A Book of Answers XIII: Alfred Tennyson And Gerard Manley Hopkins


I have fathered this sonnet on Tennyson for no very good reason other than that I wanted to include it in this collection and I thought that he would probably have agreed with me. Tennyson had probably never heard of Hopkins; but Hopkins, as he confessed in his letters, had been deeply under Tennyson’s spell when he was a young man and always admired him though he had considerable reservations about him in later years. I have imagined the Poet Laureate in his later years, or in Elysium, reading Hopkins’s letters and coming across the following passage:

For it seems to me that the poetical language of any age should be the current language heightened, to any degree heightened and unlike itself, but not … an obsolete one. This is Shakespeare’s and Milton’s practice and the want of it will be fatal to Tennyson’s Idylls and ploy … [Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, August 1879]

This might have been calculated to irritate the poet who had a high opinion of The Idylls of the King, and I have gone on to imagine that, on his enquiring where he could find an example of Father Hopkins’s practice to illustrate his theory, someone, let us say Mr Robert Bridges or Canon Dixon, had posted him the following sonnet. On this the sensitive Tennyson, who could not even bear the opening line of The Rape of the Lock, for its harshness, might have replied as I did in the days when Hopkins was all the rage in the academic world and I thought the rage excessive.

I should add that I enjoy most of Hopkins, but I am glad that his practice is such an example of idiosyncrasy that he cannot be imitated successfully. One Hopkins is enough. As Keats said when giving over his attempt to follow Milton, “English must be kept up.” As with most extreme styles, that of Hopkins not only defies imitation but parody also. You cannot exaggerate what is already beyond the limit. So burlesque is the only recourse. Tennyson, of course, was not much of a dab at burlesque and rarely tried it. But he had a robust sense of fun and he was not mealy-mouthed. The man who, dining at Balliol, could say to his formidable host, “Filthy port, Master, filthy port!” would have had no trouble in being forthright with Hopkins.

But I know I am on shaky ground. There was a largeness of mind about Tennyson, a nobleness of spirit which would probably have deterred him from the attack. When he did answer back he repented it and confessed:

And I too, talk, and lose the touch
I talk of. Surely after all
The noblest answer unto such
Is perfect stillness when they brawl.

Supposing Mr Robert Bridges to have communicated the following to the Poet Laureate:

Sonnet, By Gerard Manley Hopkins

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief-
woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked “No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief”.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Reply To Father Gerard Manley Hopkins

No, worse there is none, for him who hears (Hell!) Hop-
Kins at bay, bray—force I must be brief,
Or, in his coil, toil pitched beyond belief,
Wordwan, glue-gold-glutted, cry: Hi, stop!
Why, then? who then, in such change and chop,
Claptrap, terse-verse, groan and grunt of grief,
For bruised bone, bashed ear (Tell, then!) gets relief?
Crack Jack, crack Jill! crack both, crash neck-and-crop!

Let hiccup-Hop-skip-jump-kins lumpkins bruise
Verse, which on foot-rot feet by jerk-work scans!
More I’ll not, lurch-leg, in bold botch-bard’s shoes.

Back to the language used before this man’s
Made Constipation first an English Muse
And taught our numbers his St. Vitus dance.

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