Gerard Manley Hopkins & Fiction Theory
Poets & Prose: Gerard Manley Hopkins and Fiction Theory
Robert Olen Butler’s 459 word “A Short Short Theory,” from the Spring 2009 issue of Narrative, reads like half a conversation. Butler does not present the responses, the doubts, the nods. He initiates critical inquiry into flash fiction by displacing that very title and replacing it with the “short short story”: awkward but consistent with his desire to observe concrete distinctions between the world of poetry and that of short prose. The term allows Butler to place such truncated fiction as an appendage to the longer, more traditional form. In fact, Butler uses the separation between prose and poetry as the defining element of the short short story: the concept of yearning.
Before Butler explicates his conception of yearning he offers distinctions between prose and poetry: character and time. For Butler, “a poem need not overtly concern itself with a human subject.” Poetry is language as artifice; prose is language as apparatus. He acknowledges that poetry is art displaced from idiom: it is an “object, composed densely of words, existing in space.” Since this poetic object is not directly concerned with “a human subject” it could never reach the yearning inherent in the best literature. Butler is careful in his definition, although one point he is easy to misinterpret during a first glance: he is not arguing that yearning is individual to the short short story form. Rather, yearning is endemic to fiction.
While this concept of yearning is both malleable and ripe for discussion, Butler’s oblique reference to the temporality of fiction is imperfect. Even if poetry is artifice, it remains bound to at least metaphysical conceptions of time: a poem can be a moment of a moment. In fact, certain poets—T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Gerard Manley Hopkins—postulated variations of time as the loci of the human experience. Can we read “The Wasteland” without a concern for Eliot’s distillation of literary and historical time into a fragmented narrative? Yeats’s idiosyncratic Byzantine schema of “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” and his construction of Red Hanrahan, an amalgamation of Gael itinerant poets, reveal a preoccupation with a folding of past and present time. Or, as in the work of Hopkins, the poetic turn can displace theoretical and practical distinctions between poetry and prose, even Butler’s essential element of yearning.
Gerard Manley Hopkins often invoked his poems to an audience that would not likely respond with literal breath. His iconic work, “The Windhover,” is addressed to Christ and exists as an effulgent prayer, while his episodic “The Wreck of the Deutschland” elegizes five Franciscan nuns. Even his deceptively simple “Spring and Fall” is directed toward “a young child,” although the name Margaret has multiple possible Biblical connotations. His final poem, “To R. B.,” was an abbreviated address toward his friend Robert Bridges. Invocation, in imagining a recipient, creates the apparition of time as the boundaries of the poetic action—composition and reading—are formed and dictated. “To R.B.” as a whole is a useful example of how Hopkins was able to create poem as artifice and as a dynamic work of time, not to mention offering a narrator steeped in yearning.
“To R. B.” is often read as punctuation upon a literary career, and as the final work of Hopkins’s canon the poem is often appropriated as ultimate proof of his aesthetic and theological allegiances, although the poem is most appealing as the apex of Hopkins’s practice with the sonnet as a form. Of all the fixed patterns of poetry, the sonnet is at once the most temporal and structured, an oxymoronic box of a poem. Subsequent rereadings of “To R. B.” resist strict placement within the Hopkins library, and the poem is best elucidated as its form commands: line by line, forward-thinking yet backward aware.
Hopkins was less a student of the Petrarchan sonnet than an admirer: “it was the form itself rather than the work of earlier sonneteers that most interested him” (Mariani 321). In this sonnet, Hopkins retains his rhythms while maintaining the form. The first octave contains two sentences. The four lines of the first sentence all work as individual lines, and three of them are end-stopped. The four lines of the second sentence are broken halfway by a strong colon. All these lines progress forward because of the rhyme expectation of the sonnet, which also creates curious repercussions for content: since in the Petrarchan style of “To R.B.” the end-word of the first line rhymes with the fourth line, these two lines are connected, and the middle two lines are both compressed and linked. “The fine delight that fathers thought” is compared to “the blowpipe flame” in line two, which is “quenchèd” in the third line: the middle two rhyming lines of this first quatrain both begin and end a simile. The fourth line returns to the original, lost inspiration of the first line. These relationships among lines are a strength of the sonnet form; rectangle-like, the sonnet’s boundaries force the poet to finish a thought. Such concision also builds a concrete sense of time: if we consider time as a difference or separation between events, then poetry is almost a temporal experiment, an act in measure existence.
The entire first octave of “To R. B.” proceeds in the past, but the poem becomes an explanation of the narrator’s present lack of inspiration. Here the structure of the sonnet becomes paramount, and the narrator’s shift works because of the expected volta of the ninth line: “Sweet fire the sire of muse, my soul needs this.” The sonnet is a form suited to irony because of this volta: the narrator wonders if “in my lagging lines you miss / The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,” yet his “winter-world” of non-inspiration has somehow created this sonnet. How often do we see such yearning in flash fiction, or any fiction, for that matter?
Although the volta begins at the ninth line, the poem’s final two lines—“My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss / Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation”—further the turn of the poem. Hopkins has made this sonnet almost a triptych, a three part piece that begins with the memory of fleeting inspiration, followed by a present lack of inspiration, and then, the reason for this present lack of inspiration. While Timothy F. Jackson has claimed that “there are no questions in this poem, as though Hopkins is filled with peace,” the central metaphor of “the mind a mother of immortal song” pleads otherwise (123). If one is to be collective in the work of Hopkins, then it should be considered that here the narrator alludes to the virgin mother. It is also curious that the narrator chooses “nine” months and years: certainly practical and biological timelines of birth abound but nine is also the Trinity triplicated, and this is nothing if not a poem that is aware of its triple structure. The questions inherent in the poem are subtle and yet important: how aware is the narrator of the poem’s inherent irony, and how aware will the invoked recipient of this poem, Robert Bridges, be of the narrator’s feigned inadequacies? The poem must be read with Bridges in mind; it is foremost an epistolary work, and certainly Hopkins was aware that his usage of both second-person and collective pronouns in the final line—“yields you, with some sighs, our explanation”—would inextricably connect the narrator as poet to the said inspiration. On second consideration, such a poem that questions a religious poet’s ability to produce could have been written to no other than Bridges, Hopkins’s posthumous publisher. Although Ron Hansen first notes that “English literature owes Robert Bridges a great debt for his responsible pasting of the handwritten poems into a blank book as he got them, for Hopkins himself was notoriously nonchalant about their preservation,” he also concedes the theological complexity of their relationship: “crucially important to the Catholic priest was the state of Bridges’s soul, for his Anglican faith was never orthodox and he seemed at times an atheist” (89, 92). At the time of Hopkins’s composition of “To R.B.,” the poet and Bridges were relatively estranged, and this final poem could be the last hope for reconciliation.
The final turn of “To R. B.” is small, yet reveals how much Hopkins accomplishes in this sonnet. The pacing within the final four lines changes dramatically, from the rolling, list-like twelfth line, “The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,” to the explanatory final line, slowed to a stroll by commas. The sonnet may be considered the most athletic of poetic forms; its prescribed route and changes of pace mirror the travails of a half-miler. The narrator may be running in place in this poem—he claims to still lack inspiration—but Hopkins has bounded, bounced, leaped long within the enabling box of the sonnet.
Hopkins’s temporal skill complicates Butler’s theory of atemporal poetry. Not to mention that perhaps no writer was more epiphanic than Hopkins, not even Joyce, whom Butler references as his lone evidence within the brief essay. The canon of Hopkins contains yearning; the narrator of “To R.B.” yearns with more existential force than most characters in contemporary flash fiction. Yearning is an inadequate delineation between prose and poetry. The term and emotion require further unpacking, but Butler is correct to imply that a critical definition of flash fiction is needed. It is unacceptable to claim that word count is an adequate barometer of form. Butler, intent on being “brief,” remained true to the literary form of which he spoke, but his theory is only one side of a necessary conversation.
Hansen, Ron. “Art and Religion: Hopkins and Bridges.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. 7.1 (2004): 78-96.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose. Ed. W. H. Gardner. Baltimore: Penguin, 1968.
Jackson, Timothy F. “The Role of the Holy Spirit in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Poetry.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. 9.1 (2006): 108-127.
Mariani, Paul. A Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1970.