Inscape and instress
Inscape and instress
These two terms were coined by the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as he developed his theories of what constituted poetry.
- 'Inscape' means the particular features of a certain landscape or other natural structure, which make it different from any other. The theological belief behind this was that God never repeats himself. Hopkins, as a poet-artist, had to determine just what was especial about any scene. His notebooks show the tremendous care with which he details what he thinks is unique about a particular sunset, cloud formation or even waves.
- 'Instress' means the actual experience a reader has of inscape: how it is received into the sight, memory and imagination. The poet's job is to find images that will ‘nail' the inscape down for readers, so they can recapture the poet's perception and experience.
The terms convey the uniqueness of each created thing or person, and how that individuality is perceived or experienced by the observer. This idea was both ancient, being expressed particularly in the writings of the medieval theologian and philosopher, Duns Scotus, and modern, seen in the Romantic poets. Hopkins felt it was the artist's job to perceive and express such uniqueness, either in art or through words. He constantly attempted this in his journals and letters.
For example, Hopkins writes in his journal:
The quotation above suggests the need for contemplation to understand what one is seeing. Wordsworth experienced a similar inscape frequently in his time of living in the Lake District or in his travels. He called the particular intense experiences he had of a landscape ‘spots of time', and they had definite spiritual or mystical significance for him. When we say ‘landscape', that does not exclude people, as they too have their own inscape. Such experiences confirmed for Wordsworth the presence of some divine being beneath the surface of reality, and the instress was, as it were, a veil being briefly withdrawn, so that he could perceive this.
The whole Romantic enterprise was to see nature in its individuality, as opposed to the scientific approach of the eighteenth century, which had been to classify and generalise. With today's technology, we can see each snowflake as being different, have our fingerprints taken and our DNA profiled to establish our uniqueness. So there now is less clash between the impersonality of science and the intense individuality of Romanticism.
Hopkins incorporated the ideas of Duns Scotus into his theology: the poet meeting the priest. Duns Scotus was a very technical philosopher, who carefully labelled all his concepts, and made fine distinctions between them. One of these was the concept of haecceitas, or ‘thisness'. Haecceitas inhered in every created thing, inanimate, animal or human. It was the mark of its Creation by God, and it was active. So it was lived out in action and in movement: each thing veered towards a particular destiny or purpose. This process involved the will, the expression of individuality (whereas the intellect marks a common humanity). Duns Scotus put great emphasis on the freedom of the will.
Haecceitas in Hopkins' Poetry
Hopkins expressed Scotus' concept as:
The poet's perfection, then, is to be writing poetry in a unique way, though, for Hopkins, this ability is bestowed from without, firstly by God, then by the language he is given to use.
We can see this quite clearly expressed in a number of poems. Some of these can be found discussed in Themes and significant ideas: The beauty, variety and uniqueness of nature.
Doing rather than being
It is in the doing, not the being, that inscape is established. So kingfishers ‘catch fire'; stones ‘ring', each hung bell has a different sound. This is itself:
We might argue that all kingfishers are the same, they're just different from other birds. Certainly each ‘does one thing and the same', but it is ‘each mortal thing' not ‘each mortal species'. In the sestet, Hopkins talks more theologically about humans. He ‘Acts' what he ‘is'. In fulfilling his divine calling, he is, in fact, reflecting the Incarnation of his Creator, Jesus Christ. The paradox is that, as humans express their uniqueness, they are all reflecting the glory of God as expressed in Christ: it is the same Christ in all, yet differently expressed in each person.
Creating and receiving music
This thought has been put forward in Henry Purcell. Purcell was a musician but his inscape was in his actually writing music, music like no other composer's. Hopkins clearly had a high view of originality, but that originality was not something put on, like clothing, but had to be from the core personality of the person. What Hopkins adds further is an account of the instress on the hearer:
He then spends the sestet finding images to convey the instress on him, the effect of taking this music into his very being.
The inscape of poetry
In many of his attempts to describe inscape in landscapes or seascapes, Hopkins talks of inner laws. Instress could be seen as an intuition or sudden perception of the ‘inner law' of a thing or person. Hopkins seems especially fascinated by parallel lines as one such law of form.
It has been argued that, for Hopkins, parallelism is the inscape of poetry. Certainly in Hebrew poetry it is, but it is probably too much to apply this to the variety of Hopkins' poetry. Nevertheless, figures of speech, especially metaphor, simile, antithesis, could be seen as parallels of thought; whilst repeating patterns of rhythm, rhyme and alliteration could be seen as parallels of sound.
Certainly, Hopkins even tries to establish the inscape of particular words, linking them together in sound, playing with the sound and sense, to make us distinguish differences, as ‘dandled a sandalled' or ‘Hack and rack' from Binsey Poplars. Compound words are another way to express the inscape of poetry. We take two familar words, put them together and in the fusion, a unique sense is created, such as ‘bell-swarmed, lark-charmed' (Duns Scotus' Oxford). For Hopkins, language needed constant refreshment to keep its inscape. This was the poet's task.
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