How To Describe The Indescribable

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Subject: Essay Writing
Last updated: 17/04/2018
Tags: a-level english, effective learning, gerard manley hopkins, reflective journal, writing

Gerald Manley Hopkins: how an acute capacity for observation discloses essential criteria for Effective Learning. 12th March 1870  … (B)efore I had always taken the sunset and the sun as quite out of gauge with each other … but today I inscaped them together and made the sun the true eye and ace of the whole, as it is. (Hopkins in House, 1959: 196).

This is an important passage for the article: how does one transform the capacity to 'see', both literally and figuratively?  In its original context the preceding quotation is embedded in detailed, impersonal and objective descriptions of natural phenomena, which phenomena Hopkins experienced intensely. One may discern his capacity to learn by heart, thereby integrating contrasting ways of seeing; of enriching language through communicating the meaning of what he learnt. 

1.2:  The Essence of Effective Learning?

The central sources of inspiration that drives this investigation into the relationship between cultivating aesthetic awareness and effective learning draws on the writings of the Victorian poet – and Jesuit Priest – Gerard Manley Hopkins, especially the word-paintings of the natural world which illuminate his journals. Given the impossibility of exactly replicating such experiences, and, with both sources of inspiration in mind, I wonder, moreover how and whether it might be possible, intentionally, to enrich aesthetic awareness and observe what arose from this. My speculation is that the essence of effective learning is to discover how the mind’s resources exercise a prerogative to set the agenda if the learning process is to attain optimal expression of its function.

1.3:  Gerard Manley Hopkins – Journals, Ideas and Poetry

1871, May 9th : The bluebells baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense. … (I)t is the eye they baffle. They give one a fancy of panpipes and of some instrument with stops, a trombone perhaps. The overhung necks – for growing they are a little more than a staff with a simple crook put in water, where they stiffen, they take stronger turns, in the head like sheephooks, or, more is waved throughout, like the waves riding through a whip that is being smacked – what with these overhung necks and what with the crisp ruffled bells dropping mostly on one side and the gloss these have at their footstalks they have an air of the knights at chess.  (Hopkins, 1953: 125-6). 

Writing of bluebells elsewhere in his journals Hopkins stated: 'I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it. It[s inscape] is [mixed of] strength and grace like an ash [tree].'  (Ibid: 122). Chronologically, this is the first of the two quoted descriptions by Hopkins of bluebells: as witness his detailed accounts in both cases, there was a durable fascination for Hopkins, leading him towards the natural world, where, with disciplined contemplation, he could discern 'the beauty of (the) Lord'. The infinite potential for the rediscovery of this beauty, fresh, original and gratifying, is the open window to the spiritual realities his poetic impulses sought, as when, in God's Grandeur he wrote: 'There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.' (Ibid: 27). Hopkins's use of the word 'inscape', in the journal extract above, gives clues as to its meaning. It implies the presence of wholeness, unity and order in nature, bearing a unique identity. The extraordinary variation and fecundity of the images suggests, moreover, that the unity and order expressed through the ‘specific identity’ was something constantly in transformation, and, to become aware of it was the fruit of receptive and sustained observation. Significantly, two of Hopkins’s brothers were artists; he, also, had considered becoming a painter. However, he opted for Classics.

1872, Feb. 23: A lunar halo: … It was a grave grained sky, the strands rising a little from left to right. The halo was not quite round, for in the first place it was a little pulled and drawn below, by the refraction of the lower air perhaps, but what is more it fell in on the nether left side to rhyme itself, which was not quite at full. I could not but strongly feel in my fancy the odd instress of this, the moon leaning on her side, as if fallen back, in the cheerful light floor within the ring, after with magical rightness and success tracing round her the ring the steady copy of her own outline. (Hopkins, 1953: 127). 

By 'instress', Hopkins, (who used both his invented terms in ways that both multiplied and developed their meanings), seems to be alluding to something alive within (or ‘beyond’?) the object, in the words of W.H. Gardner, 'that energy of being by which all things are upheld’ (ibid xx), and which 'maintains the inscape.'  This exploration of nature yielding the kinds of perception involved in his necessity to invent new terms, points to more than refinements merely of the visual sense.  William Blake, in his famous letter to Dr. Trussler, stated:

'… Some Scarce see Nature at all.  But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.  As a man is So he Sees.'  (Bronowski, 1985: 220 – 221).

Hopkins might be tempted to agree, whilst at the same time arguing for a finely-tuned differentiation between his terms, and Blake’s – or for that matter, Coleridge’s.[1]  The key connotations, which appear integral to his own terminology, presumably relate to his religious faith, especially, to the relationship between the observer and the observed.  To sum up: ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’ appear to define Hopkins’s sense of participation in a relationship with the divine; indeed, condensed in these terms are the poetic forms that Hopkins strove, (albeit in a state of conflict)[2], to bring to term.

Acknowledgements : I am indebted to Professor Guy Claxton for providing inspiration for this article, which is an edited and extended extract from a Masters assignment.

Bronowski, J.  (Ed.)  1985, Blake: Poems and Letters, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Coleridge, S.T.  1977, Biographia Literaria, London, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.
Gardner, W. H.  1953, Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
House, H.  (Ed.)  1959, The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, London, Oxford University Press.
Martin, R. B.   1991, Gerard Manley Hopkins: a Very Private Life, London, Harper Collins.
[1] Coleridge honed the meaning of ‘imagination’ by means of an invented term of his own, viz., the esemplastic power.  (Watson, 1977: 161).
[2] Hopkins’s conflicts between his desire to write poetry and to remain true to his Jesuit vocation are too complex to relate in brief.

Francis Peters GCSE English Tutor (Bristol)

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