1. Close Reading

A verbal construct

One approach to analysing the poetry of Hopkins is to consider the poems apart from any context or background, as words on the page, as text. The close analysis of poetry was first promoted in the 1920s by the so-called ‘New Criticism' in the U.S.A., and by academics such as I. A. Richards, William Empson and F. R. Leavis at Cambridge University in the U.K. Various recent theories of literature have renewed this approach, seeing a poem as a ‘verbal construct', arguing that any meaning in it arises out of that construct. Hopkins' poetry fits in very well with this approach, since the more closely one pays attention to the words, the more meaning and the more skill one can discover.

The approach is like paying close attention to a painting, looking at technique, skill, perspective, colour, and how representational it is, rather than learning about the painter or when it was painted. Each poem is seen as a timeless artistic product.

The focus of analysis

What particularly interested the first close readers were:

  • the ambiguities within each poem
  • the different layers of meaning or interpretation
  • the paradoxes
  • the undercurrents of tone, especially how sincere and honest the poet was being
  • the imagery used, how central it was to conveying meaning, how symbolic, its patterns
  • skills with words, in word play, assonance, rhythm etc.
  • innovations with form, rhythm etc.
  • evaluating the overall merit of each poem in terms of the above

In a sense, the study of all poetry has to start here, particularly that of Hopkins. Knowing about his life/beliefs/times is little compensation if you don't understand his poetry, and each of the points above repay a great deal of attention. This sort of formal analysis equips readers to read poetic texts of any sort.

  • Describe the way you approach a poem by Hopkins.
    • Do you use any of the above categories?
    • How helpful do you think they may be?

A-historical comparison

Focus on individual poems then led to an interest in the mind which wrote the poems, the organising and unifying genius. What sort of mind would Hopkins have to produce poems like this? Studies of Hopkins emerged concentrating on him just as a poet:

  • how he differed from other poets
  • how he might be like them.

Comparison tended to be a-historical, that is, with poets from anywhere, any era, like the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, or perhaps French symbolist poets. It was not that these people may have influenced Hopkins: they just happened to be like him, or unlike him, as the case may be. It helps to define by differentiating and categorising.

  • Have you made any comparisons with other poems you have known?
    • Has it helped you understand Hopkins?
    • If so, how?


Comparison with previous poetry is also useful in picking up subtexts - those influences from other literature that the poet picks up consciously or unconsciously in their own reading. Sometimes these subtexts are deliberate: the new poem is a response to an older poem, for example. Such deliberate interfacing is often called ‘intertextuality'. The closer the reading, the more likely you are to pick up the literary allusions, echoes from other texts, parallels with them and so on.

The approach does have weaknesses:

  • the stress on evaluation can lead to rather personal judgements
  • it is not always very successful at making overall judgements about the poetry, even though an individual analysis of a poem may be brilliant
  • it can rely too heavily on the words on the page to provide clues as to what particular meanings a poem has, or how it came to be written in the way it was.
  • Do you find it easier to write about individual Hopkins poems, or to write about him more generally?
    • Why do you think this is?
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