Poem of the week: ‘Duns Scotus’s Oxford’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gui Freitas 13 November 2018
Credit: wiki-commons

Towery city and branchy between towers;

Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook racked, river-rounded;

The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did

Once encounter in, here coped & poisèd powers;

Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours

That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded

Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded

Rural, rural keeping — folk, flocks, and flowers.

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release

He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what

He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;

Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not

Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;

Who fired France for Mary without spot.

The beauty of the syllables in every line throb, and pulsate, and have a dramatic power which is difficult to evoke in any other words apart from those Hopkins himself gives us. Coleridge says that poetry is “the best words, in the best order” and with Hopkins we may very well say that they are also those best words precisely because they evoke those sounds of boundless beauty which lies at the height of his vision of the world.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) was born to a devout Anglican family and went to the Other Place (Oxford). Studying Greats, he quickly distinguished himself as one of the finest minds of his era (for once that cliche is really apt), and was set on a First. He was very much a part of the intellectual circles of the day in Oxford, knowing Pusey, Robert Bridges, and countless others who formed an intellectual climate which was very religious in its tone. And yet, like John Henry Newman a generation before him, he felt a gnawing at the heart of him, a sense that Anglicanism was something which he couldn’t intellectually hold onto. Hopkins went to Oxford at a time when one had to be an Anglican and subscribe to the 39 Articles, and fellows were still by and large Anglican clerics with vows of celibacy (though figures like Walter Pater were beginning to break this mould). Newman was compelled to resign his fellowship at Oriel when he became a Catholic and ended up in Birmingham, in the very thick of dirty Victorian industrialism. It is believed that one of Newman’s sisters never spoke to him again after his conversion, an example of the costs which such a choice could occasion. Hopkins made the same move, though his father did come to accept his decision. Hopkins trained as a Jesuit in places bleak and ill-furnished compared to the ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford. He struggled to reconcile poetry with religious life, at least until he discovered Duns Scotus. Hopkins found in Scotus precisely that beauty of nature which comes from the inscape and instress of things. Inscape is the essence of something, the life at the heart of it, while instress is this essence perceived, for instance as beauty. Even in things which are dead or dying, Hopkins sees the same inscape and feels the same instress:

‘… there is one notable dead tree … the inscape markedly holding its most simple and beautiful oneness up from the ground through a graceful swerve below (I think) the spring of the branches up to the tops of timber”

Life and what has lived, as well as what has survived the death of other things, is always driving Hopkins’s perception of nature. As a result, we find that this poem is very much a poem of convergence. The old Oxford is converging with the new; the convergence of past and present is especially marked. We have a sense of the same air being breathed, the same sights seen, how in the third stanza:

“Yet ah! This air I gather and release
He lived on; these weeds and water, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace”

In this tercet we find another interior convergence of many of the interests of the poem. There is the life-giving force of the air “I gather and release”, so banal a point it seems, and then the beginning of the next line provides a sort of break which establishes the link with Scotus “He lived on”. The semicolon then allows a shift onto what Scotus lived in, whilst “these” reinforces their sameness with what Hopkins himself is seeing, and providing the objects which express both the nature (“weeds and water”) and human artifice (“these walls”). The final segment, beginning with the comma, sets up the walls which seemed to be closing off nature as what Scotus “haunted”.

And much like the poem as whole, which encloses itself in the first two quatrains, it is in fact unravelling itself and recognising that Scotus and, God’s creation itself, cannot be stifled or stopped; as in ‘God’s Grandeur’ humanity can do what it will but nature will never relent:

Generations have trod have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil

[…]
And for all this nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things

The enigmatic final line of ‘Duns Scotus’s Oxford’ widens the scope from the national to the global, from the mortal to the Mother of God. Scotus was called to testify before the Church in France on his belief in the Immaculate Conception, when it was not official Catholic teaching. Some of the men of his day must have been “haunted” by his bizarre views, and yet the Church has now enclosed itself in line with his teaching. The man who seems to haunt is in fact the one who can lead one’s “spirits to peace”. And much as Hopkins’s thoughts must have haunted many in his own age, so may he perhaps be a source of peace for us; a reminder that despite the frantic ruin we make of the world, despite our constant stomping on its beauty and melody, we may find in Hopkins that “rarest-veined unraveller” who opens up our eyes to the eternal which defies any one person or cause and which nature brims with, if only we stop and look at it.