Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Remedy of Recovery
“In the beginning God created heaven, and earth.” (Gn 1:1 DRA) This is the beginning of the Holy Scriptures, and it is the beginning and foundation of the whole Christian vision of the world. We do not believe that Creation is merely a random accident or an eternally meaningless loop. Rather, all of Creation reflects God, and humans, who can perceive this and long for the One it reflects, are intentionally made and destined to be united with God. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), an English convert to Catholicism and a Jesuit priest, sought not only to describe and explain this fundamental truth, but to enter into the daily human experience of God’s creative, self-expressive power communicated sacramentally through the natural world. For Hopkins, every touch, sight and scent is a refreshment of the implicit love which is spoken to our hearts by the voice of God in every moment that he sustains our existence.
To express his ideas, Hopkins employed the art of poetry, and his vision is most clearly seen in his sonnet “God’s Grandeur,” which masterfully demonstrates his unique poetic meter, called “sprung rhythm,” employing Old English-style alliteration and assonance; onomatopoeia to simulate the natural texture and tangibility of human speech; relatable ordinary imagery (as in “foil” and “oil”); and a rhyming structure to lend his verses musical power. This meter, in which “native speech rhythms embody most markedly the ‘inscape’ of speech, whose revelation is the object of poetry,” is the channel Hopkins used to encapsulate two of the overriding concepts implied throughout his poetry: inscape and instress.
These concepts of ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’ were original to Hopkins, and their uniqueness and complexity set Hopkins’s poetry apart. While his usage of the terms was relatively inconsistent, a general definition for each is essential for truly grasping the meaning of his poetry. According to Hopkins scholar Tim Noble, inscape “refers to the peculiar qualities of a thing or a place or a person that makes that thing, place, person, what it is.” Noble’s interpretation mirrors the thought of the late Scholastic theologian Bl. John Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308), who distinguished the unity and individuality of each thing created by God as a distinct principle – “the haecceitas of a thing, its precise and unique individualising content.” Absorbing Scotus’s concept, Hopkins recognized in inscape the artistic imprint of God spoken in Creation, the effusive wisdom and self-knowledge of the Word of God realized in the essential uniqueness, infused meaning and characteristic depth of all that he has made. As Hywel Thomas explains, Hopkins extended the pronouncement of Genesis 1:1 into its fulfillment in John 1:1: “Communication presupposes significance, and the latter is already there in the world as presented to consciousness. ‘In the beginning was the LOGOS.’”
The concept of instress can be defined as “the underlying creative power that takes the particularity of the perceived and perceiver and enables communication to occur - or, I suppose, we could say, the Holy Spirit.” Instress is thus the unifying principle which realizes inscape and makes it intelligible. “And that tension, that equilibrium, that dynamic holding together of its parts in one whole, is its ‘instress’.” Just as the Father and Son subsist in the loving unity of the Holy Spirit within the life of the Blessed Trinity, so the same Spirit analogously harmonizes every created entity with the binding threads of his love, yet without ever destroying their individuality. As we observe Creation and identify “the cosmic patterns behind the forms,” by our God-given intellect and imagination humans are capable of recognizing both the inscape of things and the instress which holds them together by the sustenance of God’s will – the Holy Spirit. Our recognition is not merely the imposition of human mental concepts onto an impersonal, unintelligible cosmos, as in the nominalism of William of Ockham and Immanuel Kant, but rather a mystical, connatural intuition of God’s sacramental presence pervading all Creation and on which Creation depends for its very existence; as Hopkins explained: “all things are upheld by instress and are meaningless without it.”
Despite the universality of the Logos presented in the inscape and instress of all things, of whom St. Paul said, “For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity”, (Rom 1:20) in the accumulation of years humans tend to become ‘familiarized’ with life, filing away experiences into neat categories and forgetting the enchantment of eternal freshness and the unnecessary gratuity of Creation. In this vein, “God’s Grandeur” is presented as a kind of diagnosis by Hopkins, “in which those who ignore the divine inscape in creation are the same people who choose to disobey God’s law.” While “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” yet after years of life the grandeur is “crushed.”
[A]ll is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Not only familiarity but the “smudge” of original sin stains this fallen world and distracts from the love electrifying its every moment.
As a remedy to this Hopkins reminds us that “nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” In his poetry Hopkins strives to shine a piercing light through the leaf mold of familiarity, composting experience into revelatory expression. Hopkins shares this aim with fellow Catholic poet J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), who was a great admirer of Hopkins’s poetry. Like Hopkins, Tolkien perceived the connection between the artistic nature of God’s creative act and that of human art. Just as God reveals himself in an analogical, implicit way in his Creation, illustrating his transcendental unity, truth, beauty and goodness through the love of Creation as truly Other, for its own sake, so do human artists express themselves through their art, making something new out of love for their work as Other. By the imitative act of art, humans thus imitate God, “because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
Both Hopkins and Tolkien saw art as a means of healing the deadening and dehumanizing familiarization of Creation which accrues as our days in this life accumulate and as we become daily more distracted by the cares of the world and the overshadowing blur of sin. “Artistic subcreation, in which we give ‘to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality’” - a kind of emulative “instress” - can administer the medicine of Recovery, which Tolkien defines as “‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves.” Hopkins’s deeply Catholic poem reminds us that God’s healing and sustaining creative love is never removed from Creation; it is only clouded by familiarity and sin. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “The manifold perfections of creatures - their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God.” Creation can never lose the intrinsic beauty which it possess as the Other, the beloved artwork of God.
By this Art, and most of all in Fantasy, in which subcreation is raised up to the making of a world which, in its “arresting strangeness”, is authentically fresh and apart from ourselves, we can come to see the intentional, loving will behind Creation, that things could be different than they are, or could have not been at all. G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) described the roots of subcreative Recovery as deriving from the loving intentionality of God’s own act of “Primary” Creation, which we too often take for granted by seeing Nature in a purely materialistic and mechanistic way:
The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, ‘charm,’ ‘spell,’ ‘enchantment.’ They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched... These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.
Continuing on this theme in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien offered two further medicinal applications of subcreation: Escapism and Consolation. Unlike the materialist, who cannot see through the prison-bars of this fallen world and so has become institutionalized, forgetting or even despising the idea of escape, subcreative art shows us the Uncreated Light beyond the darkness of sin which cannot be dimmed except by our own blindfolds. Escaping into the reminder of the infinite and creative love of the Holy Spirit given by works of art which seek to connect humanity to the essential transcendence of God’s truth, goodness and beauty offers the Consolation that, although this world is fallen, “the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
In modern times, and indeed in all times since the Fall, we live in the Vale of Tears, enshrouded by confusion, sorrow and injustice, distracted by the “the care of this world and the deceitfulness of riches” (Mt 13:22) and the deceptions of “the flesh, the world, and the devil.” And yet, by Creation itself and the Word of God through whom “all things were made,” (Jn 1:3) God shows us a timeless antidote to this deadly poison: subcreative art. Through art, we can remind the world of the unfathomable mystery and goodness of God shining through Creation, to thereby contribute to the quest of the New Evangelization and seek to fulfill the promise made by Dostoevsky long ago: “Beauty will save the world.”
 Gerard Manley Hopkins, "God’s Grandeur," in Flowers of Heaven, rev. ed., compiled by Joseph Pearce (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 206.
 James I Wimsatt, Hopkins’s Poetics of Speech Sound: Sprung Rhythm, Lettering, Inscape (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, 2006), 46.
 Tim Noble, “‘The Mind Has Mountains’: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Landscape and Poetry,” Communio Viatorum 59, no 2 (2017), 226.
 Noble, “Mind Has Mountains,” 226.
 Hywel Thomas, “Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Duns Scotus,” Religious Studies 24, no. 3 (1988), 344.
 Noble, “Mind Has Mountains,” 227.
 Thomas, “Hopkins and Scotus,” 344.
 Wimsatt, Hopkins’s Poetics, 96.
 Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Note-books and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1937), 98.
 David V. Urban, “Ignatian Inscape and Instress in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Pied Beauty,’ ‘God’s Grandeur,’ ‘The Starlight Night,’ and ‘The Windhover’: Hopkins’s Movement toward Ignatius by Way of Walter Pater,” Religions 9, no. 2 (2018), 5.
 Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” 206.
 Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” 206.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1981), 127-128. Kindle.
 J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin, 1964), 75.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 68.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 77.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2501, at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, www.scborromeo2.org.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 68.
 G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” in Orthodoxy (Digireads.com Publishing, 2018), 33.
 Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” 206.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, q. 41, a. 1, obj. 3, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.
 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 2012), 382.