Synopsis of Henry Purcell

An expanded sonnet

Like Duns Scotus' Oxford, this sonnet was written during Hopkins' short stay in Oxford in 1879. What is significant is that it is the first of his expanded sonnets, which the line lengths move way beyond the pentameter of his previous ones. He was to use this expanded sonnet form later in a number of highly successful poems, such as Felix Randall and some of his last sonnets. This one is best regarded as experimental.

A complex poem

Hopkins' friend, Robert Bridges, to whom he sent all his poems, found Henry Purcell very difficult, requiring lines explained to him by Hopkins. As Bridges kept all his letters, we have the benefit of these explanations, though the explanations are sometimes almost as difficult as the original lines! Bridges' opinion was that Hopkins was guilty of a ‘purely artistic wantonness' with his words and phraseology - a kind way of saying he was being too clever.
Difficulty in poetry has to be judged as objectively as possible:

  • If the difficulty arises from the complexity of the thought or idea or perception of the poet, fair enough
  • If it is just the poet showing off in some way, it is to be condemned
  • ‘Could it have been said more simply?' is always a relevant question, and we shall be asking it.

Musical inspiration

Hopkins came from an artistic family, in which the enjoyment of music took a significant place. He was especially keen on Henry Purcell. More on Purcell?Henry Purcell

More on Purcell: Henry Purcell was an English composer living at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century. Hopkins suggests Purcell was among ‘the greats', having an important part in the development of British music. Purcell's opera ‘Dido and Aeneas' is one of a few significant British operas.

Quite why Hopkins chose this moment of time to write of his admiration is not clear. It is interesting that Hopkins chose to write about a philosopher and a musician at much the same time.

Investigating Henry Purcell
  • Have you ever experienced grappling with a difficult poem, and finding that, finally, it has excited you as you have pieced it together?
    • Has this happened with Hopkins' poetry for you?
  • Is there any person from the past about whom you would like to write a poem?
    • Or would you like to write about the experience of reading or hearing something they have created?
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