Almost a Great Poet: CW Edits Gerard Manley’s Hopkins

IMG_2646In 1930, Robert Bridges asked Charles Williams to edit and introduce a second edition of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. He did, and it was published by Oxford University Press. Williams wrote of Hopkins’s work: “It is arguable that this is not the greatest kind of poetry; but it is also arguable that the greatest kind of poetry might easily arise out of this” (whatever that means). CW’s introduction is a good microcosm of some of his main ideas about poetry, and of some of his strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

On p. xv, Williams gives a kind of thesis statement of the main points scattered (somewhat disorganizedily) throughout his intro. There are four points.


Gerard Manley Hopkins

1. GMH has “a passionate emotion which tries to utter all its words in one.” He expands upon this idea elsewhere, saying that “Gerard Hopkins was not the child of vocabulary but of passion. And the unity of his passion is seen if we consider his alliteration” (xi). I had no idea what this meant the first couple of times I read it. What is “the unity of his passion”? Does it mean a controlling passion for one thing, rather than for many? No, it does not. In fact, it means something much more like choosing exactly the right words to express the passion, so that the feeling and its expression are unified. But that is not how CW phrases it. He gives the example of the line: “Thou hast bound bones … fastened me flesh.” About these two alliterative phrases, he says:

It is as if the imagination, seeking for expression, had found both verb and substantive [noun] at one rush, had begun almost to say them at once, and separated them only because the intellect had reduced the original unity into divided but related sounds. (xi)

So he is claiming that alliteration, in the hands of a great poet, is a poetic necessity, not an accident.

2. GMH’s poetry reveals “a passionate intellect which is striving at once to recognize and explain both the singleness and division of the accepted universe” (xv). This is CW’s idea of measuring the greatness of poetry by how well it expresses the crisis of schism: the sense that something is impossible, and yet it is, so that the universe is split into two mutually exclusive yet co-inherent and indwelling realities. CW expands upon this idea of the crisis in Hopkins:

The simultaneous consciousness of a controlled universe, and yet of division, conflict, and crises within that universe, is hardly so poignantly expressed in any other English poets than” Hopkins and Milton (xiv). and:“Both their imaginations [hard to tell here whether he means Hopkins/Milton or Hopkins/Thompson] …felt the universe as divided both within them and without them; both realized single control in the universe and both of the fashioned demands upon themselves and upon others out of what they held to be the nature of that control” (xiv).

This is the concept CW explores in The English Poetic Mind and in parts of Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind. I have written a bit about CW’s view of the crisis in Hopkins here (in a co-written article).

gmh3. Hopkins also has “a passionate sense of the details of the world without and the world within, a passionate consciousness of all kinds of experience” (xv). I think this means something like what writing teachers now call “vivid description,” observing and describing the world and psychology in believable detail.

4. Finally, CW says that Hopkins’ “most recurrent vision seems to be that of some young and naked innocence dangerously poised among surrounding dangers” (xv). Yet the only example he gives—“the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”—doesn’t seem to be to be an example of that at all, and only leaves me more confused than I was before the example.

Those, then, are CW’s main points in his intro to GMH’s poetry. He also discusses alliteration, diction, and interior rhymes (although, confusingly, he lists “alliteration, repetition, interior rhymes” as his points—I can’t find a discussion of repetition anywhere). These are insightful discussions.

As I have said over and over again, CW’s greatest strength when he’s writing about literature is his apparent ability to see straight to the heart and soul of a complete body of work in a single flash. He makes huge, sweeping statements about an author’s oeuvre as if he has read, understood, and remembered everything the author ever wrote, in chronological order, and often as if he had access to that writer’s mind.

570x428xalliteration.jpg.pagespeed.ic.vRJKggj1BVThis is also sometimes a weakness, as his generalizations and universalizing statements can lead him into absurdities. For instance, he claims that “there have never been two poets who employed [alliteration] more than Hopkins and Swinburne.” Um. My dear CW, do you not know that the majority of English verse was completely and totally shaped by alliteration for hundreds of years? Ever heard of a little poem called Beowulf? Perhaps he meant “in modern English,” or “since the end of the alliterative revival,” or something like that, but he didn’t say it. He SAID “never.” And that’s ridiculous.

Furthermore, his awful solecisms of syntax are here in abundance, often creating confusion about the antecedents of pronouns—“Robert Bridges has said that he was, at the end, abandoning his theories” (xiii). Robert Bridges was abandoning his own theories? Or Bridges was talking about Hopkins? The context makes the latter the more likely choice, but it is by no means certain.

But two final points before I go. First, this little introduction marks a HUGE turning point in CW’s writing. From 1930 onwards, his poetry improves enormously. According to Anne Ridler, he “re-read Hopkins at the right moment—the moment when he was able to make use of certain technical effects which were much better suited to his needs than the elaborate stanzas and the too-well-used blank verse forms which he had been employing” (Ridler lxi). in 1938, Williams’s Taliessin Through Logres appeared. The change from his earlier style is startling. These poems are fresh, original, and musical. Glen Cavaliero writes: “the influence of Hopkins becomes apparent: enjambment, internal rhymes, alliteration, irregular stress meters, above all, the deployment of monosyllables and a judiciously arcane vocabulary. Williams’s editing of Hopkins’s poems obviously has much to do with this” (Cavaliero 98). Stephen Dunning writes that in 1938, Williams was “a writer in the throes of a major stylistic revolution” and that “the new verse is distinctively Hopkinsesque” (112). So we have Robert Bridges to thank for asking CW to do this important task, for it did CW’s own poetry a world of good.

shirtAnd finally: ROBERT BRIDGES asked Charles Williams to edit GMH’s poetry! That’s huge. Bridges was the Poet Laureate of Britain at the time, a very noteworthy position, and was responsible for bringing GMH’s poetry before the poet. His asking CW shows what a good editor CW was and how far his reputation reached. As Jared Lobdell wrote in a recent guest post, Bridges “was, perhaps, the first to appreciate Williams as a scholar.” So CW did have a reputation in his own lifetime, although not as a poet, which is what he really wanted.


About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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5 Responses to Almost a Great Poet: CW Edits Gerard Manley’s Hopkins

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Wow! Lots to think about, here – thank you!

    Among other things, this Introduction as coming after Poetry at Present and heralding “the concept CW explores in The English Poetic Mind and in parts of Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind.” Reading Hopkins at the right moment for his criticism as well as – and even before – his own poetry?

    For there is an interesting delayed effect in the Arthurian verse retelling – for example, his two poems in Abercrombie’s New English Poetry appearing the year after this Hopkins edition – one being a structurally important poem later reworked in Taliessin through Logres (and consider too what Anne Ridler suggests about the contribution of the opportunity to write Cranmer or the Canterbury Festival).

    And yet, “a passionate sense of the details of the world without and the world within, a passionate consciousness of all kinds of experience” made me think of War in Heaven and the various characters bodying forth consciousnesses of different kinds of experience. Continuity as well as change in Williams’s experience and thought and work before and after dealing with his ‘experiences of Phyllis Jones’ and his saturation in Hopkins’s work.


  2. Sometimes I wonder if the point of all my reading or living for that matter is to finally reach the point where I can actually READ Hopkins. I don’t mean to understand one or two more words or to write a reasonably intelligent essay but to read him in the sense of seeing what he can see (or strives after seeing). I know that Hopkins knew many dark days but when he truly sees…!


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