I have been thinking of late of poetic hermits, those poets who live and work outside the mainstream poetic milieu. Unencumbered the with usual social-obligations, group-mind, and unquestioned/shared-understandings, these are the poets free enough and courageous enough to strike out in new and unexpected directions… to search for new and forgotten paths up the holy mountain towards that Olympian light. These are poets like William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and Gerard Manly Hopkins.
Hopkins, the Jesuit, is the quintessential poetic hermit. His unique poetry is the result of his unique poetic and religious understandings.
Hopkins, who studied Old English and Welsh was greatly influenced by older rhythms and words that still echo in the very bones of the English language. This led him to experiment with a different kind of poetry, one we might call proto-free-verse: one with a completely different kind of rhythm (which he called sprung rhythm) and with completely different kinds of words, even new words. He pushed the boundaries of language and rhythm, and poetry and the English language are the better for it.
“Duns Scotus’ Oxford” is a good example of what is best about Hopkins. Simply read the first three lines of the poem out loud (as every poem should be read, after all) and you will be hooked. The feel of his language in you mouth is one of the great pleasures of English Literature. It reminds us of why we first fell in love with poetry in the first place, why poetry remains the art closest to our very bones.
“Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded” is the kind of language we would expect an ancient priest to speak out into the night to summon powers of some kind. It is magic. It is the language of incantations and god-summoning. It is at once ancient sounding and new. Only a poetic hermit could write language like this. Only a poetic hermit could make us enjoy our tongues like this.
On another beautiful August morning, what could be better than a beautiful Hopkins poem.
Dun Scotus’s Oxford
Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and poisèd powers;
Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping—folk, flocks, and flowers.
Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;
Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.