Thursday, 6 June 2013

"Sweet Fire the Sire of Muse": Gerard Manley Hopkins Turns the Volume Up to 11

TO R.B. (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

The fine delight that fathers thought; the strong
Spur, live and lancing like the blowpipe flame,
Breathes once and, quenchèd faster than it came,
Leaves yet the mind a mother of immortal song.
Nine months she then, nay years, nine years she long
Within her wears, bears, cares and moulds the same:
The widow of an insight lost she lives, with aim
Now known and hand at work now never wrong.
Sweet fire the sire of muse, my soul needs this;
I want the one rapture of an inspiration.
O then if in my lagging lines you miss
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.

Gerard Manley Hopkins seems to be at or near the top of a lot of people's lists, whether of favourite poets, or most influential, or whatever list they choose. I find him amazing, but frankly overwhelming - his poetry is so intense both sensually and spiritually that I get overloaded quite quickly when I read him. His poetry, almost unrecognised and unpublished in his Victorian lifetime, was very innovative for its time and has gone on to be massively influential. I hear echoes of him in so many poets. Ted Hughes's 'The Hawk in the Rain' descends in a straight line from 'The Windhover'. Dylan Thomas also reminds me very much of Hopkins (though I'm equally unprepared to comment on either of them.)

I came across this poem, 'To R.B.', quite recently and loved it. R.B. was the poet Robert Bridges, who I recently crossed paths with as he edited an anthology of heroic poetry during World War I which Mallory took with him to Everest. Robert Bridges was a close friend of Hopkins and encouraged his poetry, and later edited and published collections of Hopkins' poems after his death.

The poem itself is pretty stunning, an inspired ode to inspiration. I must confess that the line "Sweet fire the sire of muse, my soul needs this" had me picturing Hopkins as the lead singer of...well...a hard rock/metal band with almighty riffs, bombastic tunes, and exceptionally good lyrics. Couldn't you just hear Robert Plant, Axl Rose, Freddie Mercury, Matt Bellamy, Sammy Hagar, Geoff please stop me...) belting out those lines?


  1. I had not read this one but I read it twice just now: once to take in the richness of the language and once to find my way through the maze of imagery and syntax. This poem is a reminder to all poets to keep a notebook handy for that moment of inspiration: the drafts and re-drafts can come later but it's so important to write down those first lines, no matter how crazy they seem. By the end he seems to lament the cooling off that takes place before the final draft: it's as if poetic inspiration was to GMH like a moment of religious ecstasy, it's reproduction in verse never matching the original moment. Still, he comes pretty close most of the time! (I think he had notions of poetry being almost sinful.) My favourite GMH poem is 'The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo', read by Colin Farrell at Liz Taylor's funeral: apparently it was Richard Burton's favourite poem.

    1. Thanks, David. I will have to look up the poem you've recommended...mainly I know his greatest hits. I also find Hopkins very complex, as you've described, which is part of the overwhelm factor for me. I like how you've read the poem. Evidently I got carried away thinking of Hopkins as rock star (most inappropriate for his life) but I had been going to add that much of his poetry seems wild and flowing, as befits his ecstatic delivery and subject matter, but the technical control is such that it's extremely evident that he has considered every word (after that first torrent of inspiration, presumably.) That's quite a balancing act.

    2. Robert Plant, Geoff Tate or Matt Bellamy. Translating GBHs words into lyrics (in my head), those three are far and away the best match. "-)

    3. poesy70 - I agree! Now I want to devise a whole poetic rock band (or several.) I think Hopkins might work best as a lead guitarist/lyricist type. Not sure I see him as a frontman. Byron seems ideal for that position. Also, if we can include actual musicians, I'd like to get Liszt in there on keyboards. He sounds like the first rock star for sure. Apparently he used to wear stage outfits WITH CHAINS.

  2. The first association this poem brings, for me, is the poet F.X. Enderby's very funny misconstruing of the first lines in Anthony Burgess's The Clockwork Testament -- though it is a fine meditation on the creative process beyond, and more importantly, than its mention in that novel.

    It strikes me in reading it again how the pace is slowed and the lines gain gravity by the fact that fully half begin with spondees.

    1. Thanks, James - I don't think I've read Anthony Burgess at all and I didn't know he had a poet character - now I am intrigued!

      There's something rather Beethoven-esque about this poem. Both soaring and grave, even weighty in places.

    2. I agree about the spondees: they add power. In Clarissa's rock scenario, they're a bit like the 'DUMMM-DUMMM!' riffs that punctuate the intro to 'Bat out of hell'!! It really shows how the best poets deliberate over metre to create an effect: it's not accidental in this case. He also uses a mixture of pentameter, hexameter and a few lines in between the two. This poem shows GMH was as much a master of standard metre (accentual-syllabic) as he was of Anglo-Saxon four-stress lines (his 'sprung rhythm). What torture it must have been to keep this incredible verse from public view!

    3. Thank you all for the technical pointers. They add somewhat more weight to the discussion than my vision of Hopkins as long-haired headbanger. I was never very strong on analysis of metre and such in poetry, and my knowledge seems to be rusty enough that I had to look up spondees. *hangs head in shame*

      Hopkins seems to have been hugely conflicted in so many ways. I'm getting excited now to look more into both his life and his poetry.

  3. Not knowing what a spondee is hasn't done your excellent poetry any harm!! (Anyway, if you looked it up you'll now know that "hangs head" is a spondee!!) My knowledge of metre used to be limited to what I remembered from school and, more recently, Robert Langdon's explanation of iambic pentameter in The Da Vinci Code! Then I read Stephen Fry's 'The Ode Less Travelled' and John Lennard's 'The Poetry Handbook', both of which celebrate the study of metre and form and their effects: knowing this stuff increases the pleasure of reading poetry.

    1. I must have a look at those books. The Poem and the Journey, and 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, both by Ruth Padel (and including lots of good poems) are also both useful for technical details. Although I'm kind of rusty these days on the spondee side of things, I do firmly believe that the best way to appreciate poetry (and art generally) is to find a balance with both emotional impact and technical knowledge.