Distance Reading with Gerard Manley Hopkins

GerardManleyHopkinsWhat do you think is the word Gerard Manley Hopkins uses the most in his poetry?

Maybe it’s something that has entered into our imagination as decidedly Hopkinsian. Something like dappled. That is a word we associate with the Victorian priest-poet so much that there’s even a magazine named after it, Dappled Things.

But that word only appears four times in his poetry. Of course, we should still strongly associate the poet with that word since it reflects his aesthetic so well. There’s a reason why “Pied Beauty” is so commonly anthologized.

Then maybe it’s one of those wonderful poetic sighs he fills his poetry with. Ah must be the most common word in all his poetry, right? At 19 counts, I think we’re getting closer but we’re not quite there yet.

Well, he was a priest. Why don’t we try God? We’ve now made it to the top five terms, but just barely at 30 counts.

Well then, what is it?

Here, have a look:

Hopkins Cirrus

The word that shows up the most is heart.

I would not have thought of that off the top of my head, but once I saw it I thought “of course!” In The Wreck of the Deutschland, when the speaker is overwhelmed by the thought of five nuns dying as the ship sank he flees “with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.” In “The Windhover,” his “heart in hiding” is “Stirred for a bird.” And in the midst of his despair, he begins one of his poignant sonnets with “My own heart let me more have pity on.”

The Wreck of the Deutschland alone supplies 14 counts of the use of the word heart in his poetry, and it has some interesting associations:

heart collocations visualization Wreck

So how did I find this?

I used the text version of this book:

And plugged it into Voyant Tools. This is an online application that lets you do textual analysis without learning R programming language, and it’s completely free. We call this “distance reading” as opposed to the technique of “close reading” when we unpack a poem line-by-line and word-by-word to make meaning. Distance reading could mean looking at a collection of many different texts, like the Hathi Trust collection, to visualize change over time, or it could mean putting together a smaller corpus like the work of a single author.

The corpus I chose here is just a start, since it has a few problems that we have to keep in mind. Since I needed to bring in full text of the poems, I copied the 1918 collection from Archive.org. In 1918, Robert Bridges published Hopkins’s poetry, and this is freely available online. This is a great text for looking at the reception of Hopkins’s poetry, but we now tend to use different editions since Bridges took liberties in making changes and set The Wreck of the Deutschland like “the dragon in the gate” blocking our way into the poetry.

Also, OCR is not going to be perfect, so there are going to be a few confused words. For instance, the Wreck is dedicated to “five” nuns, not “jive nuns.”

But that’s why Voyant Tools lets you further define words to take out of the terms. To help limit some of the problems of the OCR, I removed some words like fragment* (an editorial word) and toems (a misread rendering of the editorial word, poems).

When using a distance reading tool like this, the temptation might be to remove words such as like, but I made sure to include it since it made it into the top five terms. That’s important because it signals the poet’s use of simile. Much of Hopkins’s poetry looks at how things are like and ties those analogies tightly together with interior rhyme. Everything “chimes” for Hopkins.

Close reading is still important, of course, but I like how using tools like these can defamiliarize works that we read and reread. I would have never thought to link Hopkins so closely to the word heart, but it too should be a Hopkinsian word in our imagination along with dappledgold-vermillion, and his nonce word sillion.

A next step could be to look at his uses of the word heart and code them according to some sort of typology. How does he use the word? Is it the center of the human person in the traditional sense, the seat of emotions, the physical organ, all of this, or something else? What links and distinguishes the heart in hiding from the heart that flies to the heart of the Host?

We could also turn to his prose and see a delicate mixture of these different meanings. In his sermon on the devotion to the Sacred Heart, Hopkins explains his thoughts about the word heart itself. For Hopkins the heart is “one of the noble or honourable members of the body.” Mirroring his own abundant use of the word, he then goes on to say, “Is not all language, is not common talk, is not eloquence, is not poetry, all full of mention of the heart?”

And deeper into the sermon, he has this to say about the way we talk about the heart:

when we speak so often of the heart, a great heart, a narrow heart, a warm heart, a cold heart, a tender heart, a hard heart, a heart of stone, a lion heart, a craven heart, a poor heart, a sad heart, a heavy heart, a broken heart, a willing heart, a full heart, of heart’s ease, heartache, heartscald, of thinking in one’s heat, of loving from one’s heart, of the heart sinking, of taking heart, of losing heart, of giving the heart away, of being heartwhole–it would be endless to name all the ways we bring the heart in–, in all these expressions what we call heart is not the piece of flesh so called, not the great bloodvessel only but the thoughts of the mind that vessel seems to harbour and the feelings of the soul to which it beats. for the heart is all the members of the body the one which most strongly and most of its own accord sympathises with and expresses in itself what goes on within the soul. Tears are sometimes forced, smiles may be put on, but the beating of the heart is the truth of nature.

Here, it sounds like Hopkins leans toward the traditional sense of the heart as the center of the human person. I half expected that to be the way his thought went. But he goes a little further. He doesn’t just choose one definition among many. Rather he directs all uses to one understanding of the heart and the center of the human person, as “the truth of nature” beyond our forced sentiments.

Take a look at Voyant Tools. It can be fun to play around with the data. Maybe even copy a novel from a Gutenberg text and see what you find.


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