spread of the grass, the trees, and the blue sky. [Whitman 743]
July 22 1878. Now, indeed, if never before, the heavens declared the glory of God. It was to the full sky of the Bible, of Arabia, of the prophets, and of the oldest poems. There, in abstraction and stillness, (I had gone off by myself to absorb the scene, to have the spell unbroken,) the copiousness, the removedness, vitality, loose-clear-crowdedness, of that stellar concave spreading overhead, softly absorb'd into me, rising so free, interminably high, stretching east, west, north, south - and I, though but a point in the centre below, embodying all. As if for the first time, indeed, creation noiselessly sank into and through me its placid and untellable lesson, beyond - O, so infinitely beyond! - anything from art, books, sermons, or from science, old or new. The spirit's hour, religion's hour - the visible suggestion of God in space and time - now once definitely indicated, if never again. The untold pointed at - the heavens all paved with it. The Milky Way, as if some superhuman symphony, some ode of universal vagueness, disdaining syllable and sound - a flashing glance of Deity, address'd to the soul. [748-9]

Hopkins' diary entry for 23 January 1866 reads like missing lines from 'Spontaneous Me' or 'I Sing the Body Electric':

Lobes of the trees. Cups of the eyes. Gathering back the lightly hinged eyelids. Bows of the eyelids. Pencil of eyelashes. Juices of the eyeball. ... Juices of the sunrise. Joins and veins of the same. [Journals 72]
Hopkins did not know 'Song of Myself', where he would have found: 'Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven' and
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,

All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each

moment then,

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the

There are equally surprising echoes of style. Whitman, too, loved alliteration. In 'The Sleepers' alone, Hopkins might have found 'sparkles of starshine', 'a show of the summer softness', and even 'a gay gang of blackguards with mirthshouting music'.

Knowing nothing of these, it seems that Hopkins' extraordinary identification with Whitman, and also his disapproval, is based solely on 'a strong impression of his marked and original manner and way of thought and in particular of his rhythm'. Of course Hopkins knew that Whitman's 'way of thought' tended towards the pantheistic and pagan, and this cannot be separated from the 'savagery' of his art. For Whitman strove to make his verse a free channel for the voice of the spirit who formed all scenes, who, in scenes such as the American south-west, could only be seen (as Lawrence also was to see him there) as savage:
Spirit that form'd this scene,

These tumbled rock-piles grim and red,

These gorges, turbulent-clear streams, this naked freshness,

These formless wild arrays, for reasons of their own;

I know thee, savage spirit - we have communed together,

Mine too such wild arrays, for reasons of their own

['Spirit that Form'd this Scene']

Hopkins knew this poem. Such formless wild creations of a formless wild god are not at all what Hopkins wanted to see in God's works nor to recreate in his own. The phrase 'for reasons of their own' indicates the most crucial difference between Hopkins and Whitman. Hopkins' theology did not allow for such autonomy in the non-human world. Mary Midgley gives Kant (as well as common sense) the credit for breaking out of 'the Egoist squirrel cage':

The world in which the kestrel moves, the world that it sees, is, and will always be, entirely beyond us. That there are such worlds all around us is an essential feature of our world. ... It is not a device for any human end. It does not need that external point. It is in some sense ... an end in itself. [359]
The question of rhythm is also crucial:
Extremes meet, and (I must for truth's sake say what sounds pride) this savagery of his art, this rhythm in its last ruggedness and decomposition into common prose, comes near the last elaboration of mine. [Letters to Bridges, 157]
There is nothing in any of the passages Hopkins knew which comes particularly near to the elaboration (if such it is) of 'The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo'. But if Bridges was more familiar with Whitman, there are certainly echoes he might have heard:
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear,

gallantry and gaiety and grace,

Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose

locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace -

Such lines might well have reminded Bridges of lines of Whitman, for example:
Love-thoughts, love-juice, love-odor, love-yielding, love-climbers,

and the climbing sap,

Arms and hands of love, lips of love, phallic thumb of love, breasts of

love, bellies press'd and glued together with love,

Earth of chaste love, life that is only life after love…

['Spontaneous Me']

Usually the similarity of minds between Hopkins and Whitman is masked by their opposite ideologies, as their similarity in metre is masked by their opposite and extreme theories of metre, each of which was something of a pose. Whitman's style was no more a 'barbaric yawp' than Hopkins' was calculated artifice. But Hopkins' inspiration was not always 'buckled within the belt of rule', crammed and cramped into sonnets. It was twice allowed to find its own free form. The other example, 'Epithalamium', brings us even closer to Whitman.

The poem is little known. Hopkins imagines himself

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