This is the best letter I've read all week [New York Review, Sept.23rd].
KEATS IS THE ONE
To the Editors:
Brad Leithauser makes the important point that Gerard Manley Hopkins was in no way an obvious literary descendant of Wordsworth or Gray [NYR, April 29th]. Hopkins thought "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" a very great poem, but his own unique style does not use the classical diction that Wordsworth, or for that matter, Chaucer, or Pope, have as the basis for all their work. But I think the argument can be made that Hopkins had a very immediate ancestor in Keats.
One of the most distinctive qualities of his style, the compounding of words into participles as in "bell-swarmed, lark-charmed, rook-racked,/river rounded..." in "Dun Scotus' Oxford" is one he shares with Keats. An example from the latter's "Ode to Psyche" is:
Mid hush'd, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,
Blue, silver-white and budded Tyrian,
They lay calm-breathing on the bedded grass...
The tendency of this style is to contract words into each other and thereby intensify their meaning. What may be lost in immediate comprehension is made up by the energy forced into images by the compression of verb and noun and adjective into phrases like "dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon." We linger over the image and see the words and the object in an unforgettable way. Hopkins's elaborate use of diacritical marks, which Mr. Leithauser notes, sometimes seems to me almost a smokescreen for his refabrication of words, something he saw in earlier poets, including Keats and Shakespeare, and that continues in poets who follow him, as when Dylan Thomas describes "the heron/Priested shore."
I like it because I've been considering eliminating "those chunky word-clusters stapled together by hyphens," as Brad Leithauser called them in his reply, in my own work. Some of you may remember from my poem "Imago Dei" the line "We've heard in the quiet-night voice/dawn." Now they may have received a reprieve for a little while.
If you're still with me, Mr. Leithauser finished his reply to Mr. Dugan's letter by writing
...those compounds beloved by both poets...ultimately reflect a restless, deep-rooted, philosophical conviction that language must continually be remade if it is to reflect reality.
That I believe.