Poets are often difficult to understand, but Manley Gerard Hopkins may excel them all, for he delights in inventing new words, or recycling arcane terms that have dropped out of the English language. In a letter to a friend he explains his poetic style as “the current language heightened, but unlike itself,” and adds, “No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness.”
This oddness is largely a reflection of two ideas that permeate his poetry, one he describes as “instress,” the other as “inscape.”
Instress is a term Hopkins coined, borrowed in part from poet Percy Shelley who writes of the, ”One Spirit's plastic stress (that) / Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there / All new successions to the forms they wear; / Torturing th' unwilling dross that checks its flight / To its own likeness, as each mass may bear;/ And bursting in its beauty and its might / From trees and beasts and men into the Heaven's light.”
Shelley’s point is that God’s spirit informs all creation, compelling the “dull, dense world”—indeed, stressing and “torturing” its “unwilling dross,” into forms that reflect his likeness, working against the resistance of entropy and creation’s “bondage to decay” to create the beauty we see around us. Despite a broken creation God has written his goodness and wisdom large in the universe for all who have eyes to see.
In this, both Shelley and Hopkins echo George MacDonald’s idea that “the appearances of nature are the truths of nature, far deeper than any scientific discoveries in and concerning them. The show of things…is the face of far deeper things than they [themselves]. It is through their show, not through their analysis, that we enter into their deepest truths. What they say to the childlike soul is the truest thing to be gathered of them.”
Put another way, all three poets—Hopkins, Shelley and MacDonald—echo the biblical assertion that visible creation reveals the invisible attributes of God. Nature, as well as scripture is the manuscript of God.
Hopkins’ “inscape,” on the other hand, is the “look” of things when we take the time to look into them. (Our suffix, “scape,” as in landscape and seascape, is from a Greek root skopos that means “a scene” or “something seen.” Inscape, thus is ”looking into,” or “insight.”) Inscape, is learning “to look through the outward look of things to their deepest meaning. Thus, in Hopkins’ poetry, speckled trout, multi-colored skies, finches’ wings reveal God’s multi–faceted love; drifting clouds are his playful jottings on the chalkboard of the sky, gracing the heavens to delight us and show his delight in his children. Every tree is an incarnation; every bush is a burning bush. Of a bluebell Hopkins writes, “I know the beauty of the Lord by it.” All creation leads us to a deeper appreciation for the One who is the source of all beauty, truth and goodness. Its loveliness hints of something higher that calls us to worship and adoration.
The old philosophers tell us that beauty is a real idea that exists apart from the material world; it is one of three “transcendentals”—truth and goodness being the other two. The good, the true and the beautiful lie beyond us, they said, but are essential to our being. There's a logical order to the three: Objectively, truth manifests itself as goodness, which in turn is beautiful when you see it. Our subjective perception of the three, however, is the other way around: beauty leads us to goodness and goodness leads us to Truth, i.e., to God himself and thus to awe—to praise and worship of the one who made all things beautiful and who is himself the most beautiful of all.
Hopkins’ poetry reflects the tension we feel between these sudden insights—the beauty of God that we see in nature—and our inability to articulate our insights, to convey that understanding to others. There is, in the higher forms of beauty, something mystical that fills us with delightful fear and unspeakable awe, something beyond what can be explained. Words fail us. As folk wisdom has it, “Such things are better felt than telt.”
This is the explanation for Hopkins’ “oddness.” It lies in his efforts to convey something he has felt: he sees such things as a “dapple-dawn-drawn falcon,” or refers to a “rolling level underneath him steady air”—rambling efforts to put “inscape” into words.
That being said, some explanation of Hopkins’ poetry is in order, recognizing, of course, that explaining a poem is like explaining a joke in that it takes away the serendipity, the happy surprise that comes from self-discovery. Here, however, is one of Hopkin's better–known poems, “Pied (Variegated) Beauty,” and my explanation to whet your appetite.
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
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 all trades, 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:
Hopkins’ poem is bracketed by the two mottoes of Saint Ignatius of Loyola: “To the greater glory of God,” and “Praise be to God always.” (In Jesuit seminaries it was customary for students to write the mottoes at the beginning and end of every exercise.)
He opens with his thesis: the pied beauty of nature—it’s dappled, mottled, checkered appearance that he illustrates with examples.
First the poet sees “skies of couple-color,” the many hues of the heavens, which he compares to brindled (mottled) cows. Then, looking into a stream, he sees a trout with rose-colored moles, “all in stipple” (variegated spots).
Then Hopkins sees chestnuts fallen to the ground, broken open, revealing the brown nut within like a “fire-coal”—a kaleidoscopic, glowing ember. Then he notes the flashes of iridescent color in a finch’s wings.
He looks at a countryside lying like a patchwork quilt. Some fields are folds for sheep, others lie fallow, others are under the “plow,” being prepared for planting.
Finally he remembers the haphazard arrangement of “gear, tackle and trim” on sailing ships, the work of human hands.
Hopkins is intrigued by the rarity and strangeness of things that make one thing stand out from the other. Created things are fickle (irregular) and freckled (random), as in contrasting opposites: “swift–slow; sweet-sour; adazzle-dim.”
Then the poet asks: “Who knows how?” (God’s question of Job.) His conclusion is that this ever–changing freshness and originality has its source in the Fatherly affection of one “whose beauty is past change.” Everything beautiful comes fresh from the hand of God. Thus Hopkins’ coda: Praise Him! The only appropriate response to such beauty is to kneel.
This notion of singularity and uniqueness appears in many of Hopkins’ poems, for he was writing in reaction to the moral philosophers of his day that stressed abstract universals, rather than particulars. (Like those who “love humanity,” but hate the human being next door.) Hopkins believed that God is still creating the world and everything in it, shaping each individual component as it emerged, as a unique and special expression of his wisdom, goodness and love.
Thus every new emergence—every blade of grass, every butterfly, every billowing cloud, every spot and halo on a brown trout’s body—is a fresh and unique creation invented out of God’s wisdom and excitement and hand–crafted by his artistry. He paints each pansy as it emerges in the spring, he colors every leaf in the fall. Every sunrise is a new creation; every sunset a grand climax. God ponders every act of creation, and the whole business begins all over again, the business of creation that began “in the beginning,” and is still going on to this day. Thus, as on that first day, with each new creation we may “shout for joy with the sons of God and sing together with the morning stars.”
“Morning has broken like the first morning; blackbird has spoken like the first bird.” What can we say, but “Huzzah!” “Hallelujah” “Praise Him!”
 Cf. Romans 8:21. Creation is tragically conflicted and dangerous because it has fallen from the ideal, but the book of Job tells us that God has placed “boundaries” on cruel and capricious nature to control its destructive forces (Job 38:10). Without this restraint tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and tornadoes would sweep us off the earth in the span of a day. The notable thing is not that there are natural disasters, but that there are so few. And despite the ruin of creation God has marked the world with his extravagant love.
 “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1); “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
 Samuel Coleridge made the same point in an essay in which he recalled the reaction of two tourists admiring a waterfall. One thought it was “pretty,” the other considered it “sublime”—so awe-inspiringly beautiful that it evoked reverence. Coleridge thought the latter sentiment preferable.
 In my favorite fairy tale, George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, the little girl, Nanny, stares in wonder out of the window in the moon at the “great blue beautifulness” of the sky. “Ain’t you done yet?” asks the Old Man in the Moon. “Done what?” she answers. “Done saying your prayers,” says he. “I warn’t saying my prayers,” she replies. “Yes you were,” he insists, “though you didn’t know it.”
 Job 38:7