"Death Blots Black Out": Thermodynamics and the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

By Nixon, Jude V. | Victorian Poetry, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

"Death Blots Black Out": Thermodynamics and the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins


Nixon, Jude V., Victorian Poetry


HOPKINS' POETRY EMPLOYS TO A MARKED DEGREE TROPES OF ENERGY IN THE form of heat, fire, and light. His discourse reveals an attraction to the emerging science of thermodynamics, especially an anxiety with the second law. His energy tropes admit a dialogue between the domains of science and literature, a conversation transcending the very tropes themselves; "shifting a metaphor from its initial field," as Gillian Beer observes, may bring to light homologies (or dissonances) that will propel new work." (1) Whereas tropes establish connections between things, discourse models" the metalogical operations by which consciousness, in general cultural praxis," comes to terms with its milieu. (2) At ontological levels, the universe "allows for cross-umwelt comparisons." Tropes raise "the possibility of isomorphism across evolutionary levels so distant that it would appear that chunking would have erased any similarities based on contiguity." (3) Unveiling these tropes, according to Richard Boyd, is "an essential part o f the task of scientific inquiry" (p. 362); for the "primary encounter with any text, be it metaphysics, poetry or biology, is linguistic, for texts are made of language." (4)

While there might well be areas across which science and literature struggle to communicate, an impasse Douglas Hofstadter has called chunking," there are clearly areas of seepage, especially where the laws of thermodynamics are concerned, laws involving global systems that extend "far beyond science proper." (5) Thus it makes sense to talk about the ramifications of entropy on biological and social systems, the way James Gleick does, recognizing chaos in "the behavior of the weather, the behavior of an airplane in flight, the behavior of cars clustering on an expressway, the behavior of oil flowing in underground pipes.... Chaos breaks across the lines that separate scientific disciplines," bringing together thinkers from cross-disciplinary studies asserting "strong claims about the universal behavior of complexity," among them "determinism and free will," "evolution," and "the nature of conscious intelligence." (6) I intend to explore the extent to which Hopkins' poetry deviates from and distills concepts of energy, especially notions of waste and recovery, and to show the disparate ways he employs tropes structuring the protean character of nineteenth-century energetics. Implicit in my argument is the assumption that the so-called divide between science and literature, C. P. Snow's bifurcated cultures, cannot readily be applied to Hopkins. His is an apologetic characterized by border crossings, excursions into the fluid territory of cross-disciplinary umwelts, which makes Hopkins an especially helpful segue into postmodernisr considerations. (7)

Hopkins' conversion to Roman Catholicism (1866) and Jesuit affiliation (1868) granted him membership in a religious community open to scientific inquiry on the grounds that science reveals the mystery of the universe and is ultimately compatible with Church dogma. (8) Issues raised by the biological and geological sciences unsettled Victorians as well as Roman Catholic Victorians, like St. George Mivart, who imagined that there were in fact solutions within emerging scientific theories not incompatible to faith. A close friend and admirer of Darwin, the Catholic biologist Mivart reassured believers that evolution "need alarm no one, for it is, without any doubt, perfectly consistent with strictest and most orthodox Christian theology." (9) Less distressing, however, was the new energetics, with its first law ensuring divine superintendence of the universe and its second corroborating apocalyptic claims. Hopkins welcomed the freedom to explore new scientific frontiers (optics, for one), with all sorts of ambi tious plans to advance science, many of them, like so much of Hopkins' career, aborted or never undertaken. Speaking of Hopkins' interest in "the modern depiction of nature as an inhuman and aimless flux," Daniel Brown believes that the poem "I must hunt down the prize" "states a bold resolve to reclaim such territory for a more coherent view of nature than that which it ostensibly presents. …

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