Hopkins died before most of his poems were published. Not until 1918 did his friend Robert Bridges come out with an edition that includes what are considered his greatest works, those written between 1876 and his death in 1889. In the Preface to that collection, Hopkins described the difference between running rhythm (common rhythm) and sprung rhythm–the latter being more natural because closer to speech–it is identifiable by stresses coming together. Pure sprung rhythm cannot be counterpointed. The claim for its naturalness derives from the argument that the impulse (in all but the most “same and tame” poems) to invert and vary something like iambic pentameter eventually leads to sprung rhythm.
The most sustained example is “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a poem comprised of 35 8-line stanzas, with alternating rhymes, and varying length. In the fifth stanza he introduces the crucial idea of instress, which is able to translate in its wholeness the “inscape“: that which makes some individual thing beautiful:
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.
The poem as a whole is a meditation on the experience and meaning (perhaps lack of meaning) of divine violence. He correlates the inexplicable wreckage of a ship full of nuns with the brutal ascetic requirements of religious devotion:
Thous art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.
The syntactical intensity of the poem is literally compounded by an overflow of hyphenated words–flint-flack, black-backed, white-fiery, whirlwind-swiveled all from stanza 13—perhaps miming the “make words break from me here all alone” in stanza 18. The poet wonders whether all of this violence (aesthetic, physical, historical) is somehow perversely pleasing to God, likening it a “harvest.” The concluding stanzas show his indebtedness to the aesthetic theories of Walter Pater, but in Hopkins they are rendered overtly religious:
Now burn, new burn to the world
The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder-throne.
Pretty stunning stuff. Talk about Christ, the notion of failure as success and the connection between religious and aesthetic sacrifice.
“God’s Grandeur” is a Petrarchan sonnet that works out the triple-implication of the first line, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God“: economic, imperative, electric. Hopkins bemoans “trade” which seems to overdraw its account by extracting to much “oil” from the “soil.” The wonderful line–“Generations have trod, have trod, have trod“– syntactically mirrors the sort of repetitive nature of man’s dependence on natural resources. Despite this greed, “nature is never spent.” It remains charged with grandeur, and we are charged to recognize it as such.
“Pied Beauty” contrasts the variety of God’s creativity with the homogenizing drive of human work, “plotted and pieced.” The form of the poem: 10 1/2 lines or a Curtal-sonnet acc. to the Preface. Like the full sonnet, it attempts a fusion of opposites, but in condensed form: listing off binaries–swift, slow; sweet, sour–before positing a God whose beauty is beyond all change–that is, these variations are able to coexist in nature.
“Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” and “To what serves Mortal Beauty” are two later poems displaying Hopkins at his most experimental. Both have long lines, sometimes twenty syllables, with graphic caesurae in each line. The former ruminates on the forms of destruction wrought by death: in general, the apocalyptic vision is one of division and forgetfulness, “disremembering and dismembering,” which leads to moral and aesthetic reductionism: “black, white; right, wrong.” This leads to an internal, subjective dimension, in which thoughts are turned one against another. Interesting to contrast this world of division to the organic variety (not totalizing) of earth’s natural state. The latter poem answers the title’s question: “See: it does this: keeps warm men’s wits to the things that are.” There is a danger inherent to form, however: “the O-so-seal-that feature” that Hopkins correlates with pride, domination, and the harmful reduction of nature’s infinite variety. He proposes something very much like recessive action: “Merely meet it….then leave, let that alone.”