Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Poetic Diction" and "On the Origin of Beauty: A Platonic Dialogue, in The Collected Works, Volume IV: Oxford Essays and Notes, 1864-1868, ed. Lesley Higgins.
The artificial part of poetry, perhaps we shall be right to say all artifice, reduces itself to the principle of parallelism. The structure of poetry is that of continuous parallelism ranging from the technical so-called parallelisms of Hebrew poetry and the antiphons of church music up to the intricacy of Greek or Italian or English verse. But parallelism is of two kinds necessarily—where the opposition is clearly marked, and where it is transitional rather or chromatic. Only the first kind, that of marked parallelism, is concerned with the structure of verse—in rhythm, the recurrence of a certain sequence of syllables, in metre, the recurrence of a certain sequence of rhythm, in alliteration, in assonance, and in rhyme. Now the force of this recurrence is to beget a recurrence or parallelism answering to it in the words or thought and, speaking roughly and rather for the tendency than the invariable result, the more marked parallelism in structure whether of elaboration or of emphasis begets more marked parallelism in the words and sense.And moreover parallelism in expression tends to beget or passes into parallelism in the thought. This point reached we shall be able to see and account for the peculiarities of poetic diction. To the marked or abrupt kind of parallelism we assign belong metaphor, simile, parable, and so on, where the effect is sought in likeness of things, and antithesis, contrast, and so on, where it is sought in unlikeness. To the chromatic parallelism belong gradation, intensity, climax, tone, expression (as the word is used in music), light chiaroscuro, perhaps emphasis: while the faculties of Fancy and Imagination might range widely over both kinds, Fancy belonging more especially to the abrupt than to the transitional kind class. (D.II.3, "Poetic Diction," p. 120 [Winter 1865])

Hopkins is just twenty-one when he writes this brief essay, which argues against Wordsworth’s view that “poetic diction scarcely differed or ought to differ fr. that of prose.”1 He seeks to revindicate “meter, rhythm, rhyme, and all the structure wh.2 is called verse both necessitate and gender a difference in diction and in thought” (120). Thence he comes up with the concept of “parallelism.” It is not his most popular concept, as it seems to have received less attention than the cryptic and more visibly novel “inscape.” It is also an uncannily familiar concept, as it immediately brings to mind, for those familiar, the axes of selection and combination that Roman Jakobson proposed in his “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Disturbances” (1956). Hopkins likewise differentiates between “marked parallelism” (in “rhythm”) and “more marked parallelism” (in “words and sense”). Does the second not coincide with Jakobson’s axis of selection (allied with metaphor) and the first with Jakobson’s axis of combination (allied with metonymy)? Yes, insofar as rhythmic structures determine what must be put next in a rhythmic sequence. But I suspect that the fit is still inadequate. Let’s take a look at Jakobson’s clearest formulation of combination and contiguity in “Linguistics and Poetics”:

The selection is produced on the basis of equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonymy and antonymy, while the combination, the build-up of the sequence, is based on contiguity. The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination. Equivalence is promoted to the constitutive device of the sequence. In poetry one syllable is equalized with any other syllable of the same sequence; word stress is assumed to equal word stress, as unstress equals unstress; prosodic long is matched with long, and short with short; word boundary equals word boundary, no boundary equals no boundary; syntactic pause equals syntactic pause, no pause equals no pause. Syllables are converted into units of measure, and so are morae or stresses." (7-8)

Jakobson is preoccupied entirely with sonic patterning in this passage, and no longer uses the confusing and complex terminology of “metaphor” and “metonymy.” In a sense, it fits quite well. The claim that “The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination” is possibly equivalent to Hopkins’s statement, that “parallelism in expression tends to beget or passes into parallelism in the thought.” Another way of saying this: the sound patterning of a poem subtends the production of metaphors and other “parallelisms” or “antitheses” of meaning in a poem’s verbal content. And I’ll even dare say it again, slightly differently: as the poet composes a line, he is compelled by the structural equivalence imposed by a metrical pattern (or other form of recurrence, rhythm) to choose words which fit the pattern; nonetheless it becomes exceedingly important for these selections to have meaning.

Neither of the two uses this term, but we will come to discuss it later. For now, let’s stick with Jakobson and try to understand the “chromatic” a little better.

Hopkins’s discussion of the “transitional” or “chromatic” seems to go beyond the dyad of combination and selection. He isn’t making reference to lexical objects or recurrent forms, but to “gradation, intensity, climax, tone, expression (as the word is used in music), light chiaroscuro, perhaps emphasis.” These lead onto the “faculties of Fancy and Imagination,” with the latter more strongly associated with the “chromatic.” It’s tempting to believe that this chromatic-transitional parallelism should coincide with matters of rhythm and meter, but those are supposedly of the “marked” type of parallelism. What is transitional cannot be marked out. Its effects are more on the order of frisson, aura, affect, or something spiritual. He does not say “voice” or “timbre” or “grain,” but he might be sympathetic to their inclusion.

Jakobson may demonstrate a technical understanding of what this could mean. In “Linguistics and Poetics,” he goes on to discuss the contrapuntal nature of recitation. The reader of a poem may make accentual choices which are overlain on another possible prosodic pattern, generating a kind of “double, ambiguous shape” to the language:

In Shakespeare's verses the second, stressed syllable of the word "absurd" usually falls on the downbeat, but once in the third act of Hamlet it falls on the upbeat: "No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp " The reciter may scan the word "absurd" in this line with an initial stress on the first syllable or observe the final word stress in accordance with the standard accentuation. He may also subordinate the word stress of the adjective in favor of the strong syntactic stress of the following head word, as suggested by Hill: "Nó, lèt thì cândied tóngue lîck âbsùrd pómp" 33 as in Hopkins' conception of English antispasts — "régret ″never." There is, finally, the possibility of emphatic modifications either through a "fluctuating accentuation" (schwebende Betonung) embracing both syllables or through an exclamatory reinforcement of the first syllable [àb-súrd]. But whatever solution the reciter chooses, the shift of the word stress from the downbeat to the upbeat with no antecedent pause is still arresting, and the moment of frustrated expectation stays viable. Wherever the reciter puts the accent, the discrepancy between the English word stress on the second syllable of "absurd" and the downbeat attached to the first syllable persists as a constitutive feature of the verse instance. The tension between the ictus and the usual word stress is inherent in this line independently of its different implementations by various actors and readers. As Hopkins observes, in the preface to his poems, "two rhythms are in some manner running at once." His description of such a contrapuntal run can be reinterpreted. The superinducing of the equivalence principle upon the word sequence or, in other terms, the mounting of the metrical form upon the usual speech form necessarily gives the experience of a double, ambiguous shape to anyone who is familiar with the given language and with verse. Both the convergences and the divergences between the two forms, both the warranted and the frustrated expectations, supply this experience.

Perhaps we might call this in itself “poetic,” as Jakobson suggests, via an Empson quote, or at very least potent. The word ambiguity seems most relevant. It comes up again after his quotation of Hopkins’s “Poetic Diction” paper a bit later on3. Jakobson also speaks of “frustrated expectations,” which is suggestive of something happening in the psyche, even. I want to get at the innards of ambiguity and the thing which lies between the parallel lines, the unintersectability of them, the empty space between parallel patterns or possibilities for enunciation.

And the word “emphatic”—this must be another important piece of the puzzle. Hopkins finishes his essay with a discussion of emphasis and ascension, of the “appreciat[ion] of each syllable,” of “dwell[ing] on all modifications affecting the general result”:

An emphasis of structure stronger than the common construction of sentences has gives asks for an emphasis of expression stronger than that of common speech or writing, and that for an emphasis of thought stronger than that of common thought. And it has been thought is commonly supposed that poetry has tasked the highest powers of man’s mind: this is because, as it asked for greater emphasis of thought and on a greater scale, at each stage it threw out the minds unequal to further ascent. [...] It is because where the structure forces us to appreciate each syllable it is natural and in the order of things for us to dwell on all modifications affecting the general result or type wh. the ear preserves and accordingly with such as are in themselves harmonious we are pleased, but in prose where syllables have none or little determinate value to emphasise them is unmeaning.

It is probably not an accident that “dwelling” becomes a word associated with aesthetics via Heidegger, but I won’t make further comment on this right now. And it is not strictly necessary for this to be a principle of poetic composition. It presupposes that we value amplification, rising, and even completion, or autotelic design. Not all poets write like him or believe this.

“Parallelism” also immediately brings to my mind Saussure’s diagram of the parallel rivers in the Course in General Linguistics (Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 3rd edition, p. 830). You can see here a more visible division between the continuous and the discrete, the analog and the digital… But in Saussure’s model, the connection between the “phonic substance” and the “thought” is arbitrary, free-floating. Both planes are “jumbled” and “vague.” This scene is “chaotic by nature”; it is a relation between “two shapeless masses”…

Even in the form of the equals sign (“=”) you can intuit the equivalence or parallelism between this image of Saussure’s and what I will now share of Hopkins. His more developed account of parallelism rests in the Platonic Dialogue, “On the Origin of Beauty,” also composed during the same academic year. Here are some of its most arresting lines, prior to the introduction of “parallelism” itself. I am interested in its long-winded discussion of symmetry, among other things, including its long-windedness. It meanders and may even risk redundancy, but I’m going to quote all of it! If you want, skip to the highlighted bits.

   “Now where shall I begin?” said the Professor. “I will begin here,” and he pulled off one of the large lowest fans of the chestnuts. “Do you think this beautiful.”
   “That? The chestnut-fan? Certainly: I have always thought the chestnut one of the most finely foliaged of trees.”
   “You see it consists of seven leaves, the middle largest, diminishing towards the stalk, so that those nearest the stalk are smallest.”
   “I see” said Hanbury “I had never noticed there were seven before.”
   “Now if we look about we shall find––yes there is one. There is a fan, do you see? with only six leaves. Nature is irregular in these things. Can you reach it? Now which do you think the more beautiful, the one with six, or the one with seven, leaves? Shut out, if you can, the remembrance that the six-leaved one is an anomaly or imperfection: consider it symmetrical.
   “Well I daresay the six-leaved one may improve the foliage by variety, but in themselves the seven-leaved one is the handsomer.
   “Just so” said the Professor; “but cd. you give any reason?”
   “I suppose, as they are alike in all other respects, it is that seven is a prettier number than six, and that wd. agree with the mystical character attached to the number seven.”
   “Yes, but let me understand” said the Professor. “Now is 100 a prettier number than 101?”
    “101? I do not know. No, I think 100 is. No: of course in fact it depends on 100 or 101 of what.”
   “Suppose then I had two great chestnut-fans, one with 100, one with 101, leaves, which wd. be the handsomer? You will say you cd. not tell till you saw them. But now, following the arrangements of these six-leaved and seven-leaved fans, in the 100-leaved there wd. be 50 radiating leaves on either side and a gap in the middle, in the 101-leaved 50 on either side and one, the greatest, in the middle. Do you see?”
   “Perfectly. And I think the 101-leaved, or in fact the odd-leaved one whatever its number of leaves, wd. be the handsomer; not, as you seem to shew, from the abstract excellence of an odd number, but because–well, I suppose because to have the greatest leaf in the middle is the handsomer way.”
   “But which is the more symmetrical?” asked the Professor. “Is not the six-leaved one?”
   “Both have symmetry; yet, as you say, the six-leaved one seems the more so, supposing it of course to be really symmetrical, which this specimen is not.”
   “Is not this” asked the Professor “because it is naturally divided into two equal parts of three leaves each, while the seven-leaved is not, and cannot be symmetrical in the same way unless we physically cut the middle leaf greatest leaf down the middle.”
   “Yes that is it; I see” said Hanbury.
   “And so you judge the less markedly symmetrical to be the handsomer. Still the seven-leaved one has much symmetry. But now look at the tree fr. wh. I pulled it. Do you like it better as it is, or wd. you have the boughs start fr. the trunk at the same height on opposite sides, symmetrically pair and pair?”
   “As it is, certainly.”
“Or again look at the colouring of the sky.”
   “But” put in Hanbury “colouring is not a thing of symmetry.
   “No: but now what is symmetry? Is it not regularity?
   “I shd. say, the highest regularity” said Hanbury.
   “So it is. But is it not that sort of regularity wh. is measured by length and breadth and thickness? Music for instance might be regular, but not symmetrical ever; wd. it not? is it not so?”
   “Quite so” said Hanbury.
   “Let us say regularity then. The sky, you see, is blue above, then comes a pale indescribable hue, and then the red of the sundown. You admire it, do you not?”
   “Very much” said Hanbury.
   “But the red is the richest colour, is it not?” “Now it is; yes.”
   “Shd. you then like the whole sky to be of one uniform rich red?” “Certainly not.”
   “Or the red and blue to end sharply with a straight line, without anything as a gobetween?”
   “No: I like the gradation.”
   “Again then you conclude approve of variety over absolute uniformity. And then variety is opposed to regularity, is it not? while uniformity is regularity. Is it not so?”
   “Certainly. I am to conclude then that beauty is produced by irregularity” said Hanbury.
   “Ah! you run on very fast” said the Professor. “I never said that. Once more, if you please, I must send my shuttlecock up to the sky. You will no doubt with your feathers of vantage see better than I can, considering how my view is cut off by the buildings of the College, that rows of level cloud run along the west of the sky.”
   “At all events” said he “I can see them.”
   “Do you think they wd. be better away?” asked the Professor.
   “No; they add to the beauty of the sunset sky.”
   “Notice however that they are pretty symmetrical. They are straight, and parallel with the sky-line and with each other, and of a uniform colour, and other things in them are symmetrical. Should you admire them more if they were shapeless?”
   “I think not” said Hanbury.
   “Again when we say anyone has regular features, do we mean praise or blame?”
   “Praise.”
   “We were speaking of the chestnut-trees, of their unsymmetrical growth. Now is the oak an unsymmetrical tree?”
   “Very much so; O quite a rugged boldly-irregular tree: and this I shd. say was one of the things wh. make us invest it with certain qualities it has in poetry and in popular and national sentiment” said Hanbury.
   “Very observant. You mean of course when it grows at liberty, rather than when influenced by confinement, cutting and so forth.”
   “Yes: what I say will of course be truest of the tree when uninfluenced by man.”
   “Very good. Now have you ever noticed that when the oak has grown to its full stature uninfluenced, the outline of its head is drawn by a long curve, I shd. think it wd. be that of a parabola, which, if you look at the tree from a little way off, is of almost mathematical correctness?
   “Dear me, is it indeed so? No, I had never noticed it, but now that you name it, I do seem to find something in me which verifies what you say.”
   “Do you happen to remember” asked the Professor “that fine oak at the top of the hill above Elsfield where you have such a wide view?”
   “Of course I do. Yes a very fine tree.”
   “If you had analysed your admiration of it I think you wd. have had to lay a good deal of it to that strict parabolic outline. Or again if one of the three side-leaves of this seven-leaved chestnut-fan be torn off, it will be less beautiful, will it not? And this, I am sure you will now say, because the symmetry is destroyed.”
   “Yes” said Hanbury.
   “Then beauty: you wd. say perhaps, is a mixture of regularity and irregularity.
   “Complex beauty, yes. But let us inquire a little further. What is regularity? Is it not obedience to law? And what is Law? Does it not mean that several things, or all the parts of one thing, are like each other?”
   “Let me understand” said Hanbury.
   “I fear I ply my battledore so fiercely that the best of shuttlecocks has not time to right itself between the blows; but I will be steadier. Is not a straight line regular? and a circle?”
   “Nothing can be more so” said Hanbury.
   “And any part of a straight line or of a circle is exactly like another of the same size, is it not?”
   “Exactly.”
   “They are in fact consistent with themselves, and alike throughout.”
   “Yes they are.”
   “Regularity then is consistency or agreement or likeness, either of a thing to itself or of several things to each other.
   “I understand the first part of what you say, but––I am very sorry again to trouble you––not quite the second.”
   “It is my fault” said the Professor. “I mean that although a leaf might have an outline on one side so irregular that no law cd. be traced in it, yet if the other side exactly agreed with it, you wd. say there was law or regularity about the leaf to make one side like the other. Or if the leaf of a tree were altogether irregular, supposing such a thing were to be found in nature, yet all the leaves on the tree were exactly like it, having precisely that same irregularity, then you wd. recognize the presence of law about the tree.”
   “Yes: I understand perfectly now.”
   “Then regularity is likeness or agreement or consistency, and irregularity is the opposite, that is the difference or disagreement or change or variety. Is it so?”
   “Certainly.”
   “Then the beauty of the oak and the chestnut-fan and the sky is a mixture of likeness and difference or agreement and disagreement or consistency and variety or symmetry and change.
   “It seems so, yes.”
   “And if we did not feel the likeness we shd. not think them so beautiful, or if we did not feel the difference we shd. not think them so beautiful. The beauty we find is fr. the comparison we make of the things with themselves, seeing their likeness and difference, is it not?”
   “Yes. But let me think a little. This may be the nature of the beauty in the things you have spoken of and of many others, but I do not at all yet see how it applies to all things, and I shd. like to ask you to account for some of them. Let me collect some instances.”

So many lines of flight, curlicues, dots and spots of suggestion. I find it difficult not to be endeared to all the parallelisms in the conversation. And this isn’t even all of it. There’s further discussion of the chestnut-fan later on (142-144), and on 147 enters the discussion of poems, which involves the more concentrated portion on parallelism, some of which seems to have been copied from the earlier essay.

Now there is a convenient word wh. gives us the common principle for both these things kinds of comparison––Parallelism. Hebrew poetry, you know, is structurally only distinguished fr. prose by its being paired off in parallelisms, subdivided of course often into lower parallelisms. This is well-known, but the important part played by parallelism of expression in our poetry is not so well-known: I think it will surprise anyone when first pointed out. At present it will be enough to remember that it is the cause of metaphor, simile, and antithesis, to see that it is anything but unimportant. Parallelism then, that term being now understood, we put under the head of diatonic beauty; under that of chromatic beauty come emphasis, expression (in the sense it has in Music), tone, intensity, climax, and so on. When I say emphasis and intensity I am speaking incorrectly in strictness, for they may be given abruptly of course, so as to come under the other head; but terminology in this baby science is defective: perhaps tone or expression best gives the field of chromatic beauty.” (158-159)

Other newer, bigger, claims arise hereafter. Hopkins begins to speak about “genius.” He states (via the Professor) “that genius rises works more powerfully under the constraints of metre and rhyme and so on than without, that it is stronger more effective when conditioned than when unconditioned.” Constraints bring about “concentration” and “intensity”; “greatness” is brought about by the “powerful action of mind under what we look on as difficulties.” (162). And the superaddition of emphases pops up in the form of “distinctness,” “passion”—“I think you will find they increase in number and distinctness with the rise of passion.” (162)

I am leaving out the close readings, or what he calls the “carrion-vulture business and tearing the last stanza anatomically,” except to mention how the dialogue ends—which is with a rather beautiful and abrupt motion towards “antithesis,” or what we might term apophasis. He discusses the final stanza of Richard Garnett’s “The Nix,” and ends with a reference to Hamlet:

   And here I sit and see no sun

is just like

   She smiles in scorn, she disappears

except that in that in the absence of and gives more antithesis. And then the antitheses of the last couplet how charming they are! how the irony of her unhappiness is summed up in the eyes of fire being quenched in tears! And for the darksome locks being undone, you know how much use poetry makes of negative words and just for the reason that they express an antithesis.––

   Unhouseled, disappointed, unannealed.

I do not think antithesis is the correct term for what he is describing, but his sublimation of a darker rhetoric—that of apophasis—into something which presupposes a kind of thetic positivism, a kind of symmetry or parallelism or comparability between like terms—is of crucial import. Parallelism represents unannealed desire, in its basic form. It is suffused with negativity, precisely because of its insistence on the symmetric. How does the resounding echo between two parallel mirrors manage to propagate the image so? What is the meaning of this singularity of thought? Where do we go with it, can we go with it? Will we go with it at all?


  1. A simple way of understanding this: Wordsworth is valorizing plainer language, and image or metaphor over sound patterning. I quote him a bit further down from where Hopkins does: “If it be affirmed that rhyme and metrical arrangement of themselves constitute a distinction which overturns what I have been saying on the strict affinity of metrical language with that of prose, and paves the way for other artificial distinctions which the mind voluntarily admits, I answer that the language of such Poetry as I am recommending is, as far as is possible, a selection of the language really spoken by men; that this selection, wherever it is made with true taste and feeling, will of itself form a distinction far greater than would at first be imagined, and will entirely separate the composition from the vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life; and, if metre be superadded thereto, I believe that a dissimilitude will be produced altogether sufficient for the gratification of a rational mind. What other distinction would we have? Whence is it to come? And where is it to exist? Not, surely, where the Poet speaks through the mouths of his characters: it cannot be necessary here, either for elevation of style, or any of its supposed ornaments: for, if the Poet’s subject be judiciously chosen, it will naturally, and upon fit occasion, lead him to passions the language of which, if selected truly and judiciously, must necessarily be dignified and variegated, and alive with metaphors and figures. (“Preface to the Lyrical Ballads”") ↩︎

  2. “which” ↩︎

  3. The gloss he provides is a bit too equivalent to our previous discussions to warrant another round of quotation: “Briefly, equivalence in sound, projected into the sequence as its constitutive principle, inevitably involves semantic equivalence, and on any linguistic level any constituent of such a sequence prompts one of the two correlative experiences which Hopkins neatly defines as “comparison for likeness’ sake” and “comparison for unlikeness’ sake”” (15) ↩︎

Last update: 28-Feb-22 17:49