Commentary on Duns Scotus' Oxford

The octave is divided into two quatrains, and the sestet into two tercets (similar to The Sea and the Skylark and Henry Purcell, among others).

First quatrain

The first quatrain praises the city of Oxford, Britain's oldest university (though not much older than Cambridge). Hopkins doesn't actually Oxford, photo by Peter Trimming, available through Creative Commonsindividualise any of the many colleges in the city, as we might expect, but rather takes an overall view of the cityscape, trying to detail its particular inscape, which will be done visually and aurally, in terms of shapes, shades and sounds.

The city is famously situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Thames (called at this point the Isis) and the Cherwell, but these are not mentioned by name; the city is just ‘river-rounded', that is, bordered by river(s). In fact, Hopkins has an interest in borders and limits:

  • l.4 ‘here coped and poised powers' suggest some tension between city and country
  • ‘to cope' in its oldest form means ‘to meet in combat'.
More on Oxford's boundaries: In medieval times, the country came right up to the city and made a distinct border for it. If any of you are reading Thomas Hardy's novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, you may have noticed that Hardy defines Casterbridge (Dorchester) in exactly the same way.

Second quatrain

The second quatrain is devoted to criticising the city's modern suburbs. Some Victorian housing has often had a bad press: people still have to live in the cramped terraced houses in unimaginative lines of roads. In Victorian times there was little town-planning - builders did what was right in their own eyes. Hopkins calls it ‘graceless growth':

  • by ‘graceless' he doesn't just mean 'without artistic merit'
  • he uses grace in a Christian sense of having something of the love of God in it

so ‘graceless' means both unloving and Godless.

  • The brick of the new houses is compared to the grey of the stones from which the medieval buildings were made.
  • ‘confounded' is used in the older sense of ‘brought to ruin'.

The sestet

The sestet then turns to Duns Scotus. This was his city, too. In the first tercet, Hopkins seeks to identify himself in the city with Duns. For Hopkins, the instress of Oxford is thus that of the medieval city, mediated through Duns, ‘who of all men most sways my spirits to peace.'

Scotus' philosophy

In the second tercet Hopkins summarises Duns Scotus' achievements. In medieval philosophy, one of the debates was on the nature of reality:

  • Duns Scotus suggested that each individual had his or her own reality or being, but that there was an overall reality that could contain them all.
  • In other words, humans can be recognised as such at a universal level, even though none of us are carbon copies of some prototype.
  • Hopkins' poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire sets out this idea poetically.

Medieval debates were intensely complicated and lengthy. Scotus' Oxford lectures (in Latin) were printed, filling volumes. Hopkins believed that, in his day, Duns Scotus outshone any philosopher from Italy or Greece (even though Duns' name was used to form the word ‘dunce' as a mark of derision when his philosophy went out of fashion).

Scotus' theology

The other contribution of Duns Scotus that Hopkins mentions is his exposition of what is

called ‘the immaculate conception of the mother of Jesus'.

  • The Bible talks of Mary being a virgin at Jesus' conception:
‘How will this be', Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?.' (Luke 1:34 TNIV)
  • However, to the medieval philosophers there was a problem: would not Mary's human sinfulness be transmitted to Jesus genetically?
  • Scotus' response was to say that Mary herself was sinless from her birth, so no sin got transmitted.
  • To others, this was the same problem, merely pushed back a generation.

Because of these difficulties, the Roman Catholic Church did not accept the doctrine until 1854 and Protestant churches never have.

Duns Scotus, having taught this doctrine in Oxford, then went on to the University of Paris, where the teaching gained much support.

Investigating Duns Scotus' Oxford
  • Pick out words and phrases in the first quatrain that describe
    • shapes
    • shades
    • sounds.
  • What words and phrases suggest Hopkins' enthusiasm for Duns Scotus?
  • What does the phrase ‘Yet ah!' suggest to you?
  • Do you find it significant that Hopkins makes no reference at all to his own undergraduate days?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.