The Dappled Meaning-Making of Hopkins and Turner

Hopkins eye, poetic and otherwise, seems irremovably turned toward the inscape and vast depth of aliveness in the natural world. His journals consistently focus on weather, animals, and plants, and have an unusually lively sense of wonder at how these natural systems work together. His poetry, too, possesses a kind of wonder at the functional logic of natural systems or a single subject – a kingfisher, the stars, the “brinded cow,” for example. His poetry reads like a call to the reader to look at the natural world around them differently, to absorb it more completely, as he does. Yet with this call to more consciously witness the world around the reader, Hopkins creates systems of language, sound, rhythm, and meaning within his poetry that the reader is tasked with untangling. His poetry is somewhat difficult to read, its sprung rhythm and unusual vocabulary unfamiliar to a reader’s ear. Hopkins (impressively) repurposes nouns for verbs, adjectives for nouns, subjects for objects, and every iteration of meaning in between through repetition, syntax, rhythm, and rhyme. He is frequently grammatically incorrect for the sake of new meaning-making. For example, in his sonnet “The Windhover,” Hopkins watches a bird glide on the wind and marvels at the impressive beauty and engineering of this bird. At the end of the octave, Hopkins writes: “My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.” This first line’s internal echo – the “h” in hiding, “stirred” and “bird” – and sprung rhythm create a sense of harmony that is cracked by the following bizarre use of a verb for a noun. What is “the achieve of?” This dissonant repurposing of the verb “achieve” as a noun demands that the reader re-read, that they stop and understand what new meaning he has been created in its repurposing. Hopkins’ noun-verbs exemplify his understanding that everything alive in the world possesses an active inscape or internal life, that is both the thing that does (the verb) and the thing itself (the noun) – no one thing is just active or just passive, but always both simultaneously. Hopkins is a disruptive poet in this way, re-meaning words to allow the reader to question the ways that we mean in poetry and in our own vocabularies.

Hopkins clearly chose his words with obsessive focus, yet he repeats a lot of words across his work. The word I noticed that continues to emerge across his poetry is “dappled.” It appears in at least three of the poems we read for today: “Inversnaid,” “Windhover,” and “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” if not in others. I had to look up this word and found that it describes a spottiness or patchiness of a thing. Hopkins has a clear reverence not for the polished cleanness of nature but the dappled things, the spots, and splotches that dew makes on a horse’s undercarriage as it crosses through a river or the dappling of sunlight on the body of a falcon flying into dawn. This appreciation of dappled things is shared by Turner. Turner’s painting, Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, is one of Turner’s most atmospheric paintings with nearly undiscernible subjects in a lively, expressive scene. Turner dapples his work; his abstracting strokes of color that often obscure the subject work for f the atmospheric quality of his scenes. I would imagine, in looking at his paintings, that Turner would have shared an appreciation for the dappled things that Hopkins does – the things that seem to block the sharp outlines of a subject but that actually better capture the lively inscape of a scene than an “accurate” reproduction of the visual “accuracy” of a scene. Turner’s paintings are multi-sensed in that way; one can see the Snow Storm in Snow Storm but also feel it, the ocean moving under the blizzard, the chill of the ocean and the spray of the saltwater. Both Turner and Hopkins call to their readers and viewers to witness small and large moments where we, humans and the industries we create, collide with the lively, interconnected, inscaped world beneath, above and around us.


Benjamin, Samalin, and Klee

In reading Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” and Zach Samalin’s “A Map the Size of the Empire” side by side, I found myself exploring a few connections between the two. Paragraph IX of “Theses” describes a Paul Klee painting, Angelus Novus, as an allegory for how one may imagine “the angel of history.” The New Angel has its face turned toward the past, and so perceives what no ‘mortal’ can: “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” The historicist view of history sees no need to awaken the dead, but the ‘historical materialist’ perceives the need for history, “not the way a spoiled loafer in the garden of knowledge needs it,” as Benjamin quotes Nietzsche, who proclaimed God is dead. The garden of knowledge is woven, as universal history, with “no theoretical armature,” having mustered “a mass of data to fill the homogoneous, empty time,” and is inhabited freely by those empathetic to the victory procession. This is quite similar to something Samalin points to in the “Dream City and Abstract Space” section of his chapter: “the naturalization of abstract space,” so Poovey called the process Samalin finds so intimately connected to the axiomatic character of the state’s monopoly on violence. The section’s title itself comes from the name of another Paul Klee painting, Dream City and Abstract Space. The viewing experience (through the internet alone) of this surrealist painting felt, to me, to be demonstrative of the way one may begin to understand the space the may inhabit, physically and theoretically. Then, one may consider where Angelus Novus sits in time, still, its face turned toward its viewer.

Paragraph I of “Theses” tells the allegory of the Turk: a constructed apparatus gives the appearance to an audience of a puppet able to counter every move and wins games of chess, when underlying an expert chess player hunchback hides within a system of mirrors. Centering focus on the similar language, the end of Samalin’s “Map” mentions Baudrillard’s beginning Simulacra and Simulation with “the argument that in late capitalism’s semiotic hall of mirrors there is no longer a referent to which Borges’s map could refer: ‘abstraction today is no longer that of the map’, [Baudrillard] writes, and ‘simulation is no longer that of a territory.” So far down the line it appears that our entire world sits outside Benjamin’s solution. Looking at Angelus Novus, in this way, is much like recognizing oneself a piece of the piling wreckage.

Image result for dream city and abstract space paul kleeDream City, Paul Klee, 1921.

Turner, Ruskin, and an alleged Bonfire

Turner’s death in 1851 and following organization of his works sparked a rumor throughout the art world: that John Ruskin, as an executor named in Turner’s will and curator of Turner’s nearly 30,000 artworks left in a bequest, destroyed many of Turner’s erotic drawings, watercolors, and sketches in a bonfire in 1858. Ruskin himself declared in 1862 the act of pyromania was a protection of Turner’s reputation. : “I am satisfied that you had no other course than to burn them, both for the sake of Turner’s reputation (they having been assuredly drawn under a certain condition of insanity) and for your own peace. And I am glad to be able to bear witness to their destruction; and I hereby declare that the parcel of them was undone by me, and all the obscene drawings it contained burnt in my presence in the month of December, 1858. (Letter to Ralph Nicholson Wornum, Secretary of the National Gallery) Ruskin’s reputation had become that of a “notoriously prudish Victorian”, coupled with an annulment of marriage which was never consummated. In 2005 the myth was debunked by the Tate Gallery, after cross-referencing of Turner inventories showed no significant amount of missing works. The Tate’s scholar instead suggested the myth by Ruskin was created in the face of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, to throw off investigation of the newly formed Turner catalog.

The Act was authored by Lord John Campbell, then Lord Chief Justice, as a response to presiding over a trial regarding pornography possession. As his fellow lords debated the restriction of poison sales to deter poisonings, Campbell raised the moral stakes. “But, from a trial which had taken place before him on Saturday, he had learned with horror and alarm that a sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strichnine, or arsenic—the sale of obscene publications and indecent books—was openly going on. It was not alone indecent books of a high price, which was a sort of check, that were sold, but periodical papers of the most licentious and disgusting description were coming out week by week, and sold to any person who asked for them, and in any numbers. This was a matter which required, in his opinion, the immediate consideration of the Government.” (May 11, 1857, House of Lords) The Act instructed for search and seizure of potentially erotic artworks or publications, and prosecution of their owners, but turned out to have little applicable enforcement beyond its passage. The myth survived on the aggressiveness and tragedy of assumed Victorian censorship which so neatly fit into well-established notions of Victorians legislating morality.


Questioning of Sale of Poisons, House of Lords

Censorship Goes Up in Smoke, NY Times, Jan 2005

Morals, Art, and The Law: The Passing of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857

Hopkin’s “God’s Grandeur”

In “God’s Grandeur,” Hopkins writes about Nature as this mysterious force: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” This reverence is religious in tone; however, the comparison he makes are scientific, mechanic, unusual. “It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; / It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil,” Hopkins writes. The alliteration from both the /sh/ and /g/ sounds mimic both the flash of light from the foil and the glugging movement of the oil. Comparing the might of God to the reflection of off foil, worked metal, or the movement of oil, fuel for industry, is strange. Hopkins is working within the culture of industry. His similes are his modern phenomena–the power of a liquid such as oil to fuel, to be consumed in order to produce a product, is an Industrial delight. However, Hopkins uses “rod,” a word originating, I believe, from Old English meaning “cross” rather than saying the more colloquial term. God’s power is compared not to the objects of industry themselves, but their natural properties– the movement of oil and the reflection on the foil. Similarly, Hopkins seems to be upholding an ideal of some romanticized past with the use of “rod” and, “nor can foot feel, being shod.” The foot has become unfeeling since it is clothed in a shoe. This instance of synecdoche illustrates Hopkin’s belief that modern advancements, such as footwear mass-produced in factories, are limiting the human experience of the world. 

The second stanza marks a volta for the sonnet. Though humans are attacking, almost insulting nature by not being appreciative enough, it is a force that does not cease to give. Hopkins maintains that nature is a source of pleasure, of rejuvenation, a spiritual entity that which humans benefit from. Given to humans from God, nature is imbued with an awesome power. Unlike the Industrialist belief we have discussed earlier, that specifically Europeans felt entitled to the land and the resources found on it, Hopkins seems to be advocating against this view. He posits that the consuming greed, emphasized by the repetition of “have trod, have trod, have trod,” is what keeps humans away from the grandeur of God. Yet even if humans continue to behave in such a way, Hopkins maintains that, “nature is never spent.” He believes that nature continues to thrive, continues to act as divine force, regardless of man’s interaction with it.

The Angel of History and “Ribblesdale”

Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” that he discusses in the ninth section of “Theses on the Philosophy of History” is a mixture of violence, reluctance, and divinity (Benjamin, 251). The angel witness the growing “wreckage” of the past as it the moves through the present and towards the future, and though they want to help, the angel is being forcibly blown into the future and away from Paradise by a sort of unstoppable wind— slide 14 “The Angel Standing in the Sun” of the Turner’s paintings reminded me of this, if it is not actually what Benjamin or Turner were referring to. Benjamin explains at the end of the theses that the storm is a metaphor for “progress,” but leaves the symbol of the angel as an imagined witness to the whole of history. I thought to create one witness who, as angel, is divine and not part of the ongoing earthly history was an interesting tool to use to understand Benjamin’s understanding of the past. The angel of history witnesses the entirety of past events with an expression of horror; he is always looking backward, never forwards. Progress moves the angel forward, but progress is fueled by history which is always referring to past events and generations.

The same kind of sentiment of continual wreckage and history that Benjamin expresses with the “angel of history” I thought was also seen in Hopkins poetry. In “Ribblesdale” Hopkins talks about the earth almost like a person without agency in their environment, like how the angel could do nothing about the catastrophe before them. He says about Earth that “thou canst only be,” repeatedly and that “Earth’s eye, tongue, or heart”— basically its ability to do anything about what is happening— is “dogged man,” (Hopkins, 157). Again, the earth like the angel is forced to do nothing but watch though it is implied that intervention would be appreciated, and is yet unattainable given outside forces. While the angel was propelled away by “progress,” Earth is restrained by having “no tongue to plead” because man is “selfbent so bound, so tied to his turn” in his pursuit of progress. In his poetry and journal entries, Hopkins is very aware of nature and admires its intricacies and details, so it makes sense that here he also criticizes those that “reave both our rich round world bare.” The parallels of Earth and the angel of history in these two readings both argue for a broader perspective of the world around us and our environment, whether that be literally about nature or figuratively about the events of the past.

Everything Is Rele(vant)

A common theme in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses On The Philosophy Of History” is that history is never over. Everything that happened in the past is relevant to the present. Namely, one can see how history influences the present by looking at the evolution of the different environments and/or the evolution of society. Furthermore, Benjamin asserts that if one is unhappy with their past circumstances, they can always seek redemption. 

The above statements are evident in every single one of Benjamin’s thesis’, but for the sake of word count, I am only going to analyze his second and third. In his second thesis, he writes, “reflection shows us that our image of happiness is thoroughly coloured by the time to which the course of our existence has assigned us. The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed…” (Benjamin 245). Essentially, history constructs our circumstances; moreover, history is beyond our control. Accordingly, wishing we could change the cards we have been dealt with is futile. We can always think about “what if”, but doing so will only lead us to misery. However, we can redeem our past by taking control of our present. 

In Benjamin’s third thesis, he says, “nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past – which is to say, only for a deemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments” (246). To clarify, only those that have come to terms with the ills of their past and try to live the present to the best of their ability will ever be truly happy. Additionally, no matter how bad our past has been, we must accept it and allow us to make us stronger. We cannot erase it, so we might as well accept it and view it as something that builds character. 

In conclusion, every part of our ontology is relevant: our past impacts our present and future while our present impacts our future. We cannot control our past, but we can control our present (for the most part), and consequently our future. Lastly, the acceptance of our past is the key to freedom.

Images of the Past in “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Published in 1940 by Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” by Walter Benjamin is an essay that critiques the concept of history or more specifically, ‘historicism’. Historicism, briefly defined by Merriam Webster, is “a theory, doctrine, or style that emphasizes the importance of history: such as a theory in which history is seen as a standard of value or as a determinant of events” (Merriam Webster). In essence, historicism posits that the developments or happenings that exist in the present day (social, political, etc) are driven and dictated completely by the past. Thus, time is separated into different entities and there is a distinction made between past, present, and future times. Benjamin splits the essay up into various parts, and for this blog post I will be paying attention to Part V and Part XV. 

In Part V of the essay, Benjamin writes on historicism and historical materialism, and states, “For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably” (247). This line stands out to me for the depressing and threatening feeling that it invokes in the audience. Reading this, I came to characterize one’s movement away from the past as time progresses onwards as potentially dangerous, for what it means for the proceedings of the past. I also found it effective how Benjamin characterizes these moments of the past as “image[s]”. It immediately makes me think of photographs, and how important they are in remembering and telling certain stories. Photography (and paintings / other modes of depiction) are perhaps some of the most important ways in which the past is brought into the present and recognized by society. However, not everything has or can be photographed / depicted in this one- usually only what is deemed most important, valuable, or interesting. In a similar manner, the majority of the stories and snippets of the past that make their way into the present are those that are deemed worthy- the rest, unphotographed, disappear into the abyss of history and are unable to be recovered, which is a dark and somewhat grim thought. 

I found that in Part XV, Benjamin relates back to this idea of the “image of the past” when he writes about calendars and holidays. In Part XV, Benjamin writes, “The great revolution introduced a new calendar. The initial day of a calendar serves as a historical time-lapse camera. And, basically, it is the same day that keeps recurring in the guise of holidays, which are days of remembrance. Thus the calendars do not measure time as clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been apparent in Europe in the past hundred years” (253). Just as calendars serve as “monuments” of past histories especially by holidays, photos / paintings / etc do the same. I think the concept of the calendar and its physical representation would be interesting to explore in greater detail- to look at: how are holidays on a calendar in their own way an “image” or something that keeps the past in the present / in one’s mind? ie. each holiday as memorable (but in its own way each year) … also, looking back on past calendars, marked up by the individual who noted their “to-do’s” or daily plans- and how that brings the past to the present, and what comes from reflecting on this.

Reaching Back for More

In the spirit of studying the nineteenth century from a twenty-first century perspective, this final post is dedicated to reflecting on texts from earlier in the semester vis à vis Gerard Manley Hopkins’s writing.

Hopkins’s journal entries have an astute specificity matched only by John Ruskin’s rhetoric in “The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century.” Both spend considerable time describing and even sketching various cloud formations in their endless permutations. Hopkins transforms his observations into creative soliloquies, such that nature is transformed into something closer to the human experience. He writes, “Rarer and wilder packs [of clouds] have sometimes film in the sheet, which may be caught as it turns on the edge of the cloud like an outlying eyebrow. The one in which I saw this was in a north-east wind, solid but not crisp, white like the white of egg, and bloated-looking” ( Hopkins 204). Ruskin’s descriptions are hardly less fanciful, though tinged with something quasi-scientific. Almost mid-way through his lecture, Ruskin describes:

“The domes of cloud-snow were heaped as definitely: their broken flanks were as gray and firm as rocks, and the whole mountain, of a compass and height in heaven which only became more and more inconceivable as the eye strove to ascend it, was passing behind the tower with a steady march, whose swiftness must in reality have been that of a tempest: yet, along all the ravines of vapor, precipice kept pace with precipice, and not one thrust another” (Ruskin 20).

Each writer dramatizes and personifies clouds in a near-reverential manner. Perhaps these men used their keen observational powers to inspire literary or artistic output. Regardless, the similar rhetorical styles and dependence on sketches is worth mention.

Several of Hopkins’s shorter poems are reminiscent of William Wordsworth’s work. Though Hopkins tends more towards the spiritual, pieces like “Inversnaid,” “Ribbesdale,” and “Binsey Poplars” lean on descriptions of the natural world. “Ribbesdale” and Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” appeal to human senses and sensibilities – pleading, feeling, longing, caring, loving, blessing, living – to make the landscape as feeling as oneself. Details in “Inversnaid,” such as plants “dappled with dew,” and in “Binsey Poplars,” such as a “weed-winding bank,” are similar in specificity to descriptions in many of Wordsworth’s poems (line 9, line 8).

Other Hopkins poems seem to align more with Christina Rossetti’s style. These two poets had a powerful connection to melancholy. Hopkins’s “The Wreck of Deutschland” is riddled with flood and storm imagery, which is fitting given the fate of the five Franciscan nuns about whom he writes. Rossetti’s “Remember,” “After Death,” and “Song” strike equally melancholic chords. She, too, occasionally uses imagery of the natural world to amplify emotionality.

It is important to note that while Hopkins, Ruskin, and Rossetti were roughly contemporaries, Wordsworth belonged to a slightly earlier era. 


The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Christina Rossetti. Vol. 5. Broadview Press, Ontario. 2012.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”

Hopkins, Gerard Manley; ed. Catherine Phillips. Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2009.

Ruskin, John. “The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century.” London Institution, London. 1884.

Wordsworth, William; ed. Stephen Gill. William Wordsworth: The Major Works. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2008.

Environmental Impacts in Connection with the ‘Landscape of the Past’

In Samalin’s “Dream City and Abstract Space,” he walks the reader through the idea that theory is not alone in retaining the structure of its origins in the 19th century. Institutional practices, physical structures, and overall dreams and landscape of the 19th century remain extraordinarily relevant if not prevalent in the culture of today. Samalin presses the fact that much of the infrastructure we are surrounded by has its origins in the 19th century and that we, as a society on the whole, continue to provide maintenance and thus an extended lifecycle for this environment around us. He goes on to say that it is impossible to expect any real transformation or development to occur if we continue to be surrounded by the ways of the past because the act of living in the historical state pertains that we have that same historical mindset, “to inhabit the landscape of the past is to inhabit its ideological structure… to continue to give value to the dreams of the past” (5). This idea that a space, on its own, can hold a belief system is powerful when thinking about how the world works today. We live in an era that is battling the systems that were left behind by past centuries, specifically as that legacy pertains to environmental factors.


In Hopkins’ “Inversnaid,” the poem ends on a dreary note with the statement that the world would suffer a huge loss without the existence of natural spaces. He urges readers to “let them be left”, referencing the wilderness as an entity that is at the will of the world (153). This poem is especially poignant in the context of Samalin’s essay because Hopkins is endeavoring to change the way people act so that the future can be bright and the world won’t be “bereft” (153). The poem “Binsey Poplars” is similarly environmentally conscious with Hopkins imploring the reader to understand their impact on the future, “O if we but knew what we do” (143). The events of the past are set in stone and those that come afterwards will only know the world that they inherit, “after-comers cannot guess the beauty been” (143). The best way to go through life would be to establish a brighter future, but to do so we must discover a path that is not entirely dictated by our history.

Inversnaid and Physical Space

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the poetry for this week’s reading and the consistent theme of the intersections between nature and humanity. Most specifically, I found Inversnaid to be powerful, though I did not initially know what the title meant or what it was referring to. After doing some research, I fould out that Inversnaid is a small rural community on the east bank of Lock Lomond in Scotland. This piece, named after the natural land and scenery of the physical location, highlights the importance of the environment and Mother Earth’s resources and views. The rhetorical question, “What would the world be, once bereft of wet and of wildness?” brings attention to the tension between cultivation and the perceived uninhabitable. The final line “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet” is a powerful statement in support of the maintaining and preservation of not only physical land, but a set of morals that values the sublime of the wilderness and it’s personable importance in people’s lives. The line “The lake falls home” especially highlights the importance of nature’s simplicity and its relationship with human “homes” or what they hold dear. Just as their relationships, the lakes, the weeds, the ferns, all deserve holistic respect just the same.

On a separate note, I thought the Zach Samalin piece was extremely relevant to the reading we spoke about briefly last class In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. A particular sentence I found interesting was, “From sewer tunnels, schoolhouses and train stations, to parks, museums, tenements and colonial administration buildings, the institutional bones of today’s cities are emblematic of this complex spatio-temporal perpetuation, according to which we continue to inhabit a lifeworld constructed according to a previous era’s vision of collective life on the mass scale” (3). These two pieces shared the relevance of the past and it’s ability to strongly inform the present at every level. From personable family stories to physical structures, 19th Century influences permeate our lives and societal forces. What is different about Samalin’s piece that was not mentioned in Blackness of Being was the notion of physical space in the rise of industrial capitalism, social domination and its relationship with the model of thinking used in theory. It begs the question: what does it mean to occupy space? To relinquish it or be excluded from it? How does physical space contribute to the “entanglement of the histories of race and the recognition of its constructedness?” (3). I would love to hear the classes thoughts on this.