Poetry and the Affirmation of Life

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The impulse to write poetry, for me, begins with a crisis of meaning. I use the word crisis in the original Greek sense of making a decision (krisis). One is faced with the possibility that nothing is meaningful or the foundations of meaning have been lost or placed in jeopardy; and the decision is whether to accept this conclusion (which could have dire consequences) or, alternatively, to see that all things have intrinsic meaning: an epiphany that can serve as a basis for finding affirmation in life. I am reminded here of Albert Einstein’s famous quotation: ‘There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.’

One poet that expounds similar thoughts on the above is Gerard Manley Hopkins (pictured). I feel especially drawn to his complementary ideas of inscape and instress. Whereas inscape refers to the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity, instress is the apprehension of this distinctiveness by an observer or poet. For Hopkins, each being in the universe enacts its identity. And the human being, the most individually distinctive being in the universe, recognises the inscape of other beings in an act of instress: perceiving an object in a way that enables us to realise its peculiar distinctiveness.

Influenced by the thoughts of medieval philosopher Duns Scotus, Hopkins believed that ongoing cultivation of instress and awareness of inscape led one towards Christ, and this is logical since the individual identity of any object bears the imprint of divine creation on it. Paradoxically, to notice and value the absolute singularity of another being, including its transience and fragility, is to bring oneself closer to what is transcendent and universal. This requires refinement, no doubt, of a deep and abiding sensitivity to nature, especially the living beings we share our lives with. It is often the case that Hopkins finds instress in the tiny details of the world, evinced in his famous poem ‘Pied Beauty’:


Glory be to God for dappled things —

  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

  Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;

    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.


All things counter, original, spare, strange;

  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                Praise him.           


The kind of attunement suggested here, to nature and beauty, also hints at an ethical stance to the world: that the singularity of beings is what gives them their value, and recognised as precious and irreplaceable as they are, they are sacred and inviolable. Hopkins' way of looking at the world says that nothing could be more valuable than a living being, that life is to be cherished, and each thing, in all its uniqueness, is a foundation for meaning, love and joy, in a world that often threatens to crumble beneath our feet.     

picture: biography.com

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Dominic James

Sat 1st Dec 2018 09:58

Patrick, you put me in mind of Virginia Woolf's wise appraisal of Conrad, in whom she recognises that tension between a writer who finds there is everything to say, and the seafarer who knows there is nothing to be said. Hopkins troubles me, his occasional jump off the page genius, and his profound understanding of sound, I follow at... more than a pace or two. For the general crisis, here's a favourite, one of his quiet pieces, i'm sure you know it.

(a nun takes the veil)

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

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John F Keane

Sat 24th Nov 2018 10:14

*And the human being, the most individually distinctive being in the universe*

There are so many unwarranted assumptions underpinning this statement I really don't know where to start...

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