Prayers of Praise and Prayers of Petition: Simultaneity in the Sonnet World of Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Author: Rachel Salmon
Editors: Russel Whitaker and Kathy D. Darrow
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 12,284 words

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[(essay date winter 1984) In the following essay, Salmon compares the thematic and stylistic qualities of Hopkins's two major sonnet cycles, the "nature sonnets" and the "terrible sonnets." Salmon asserts that the contrasting qualities of consolation and desolation in the two cycles, rather than representing conflicting aspects of Hopkins's Christian worldview, are in fact complementary and signify profound expressions of the poet's religious faith.]

The two sonnet cycles which define themselves within the slim volume of Gerard Manley Hopkins' mature, finished poetry have come to be known as the "nature sonnets" and the "terrible sonnets" (or "sonnets of desolation"). The well-documented tendency of Hopkins' poems to group themselves (both formally and thematically) in pairs has encouraged the critical predilection to view the two sets of sonnets as generic counterparts. To date, nearly every critic of Hopkins who has tried his hand at differentiating and delimiting them has employed a chronological model: the earlier and later poems have been read in relation to Hopkins' development as a poet or as a priest, and a rather straightforward referential significance has been assumed in respect to the time at which they were written.

Of the interpretative strategies which have been proposed to deal with this apparent dichotomy between the two groups of sonnets, Louis L. Martz's definition and application of the genre category of meditative poetry has proven especially pertinent.1 Deriving his concepts from an analysis of medieval and Renaissance systems of meditation--in particular that of St. Ignatius of Loyola--Martz describes a structure which has critically influenced the development of European religious poetry:

The central meditative action consists of an interior drama, in which a man projects a self upon a mental stage, and there comes to understand that self in the light of a divine presence. ... At the same time, the interior drama ... will tend to display a three fold movement, according with the action of that interior trinity, memory, understanding, and will.2

It has seemed natural enough that Hopkins--a Jesuit priest annually practiced in the art of Ignatian meditation, author of an unfinished commentary on Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, and ardent reader of the poetry written in this tradition (especially Herbert's)--should manifest characteristics of the genre in his own poetry. Indeed, the presence of a poetic structure informed by the three powers of the soul (memory, understanding, and will), each carrying out their respective tasks (the composition of place or similitude, analysis, and colloquy), has been widely noted in Hopkins poetry.3 Common to both the nature and the terrible sonnets, the trinitarian meditative framework nevertheless structures them in different ways. A synchronic reading--one which views the two types of sonnets as existing within a relationship of simultaneity that is not contingent upon the order in which they were composed--offers an alternative approach to these sonnets.


The nature sonnets were written in Wales in 1877, just before Hopkins' ordination as a Jesuit priest. These ten sonnets close a fallow period of seven years during which Hopkins...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420079840