An approach to the "terrible sonnets" of Gerard Manley Hopkins : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in English at Massey University

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In contrast to those critics who examine Hopkins primarily in terms of the Exercise of St. Ignatius Loyola, this thesis proposes that Hopkins can usefully be examined in terms of certain Greek and Victorian contexts. The drive for unity, fruitfulness and wholeness which seems to characterize much of Hopkins' poetry may be represented as a Victorian phenomenon as well as Greek. Hopkins' early poetry seems to capture the unique experience whereby multitudinousness (the tendency to fragmentation) is "held fast" in the instressing of God in Nature. It is the world of "Pied Beauty", where dappled complexity is united in the One whose "beauty is past change". The perception of this Being is the act of instress. This concept of reality, it is proposed, derives from Parmenidean epistemology. Unity for Parmenides is indivisible, timeless, motionless and complete, fixed in the present world. The "hurrahing" side of Hopkins' poetry derives from this notion. However, in the "terrible sonnets" one can observe the horror of disintegration, both personal and universal. The most complete statement of this fear is the sonnet "The Nature is a Heraditean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection" where change, as opposed to permanence, is inscaped for us. Through imaginary of fire, drowning and death, Hopkins expresses the anguished realization that God is outside nature, beyond the present. This reorientation is appropriately expressed in terms of Heraclitean epistemology. Hence it is useful to examine the development of Hopkins' poetry as a movement from a Parmenidean to a Heraclitean view of reality (mindful of certain qualifications.) Appropriately, in terms of the Greek analogy, the pathway in this transition is the pathway of self-examination. At this point we are confronted by the Victorian parallel as concern about a meaningful, coherent universe is projected into an uncertainty about the value of the self. In the "terrible sonnets" there is recorded the self-examination of the poet Hopkins, the despair of "inscaping" the self : "I am gall, I am heartburn". Indeed, the sonnets can be seen to trace the classic descent/ascent pattern. The whole development of Hopkins' poetry in these terms is structurally reflected in the Heraclitean sonnet, such that the vision of the poem may indeed be Hopkins' final stance. Hope for permanence and unity can only be found in the future : the Resurrection is not a comfort for the present. The final dilemma for Hopkins then is the problem of Time and the significance of Man. The "significant moment" for Hopkins was the Resurrection; the now was a world of impermanence, night, flux and conflict, both personal and universal.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley 1844-1889, English Poets 19th century