The genesis of inscape: parmenides’ monist philosophy

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ enigmatic poetic theories of “inscape,” “instress,” and sprung rhythm have intrigued critics since his poems were published in 1930, leading to many interpretations of what such terms may mean and how they apply to his canon. Critics have scoured his journals and papers for clues to their significance and have analysed his poems in consequence; however, they have yet to come to a consensus. An analysis of both Hopkins’ poetic and personal manuscripts allow for the survey of these poetic theories from an initial spark of inspiration to a method that could be applied to any creative endeavour. Norman MacKenzie was recognisant of this utility of the manuscripts when he published the drafts of Hopkins’ poems in facsimile form. One of his expressed goals was to “encourage a closer study of [Hopkins’] poetic development – both during his successive phases and, on a smaller scale, in his reshaping of individual pieces” (The Early Poetic Manuscripts ). This study undertakes this mission. Through analysis of the drafts made available by MacKenzie, this study, by means of genetic criticism, adds to the comprehension of “inscape” and “instress,” the overarching theories which informed Hopkins’ theories of soundscape and metre. It then applies this knowledge to two of the poems that were written during the peak of Hopkins’ poetic career: “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover.”

It may seem that nothing new could possibly be written on these much studied and canonical sonnets. I have chosen them specifically as the subjects of this study because of their explicit application of Hopkins’ poetic theories and their appropriateness to the application of genetic criticism. By the time they were written, 1877, Hopkins’ theory of inscape had been concretized. I believe that the first peak of Hopkins’ creativity, that of 1875-1877, is directly due to his theory of inscape being fully developed into an applicable practice. In contrast, the poems he wrote before this period lack a spark of creative imagination. They read as mere imitations of Greek classics. And those that comprise his later peak, the so-called “terrible sonnets” of 1885-86, lack the immediacy of the discovery of inscape. “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover,” meanwhile, show the marked influence of this theory and its complementary poetic theories. The themes of both poems also enrich the understanding of inscape. Accordingly, given that this study relies on extant genetic materials, one of the first qualifications is that several versions of the poem be available for analysis. This is the case for both “The Windhover,” which has three versions, and “God’s Grandeur,” which has five. In comparison “Pied Beauty,” another canonical sonnet from the same time period, has no extant manuscripts to analyze which summarily excluded it from the scope of this study.

The Genesis of Inscape: Parmenides’ Monist Philosophy 

Inscape was such a vital part of Hopkins’ worldview that he believed that the instructed mind naturally observed inscape in nature. Consider, for example, his lamentation that the “beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people and yet how near at hand it was if they had eyes to see it and it could be called out everywhere again” (J 221; 19 July 1872). Perhaps because he assumed that inscape is a concept that is instinctively understood by all but the “simple,” Hopkins never provided a precise definition of this term he coined. Hence, there is no consensus among Hopkins scholars as to the signification of the term, whereas there is little doubt as to its significance in the poetic ideals he set out for himself. Scholars have been right to try to untangle the meaning of this term that Hopkins considered “the very soul of art” (Lii, 135; 30 June 1886).

Although this study will not attempt to determine a decisive definition of inscape or its companion concept instress, it will establish a theory of the terms’ development from Hopkins’ first use of them in notes pertaining to Parmenides’ poem “On Nature” in 1868, the subtle shifting of their meanings after Hopkins was introduced to Duns Scotus’s philosophies in 1872, and the practical use of the terms as he employs them in his correspondence and journals throughout his lifetime. Furthermore, a genetic analysis of the 1877 sonnets “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover” will establish to what extent Hopkins seeks to attain inscape and instress in these poems throughout the writing process. As foundational concepts, a review of the genesis and evolution of the theory of inscape and its accompanying concept instress, will then allow for an analysis of the development of Hopkins’ poetic theories of soundscape and “sprung rhythm” in the proceeding chapters.

Hopkins first refers to inscape and instress, as well as the complementary terms “flush and “foredrawn,” in notes about the Greek philosopher Parmenides. In commenting on his respect for Parmenides’ philosophy he writes: “[h]is feeling for instress, for the flush and foredrawn, and for inscape is most striking” (J 127). The notebook containing these remarks is entitled “Notes on the history of Greek Philosophers” and dates from February 9, 1868, several months after the twenty-three-year-old’s graduation from Balliol College, Oxford, but before he entered the Jesuit novitiate later in the year. He was teaching at Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Oratory School in Birmingham, a private boarding school for Catholic boys, where many were converted, like Hopkins, from Anglicanism through the influence of the Oxford Movement. It was while researching Parmenides’ philosophy, most likely for class preparation, that I conjecture that he came across Sir Philip Sidney’s and Arthur Golding’s use of the similar nonce word “inshape,” thereby influencing Hopkins’ concept of inscape. The similarities in terms lend clarity to Hopkins’ early usage of the term.

The Genesis: Inscape as Inshape: The Incarnation of Divine Being 

Two references to “inshape” can be found in Sidney’s and Golding’s 1587 translation of Philippe de Mornay’s De la vérité de la religion chrestienne (1581), entitled The Woorke concerning the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion (1587), which was available to Hopkins in the Bodleian Library on Oxford’s campus when he was a student (Cotter, “The Inshape of Inscape” 195). The first and most relevant to our discussion occurs in a paragraph in which Parmenides is mentioned specifically. As for the change from inshape to inscape, as Cotter points out, in his philological notes Hopkins observes that “sk and sc are notoriously often exchanged for sh” (J 46). He was correct about this etymological transition; according to the OED, “shape” in Middle English was in fact “scape” (“Shape”). Only a few months after his initial usage of inscape, Hopkins notes that the “wholeness and general scape of the anatomy” of a statue depicting the “good thief” beside Christ at the Crucifixion were “original and interesting” (J 170; 7 July 1868). Scape here can be a synonym to shape. As a landscape is a unified view incorporating the shapes of land or as “cloudscape,” in Hopkins’ terminology, refers to a scene of clouds that “seem prism-shaped, flat-bottomed and banked up to a ridge: their make is like light tufty snow in coats” (J 208), so inscape is an “inner landscape,” the shape of the soul (Wimsatt 4).

The first occurrence of the term “inshape” in the volume follows immediately after a description of Parmenides’ belief that Love (Eros) is the Prime Mover. Although Parmenides’ philosophy is strictly binary in nature, allowing only for Being and Not-being, as will be seen presently, de Mornay insists on a Trinitarian interpretation of Parmenides’ theories. He writes that in Plato’s work Parmenides, “[Plato] nous y laisse une marque apparante des trois subsistences” (103). In the following sentence he writes that, according to Alcinous, Plato and Socrates taught that “Dieu est un Entendement: qu’en iceluy il y a une Idée” (de Mornay 103). Sidney and Golding translate Idée as “Inshape”: “And Alcinous reporteth that Socrates and Plato taught that God is a mynde, and that in the same there is a certaine Inshape” (SidneyGolding 344). Cotter identifies this shift from Idée, which is a Platonic term, to Inshape as reflective of de Mornay’s Trinitarian treatise (“The Inshape of Inscape” 198). Also evident of their Christian worldview is their translation of de Mornay’s “trois subsistences” (103), in regards to the Trinity, to “three Inbéeings or Persones” (Sidney-Golding 284). “Inshape” and “Inbéeings” are only two of such examples. As terms uniquely found in this single work, the Oxford English Dictionary has provided lexical entries based solely on the use in Sidney and Golding’s volume. The denotative definition for “inbeing” is then “an indwelling being: applied to ‘Persons’ of the Trinity” (“Inbeing”); and “inshape” is “inward shape; inward form” (“Inshape”).

These definitions are lacking. In fact, Sidney and Golding’s volume provides a triad of definitions for the term inshape, each corresponding to a Person of the Godhead. In regards to inshape, God the Father, as “mynd,” is the “knowledge God hath of himselfe”; God the Son, God Incarnate, is the matter, “the Patterne or Mould” of the world; and God the Holy Spirit is the soul or “very essence” of inshape (344). Furthermore, in very recently published notes on “Plato’s Philosophy” (1866), Hopkins identifies the three elements of Plato’s creation myth, which are mind (νοὐν), matter, and soul (quid) (ψυχήν), with the three Persons of the Godhead (Cotter Inscape 16). Notably, these three correspond to the three modes of inshape, which, in turn, inform Hopkins’ conception of inscape and its companion term, instress.

At this stage in his life Hopkins’ worldview, as influenced by the Trinitarian doctrines of both his Anglican upbringing and his newfound Catholic faith, as well as his reading of Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, includes not only what is tangible, “matter,” but also what is intangible, “soul.” The third, “mind,” is a hybrid of the physical brain and the metaphysical intellect. His encounter with Parmenides’ philosophy introduces him to a seemingly conflicting worldview of a binary of Being, what exists, and Not-being, that which is inexistent. Even before Trinitarian Christian beliefs had developed with Jesus’s claims to Divinity, Aristotle had contested Parmenides’ binaries by introducing a third element, “Becoming.” At the time of reading Parmenides’ “On Nature,” Hopkins was already aware of Aristotle’s views as evidenced in his essay discussing his philosophy, which begins by stating “There are three stages in the conception of all Being – the potential, the actual, and the passing from the one to the other: these answer to the Not being, Being, and Becoming” (1866 or 1867) (Cotter Inscape Appendix II 310). Hence, a tension develops between binaries and trinities in his psyche. He resolves this conflict by uniting the two worldviews; when Hopkins jotted down these notes on Parmenides’ philosophy, he was welding together a Realist worldview, or as Cotter conceives it, “a mythology” (Inscape xviii), from his classical studies, his Catholic faith, and his Anglican upbringing.


What I initially appreciated about Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems, specifically “God’s Grandeur,” “The Windhover,” and “Pied Beauty,” and what first attracted me to them was a sense of vicariously experiencing the subject of the poems, such as a windhover abruptly dashing from its circling control in a fury of feathers towards the ground. What I understood emotionally, I have now substantiated as being due to Hopkins’ quest for inscape. A study of the genesis of his theory has shed light onto its meaning and application, as a tightening fullness of Being that explodes into meaning as the thing (whether the subject of the poem, the poem itself, the poet, or the reader) lives out its God-given purpose. Hopkins attains this tightening through soundscape, the poem’s alliteration and rhythm. So, what first attracted me to Hopkins’ unique poetry, I now comprehend as the effect of the theory of inscape – the incarnation of Christ – in practice. The soundscape creates a sensation of movement, as the windhover hurls towards the ground, as well as immobility and silence, as it sagely observes God’s creation from above. It also reenacts the ring of a stone bouncing off the side of a well and then its thud as it hits the water and sinks to the bottom. The poem itself becomes a metaphor through inscape, by way of the instressed soundscape.

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Table des matières

A Unique Perspective: Comparison of “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover”
Chapter Breakdown
Chapter One: Inscape: The Genesis of a Poetic Theory
Chapter Two: Inscape as Theme of “God’s Grandeur”
Chapter Three: Inscape Applied in “The Windhover”
Chapter One: The Genesis of Inscape: Parmenides’ Monist Philosophy
The Genesis: Inscape as Inshape: The Incarnation of Divine Being
Parmenides’ “On Nature”: The Ways of Search
Parmenides’ “On Nature”: The Way of Truth
The Development of Inscape: Ruskin’s and Scotus’s Influence
Ruskin’s Aesthtic Theories: Applied to Attaining Inscape
Chapter Two:  Inscape as Theme of “God’s Grandeur”: Revealed through Genetic Criticism
A Unifying Metre: Counterpointing
The Inshape of God Revealed after the Fall
Inscape: Divine Presence to be Revered
Instress: the Fullness of the Holy Spirit’s Presence
Chapter Three Inscape Applied in “The Windhover”: Revealed through Genetic Criticism 
Inscape: Revealed through Ruskin’s Theory
The Poem’s Enacted Inscape: Revealed through Genetic Criticism
Haecceity within the Tradition of the Sonnet
Haecceity within the Traditional Metre
The unification of metre and sound patterns: Soundscape
Lines 1-4: The Sight: The Bird’s Climbing and Hovering
Lines 5-8: The Sight: The Bird’s Diving
Lines 9-11: The Moral and Emotional Response
Lines 12-14: The Artist’s Representation

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