2020 Brennan Prize Winning Essay

The Divine Paradox: Hopkins’ Proto-Deconstructionist Language in “Pied Beauty”


            The poetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins developed within a Victorian context, reacting to philosophical theories of mutability with Hopkins’ own theories of inscape and instress that matured during his formation as a Jesuit priest, resulting in poetics that attempt to communicate the essence of God through the perception of the natural world. Creation, often the subject of Hopkins’ poetry, is understood as capable of an instress which allows the attentive individual to experience the underlying inscape of a particular being. Through an understanding of this inscape of the being, the viewer is additionally able to extrapolate an understanding of the God who brought this being into existence. Modern critics read Hopkins as priest, philosopher, and/or scientist in order to better understand the inscapes of the subjects in Hopkins’ poems, often connecting this understanding to Hopkins’ theological thoughts that stemmed from his role as a Catholic Jesuit priest. A historical-contextual analysis of “Pied Beauty” often results in an understanding of God as existing beyond the fluctuating nature of creation yet ever connected to creation as its source. Critics correctly identify that Hopkins is reacting to Victorian philosophies of reality as being in a constant state of flux, as encountered in his studies with Walter Pater, and acknowledge the role of Hopkins’ faith as being the lens through which Hopkins assigns an objective, rather than relative, meaning to creation. Hopkins’ God is thus understood as one of paradox – both God and human, changing and unchanging, fully revealed in Christ and fully mysterious – and he places the divine as being beyond human comprehension. If Hopkins’ verse is instead read through a deconstructionist lens, the fascinating result is a similar understanding of God. Deconstructionist theory will not admit any inherent or objective meaning to the transcendental signified ‘God,’ and instead generates meaning via relation with the other signifiers/signifieds in the poem. In “Pied Beauty,” this is done by uniting opposite adjectives under the same signified of ‘God,’ identifying this signified as the source of both and additionally implying that all of these opposites coexist fully in ‘God.’ Thus, the meaning of ‘God’ is derived not from any prior conception of a religious figure, but of from the relationships with other signifiers within the poem. Regardless of how the modern critic may interpret the signifier ‘God,’ understood as the Christian God of Hopkins or not, the critic must admit that Hopkins is ascribing a paradoxical nature to the signified ‘God.’  In “Pied Beauty,” Hopkins’ use of language prefigures deconstructionist theory by stripping the transcendental signified ‘God’ of one definite meaning and instead ascribing to ‘God’ varied and oppositional meanings, a paradox which overlaps with the theological understanding of God as a mystery beyond human comprehension which is reached by contextual analysis.

            Any historical-contextual analysis of Hopkins’ poetics will inevitably discuss the concepts of inscape and instress, Hopkins’ theories that reveal much about his philosophical, scientific, and religious thought. Originally conceived by Hopkins during the time of his undergraduate studies at Baliol College under the tutelage of Walter Pater, these are two terms which Hopkins uses to describe reality: inscape is the “particularity, the unique, inner form of each organic thing revealed to the observer through the senses” while instress is “the observer’s sensation of inscape, the realization of form or pattern, and the recognition of the interwoven character of all being” (Hutchinson 218). These ideas permeated Hopkins’ writings for the rest of his life, becoming fully developed under the influence of Ignatian spirituality during his Jesuit formation.  Hopkins’ tutor, Pater, is noted for his aesthetic philosophy which considers life in a state of flux, which can be seen in Pater’s famous conclusion to The Renaissance: “It is with this movement, with the passage and dissolution of impressions, images, sensations, that analysis leaves off – that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves” (Pater 196).Although the nature of Pater’s relationship with Hopkins is not fully understood, modern critics such as David Urban argue that Hopkins’ “convictions regarding the permanence of forms and the absoluteness of unity perceived amid distinctly individual objects, so essential to his idea of inscape…” are an explicit reaction to Pater’s denial of “any notion of absoluteness of forms within observed matter itself” (Urban 2-3). The theories of inscape and instress are built upon an understanding of reality as having an objective meaning and purpose. If these theories of inscape and instress are connected to Hopkins’ poetics, then his poetry can be understood as an attempt to “capture the inscape, moved by the instress…to record the particularity of what he observes, realizing that he can only do so through language that is, in some sense, universal” (Noble 227).

As a Jesuit priest, Hopkins unites his metaphysical theories of the world to his religious belief, resulting in a spirituality that focuses on “the act of identifying amid all nature Christ – to whom, according to Ignatius and Scotus, all nature ultimately points” (Urban 4). Modern critics have focused on the relationship between the perception of a physical object and the encounter with a metaphysical reality, a relationship which Hopkins was attentive to. The critic Laurie Hatch argues that, for Hopkins, “[t]he material world is not outside the realm of the metaphysical but is intimately connected to it in a way that is analogical to the inseparability of sensation and the mind in perception” (Hatch 163). Taking a slightly different lens, the critic Mirko Starčević also focuses on the interplay between the metaphysical and the physical. Hopkins’ life as a religious figure is centered around his encounter and relationship with the divine, an encounter that takes place through the physical senses. Starčević notes that “[t]he charged reality of experience bespeaking the inviolate presence of the divine body could be best sustained via an undeviating contact with God through the vibrating senses” (Startcevic 99). The metaphysical is not simply connected to the physical in some abstract sense, but rather there is an objective essence – an inscape – present within the physical reality that can transmit knowledge of the metaphysical. A third critic, Hazel Hutchinson, identifies this belief in an objective nature present within a world that is subjectively perceived as a particularly Catholic notion, present in the writings of both John Henry Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The incarnational theology of the Catholic Church allows Hopkins find God within creation, God who is Truth itself. God thus serves as the objective foundation which holds all of reality together.  The act of perceiving this reality is understood as one that “relies partly on the physical senses, but which also offers access to a richer experience of reality, one which is alert to the spiritual significance of material things – an internal vision that feeds on but also supersedes external vision” (Hutchinson 222). For Hopkins, it is through the created world that the individual learns about the divine Creator.

With these notions of inscape and instress in mind, along with the knowledge of Hopkins as a religious figure seeking to understand the metaphysical God through the perception of the physical world, “Pied Beauty” can be read as giving praise for the inscapes of the “dappled” world which cumulatively reveal the nature of God as the mystery whose beauty appears in varied, even opposite, experiences of instress. Hopkins finds himself constantly in contact with God in the natural world, through the “skies of couple-color as a brinded cow” and the “landscapes plotted and pieced – field, fallow and plow” (ll. 2,5). It is not only the pied beauty of the natural world that draws his attention, but also the landscapes crafted by humanity as well as the very tools of their work. In this way, the totality of human experience is drawn up in Hopkins’ praise. Hopkins does not limit himself to offering praise only for what is pure, but deliberately gives a sweeping account of reality that draws attention to the diversity of forms. The creation which Hopkins celebrates is imperfect and changeable yet shows forth the beauty of Him who is “past change” (l. 10).  Responding to this beauty, Hopkins gives praise for “the individualized wonder throughout creation, the unified splendor of the created whole, and the immutable glory of the ever-creating God” (Urban 6). The first stanza is unique in its particularity; Hopkins picks out specific instances of the dappledness by which he has learned more about the divine. Conversely, the second stanza of this curtal sonnet is distinguished by its lack of particulars, notable for its general language that lacks a specific subject.

The second stanza changes from giving praise for scenes found in nature to listing “all things counter, original, spare, strange,” using adjectives rather than nouns. Hopkins is emphasizing the encounter with God in all natural experiences, even those which seem opposed. The unity of God encompasses all things: “Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) / With swift, slow, sweet, sour; adazzle, dim” (ll. 8-9). This increasingly abstract and oppositional language used in the second stanza points to an understanding of God as a paradox beyond human comprehension. Hopkins poetry is an attempt to give praise for this mystery in words that will never be able to capture the totality of God’s reality, an attempt to “strive towards the inexpressible, not to construe a definitive version of deity but to find joy in what is unspeakable or beyond the false clarity of immediate expression” (Starčević 103). Maria Lichtmann, a prominent Hopkins scholar, has argued that “[a]s the poem moves toward greater abstraction, it also moves toward more and more opposition” (Lichtmann 114). The penultimate line of the poem reveals the intimate, familial relationship of God with creation as one who “fathers-forth” (l. 10). Still, in spite of the intimate relationship that exists between God and His creation, the nature of the God being praised is wrapped in mystery and “the poem is not actually resolved and reconciled until the reader accepts both the dappledness and yet the God who fathers it forth and whom it praises” (Lichtmann 118).  The reconciliation of the changeable creation with the unchanging God occurs by an assent of faith. It is only Christ, the God-man, who is able to fully embody this paradox. Thus, the poem ends with one final assent, “Praise him” (l. 11); this is an assent which is “given in contemplation, to both the dappledness and the Unchangeable, the earth's beauty and Christ's, death and Resurrection” (Lichtmann 128).

Although readings of Hopkins’ poetry are often given through a historical-contextual approach, modern literary theories are helpful and arguably necessary for reaching a fuller understanding Hopkins’ poetry as these theories give radically different ways to approach verse. One such theory is post-structuralism, or deconstruction; as I began to explain above, this theory is built upon the concept of the undecidability of a text, holding that “[a] text has meanings and therefore no definitive interpretation,” a concept which is in direct contrast with the structuralist belief that there is an objective meaning of a text that can be discovered by analyzing its structural codes (Bressler 115). The structuralist idea of a transcendental signified that serves to “provide ultimate meaning, being the origin of origins, reflecting itself,” the only signified whose meaning “originates directly with itself,” is completely rejected by the post-structuralist approach (Bressler 123-124). Building upon the Saussurian linguistic theory of words being arbitrary signifiers that gain meaning only through difference, deconstructionist theory assumes that “all human knowledge [is] referential; that is, we can know something only because it differs from some other bit of knowledge, not because we can compare this knowledge to any absolute or coherent unity” (Bressler 129). Without the transcendental signified, there is found room for multiple interpretations of the same text, all seen as equally valid.

 In a historical-contextual reading of “Pied Beauty,” God is understood as a transcendental signified – Hopkins understands himself and creation in relation to the divine Creator. In contrast, a deconstructionist approach initially strips this signifier, ‘God,’ of any inherent meaning. Gone, too, are the theological and philosophical concepts that Hopkins had in mind when writing the poem. A deconstructionist approach allows the poem to stand alone, apart from its author, in this case signifying a departure from Hopkins’ voice in all its facets as philosopher, priest, and scientist. The meaning of ‘God,’ to whom these words are addressed, is to be interpreted on the basis of the text itself. However, even a deconstructionist approach still encounters the theme of paradox that is found in the second stanza. Regardless of how the scenes of nature of the first stanza are to be interpreted, the list of opposites in line 9 of the poem generate a logical absurdity if they are to be cumulatively associated with the signified ‘God,’ resulting in a mysterious and uncertain understanding of God that is similar to that which is reached by reading “Pied Beauty” with Hopkins’ voice. Hopkins’ fascinating use of language allows “Pied Beauty” to be read as a proto-deconstructionist piece that generates varioius meanings for its signifieds, resulting in the idea of a subject, a ‘God,’ which escapes the limits of language and logic.

The language of the first stanza is filled with scenes of nature that emphasize the vast diversity of the natural world that can all be described as ‘dappled.’ The work of “all trades, their gear and tackle and trim” is considered alongside the “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls,” implying that dappledness is found in both humanity and nature (ll. 6,4). Significantly, the different scenes described are given as instantiations of the signified ‘dappled things.’ This association with dappledness shows a tendency towards Saussurian linguistics in that the signifier ‘dappled’ is found to have different meanings within the stanza – the dappledness of the trout differs from the dappledness of the landscape and the sky. This variable signifier is concurrently used as the cause of praise of the signified ‘God,’ associating the lack of objectivity found within the signifier ‘dappled’ with a lack of objective meaning for the signified ‘God,’ which has been traditionally understood in structuralist theory as a transcendental signified around which all else is organized. Here, however, the pied beauty of God is understood through the dappled examples found in the world, generating meaning for ‘God’ in relation to these other signifieds.

The second stanza continues the proto-deconstructionist use of language, moving towards more universal and opposite signifiers which are again associated with and therefore complicate the signified ‘God,’ resulting a paradoxical meaning that cannot be logically defined. The maxim of undecidability is declared outright within the text: “(who knows how?)” (l. 8).  The most concrete description of the signified ‘God’ is given in line 10: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.” Once again, the meaning of ‘God’ is described in relation to the other signifieds, the oppositional adjectives listed in line 9. These adjectives themselves are known by contrast with their opposites. The meaning of the word ‘swift’ is generated by its relation to what is slow; the experience of ‘sweetness’ is the opposite of the experience of ‘sourness.’ Yet these attributes, if they are to be associated with ‘God,’ must exist concurrently since the signified ‘God’ is understood in the poem as being “past change” (l. 10). Thus, ‘God’ simultaneously inhabits all meanings of “swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim” (l. 9). ‘God’ remains an indefinable paradox whose meaning is understood through the varied meanings of the ‘dappled’ world along with the opposites found therein.

Having reached an understanding of God through both contextual and deconstructionist lenses, it is interesting to note where these two readings overlap. Although these two approaches to interpretation differ on a fundamental level, both can result in a ‘God’ that is beyond definition. It would be improper to say that all deconstructionist readings would result in an understanding of the Christian God that Hopkins praises, as deconstructionist theory assumes an infinite number of interpretations of each text. A secular reading of this poem which does not admit existence of the signified ‘God’ would be equally valid. However, a contextual definition of God as one who defies definition causes an inevitable overlap with any deconstructionist analysis due to the shared characteristic of indefinability. The recognition of this overlap in readings can only occur if the critic is willing to analyze a piece through a variety of approaches. The striking similarity of these interpretations begs several more questions: is this overlap sheer coincidence, or is there a reason that this poem can generate the same interpretation through different approaches? Is this deconstructive use of language present in Hopkins’ other works, or does “Pied Beauty” a unique example? The answers to these questions lay beyond the scope of this paper, but I will posit that the fact that we can ask these questions is proof of the value of interpreting the same poem through a variety of different critical lenses. This discussion is not made possible by either the contextual approach or the deconstructive approach, but by the synthetic application of both of these major literary theories.









Works Cited

Bressler, Charles. “Deconstruction.” Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice, 2nd ed., Prentice Hall, Inc., 1999, pp. 114–133.

Hatch, Laurie Camp. “Gerard Manley Hopkins and Victorian Approaches to the Problems of Perception: Affirming the Metaphysical in the Physical.” Christianity & Literature, vol. 65, no. 2, 2016, pp. 170–194., doi:10.1177/0148333115585280.

Hutchison, Hazel. “Eye Rhyme: Visual Experience and the Poetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 49, no. 2, 2011, pp. 217–233., doi:10.1353/vp.2011.0009.

Lichtmann, Maria R. “‘Thoughts Against Thoughts’: Antithesis in Hopkins’ Sonnets.” Contemplative Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, by Maria R. Lichtmann, Princeton University Pres, 2016, pp. 100–128.

Noble, Tim. “‘The Mind Has Mountains’: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Landscape, and Poetry.” Communio Viatorum, vol. 59, no. 2, 2017, pp. 224–235.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance. Bonny and Liveright, 1919.

Starčević, Mirko. “Gerard Manley Hopkins and Walter Pater : the Labyrinths of Transience.” Acta Neophilologica, vol. 49, no. 1-2, 2016, pp. 85–108., doi:10.4312/an.49.1-2.85-108.

Urban, David. “Ignatian Inscape and Instress in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Pied Beauty,’ ‘God’s Grandeur,’ ‘The Starlight Night,’ and ‘The Windhover’: Hopkins’s Movement Toward Ignatius by Way of Walter Pater.” Religions 9.2 (2018): 49. Crossref. Web