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Hopkins & Swinburne

‘There is one notable dead tree . . . the inscape markedly holding its most simple and beautiful oneness up from the ground through a graceful swerve below (I think) the spring of the branches up to the tops of the timber. I saw the inscape freshly, as if my mind were still growing, though with a companion the eye and the ear are for the most part shut and instress cannot come.’ – Hopkins, Journal 

‘No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness. I hope in time to have a more balanced and Miltonic style. But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music, and design in painting, so design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling inscape is what I above all aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive, and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer. This vice I cannot have escaped.’ - Hopkins, Letter to Robert Bridges, February 15, 1879

‘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. Its inscape is mixed of strength and grace, like an ash tree. The head is strongly drawn over backwards and arched down like a cutwater drawing itself back from the line of the keel. The lines of the bells strike and overlie this, rayed but not symmetrically, some lie parallel. They look steely against the paper, the shades lying between the bells and behind the cocked petal-ends and nursing up the precision of their distinctness, the petal-ends themselves being delicately lit. Then there is the straightness of the trumpets in the bells softened by the slight entasis and by the square play of the mouth.’ - Hopkins, Journal

‘Why do I employ sprung rhythm at all? Because it is the nearest to the rhythm [ . . . ] the native and natural rhythm of speech, the least forced, the most rhetorical and emphatic of all possible rhythms [ . . . ] My verse is less to be read than heard, as I have told you before; it is oratical, that is the rhythm is so.’ - Hopkins, Letter to Robert Bridges, August 21, 1879

'He does not compose poetic sentiment and painfully adapt it to appropriate metres; the song wells from him, if one may so speak, as water from a perennial spring; the strong light of true passion, however disastrously clouded at times, shines upon it; in all its movements it keeps the harmony and the rhythm of life.' - Anon. review of Swinburne (1866)

'Swinburne has almost no magic felicity of words. He can astonish and melt but seldom thrill, and when he does it is not by any felicity of as it were God-given inevitable words. He has to depend on sound and an atmosphere of words which is now and then concentrated and crystallized into an intensity of effect which is almost magical, perhaps never quite magical. This atmosphere comes from a vocabulary very rich in words connected with objects and sensations and emotions of pleasure and beauty, but used, as I have said, somewhat lightly and even in appearance indiscriminately. No poet could be poorer in brief electric phrases, pictorial, or emotional.' - Edward Thomas, Algernon Charles Swinburne: A Critical Study (1912)

'While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend.' - Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1893)

I sing the Flogging-block. Thou, red-cheek’d Muse,

Whose Hand the Blood of smarting Boys imbrues.

Scholastic Dame, revered of the State & Church,

Whose Lords to be have writhed beneath the Birch

- Swinburne, 'The Flogging Block'

And to give these forces names from the two races of men who have supplied the most signal and splendid manifestations of them, we may call them respectively the forces of Hebraism and Hellenism. Hebraism and Hellenism, - between these two points of influence moves our world. At one time if feels more powerfully the attraction one of them, at another time of the other; and it ought to be, thought it never is, evenly and happily balanced between them.

The final aim of both Hellenism and Hebraism, as of all great spiritual disciplines, is not doubt the same: man’s perfection or salvation.

The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience. Nothing can do away with this ineffaceable difference. The Greek quarrel with the body and its desires is, that they hinder right thinking; the Hebrew quarrel with them is, that they hinder right acting.

The governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness; that of Hebraism, strictness of conscience.

Self-conquest, self-devotion, the following not our own individual will, but the will of God, obedience, is the fundamental idea of this form, also, of the discipline to which we have attached the general name of Hebraism.

To get rid of one’s ignorance, to see things as they are, and by seeing them as they are to see them in their beauty, is the simple and attractive ideal which Hellenism holds out before human nature; and from the simplicity and charm of this ideal, Hellenism, and human life in the hands of Hellenism, is invested with a kind of aerial ease, clearness, and radiancy; they are full of what we call sweetness and light.

Of two disciplines laying their main stress, the one, on clear intelligence, the other, on firm obedience; the one, on comprehensively knowing the grounds of one’s duty, the other, on diligently practising it; the one, on taking all possible care . . . that the light we have be not darkness, the other, that according to the best light we have we diligently walk. - Matthew Arnold, 'Hebraism and Hellenism,' in Culture and Anarchy (1867-68) [extracts]


  • Common rhythm: ‘The knight approaching nigh thus to her said, / Faire Ladie, through foule sorrow ill betide’
  • Sprung rhythm: ‘The knight approaching nigh thus to her said, / Faire Ladie, through foule sorrow ill betide’