To R. B.
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 then, nay years, nine years she long
Within her wears, bears, cares and combs 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, April 22, 1889
Hopkins' last poem. For context, see Justus quidem tu es, Domine.
The poem is remarkable for its extended metaphor linking the moment of creative inspiration to the act of procreation. In Justus quidem tu es, Domine, artistic creation was likened to building and to breeding: an active, stereotypically male function emphasized by Hopkins' self-description as "time's eunuch". Here, both male and female rôles feature in a more complex and fully realized image.
The power that initiates a creative thought -- which will grow into "immortal song" -- is identified with the father; the mind that develops the thought, pregnantly described in line 6, with the mother. The "strong spur, live and lancing like the blowpipe flame" is both the membrum virile which is "quenched faster than it came", and the power of (unconscious, or divine?) inspiration: it "breathes" once (the root of inspiration is Latin for "breath") and then vanishes, leaving the conscious, crafting creative mind a widow.
This mind's "aim now known and hand at work now never wrong" are yet another metaphor, or two: instead of a widowed mother, it becomes an archer or a craftsman whose technique is perfected with years of practice following the initial "insight".
In the sestet Hopkins returns to the original reproductive and incendiary metaphors, but with a more personal note: he himself is in need of the rapture or "sweet fire" which, judging from the satisfied and satisfying description of the first part, was more forthcoming in the past. Instead of fire, he inhabits a "winter world". Hopkins is saying that the source of his poetry is drying up -- but what "roll", "rise", "carol" or "creation" do we miss in the late poetry? Is this simply the self-deprecation of a tired and disappointed man, or a more perceptive self-diagnosis?
In fact, Hopkins' style underwent many changes over the years: poems such as The Wreck of the Deutschland, The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo are unconventional and eccentric in expression, with unheard-of extremes in sound and syntax. They stretch English to its limits and draw attention to their own strangeness, which undoubtedly contributed to their generally unfavourable reception.
In contrast, the late sonnets, particularly those expressing most personally Hopkins' state of mind, become progressively more orthodox in form and technique. He no longer invents his own words and word-combinations, interrupts the poetic discourse with histrionic exclamations, rhymes in the middle of a word, nor puts wildly-varying numbers of syllables in succeeding lines. These devices could, of course, produce an exaggerated and unbalanced effect -- and often did -- but that was no reason for Hopkins to abandon the innovations that had resulted in some of the most intense poetry of the century.
Perhaps Hopkins was deploring this chastening of style, which may have resulted from a lessening of his younger enthusiasm -- or simply the fact that he couldn't find any external subject to awaken his poetic impulses. However, despite the apparently narrow range of technique used in this poem, Hopkins' powers of expression are unaffected. The use of assonance (for example, l sounds in lines 1, 2, 7 and 11, m sounds in line 4), of alliteration (for example line 12), and of mid-line rhymes in addition to the Petrarchan rhyme scheme ("fire" and "sire", "rise" and "sighs"), all show absolute mastery of the subtle "word-music" that turns everyday English into "immortal song". The layered and vivid imagery of the beginning of the poem is on a level with Shakespeare's in the sonnets, and Hopkins' insight into his subject is arguably no less deep.
But, although Hopkins had, like his famous predecessor, the power to make great poetry out of the simplest words and phrases, the subject matter and attitude of the two are utterly opposed. Shakespeare turned his muse to work on the most varied and motley collection of humankind that appears in any writer's work, submerging his own personality to give expression to those of his characters but remaining himself a mystery. Hopkins, no longer stirred by the nature- and religious subjects that had been his mainstay, turned to his own state of mind and his craft for subjects, foreshadowing the psychology and self-analysis that would become so important in 20th century literature.