Over the course of the past month or so, I have fallen head over heels in love with the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. His poetry can fling the soul to new heights, like the bird in “The Windhover,” or it can scour with the abrasiveness of sandpaper as Hopkins wrestles with despair in “Carrion Comfort.” What I love most about Hopkins’ poetry is that he throws himself into it; he does not shrink from being real, and his masterful use of language is rivaled only by his keen insight into the human soul. I loved his poem “Spring” so much that I made it the subject of my Commonplace essay in my British Literature II class this semester.
Exuberant Exaltation in “Spring”
published in Cuttlefish, Vol. 1, No. 3, (March 31, 2011).
Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Spring”, lines 1-11.
The lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring” fill the soul with a jubilant anticipation, a swelling of feeling almost too great to contain. The poet’s meditation on the colors and sights and sounds of this season of the year contains a kind of heaviness, “richness,” as the poet says, a sense of the weighty grandeur of living things. Hopkins is perhaps most famously known for his adaptation and development of “sprung rhythm,” the metric system of stresses that have a particular number but not a fixed order. However, the poet’s genius also breathes in the way Hopkins makes use of assonance, consonance, and alliteration, as well as other literary devices, to awaken us to the life and motion and gladness that is present in the beauty of spring.
Hopkins’s use of literary devices can be seen in the way he draws the reader into the spinning magic of his poetry through alliteration. “Nothing is so beautiful as spring,” Hopkins sings exuberantly, and then proves the truth of this statement to us by speaking of “when weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush.” The double and triple alliteration in this line is extravagant, and that is the point: everything about spring is vibrant and vivid and full of vitality. Everything is “all in a rush with richness.”
Hopkins’s language also reveals his subtle introduction of color to the reader. Hopkins never mentions the word “green,” yet it is glowing through the entire second line of the poem, and returns again when Hopkins talks of the “glassy peartree leaves” in the sixth line. Likewise, the poet introduces the color blue by speaking of the thrush’s eggs, which look like “little low heavens.” Later in the poem, Hopkins abandons his restraint and speaks of blue, blue, blue as though he cannot get enough of the word. The effect of this exuberance on the reader would be diminished without the subtle introduction of the color in the third line.
Finally, Hopkin’s skillful use of assonance and consonance is the key to much of his poem’s power. The thrush’s song strikes the reader “like lightning” because of the way the poet’s words “rinse and wring the ear,” so that we believe we have heard the thrush sing, too. Likewise, the way Hopkins uses the soft “-ush” sound in “thrush, rush, lush, brush,” brings to mind the sound of zephyrs blowing through the trees, that ever-present murmur of wind in the branches on a sunny spring day. The poet never once mentions wind. He does not need to – it is gushing and gliding all through his poem.
Thus, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetic genius lies in far more than his development of “sprung rhythm”—it is manifest in the way his poem glides smoothly from one image to another, filling the reader with anticipation and excitement for the arrival of spring. Through assonance, consonance, and alliteration, Hopkins is able to refrain from saying many things, and in the unsaid thing lies much of his power. Because of this, the reader joins with the poet in crying, “what is all this juice and all this joy?” For “Spring” paints colors on the eyes and strikes the soul to an awed stillness, as if such a soul had heard for himself the thrush’s song and hearkened, far off, to the “strain of earth’s sweet being in the beginning.”