Awe in Hopkins’ poetry


Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) är en av Englands mest kända poeter, och var jesuitpater. Signum publicerar här en recension av den amerikanske jesuiten och Hopkinskännaren Joseph J. Feeney. Eftersom Hopkins dikter inte har översatts till svenska och de poänger som recensenten lyfter fram skulle gå förlorade om man försökte översätta till svenska, publiceras recensionen oöversatt på engelska.

Elisabet Dellming, “Unsought, presented so easily”: A Phenomenological Study of Awe in the Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Stockholm: Stockholm University, 2014.

In this book, Elisabet Dellming, Doctor at the University of Stockholm, is both brave and original: brave, because she uses the difficult methodology of “phenomenology” to analyze poetry, and original, because she studies “Awe,” a new theme in the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins. And she does this with intelligence, grace, and broad research, delving into the phenomenology of poetic “awe” and showing a deep knowledge of Hopkins’ poems as she probes his poetic consciousness. Her subtitle—A Phenomenological Study—explains her approach: an analysis of the structures of human consciousness as developed by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The book is rich, then, but requires careful reading.

After an “Introduction” and two chapters on “Theoretical Considerations” and “Hopkins Criticism,” the author devotes chapters to aspects of “Awe”: “Awe and Hopkins’s Aesthetics,” “Awe in Motion,” “Awe’s Appearance,” “Awe as Wreckage,” “Awe as Revelatory Possibility,” and a short coda, “Awe (Still) Remains: Concluding Remarks.” She concludes that awe, though not exclusive to Hopkins, is “prominent to an exceptional degree” in his poetry.

What does Elisabet Dellming mean by that all-important word “Awe”? Her title is a clue, “Unsought, presented so easily.” The words, from Hopkins’ poem “Moonrise June 19 / 1876,” describe his surprise, fascination, and awe at the motion of the moon one night—“the prized, the desirable sight, unsought, presented so easily”—an object of awe that “divided me, eyelid and eyelid of slumber.” Working from Hopkins’ texts, the author writes that awe, though ultimately ineffable, can yet be described as a moment, an action, a “jolt,” “a gap or crevice in the flow of ordinary life,” or simply, “being moved.” A stronger experience than “wonder, fear or reverence,” awe is “something infinitely other, […] a feeling of ‘overwhelmedness,’ of being […] suddenly struck to the core of one’s being.” Awe is “motile,” a movement within a person’s consciousness that can cause “a fundamental and revelatory re-conception of life” parallel to “Saul’s striking experience on the road to Damascus.”

Hopkins feels awe in the face of beauty, nature, God, stars, a bird, a bough, even spots—his “dappled things.” Such awe is “a regenerating shock […] that fundamentally alters the heart,” and when preserved in a poem, “the musical pattern of rhythm, alliterations and repetitions,” along with images and structure, “reverberates [and] sings of awe.” Thus, “awe outruns perception, […] is felt sensuously, […] is there to be momentarily grasped, seen or heard as an impetus to revelatory, convertive, possibilities.”

The chapter “Awe and Hopkins’s Aesthetics” studies the connection between the idea of “awe” and Hopkins’ understanding of individuality in his concepts of “inscape,” “instress,” and “haecceitas” (“thisness”). Then “Awe in Motion” considers “Flight,” “Stalling, Hovering,” and “Flash,” together with the (e)motions of the poet: “to be struck by awe is to ‘be moved’ in the core of human affectivity, the heart.” Such (e)motion cannot be predicted or planned. “The Windhover” and “Spring,” for example, produce awe from both stasis and movement, while “Heraclitean Fire” presents awe as a “flash.” Communicated through imagery, motion, sound, rhythm, form, and grammar, awe can be joyful, rapturous, even sacramental.

The chapter “Awe’s Appearance” asserts that “it is in the poetical rendering of the experience of being moved by the sensuous that awe appears distinctly,” i.e., a poem best expresses the experience of “the seeing of the unseen in the seen…in the sensuous and through its various degrees of metaphor.” And Hopkins’ metaphors “are nearly always of a sensuous kind,” as in “Moonrise,” “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe,” and “The Starlight Night.” Such poems, in their physicality, give access to the invisible. In a poem “the internal”—the awe—determines its poetic surroundings, both the content and the form of the poem. Vivid examples then exemplify this physical representation of internal awe in five dimensions: “Seeing,” “Beauty,” “Heart,” “Sound,” and “The Cry Within.”

The section on “Seeing” asserts that “an affective seeing” of “the forms and colours of creation makes the perceiver singularly receptive to the transformational impetus of awe,” and the section on “Beauty” explores the Welsh poems where “beauty in nature concurs with the converting power of mystical awe.” Awe, then, “is a stirring of the heart, it is about feeling,” and “rather than the intellect or the will, […] the heart […] [is] the centre of poetic feeling.” The section “Sound” explores the often unusual sounds which stir Hopkins’ awe: sounds “disturbing or even painful,” or interlaced with visual images (“Henry Purcell”), or repeated independent of rhythm (“O, where is it, the wilderness”), or imitating a birdcall (“The Woodlark”). The last section, “The Cry Within,” presents awe as an inaudible internal cry that can be either a scream, a calling-out, or a reaction.

The paradoxical chapter “Awe as Wreckage” sees awe as based not on the act of wrecking but on “that which remains after wrecking,” i.e., “how the smallness of what is left” suggests “an immensity that can find utterance […] in the smallest and most oddly particular.” Awe rests in the “unmaking, […] breaking up, ripping asunder,” “a violent rupture in the midst of everyday existence, a ‘dismembering’ of complacency,” as with the trees in “Binsey Poplars” or the storm in “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Even a new “Creation” can be accomplished by a wrecking, as with Hopkins himself in “Part the First” of “The Wreck.” Positive effects grow from the “Unmaking” and “Dismembering” in “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” and “Patience, hard thing,” and from the “Chasms” of the Dublin sonnets, e.g., “I wake and feel the fell of dark” and “No worst.” The chapter on “Wreckage” ends with the awe of “Buckle!” in “The Windhover” and of “Fire” in “Heraclitean Fire.”

This study of Hopkins—a spiritual man and Jesuit priest—appropriately ends with a chapter on “Awe as a Revelatory Possibility.” At first thinking in terms of the End-time—the end of the world—the author quickly asserts that “the end is not to be seen as the final end” for it is “full of revelatory possibilities allowing for constant on-going beginnings,” as in Stanzas 1, 10, and 18 of “The Wreck.” Contemplating the End brings not only awe but also a look toward the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of an individual, as well as a world “charged with the grandeur of God.” The “jolt” of the End-time thus points toward such poems as “The Caged Skylark,” “As kingfishers catch fire,” and the “immortal diamond” of “Heraclitean Fire.” Elisabet Dellming summarizes the paradox: “Beyond the End there is always possibility, an indestructible openness captured in the image of the diamond.”

As I close, I gently offer a few thoughts on how this book might be improved: (1) a definition and description of “awe” in the “Introduction” would be a great help; currently, the reader must piece together its meaning; (2) Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy would offer further thoughts on “Awe as a Revelatory Possibility”; and (3) an index.

But above all, praise must be given: in 130 packed pages, and with splendid research and a long bibliography, Elisabet Dellming offers a fresh and stimulating reading of Hopkins in a philosophical, phenomenological, and literary framework, as he transmutes the “jolt” of awe into his unforgettable images, rhythms, and sounds. Her book itself is revelatory.

Joseph J. Feeney S.J. 2015-09-30

Joseph J. Feeney, S.J., Professor Emeritus of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, is Co-Editor of The Hopkins Quarterly, and author of The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins (2008).

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