Romantic poetics of Coleridge Newman and Hopkins

Hopkins Archive 2013


Particularity,Subjectivity,and the Self:TheRomantic Poetics of Coleridge,Newman,and Hopkins

Michael Raiger Dept.of Literature Ave Maria University, USA


This paper will attempt to recover the origins of Hopkins’s idea of particularity in his notion of the subjective nature of the human self. I begin with a famous letter written to Bridges in February 1879, where Hopkins attempts to justify the obscurities of his poetic style, stating: “No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness. I hope in time to have a more balanced and Miltonic style. But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling inscape is what I above all aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive, and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer. This vice I cannot have escaped.”1 This comment comes at a key point in Hopkins’s poetic career, with most of the great “nature sonnets” having already been composed, and with the “terrible sonnets,” and the experience that gives rise to them, a half-decade away. While Bridges, in his essay “The Oddities of Genius,” seems to have recognized this comment as central to unlocking the originality of Hopkins’s style of poetry, his essay catalogues the various instances of his “obscurity,” and goes on to criticize the poet’s “liberty” in sacrificing correctness of grammar for condensation of expression. Bridges criticizes Hopkins’s violations of the conventions of syntax for its deliberate attempt to achieve an “artistic effect in the consequent confusion.2” Unwittingly, Bridges has revealed what I see as a central insight into the relationship between Hopkins’s most fundamental ontological idea—the idea of the particularity of beings as constituting their core nature—and the idea of inscape as forming the structural pattern of his poetry. I hope to show that the “oddness” of Hopkins’s verse is precisely its overriding virtue. The originality of Hopkins’s diction, and his tendency to conflate verbal and substantive grammatical forms, lies in his sense of the depth at which all beings exist as active in the world of beings. 3 In this, I will challenge the prevailing idea amongst many scholars that Hopkins’s aesthetic theory derives from an amalgamation of Ruskin’s views of art and nature and Scotus’s metaphysical idea of particularity.
Devlin’s remarkable editorial work has paved the way for all subsequent studies of the central role of particularity in Hopkins’s work, but it unfortunately has established a paradigm of reading his poetry in light of two major English influences: Ruskin (through Pater) in the field of aesthetics, and Scotus in metaphysics. Peter Ballinger has fairly recently given a synopsis of this dual influence that gives expression to this established view of Hopkins’s intellectual development: The “roots of Hopkins’ creations, inscape and instress, tap Ruskinian aesthetics,” 4the keys to which lie in his focus on vegetation as the subject-matter of art, and his grounding of artistic vision in intuition.5 In regard to an ontology of particularity, Ballinger states: “Scotus gives some metaphysical affirmation for Hopkins’ experience and developing thought,” 6 thereby providing philosophical ground for Hopkins’s “idiosyncratic thought.” 7 What is lacking here, and in every other study of Hopkins’s sources, is a textual analysis that would show precisely how these influences operate. The major problem with this theory of development lies in the fact that the first use of the terms “inscape” and “instress” appear in Hopkins’s notes on Parmenides written February 9, 1868, which indicates two anomalies that the Ruskin/Scotus model of influence cannot explain: i) the central terms that lie at the heart of Hopkins’s poetics are coined in a metaphysical context, one that is foreign to Ruskin’s formal aesthetics; ii) they appear fully developed there, four years before Hopkins’s reading of Scotus in the summer of 1872, as the journal entry from August 3 records: “At this time I had first begun to get hold of the copy of Scotus … and was flush with a new stroke of enthusiasm. It may come to nothing or it may be a mercy from God. But just then when I took any inscape of the sky or sea I thought of Scotus.” 8 What is needed to place Hopkins in his native tradition is an account of influence which is more proximate to Hopkins’s own experience, and offers a more satisfying explanation that does justice to the integrity and organic nature of Hopkins’s thought, one which sees the religious and aesthetic as grounded in a unified sense of the place of humans in nature. This tradition finds its roots in the Romanticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose influence on John Henry Newman’s conversion to Catholicism has been largely overlooked. Scotus confirms, but does not influence, Hopkins’s ideas about particularity, which originates rather in Coleridge and Newman’s grounding of knowledge in subjectivity, which is the foundation for Hopkins’s ideas of instress and inscape.

In the essay “Poetic Diction,” written at Oxford in 1865, Hopkins argues that what is most essential for distinguishing poetry from prose is its structure, which “reduces itself to parallelism…. [and] is that of continuous parallelism.” 9 Hopkins here first introduces his distinction between “transitional” and “chromatic” forms of parallelism, which he then refers to their source in the subjective powers of image-making: “[W]hile the faculties of Fancy and Imagination might range widely over both kinds, Fancy” is concerned with abrupt transition associated with “metaphor, simile, parable,” in which “the effect is sought in likeness of things,” while Imagination is concerned with the “transitional class,” “where it is sought in unlikeness.” 10 In his Platonic Dialogue, Hopkins calls this latter, and clearly higher, form of parallelism “diatonic,” which he claims is a form which inspires “genius;” in English lyrical poetry, Hopkins claims parallelism “lives,” the structure of which lies in the unification of antithetical elements, whereby “One central idea…makes the essence of lyrical poetry.”11Hopkins’s two forms of parallelism clearly derive from Coleridge’s famous distinction between Fancy and Imagination in Biographia Literaria (1817), in which the Imagination belongs to the poet, who described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone, and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of Imagination. This power, first put into action by the will and understanding…reveals itself in the balance of reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities; of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative….12 What is most Coleridgean about Hopkins’s account here is its strategy of argument, in the referral of the unity of aesthetic forms to their subjective origins, a strategy he employs in another essay from this period, “The Origin of Our Moral Ideas.” After referring to trains of thought impressing the mind as “stress,” Hopkins claims: “All thought is of course in a sense an effort at unity. This may be pursued analytically as in science or synthetically as in art or morality.” In art, unity is found in “difference, variety, contrast: it is rhyme we like, not echo, and not unison with harmony.” 13 Hopkins goes on to claim that we desire unity because “the ideal, the one, is our only means of recognizing successfully our being to ourselves, it unifies us, while vice destroys the sense of being by dissipating thought.” 14
In Hopkins’s essay on the origin of morality, the word “stress” is first used to express the effort of the mind to attain unity; in seeing the unity of aesthetic forms, the subject attains a form of unity in itself. This is the basis for the development of Hopkins’s ideas of “instress” and “inscape,” which W. H. Gardner has succinctly defined in this way: “[I]nstress is not only the unifying force in the object; it connotes also the impulse from the ‘inscape’ which acts on the senses and, through them, actualizes the inscape in the mind of the beholder (or rather ‘perceiver’, for inscape may be perceived through all the senses at once)’.”15These ideas find their roots in Coleridge’s explanation of the dynamic power of the Imagination, which in realizing the formal unity of objects, both brings the self into a higher spiritual unity, and unifies the object with the subject, bringing the self into harmony with the world. For Coleridge, this act imitates the creative powers of God:

The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and Primary Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.  The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.15

In Coleridge’s account of the organic nature of the cognitive function of the Imagination, allied with the effort to achieve a formal, aesthetic unity, we find the roots of Hopkins’s idea of “instress” which actualizes the “inscape” of things. This passage, in which the Imagination is defined as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM,” is echoed in Hopkins’s Liverpool Sermons, where he writes on October 25, 1880: “God knows infinite things, all things, and heeds them all in particulars.” 17 The particular self, as the “infinitesimal” self in relation to the Infinite, is the finite instressing of God’s Infinite Will. For Hopkins, it is not a stretch to say that human selves are the manner in which God acts in particular things.

Hopkins’s turn to subjectivity in grounding his aesthetics of nature finds its origin in Coleridge’s formulation of the grounds for all knowledge in the unifying activity of the self, expressed as an act of both cognition and being, in the term “I am,” by which the human person is the image of God. The “I am,” the self-reflexive awareness of the spiritual powers of subjectivity, is the ground for all forms of knowledge, as Coleridge points out:

That, which we find in ourselves, is…the substance and the life of all our knowledge. Without this latent presence of the ‘I am,’ all modes of existence in the external world would flit before us as colored shadows, with no greater depth, root, or fixture, than the image of a rock hath in a gliding steam or the rain-bow on a fast-sailing storm. The human mind is the compass, in which the laws and actuations of all outward essences are revealed as the dips and declinations. 18

In An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, we find Newman similarly grounding faith in subjectivity, a point which serves to establish the basis for all forms of knowing: “Every one who reasons, is his own centre; and no expedient for attaining a common measure of minds can reverse this truth….” 19 Newman’s argument is epistemological, and seeks to ground assent to both scientific and religious propositions in the nature of subjectivity:

I am what I am, or I am nothing. I cannot think, reflect, or judge about my being, without starting from the very point which I aim at concluding…. I cannot avoid being sufficient for myself, for I cannot make myself anything else, and to change me is to destroy me. If I do not use myself, I have no other self to use. My only business is to ascertain what I am, in order to put it to use. 19

Hopkins’s stay at Birmingham coincides with Newman’s nearing the completion, twenty years in the works, of the Grammar of Assent, which was published in 1870. I want to suggest that its unpublished form influenced Hopkins, for during his time at the Birmingham Oratory, Hopkins records his notes on Greek philosophy (dated February 9, 1868), including his commentary on Parmenides’s fragments, which is decidedly the most important of Hopkins’s prose texts for understanding his aesthetic theory of poetry. This brief and very difficult set of notes marks the first appearance of the terms “instress” and “inscape.” The notes to Parmenides reveal the deep influence of Coleridge and Newman’s turn to subjectivity as the radical basis for their thinking on all forms of knowing, including aesthetics and religious faith. 20

In Coleridge’s Biographia, the Imagination is proposed as the human faculty which unifies philosophy, conceived as “the science of BEING,” which can only be grounded in truth gained by self-knowledge: “All knowledge rests on the coincidence of an object with a subject.” 21 In this, the subjective and objective coincide: “During the act of knowledge itself, the objective and subjective are so instantly united, that we cannot determine to which of the two the priority belongs;…. both are coinstantaneous and one.”< 22 Coleridge goes on to argue that the act of bringing the representation of natural objects to thought constitutes this relationship, and that any establishment of grounds of knowing outside this is absurd: “The principle of our knowing is sought within the sphere of our knowing.” 23 Only in the act of subjectivity can the objective, natural order, which lacks intelligence, be brought into a vital relationship with other beings: “That the self-consciousness is the fixt point, to which for us all is morticed and annexed, needs no further proof.”24 For Coleridge, one cannot go beyond the self, which finds the objective world in subjectivity, which is not enclosed but open to a world of beings. The Imagination is the faculty by which subjectivity most fully discloses itself as bridging the gap between subject and object.

I want to suggest that Coleridge’s account of the Imagination informs the emergence of the terms “instress” and “inscape” in Hopkins’s commentary on Parmenides, in which the subject is folded into his analysis. In Hopkins’s commentary on Parmenides, the terms “instress” and “inscape” are here for the first time introduced as technical terms to explain Parmenides’s central metaphysical doctrine: the oneness of being. Hopkins’s aesthetic theory, and thus, his poetry, is grounded in an ontology of the human subject. In Coleridge’s “Essay on Method” published in 1818, which Newman annotated at the Birmingham Oratory, Coleridge declares: “But what are my metaphysics?—Merely the referring of the mind to its own consciousness for truths indispensible to its own happiness!” 25 This same move toward self-reflection initiates Hopkins’s discussion of Parmenides’s thinking on being; he states: “[A]ll things are upheld by instress and are meaningless without it.” 26 This claim is radical, with far-reaching implications. Hopkins’s justifies this claim by arguing that Parmenides’s fragments require critical interpretation, since his “undetermined Pantheist idealism” cloaks the unacknowledged presence of the subject in Parmenides’s objective claims; as such, the fragments are resistant to translation “in a subjective or in a wholly outward sense.” 27 His attempt to translate the most fundamental metaphysical term “έστι,” he claims, “may be expressed by things are or there is truth. Grammatically it = it is or there is. But indeed I have often felt when I have been in this mood and felt the instress or how fast the inscape holds a thing that nothing is so pregnant and straightforward to the truth as simple yes and is.28 Without the act of assent to being which acknowledges that being itself constitutes the relationship between subject and object, “[t]here would be no bridge, no stem of stress between us and things to bear us out and carry the mind over.”< 29 Hopkins goes on to point out that the acknowledgement of the simple existence of things, depends upon this assent. This resonates with the language of Newman’s Grammar of Assent, in which belief is founded on fundamental principles: “By presumption I mean an assent to first principles; and by first principles I mean the propositions with which we start in reasoning on any given subject-matter.”< 30 The action of “stress” is the key link between subject and object, guaranteeing not only individual cognition of things as real beings, but also their particular forms. “Stress” here is both an act of cognition, and an act of being. Hopkins’s analysis of how the subject participates in the cognition of meaningful patterns will reappear in Hopkins’s diary as an epiphanic moment of discovery of the effect of inscape experienced firsthand. After a lengthy description of the evaporation of clouds in an attempt to catch their particular inscape, recorded in the Spring of 1870, Hopkins writes: “What you look hard at seems to look hard at you, hence the true and the false instress of nature…. Unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember to believe how deep the inscape in things is.” 31 Hopkins’s gloss on Parmenides articulates an aesthetic cognition of objects that is both active and passive, as the human subject acts on the object which it receives in the sense, thereby producing the form of cognition.

Hopkins goes on to coin the term “fore-drawn” as a way of expressing the unacknowledged “presence” of Being to the mind in all things: “It is the unextended, foredrawn—‘Look at it, though absent, yet to the mind’s eye as fast present here; for absence cannot break off Being from its hold on Being: it is not a thing to scatter here, there, and everywhere through all the world…’” 32Hopkins’s use of the vocative “Look!” to indicate the attention, the stress, that is exerted to see “inscapes” formulates the call to readers of Hopkins’s poems to take up a positive orientation towards beings in the world. For Hopkins, poetry is not a neutral activity because the human subject’s being in the world is open to beings, the presence of which is not undiluted: Being “cannot be greater or less in one place than in another.” 33 This is poetically expressed in the opening line of “God’s Grandeur”: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” but elaborated as a presence that needs to be recovered, since humans fail to “reck his rod,” and must look below the surface into being, into “the dearest freshness deep down things.” 34 This ontological account of the plenitude of being which requires the instressed participation of the perceiver reaches its theological fullness at the end of a note on the Ascension, where Hopkins exclaims: “All things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God and if we know how to touch them give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of him.” 35 This act of “instressing” the “inscape” is found in the essential relationship to the world which constitutes subjectivity. Hopkins attempts to recover the intuitive ground between subject and object which binds them together; in this he follows Coleridge who grounds all reason in the fundamental belief that humans can know the world: “WE (that is, the human race) LIVE BY FAITH. Whatever we do or know…has its origin in a determination of the reason to have faith in itself. This, its first act of faith is scarcely less than identical with its own being. Implicitè, it is the COPULA—it contains the possibility—of every position, to which there exists any correspondence in reality. It is itself, therefore, the realizing principle, the spiritual substratum of the whole complex body of truths.” 36 Coleridge’s appeal to the grammar of being is articulated in the lexicon of Newman’s grammar of assent: “To be and to know or Being and thought are the same. The truth in thought is Being, stress, and each word is one way of acknowledging Being and each sentence by its copula is (or its equivalent) the utterance and assertion of it.” 37 Hopkins follows this fundamental idea in stating that “the mind’s grasp—νοείν, the foredrawing act” constitutes its contact with being as a particular form. 38 This is particular for each human subject, unique and unrepeatable: “The way men judge in particular is determined for each by his own inscape.” 39 Only in the unity of being can the particular become unified with other particulars, and this is only fully manifest in human subjects who recognize that prior act of unity in being. The paradox is this: that each subject is itself an instressing of Being, is itself a bridge of knowing a world which exists, but in this resides the unity of the world:

According to the matching of his members / with the thousand turns they take / so for each man is the thought the man will think, for the sense that lives in this frame man wears is only the seeing of one self-same thing—one thing for all men and for every man: [there are ten thousand men to think and ten thousand things for them to think of but they are but names given and taken, eye and lip service to the truth, husks and scapes of it: the truth itself, the burl,] the fullness is the thought’). 40

In this comment, we find the ontological ground for Hopkins’s incarnational poetics, expressed so clearly in a passage from “As kingfishers catch fire”: “I say more: the just man justices; / Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces; / Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is— / Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” It is not in the Scotist idea of ‘thisness’ or haecceitas that the philosophical basis for Hopkins’s incarnational poetics is grounded, but in the oneness of being bridged by the instressing action of human subjectivity formulated in Hopkins’s gloss on Parmenides. Only in the presence of Being, which is grounded in the creation of the world through the Logos, does the particular find its relationship to the world. This point is made in Coleridge’s Biographia, in which he argues that the solution to the problem of discovering the unity of subject and object, of self-conscious beings and things, of active and passive, can only be established in an Absolute ground, “which is at once causa sui effectus…in the absolute identity between subject and object, which [philosophy] calls nature, and which in its highest power is nothing else but self-conscious will or intelligence. In this sense…[the claim] that we see all things in God, is a strict philosophical truth….” 40 Hopkins’s formulation of “stress” as that which binds the human subject with objects of nature is discovered not through scholastic metaphysical speculation, which leaves in abeyance the question of human subjectivity, but in folding the subject into ontological speculation, a strategy that lies at the heart of Coleridge’s theory of the Imagination, and grounds Newman’s own more practical articulation of assent to faith. In Hopkins’s notes to Parmenides, we find the ontological ground of his poetic theory in the “instress” of human subjectivity, following Coleridge’s directive “that even when the Objective is assumed at first, we yet can never pass beyond the principle of self-consciousness.” 41

Hopkins’s interpretation of Parmenides’s account of being as cutting across both subject and object in the instressing of the inscape in subjectivity leads to a very important conclusion: “For the phenomenal world (and the distinction between men or subjects and things without them is unimportant in Parmenides[, for] the contrast…between the one and the many) is the brink, limbus, lapping, run-and-mingle / of two principles which meet in the scape of everything.” 42 As such, the subject/object relation is foundational, unbreakable, the ground for philosophical reflection, and are the terms which draw together and constitute the paradoxical coherence of the one and the many. After this, Hopkins’s journals and diaries will be filled with the terms instress and inscape, employed as a way of describing his response to natural objects, and forming the experiential basis for the nature poetry of the mid-1870’s. The articulation of the presence of God in the being of concrete, particular things in Hopkins’s nature sonnets is informed by his grounding of being in human subjectivity, first formulated in his philosophical prose writings, and originally articulated in Coleridge’s theory of the Imagination and Newman’s grounding of assent in human subjectivity.


    1. As quoted in Robert Bridges, “The Oddities of Genius,” in Hopkins: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966), 72.

    2. Ibid., 73.

    3. Geoffrey Hartman valorizes Hopkins’s grammatical idiosyncrasies, in which grammatical correctness is sacrificed to verbal innovation: “Hopkins is a master of extreme suspension (hyperbaton) but not for the sake of subordinating one word or thought to another” (Hopkins: A Collection of Critical Essays, 118). Rather, the effect is one of creating energy, action, in which “Hopkins favors the verbal noun…because it brings out the freshness of a verbal root at the expense of a purely linguistic form having no direct source in sense perception” (Hopkins: A Collection of Critical Essays, 118).

    4. Philip A. Ballinger, The Poem as Sacrament: The Theological Aesthetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Louvain: Peeters Press, 2000), 42.

    5. Ibid., 44.

    6. Ibid., 129.

    7. Ibid., 131.

    8. The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Humphry House (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), 221.

    9. Ibid., 84.

    10. Ibid., 85.

    11. Ibid., 104-112.
    12. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 2 vols., ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983), 2: 15-7.

    13. The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 83.

    14. Ibid., 83.

    15. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 3rd ed., ed. W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1948), 64-5.

    16. Coleridge, Biographia, 1: 304.

    17. The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Christopher Devlin, S.J. (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), 89.

    18. Samuel Taylor Coleridge,The Statesman’s Manual, in Lay sermons, ed. R. J.White (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 78-79.

    19. John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, ed. Nicholas Lash (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), 271.

    20. Ibid., 272-3.

    21. Urs Von Balthasar rightly points to the 1868 essay on Parmenides as the ontological key to understanding Hopkins’s interrelated ideas of instress and inscape, for they express the way in which humans and nature, and language and being, are linked (Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, 7 vols., trans. Andrew Louth, John Saward, Martin Simon and Rowan Williams, ed. John Riches [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986], 3: 171). 

    22. Coleridge, Biographia,1: 252.

    23. Coleridge, Biographia,1 : 255.

    24. Coleridge, Biographia,1: 284.

    25. Ibid.

    26. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Friend, 2 vols., ed. Barbara Rooke (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969), 1: 108.
    27. The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 127.

    28. Ibid.

    29. Ibid.

    30. Ibid.

    31. Newman, Grammar, 66.

    32. The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 204-5.

    33. Ibid., 128.

    34. Ibid., 129. Ibid, 129

    35. God’s grandeur

    36. The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 195.

    37. Coleridge, Statesman’s, 18.

    38. Newman, Grammar, 129. T

    39. he Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 129.

    40. Ibid.

    41. Ibid., 130. 

    42. Coleridge, Biographia, 1: 285.

    43. Ibid. The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 129.

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