Poetry as a way of seeing reality

Remember Hopkins' theory of haeccitas or ‘thisness', of particularity? When applied to nature and the structures of nature (landscapes, seascapes, cloud formations, formations of plants and living things, and so on), he coined the phrases ‘Inscape' and ‘Instress'.


'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, which fascinated him by their parallel structure.


'Instress' means the actual experience we have of inscape: how we receive it into our sight, memory and imagination. The poet's job is to find images that will ‘nail' the inscape down for us as readers, so we can recapture his or her perception and experience.

Hopkins is willing to be judged by the success or failure of the reading experience we have. But, in fairness, we have to be willing to read as carefully as he wrote. Hopefully, this guide will help you do that.

If you would like to study this more, look at Appendix 2.

Poetry demonstrates God

For Hopkins, nature was God's ‘book'. So in reading about nature, either literally as description, or as an image of some other reality or experience or insight, he wants others to ‘read' God:

  • for those with no belief in God at all, Hopkins' poems can be read for the experience of, ‘This is how it is to believe'. It provides an instress of belief, even if not the intellectual assent to it
  • for those who do believe in God, then Hopkins' inscapes may expand belief a little further. If Hopkins can see God in this way, perhaps his readers can too.
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