Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics

By Isobel Armstrong | Go to book overview

14

HOPKINS: AGONISTIC REACTIONARY

The Grotesque as conservative form

There would be no bridge, no stem of stress between us and things to bear us out and carry the mind over: without stress we might not and could not say/Blood is red/but only/This blood is red/or/The last blood I saw was red/not even that, for in later language not only universals would not be true but the copula would break down even in particular judgments.

(Hopkins, ‘Parmenides’, Journal and Papers, 9 February 1868) 1

These journal notes, typically condensed and elliptical, suggest how Hopkins, Catholic convert and anti-democrat, was both a revolutionary and a reactionary poet. To begin with these complexities is to see the paradoxes of his mind at work. Highly theoretical, yet developing an idiosyncratic and self-made vocabulary which is concrete and substantive, this passage moves rapidly from epistemology to language. Hopkins is wrestling with a perennial nineteenth-century problem, the relationship between subject and object and the representation of this relationship, or, as he puts it, the relationship between ‘us and things’. But the innovative move is that this is expressed in terms of linguistic relations. His is an ontology of grammar. The relationship of representation to things is expressed in terms of the word, the relationships of subject and object in terms of syntax. He was the first poet to develop a poetics out of a theory of the structure of language, and strangely, this rigorously modernist procedure - structuralism before its time - came about because he was the last poet to hold a strictly theological account of the logos, the authority of the Word made flesh through the incarnation of Christ. The strain of holding these two things together, and of making them compatible, marks the passionate torsions and desperate ecstasies of his work.

The notes on Parmenides of 1868, a fragment from various writings on language at that time, are implicitly an attempt to solve some of the problems Hopkins had recently met as an undergraduate at Oxford, where he had been taught both by Walter Pater and by the Hegelian, T. H.

-420-

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