Commentary on Henry Purcell

The sonnet divides, as does Duns Scotus' Oxford, into two quatrains and two tercets.

Matters of conscience

In a letter, Hopkins explains the first quatrain thus:

‘I hope Purcell is not damned for being a Protestant, because I love his genius.'

When Bridges wanted a fuller explanation, he wrote again:

‘May Purcell, O may he have died a good death and that soul which I love so much and which breathes or stirs so unmistakably in his works have parted from the body and passed peace with God!'


Hopkins goes on to talk of the Catholic view of judgement, and his hope that it is perhaps not quite as strict as he fears. This is an odd problem for a poet to be wrestling with at the beginning of a poem, but it shows Hopkins as a priest as much as a poet, since a priest should be concerned that people are not condemned after death.

The Bible is certainly clear as to the reality of condemnation of the soul after death:

‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.' (Mark 16:16)

or, putting the other side:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life' (John 3:16)
  • the problem for Hopkins was that Catholics did not believe that Protestant religious rites, such as baptism, were valid
  • nowadays, both Protestants and Catholics have much more accepting views about each other, but, in Victorian times, battle lines were drawn and each side frequently condemned the other.
  • the whole sonnet is a wish or a prayer that Purcell will have found God's mercy, will ‘have fair fallen'.


The second quatrain is explained by Hopkins in one of his letters thus:

‘And that not so much for gifts he shares, even though it should be in higher measure, with other musicians as for his own individuality.'

  • Lines 5 and 6 try to define the reason for Hopkins' admiration by negatives: what it is not caused by. This is always a more difficult way of putting things than by coming straight out and saying what you like about a person. It delays the real focus.
  • In l.7, Hopkins is trying to define Purcell's individuality, his inscape: ‘It is the forgèd feature finds me'. So far, we have only come across this term with reference to landscapes, but Hopkins had no thought of limiting the concept to inanimate Creation. Somehow, through his music, Purcell's ‘abrupt self....throngs the ear.'
  • Instress is when an inscape becomes part of our own inner perception, and this is what Hopkins is describing here. ‘Thronging the ear' denotes a very overwhelming experience.

Creative uniqueness

The phrase ‘abrupt self' mystified Bridges. He thought it referred to some eccentricity in Purcell (and, by all accounts, Purcell was somewhat eccentric). Hopkins' response was uncharacteristically strong:

‘My sonnet means ‘Purcell's music is none of your d—d subjective rot (so to speak)'.

  • Purcell's music is baroque in style, as was Bach's, and not at all Romantic
  • he did not use his music as self-expression
  • however, at a deeper level, he has imprinted his uniqueness on it
  • thus we do not just say, ‘This must be by Purcell', but ‘This must be Purcell', i.e. the sort of person he was, a distinction central to Hopkins.

The sestet

The sestet is not so intense, as the larger part of it is formed by an extended metaphor of a great seabird. The seabird is only intent on flying, and that is wonder enough, but as he opens his wings, Hopkins sees its distinctive markings, which is really the bird itself, not just its flight. So, as Hopkins is lifted by his ‘air of angels', he sees the real Purcell, the inscape.

Investigating Henry Purcell
  • ‘Especial a spirit' (l.2):
    • Do you think Hopkins means only Purcell is special, being a genius.
    • Or is everyone special?
      • What does the word ‘special' mean to you?
  • Read the little explanation Hopkins puts under the title.
    • Does it help?
    • Can you see all that in the poem?
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