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The Mastery Of The Thing

Theophilus Kwek

Sir Geoffrey Hill
‘What you look hard at seems to look hard at you’
Professor of Poetry Lecture

Examination Schools, Oxford
6th May 2014

“My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”
from ‘The Windhover’, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

“‘O clap your hands’ so that the dove takes flight,
Bursts through the leaves with an untidy sound,
Plunges its wings into the green twilight
Above this long-sought and forsaken ground…”
from ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’, by Geoffrey Hill


As if anticipating Trinity’s demands on hundreds of English undergraduates, Geoffrey Hill (Oxford’s Professor of Poetry since 2010) launched into his termly lecture by naming the “challenge to anyone who wants to speak or write about any poem”: how do we, or indeed, how can we analyse poetry? An “unanswerable question”, in Hill’s words. Poetry is, after all, “intractable and insoluble”. How can we put in our own words what the poet could not have phrased otherwise?

Hill—recipient of the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2009—picked up the gauntlet himself with an analysis of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet The Windhover. Lingering on Hopkins’s use of rhyming participial adjectives which “condemn the reader to an unresolved present tense”, Hill lovingly took apart a poem whose exuberance seems at odds with the constraints of its own language. These details, Hill believes, were not engineered to “embarrass our critical faculties”. Rather, they tell of the poet’s challenge: how to articulate responses to natural beauty “so changeable… as to render them unmanageable by the standard rhetorical structures of poetry”.

Hopkins was not only a writer but a “characteristic intellectual of the Victorian period” who, in step with his milieu, believed in the importance of being earnest about things. “Earnestness”, as Hill pointed out, appeared frequently in Hopkins’s literary criticism, in which he disapproved of the use of form for its own sake. But this pursuit of sincerity proved problematic for the third-year student at St Beuno’s Theological College, who was as alarmed by the sensuality of his linguistic sketches as he was arrested by the severity of his beliefs. How could he remain true to both observation and observance? As Hill saw it, The Windhover was built on this tussle: “however graceful the kestrel [which Hopkins describes], it would never be in a state of grace. And however murderous its intentions towards field mice, it would never incur damnation.”


Less than a year prior to the composition of The Windhover, Hopkins had written another poem, Hurrahing in Harvest, which he described to Robert Bridges as the “outcome of half an hour of extreme enthusiasm as I walked home… from fishing in the Elwy”. The two had met at Oxford in the 1860s, and we hear something of their boyish ebullience in this poem of a decade later: “The heart rears wings bold and bolder/and hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet”.

As a candidate for the clergy, the Hopkins of 1877 would clearly have been no less moved by the kestrel’s winged trajectory, or fixed in his resolve to match experience with expression, than when a Classicist at Balliol. Though in the intervening time he had burned his early writings and given up poetry for nearly seven years, Hopkins never became a stranger to the “spontaneous expression of poetical feeling”. In The Windhover’s restless outrides, it is almost as if the kestrel’s joy becomes his:

“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!”

Because of the conflicting pressures Hopkins felt towards feeling and faith, however, such writing was far from effortless. The same quandary applied in reading. He saw the Shakespearean element in Keats, for example, but was troubled by his focus on sensation and wrote that the maturing Keats would “find his way right at last to the true function of his mind”. What further disquieted Hopkins was the question of form, which reflected his dilemma between religion and representation. He saw in the use of language two incompatible excellences: “markedness of rhythm” (as found in the strict metre of safely subdued sonnets) and “naturalness of expression” (which demanded more fluidity). Thus, although he had sufficiently reconciled the demands of priesthood and poetry to begin a new series of sonnets (including The Windhover) after his long hiatus, contradictions remained within the language itself: “I have of myself made verse so laborious”, Hopkins lamented to Bridges in 1879.

How, exactly, did Hopkins struggle to come to terms with his own writing? Hill’s answer: by “writing against the English language”. Not in the sense of writing “against the grain”, implying the activity of one who is “inept or contrarian”; nor “against the stream”, which carries a sense of “stubbornness or self-experience”. Instead, Hopkins wrote “against the language” much as a bird would take off “against the wind”—gaining purchase on the air by the same lyric flight Hopkins saw in the kestrel’s arc. By allowing long, soaring lines to ride on metre, as Hill believes Hopkins did in The Windhover, he was able to convert the natural hostility between structure and spontaneity into a “radical involvement” with the elements of language. Form itself could communicate flow, as Hopkins discovered; “the inflections of ideas could be, in an immediate sense, the inflections of grammar”.


Hill traced this almost musical quality of Hopkins’s writing to his admiration of Henry Purcell, the seventeenth-century English composer. Describing Purcell’s music as “none of your damned subjective rot” in response to Bridges’ confessed incomprehension of his poem Henry Purcell, what Hopkins admired was Purcell’s “technical earnestness”, or the direct manner in which Purcell could translate thought into sound. Taking it upon himself to do the same with language, Hopkins worked through what Hill called “a state of attention at once spontaneous and exacting”, a sort of primed watchfulness that allowed him to turn the immediacy of joy, beauty, and other qualities into form.

The result was a transformation of all the enthusiasm Hopkins felt in observing—or simply being surrounded by—nature into a higher form: a shift, as it were, “from the less to the more so”. Hill borrowed this phrase from Hopkins the theologian, writing about the action of divine grace which would shift the flawed, contrary will of a creature to “another which is according to God’s”, and in so doing transit “from the less to the more so”. Returning at last to faith, Hopkins was able to make a similar shift from perceiving the raw, natural beauty of the kestrel to contemplating a higher beauty, as suggested by the poem’s dedication (“To Christ Our Lord”), added seven years after its completion. Solving the linguistic problem was, for Hopkins, parallel to solving the theological: if praising the lark enabled him to praise the Lord, depiction was no longer necessarily antithetical to devotion.

It did not escape the audience that Hill, as critic, saw in Hopkins’s approach the answer to his own initial challenge. Training his attention and experience on Hopkins’s poem much as Hopkins must have focused on the kestrel’s path, Hill’s question—of apprehending a poem’s beauty in clear, critical words—was not, perhaps, that far removed from Hopkins’s, of capturing sublime flight in substantive terms. As Hill showed through Hopkins, depiction and devotion are, for any student of poetry, neither antithetical nor, in fact, exclusive. And in that hour, as captivating as it was cogent, Hill more than succeeded in riding on the form of the university lecture, so frequently staid or ornamented, to convey with relish his own earnest, spontaneous joy.

Theophilus Kwek is reading for a BA in History and Politics at Merton College, Oxford.