Hopkins Festival Lectures 1987 - 2017

Hopkins and Walt Whitman: Mother
Nature's Sons

Tamora Whitney Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska, USA

Differing greatly in terms of style and philosophy, Hopkins and Whitman share a love of nature. Their attention to particular details raises the ordinary and everyday to art, and they use the details of nature to, in their own way, glorify creation.

They both see in nature the handprint of God and see praising creation as a way to praise the creator. Their poetry shows God living in all of creation. Their philosophies differ, and though some of Hopkins' contemporaries saw stylistic similarities, he disagreed and so do I. But I see many similarities in subject matter and Hopkins himself in a letter to Bridges (October 18, 1882) said Whitman's mind was more like my own than any other man's living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession.

A Jesuit Poet compared to an American Wayfarer

Comparing the Jesuit priest, who had for a time given up poetry as a sacrifice to his religious vocation, to the American wayfarer who refused to commit to an organized religion (and whose own sexuality may have been suspect) seems a large leap. And although they were contemporaries, and there had already been hints of comparisons between the two men's works, Hopkins admits to having read very little of Whitman: parts of Song of Myself and a shorter poem Spirit that Form'd this Scene. I have found no evidence that the two poets influenced each other, but there are interesting similarities. Hopkins said in the letter to Bridges that Whitman's scoundral nature made him the more desirous to read him and the more determined that I will not.

Bridges in a letter to Hopkins had compared Hopkins's The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo to Whitman's Song of Myself in terms of line length. Hopkins refuted that in iambic terms (but he misquoted the line he dealt with in scansion), and particularly refuted it in terms of voice.

Both poets do sometimes tend toward long lines, but it seems to me their comparisons in style are more in both their tendencies to create lists of specific individual details to develop general ideas. From Pied Beauty Hopkins lists many different spotted things to show the nature of dappledness:

For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced …

And Whitman in defining grass looks at the vegetation in varying ways in a list of long lines:

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord…
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic…
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves. (section 6)

This listing broadens the definition and expands on the theme. By seeing all the different ways dappledness occurs in nature and in the world and among the people and plough; And all trades their gear and tackle and trim the reader gets a clearer sense of what it means to be dappled and what it looks like. By reading all the different ways to see something as simple as grass, something most people don't think twice about, the reader gets a clearer sense of how to view nature and what it means and where it comes from.

But more interesting than the style is the similarity in subject matter. Both poets revel in nature, in the common man, and in the self all as reflections of the divine. Both poets see God in nature and glorify nature to glorify God. One of Hopkins' main motivations for writing was for the glory of God. Many of his poems deal with God and religion directly, and given his vocation this makes sense. His life was about God and his poetry reflected that. Whitman was a different situation. His poetry is not out of a specific religious background, but the result is similar to Hopkins': the glorification of creation ends up glorifying the creator. Whitman does speak of God, but not as specifically as does Hopkins. There are specific referrents in almost every one of Hopkins' poems. From God's Grandeur: The world is charged with the grandeur of God. And many other poems carryou st that theme: from Pied Beauty,Glory be to God for dappled things and after his list of the beautiful dappled things of the world, "He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him." And here he deals with the individuality of nature, "All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)" And Hopkins believes all things are original. From Hurrahing in Harvest:

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
And eyes, heart, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love's greeting of realer, or rounder replies?

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
Majestic-as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!-

To Hopkins all of nature is a reflection of him who made it, and by enjoying and by praising nature we praise God its creator. Whitman does the same. He says of the grass: Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord, A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt, bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark and say Whose? (section 6).

To Whitman a part of nature as simple as the grass still bears the creator's name, and brings joy and should bring praise from the poet if no one else. Whitman expresses the miracle of everything in the world. He expresses a sense of wonder at all of creation, and like Hopkins he understands and expresses the unique nature of every part of creation:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of a wren,
And the tree toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven
And the narrowest hinge of my hand puts to shame all machinery. (section 31)

and again,

He says, I hear and behold God in every object. (section 48)

Besides their attention to God in nature, they both find God in people, high and low. They praise the common people as reflections of God, and as the foundation of society. Hopkins speaks fondly of the farrier Felix Randal, on his death-bed, having comforted him in his illness, watched this mould of a man, big-boned and hardy-handsome pining, pining. Hopkins believes his counseling of the sick man drew them close, this seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears. He writes too of the working man. Tom - garlanded with squat and surly steel Tom; . . . Low be it: lustily he his low lot…Tom seldom sick, Seldomer heartsore; . . . People of all levels important in society: Country is honour enough in all of us - lordly head, with heaven's lights hung high round, or, mother-ground That mammocks, mighty foot. He writes to Bridges about the poem, 'The common people are the foundation for society, necessary and honourable."I hear and behold God in every object. (section 48) He says, I hear and behold God in every object. (section 48) Whitman writes of the common folk in a similar, though more earthy, vein. In section 15 of Song of Myself he lists fifty-six different professions and activities from all walks of life, all making up the society, high and low, all part of the culture, all in their own way necessary:

The paving man leans on his two handed rammer, the reporter's lead flies swiftly over the note-book, the sign painter is lettering with blue and gold,

The canal boy trots on the tow-path, the book-keeper counts at his desk, the shoemaker waxes his thread, . . .
The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck,

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from,
The scent of these armpits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it,
Translucent mould of me, it shall be you! (section 24)

Both Hopkins and Whitman see God in Nature

Common folks are glorified as integral members of the community, and as part of God's creation. Whitman says, And I know that the Spirit of God is the brother to my own, And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers, And that a kelson of the creation is love.They see God in nature and in the common man, and everyone is made in God's image so both poets see reflection of God in the self. Whitman in perhaps a more egotistical sounding way than Hopkins, but both glorify God through self. Hopkins speaks in more general terms. He sees that all people are Christ, all selves are Christ including his own self. All selves are God and God can be seen in everyone including the poet himself. Perhaps even more in the poet since his job is to show God through his observations and his work. From That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire:

In a flash, at a trumpet crash, I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, Is immortal diamond.

Whitman is more obvious in his God-complex, but equally sincere in his philosophy. Through his poetry he sets himself up as an image of God, and seemingly equal to God, but certainly a reflection of God. But more importantly as a means to share God and God's creation with his readers. He says,

I celebrate myself, and I sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
(section 1)

He identifies with all including his creator and shares this experience and identification. Whoever degrades another degrades me, And whatever is done or said returns to me at last. He sees God in the leaf and in the ant and in the laborer and in the President and in the poet:

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign'd by God's name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe'er I go
Others will punctually come for ever and ever. (section 48)

Both poets see God in everything around them and want to share this with their readers and want to document this experience. God is in the things of nature and God is in all the people, and God is in the poets themselves. They are God as much as everything around them is God. Whitman ends Song of Myself by going beyond himself: if God is everywhere, and God is in Whitman, then Whitman is everywhere as well:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good heath to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you. (section 52)

Hopkins's final poem , ends on a simlar vein. He finds God in all creation, and reflects that creation in his poetry. Readers can find God all around themselves as well as inside themselves. They can find God reflected in the poetry, and they can find themselves there as well. Hopkins ends by saying to us to look for him and for ourselves and for all creation in his poetry:

I want the one rapture of an inspiration.
O then if in my lagging lines you miss
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.

Gerard Manley Hopkins Archive 2001
Inscape and Hopkins Poetry
Death of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Christina Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins