Monday, 9 April 2012

Nature Poetry Part 1: The Windhover, Gerard Manley Hopkins

For many years I firmly believed that nature poetry was completely lame.  Why did I think this? I was of the view that nature best expressed itself, and that nature poetry was little more than a pale, boring reflection of reality.  Also, I've never got into Wordsworth, who I strongly associated with nature poetry. Then I revisited this poem in a book of children's verse which I had owned for years.  I had been reading Gerard Manley Hopkins' super-bleak sonnets (worth another post), and found this much more uplifting verse (which incidentally I don't think was written specifically for children).

The Windhover
I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
  dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,        5
  As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion        10
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
[Note: Apparent Hopkins invented the word sillion, which means: The thick, voluminous, and shiny soil turned over by a plow.]
This poem is full of unbridled enthusiasm for the beauty of nature, and describes both the bird in flight and the viewer's response to it.  The rhythm of the poem slows and quickens, like a bird riding the currents of air - rising and falling.

Hopkins was a master of meter. He 'discovered' a type of meter which he called sprung rhythm.  This basically is a form of meter where the number of accented syllables in a line are counted, but the number of unaccented syllables are not.  So, a foot will have one accented syllable, but could have any number of unaccented syllables.  A paeonic foot ordinarily would have one stressed syllable followed by three unstressed, and Hopkins identified this poem as containing paeonic feet, as well as 'outriding' feet - unstressed syllables not counted in scansion. 

It is this uneveness of the rhythm due to the use of unstressed syllables which creates the effect of slowing and quickening, and rhythmically reflects the movement of a bird in the sky. While I think that scanning Hopkins poems is great fun, the complexity of his rhythms makes it too large a task for a blog post.  For example, Hopkins typically stuck to the right number of feet per line.  Theoretically this means that this poem should scan five stressed syllables to a line.  However, in my view line 2 is extremely difficult to scan with only five stressed syllables, and I end up with seven.

The overall point is that the use of irregular rhythm was intended to sound more like natural speech, and Hopkins is seen by some as just giving a fancy name to free verse.  But he clearly still considered he was writing more formal poetry.  This poem is a petrarchan sonnet - fourteen lines divided into an octave and a sestet.  Typically the rhyming rules are not particularly strict for the sestet.  Hopkins rhymes all the lines in the octave, whereas a more typical rhyme scheme would be abba abba.

He also uses other poetic techniques like repetition and alliteration - "I saw this morning morning's minion"; "dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon", "rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing".
So, why is this poem not lame?  In my view there a three main reasons.  First, the link between the form of the poem and what it seeks to described, conjuring the image of the falcon through both description and sound.  Second, the bending of language to seek to describe the extraordinary - a normal form of words will not suffice so instead he makes a compound adjective: dapple-dawn-drawn. Third, because it seeks not only to describe but responds - "My heart in hiding/Stirred for a bird".

This latter line is so small, and yet so big - "My heart in hiding" conjures a retreat from the world, a sad heart which the bird calls out for a moment. Hopkins was a priest, and his nature poetry is also linked to a love of God in nature - the bird stirring his heart is perhaps also an image of God speaking to the unquiet or doubting spirit.

And how impassioned is the description? The excess of adjectives and emotion - "the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion/Times lovelier, more dangerous'. Nature here is dangerous and volatile - out of our control.

So, this poem converted me back to nature poetry, because I saw that nature poetry is not so much about description, but our relationship to nature and the world.  Poems where nature is just a metaphor are, I think, a little different.  Perhaps some more on that another day.