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.


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