Among the pre-eminent themes in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ oeuvre is the reconciliation of faith and reason. Hopkins, a man “in sentiment and by education a thorough Victorian, [but] through habit of mind a genius quite un-Victorian” (Sale 143), was writing at a time when not only were scientific advancements incessantly nullifying biblical proclamations, but many Victorians had arrived “at precisely that stage of dissatisfaction with the received orthodoxy where they needed to emancipate themselves from it intellectually” (Murphy 817). Liberation was complex, however, for the values of Victorian society were so interwoven with religious belief that separating the two was akin to untying a knot of Gordian proportion. So entangled were the Victorians that opposing factions of scientists proposed “different conceptions of how science and religion could peacefully coexist, and… disagreed on whether or not the cognitive content of scientific theory should be shaped by religious belief” (Lightman 344). Indeed, Simon Nightingale asserts Victorian science was characterized by constant fluidity and perpetual reformation, as its practitioners attempted to quantify what exactly science was (372). These tensions between faith and science informed Hopkins’ view of self-world relations, as manifest in his poetics.
Self-world relations were, for Hopkins, marked by a repudiation of ego supremacy and an embrace of the uncovering, obligating touch. This aligns with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of intercorporeality. Intercorporeality posits ‘the body’ is constructed by social interactions; it suggests “the experience of being embodied is never a private affair, but is always mediated by our continual interactions with other human and nonhuman bodies” (Weiss 5). The latter category encompasses not only the physical bodies of animals and plants, but ‘unseen’ bodies too. As Merleau-Ponty writes, the intercorporeal is “a presumptive domain of the visible and the tangible, which extends further than the things I touch and see at present” (143). Indeed, Merleau-Ponty suggests the body that ‘touches’ is immutably linked to the body being touched, and the seeing body is linked, likewise, to the seen. Under intercorporeality, the “self and other coexist symbiotically, reciprocally confirming each other in their own being” (Madison 177). Merleau-Ponty describes in greater detail:
“There is a circle of the touched and the touching, the touched takes hold of the touching; there is a circle of the visible and the seeing, the seeing is not without visible existence; there is even an inscription of the touching in the visible, of the seeing in the tangible— and the converse; there is finally a propagation of these exchanges to all the bodies of the same type and of the same style which I see and touch— and this by virtue of the fundamental fission or segregation of the sentient and the sensible which, laterally, makes the organs of my body communicate and founds transitivity from one body to another.” (Merleau-Ponty 143)
This view aligns with Hopkins’, which envisions “the subject… as importantly contiguous with and even indistinguishable from the world” (Ablow 155). Like Merleau-Ponty, Hopkins believed in a cyclical system of bodily transference; a transcendental reality, displayed through matter and phenomena. However, he posited that “each created thing is a version of Christ, [which] derives its being from its unique expression of His nature” (Hines 15). Hopkins’ intercorporeality, then, was – much like everything in the Victorian era – interwoven with religious considerations.
The contradictory hammer blows of science upon religion served not to dissuade Hopkins from belief, but rather compounded, for him, the necessity of both. He embodied this dialectic: he kept both religious and secular journals (9), and though his notes on astronomical and celestial phenomena (Zabel 158) were tireless, they were at odds with his desire to subjugate himself before God (Hines 18). Furthermore, he partook in several intellectual movements, but was Tractarian and Catholic, and believed in an impending secular apocalypse (Regier 273). W.G. Regier insists that Hopkins’ elusive, prismatic mood is one of his defining features (273), and William Sale Jr. suggests that “had [Hopkins] relieved [his] tensions, he would have ceased writing poetry” (144). Considering a substantial portion of Hopkins’ catalogue is dedicated to exploring the relations between the self and the world, and that his views on the matter were deeply informed by tensions between faith and science, it is hard to dismiss Mr. Sale’s claim. Changing notions of the natures of faith and science, and the implications of those changes for self-world relations, were existential catnip for Hopkins.
Moreover, while Hopkins felt science demystified nature’s minutiae, he also suggested it could not account for its elemental beauty, its harmonious unanimity – in a word, its essence. This was a burgeoning view in the Victorian era. In The Origin of Species, Darwin asserts that natural selection is as superior to man’s ‘feeble efforts’ as “the works of Nature are to those of Art” (64); William Wordsworth wrote of the intrinsic qualities in nature “failing to receive expression in science” (Fraser 5). From this stance arose Hopkins’ concepts of inscape and instress, the former being “the inner form which is perceived in the scape or outer shape” (Hines 5) and the latter the impression the object stamps upon the observer: “a quasi-mystical illumination, a sudden perception of that deeper pattern, order and unity which gives meaning to external forms” (7). That is to say, the object stresses a reaction, and through a combination of subjective reaction and objective sensible qualities its inscape (a play on landscape, or totality) is unearthed. The source of the instress, Hopkins posits, is Christ, and all unique inscapes are united under Him (10). Here, self-world relations are evidenced playing an integral role in Hopkins’ reconciliation of Victorian faith-science tensions. He suggests that a recognition of Christ’s divine presence in bodies, human and non-human, leads to an intercorporeal self-world relationship and, connectedly, reconciles faith and science. The inscape and instress inherent in the Godly creations branded ‘nature’ provide those creations an aura science can not elucidate. No wonder, then, the felling of the Binsley Poplars so horrifies him; after all, they are, like all of nature’s creations, “so tender / To touch, her being só slender” (12-13).
The inscape and instress are catalysts for Merleau-Ponty’s “fundamental fission” (143), whereby transitivity is founded between bodies. In his proposition of this extendable flesh ontology, Merleau-Ponty suggests the bond which unites the self also unites separate beings. After all, he posits, “if… synergy is possible within each of us, then why would it not be possible among different organisms?” (Cataldi 196). Hopkins writes of similar synergy in several of his poems, including 1877’s “Hurrahing in Harvest,” wherein the narrator interprets “silk-sack clouds” (3) as Jesus watching him with “eyes, heart… lips” (7) and construes the “azurous hung hills” (9) to be Jesus’ “world-wielding shoulder” (9). Evidenced here is Hopkins’ intercorporeality as predicated upon a vision of God in nature. The narrator’s heart, upon observing Jesus’ presence – instress – in the objects, “rears wings bold and bolder” (13). Though science can baldly analyze, it cannot initiate this visionary development; thus, it resists a holistic conformity, and cannot accord with the universalist outlook both Hopkins and Merleau-Ponty advocate. Tensions between Victorian faith and science heightened Hopkins’ advocacy for an intercorporeality presided over by the Godhead; they intensified his insistence upon a hominid realization of this connectedness.
This is evident in “God’s Grandeur”, in which Hopkins decries men who no longer “reck [God’s] rod” (5); men whose “smudge” and “smell” (8) have rendered Earth “bleared, smeared with toil” (7). These men fail to recognize the divine presence in nature, and therefore lack the intercorporeal inclination to preserve it. The purpose of “God’s Grandeur” is, indeed, as Michael Lackey writes, “to persuade the reader to believe” (85). According to Hopkins, God’s grandeur “gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed” (3-4). Viz., God is great insofar as He has followers; like olive oil, one drop is pointless, but a heap is meaningful. The poem is a rallying cry, a textual beckoning wherein Hopkins’ outstretches a hand to the disenfranchised Victorians. Recognize the this-ness of God’s creations, he insists; repudiate the repudiation of Him invoked by science. Identify the “dearest freshness deep down things” (10), the inter-connectedness of all beings, and cease the treading which so incessantly destroys the blessed natural. United under God, His greatness will gather.
Such analysis reveals why Gertrude White is incorrect when she writes that though the poem “is certainly a statement of personal faith, it has little or nothing to reveal of… spiritual struggles” (285). The piece’s beseeching nature is evidence to the opposite. Hopkins insists men reject the primacy of the ego and open themselves to the benevolent God who, despite the spurning He faces from perfidious Victorians, watches over them “with warm breast and with ah! bright wings” (14). Connectedly, Hopkins writes that though “the last lights off the black West went” (11), God remains bent over the world, preventing it from splitting apart. The almighty is compassionate, and through a revision of the individualistic self-world relations popularized by science, His greatness can be recognized. Evidenced by “God’s Grandeur”, Hopkins’ view of and insistence upon an intercorporeal self-world relation was informed by the tensions between faith and science.
Hopkins’ assertion that the world is already “charged” (1) with the grandeur of God is further symptomatic of an attempt to reconcile modern scientific findings with biblical text. As aforementioned, God, for Hopkins, is not a detached entity restricted to mere supervising; rather, His presence exists in the objects of nature. The senses, then, are a conduit through which one can interact with God. As Hopkins wrote in an 1870 journal, after observing a vibrant plant: “I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it” (8). He goes beyond the non-human, too, positing that the human body not only contains a soul, but is itself a divinely ordained vessel (Cohen 108). Indeed, William A. Cohen notes that Hopkins muddies “the boundaries of agency and existence between subject and object” (108), as summarized by a phrase in Hopkins’ journal: “what you look hard at seems to look hard at you” (108). This mirrors Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the ‘reversibility’ of the flesh. Merleau-Ponty suggests the flesh is neither subject nor object, but rather is both; he compares the crisscrossing of the touching and tangible to “two halves of an orange” (133), writing that knowledge “can happen only if my hand, while it is felt from within, is also accessible from without” (133). Both Hopkins and Merleau-Ponty consider knowledge reciprocal, however Hopkins posits the elusive second hand as belonging to Christ, and, furthermore, suggests an opening of oneself to His greatness must occur before one can recognize Christ as the other half of the orange.
Indeed, Hopkins believed that inscape and instress were perceptible to everyone, but most did not know how to search for them. In an 1872 journal entry, he remarked: “how sadly [the] beauty of inscape [is] unknown and buried away from simple people and yet how near at hand it [is] if they [have] eyes to see it” (Hines 6). This privileging of the sensory is in opposition to the era’s religious mystics, who relinquished their senses to move closer to God. In an effort to explain the contradictory findings of science, Hopkins inverted the traditional God-human dialectic, embracing a posteriori evidence and opening himself to the manifold beauties of the sensible world. Through this opening – an opening spurred by faith-science tensions – Hopkins promotes an intercorporeal self-world relation.
Furthermore, he felt the Godly auras of the inscape and instress were unexplainable by language. However, he sought to change that – hence, his unique poetic style. He dismantled the boundaries of the English language in an attempt to mould the written word to the beauty of nature which, because of the language’s constrictions, it had never done. If through his artistry he could express what science could not – if he could open his readers’ eyes to the grandeur of nature and feel within it God’s presence – faith and reason, for him, could be at least partially reconciled. This is compounded in his 1865 essay, “Poetic Diction,” wherein he suggests “metre, rhythm, rhyme, and all the structure which is called verse can engender a difference… in thought” (Morlier 226). The notion of intercorporeal self-world relations, then, informed Hopkins’ style insofar as his approach to language embodied the same interconnectivity. His approach suggests that language itself, a production of the body, is capable of echoing nature in shedding the skin of boundaries, mirroring the dismantling between self and world which he insists occur between the individual and nature.
The writings of John Duns Scotus are salient in elucidating this. Hopkins was influenced by Scotus’ work, even authoring a poem, “Duns Scotus’s Oxford,” in which he describes Scotus as “of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller” (12) and states that “of all men [he] most sways my spirits to peace” (10). Particularly, Scotus’ notion of haecceity, or thisness, was an inspiration for Hopkins. When constructing his theories of inscape and instress, Hopkins drew on the 13th century philosopher, who posited that there exists unity among beings bar each individual’s haecceity, which serves as a sort of moral texture – a distinguisher among common nature. Viz., individuals possess unique haecceities, but an overarching reality encompasses them all. As Scotus himself describes:
“I explain what I understand by individuation or numerical unity or singularity: Certainly not the indeterminate unity by which anything in a species is said to be one in number. Rather, I mean designated unity as a this, so that just as it was said above that an individual is incompossible with being divided into subjective parts and the reason for that incompossibility is asked there, so too I say here that an individual is incompossible with not being a designated this by this singularity and the cause is asked not of singularity in general but of this designated singularity in particular — that is, as it is determinately this.” (Spade 76)
Scotus’ notion of haecceity is akin to Hopkins’ inscape. Both describe the inner form, the individual aura inside every being, which is only perceptible should the beholder look hard enough; like Hopkins, Scotus “suggests that through intuitive cognition the intellect can know whatever the senses know” (South 126). With that said, however, it is an oversimplification to unilaterally equate the two. As John Llewyn argues, inscape is a vehicle for haecceity (93). While the inscape is a divine insight into the nature of a being, the haecceity is a human conception of the covert, ethereal ingredient that distinguishes individuals; indeed, “Hopkins makes it quite clear that he identifies inscape with nature or essence, and haecceitas with arbitrariness or “moral” pitch” (Devlin 199). With that said, the two are indeed similar, and their equation can be considered, as Christopher Devlin suggests, a “possible shortcut” (199) to understanding Hopkins. Both relate to existential philosophy and, further, impact perception of self-world relations by encouraging an intercorporeal federation.
A further similarity exists in that just as how instress is nigh indescribable by language, so too is haecceity’s articulation elusive. Specifically, haecceity is often mischaracterized as an object’s ‘essence.’ As Robert Adams writes, the haecceitic property “has recently been called ‘essence,’ but that is historically unfortunate; for essences have normally been understood to be constituted by qualitative properties, and we are entertaining the possibility of nonqualitative thisnesses” (6). Hopkins’ language dismantling marks an attempt to avoid this problem which plagues Scotus scholars; that of relying on abstract ‘words’ and ‘grammar,’ created by others, to describe what has gone hitherto undescribed. Like Scotus himself, Hopkins creates new terms – inscape and instress – for ever-evasive intrinsic conceptions. Indeed, Hopkins’ verse “conforms to a thesis – a metrical thesis… understand the thesis, and you grasp his poetic purpose; grasp his purpose, and you have the key to his poems” (McLuhan 28).
“God’s Grandeur” is pertinent here. Firstly, the titular grandeur is equated with “shining from shook foil” (2), ‘shining’ being transformed from verb to noun to quantify the feeling the instress and inscape imparts. Hopkins also inserts a seemingly misplaced interjection – “ah!” – in the final line, to intensify his awe; to demonstrate that the majesty of God overrides expected, and indeed, enforced, sensibilities. By extension, other sensibilities are implicated in Hopkins’ repudiation of the one, including the desire for religious emancipation so popular in the Victorian era. The grammatical experimentation he felt was required to realize his literary ambition of embodying Godly beauty was born of friction; of a yearning desire to reinstate God in the hearts of a populace shifting from Him, and yet simultaneously account for the celestial and natural phenomena he recorded so diligently in his secular notebook.
And in order to reinstate God in the populace’s hearts, Hopkins attempted to change their approach to self-world relations. Again, he relied on Scotus’ work to orient him in this matter. Namely, Scotus’ reference “to actual existence as an act, indeed as the ultimate act of existing material substance” (O’Meara 659) was an integral component in his viewpoint. Through the equation of existence with materiality, Scotus safeguards objective reality. He does so in the interests of science, whether that science be “metaphysical or physical or, with widely acknowledged limitations that recognize the difference between faith and reason, theological” (Llewyn 92). Indeed, Scotus’ assertion that scientia requires the existence of real essences (92) parallels Hopkins’ assertions in his essay on the philosopher Parmenides, wherein the poet praises Parmenides’ suggestion that “Being is and Not-being is not” and, furthermore, agrees with him in arguing that “nothing unintelligible can exist” (Ward 117). However, Hopkins stipulates: “things can exist even if we don’t think of them” (117). Thus, a proviso – a telling proviso, in demonstrating Hopkins’ approach to reconciling faith and reason. He agrees with Scotus that objective reality is a legitimate construct, and asserts that science is the study of that sphere, however he posits that faith is the study of those things which can exist despite being unthought of, those things which Parmenides neglects to grant actuality. Hopkins implores Victorians to recognize that distinction, and through such reconciliation re-evaluate their interpretation of self to world.
These conceptions manifest in one of Hopkins’ most-revered poems, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” After describing the interconnectedness of nature in the opening lines – “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme” (1), and “each hung bell’s / Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name” (3-4) – he decries the inability of mortal beings to recognize that thisness:
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 Whát I do is me: for that I came. (Hopkins 5-8)
In modifying “self’s” grammatical function (it becomes “selving,” a verb), Hopkins compounds Scotus’ haecceity, suggesting that each mortal being projects a unique essence which transcends their common nature; that is to say, each being “selves.” He also suggests, through this transformation, the inadequacy of traditional language in expressing the notion, and thus implies the failure of others to recognize it; otherwise, such modification would be unnecessary. Indeed, Hopkins employs the ‘selving’ term frequently; as Brian Day writes, “Hopkins’ insistence on the ‘compounded, selved-up’ nature of… selfhood founded on the relation of self to other underlines his belief that being is not about possessing a single quality, be it soul, mind, or consciousness, all of which are finite… being – human and non-human alike – is determined by an entity’s ‘selving’ function” (183). In verb-ing the noun, Hopkins provides agency to beings otherwise relegated to subhuman status, and thereby enforces an intercorporeal self-world relation.
In the following line, Hopkins denounces those who do not recognize this function: the beings who cry that the reason they “came” is to “do is me,” or, to act in mere self-interest. Furthermore, he contrasts, in the next line, that uninformed multitude with the “just man” (9), who is ‘just’ insofar as he recognizes the “grace” (10) of “God’s eye” (11) and, thereby, his own and others’ thisness. To be a just man, Hopkins posits, one must recognize Christ’s embodiment in the inscapes of all beings; after all, He “plays in ten thousand places” (12). One must also open themselves to His touch, His expressions through the inscapes of nature, for He is “lovely ” (13). An appreciation for the intercorporeal relation of self to world, then, relies on both a recognition of Christ’s almighty, all-encompassing figure – a repudiation of ego supremacy – and a willingness to expose oneself to His action – an embrace of the uncovering, obligating touch. Inherently tied to this notion is the reconciliation of faith and science; though the former is unexplainable through the latter, that does not invalidate it. This distinction is one several critics, including Marshall McLuhan, fail to consider. McLuhan erroneously writes that “what of God there is Hopkins [did] not perceive nor experience, but [took] on faith” (18). For Hopkins, faith was a mode of perception, and he repudiated the secular quashing of notions to the contrary.
Several elements of “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” elucidate this. First, Hopkins’ aforementioned comparison of the kingfisher and dragonfly is noteworthy, in that it relates disparate beings: king and dragon, fish and fly. These relations compound the power of Christ’s all-encompassing touch. King and dragon are enemies, warring, yet Hopkins suggests a unification in thisness all the same; fish and fly occupy separate spheres of Earth, the former its deepest depths and the latter its highest summits, but are likewise related. Further, Hopkins intensifies the notion of Christ’s power by beginning the poem with images of flame, and moving, in the next line, to images of water: the “roundy wells” (2) over which stones tumble. In juxtaposing these disparate elements, he reinforces Christ’s consolidation capacity. Furthermore, his assertion that “each hung bell’s / Bow swung finds tongue to fling our broad its name” (3-4) demonstrates inscape as extending beyond mortal beings; the bell’s ring is its name. In characterizing the ring as such, he humanizes the inanimate object. He echoes this sentiment in the aforementioned line 2, as the stones ring when “tumbled over rim in roundy wells” (2). Indeed, when he writes subsequently that each mortal being “deals out that being indoors each one dwells” (6), he means, ultimately, every one of God’s creations is mortal, and each projects the being which lives inside of it (“indoors”). The inscape, then, is the humanizing factor; the external form is merely the house in which it dwells. Science, for Hopkins, is akin to blueprinting that house; faith is opening the door and greeting whom lives inside: Christ.
Hopkins’ “avoidance of the rigid intransigence which usually marks religious verse” (Zabel 158) is a component of his attempt to reinstate Christ in an increasingly irreligious Victorian society. By deconstructing the rigid English language, he endeavoured to embody within his poetry nature’s beauty, and thereby encourage readers to re-evaluate their individualistic, and indeed anthropocentric, notion of self-world relations. This intercorporeal view was influenced by John Duns Scotus, and largely parallels Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s later work. Victorian tensions between faith and science supplied the inner turmoil that led to Hopkins’ writing poetry, and thereby manifesting this stance in his art, at all; he took it upon himself to reconcile the two, and alert the populace to the tenderness of the country that they must consider themselves united with. For after all, he posited, notions to the contrary are not only selfish, but dangerous; as he warns in “Binsley Poplars,” “a prick will make no eye at all” (15).
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