Biblical poetry

The term parallelism was first used of poetry by a former Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Bishop Lowth, in the mid-eighteenth century. Hopkins was aware of Lowth's work on the poetry of the Old Testament.

Lowth was a noted Hebrew scholar, and showed how the Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament of the Bible could not be measured like English poetry, that is, by metre. Instead, it was structured by a series of ‘parallel' or similarly expressed phrases, usually in pairs.

A simple example would be:
O Come, let us sing unto the Lord:
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation (Psalms 95:1 KJV)

where the second line echoes the sense and the structure of the first, though also filling it out.

A slightly more complex example would be:

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands (1 Samuel 18:7 NIV=KJV)

where each line has a similar structure and meaning, but the implication is that although both men are heroes, David's heroism is a little greater than Saul's.

It doesn't mean literally that David has killed ten times more people than Saul. In fact, David appears only to have killed one person, but as that person was the enemy leader, his death was particularly significant and gave rise to the ultimate victory.

Parallelism in Hopkins' work

Hopkins absorbed Lowth's theory and saw that it applied to all poetry. All repeating poetic structures he saw as parallel, including the simple one of rhyme, where a particular sound or syllable is repeated in a structured and parallel way. He saw this is as the essence of poetic structure.

Parallel structures

Parallel structures, according to Lowth, could become more and more complex, a point Hopkins studied and practised in his poetry. Parallelism that exists at the level of the line includes alliterative patterns, assonance patterns (repeating vowel sounds) and rhyme patterns. But stanza (verse) patterns are repeating parallel structures, too.

Parallel images

When it comes to word painting, Hopkins' notebooks show how often he describes landscape and cloud formations in terms of parallel lines and repeating patterns. Imagery, itself, becomes a form of parallelism: one thing is akin to another, in that certain aspects of it are in parallel structure to the other. This is the underlying reason for Hopkins' highly structured complex verse forms. It is the basic way poetry gets hold of reality.

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