Imagery and symbolism in Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves


The personification of evening is striking, as some giantess figure. ‘Her' then becomes ‘our evening', as it comes to symbolise Hopkins' own inner state. Images of dark and light are bound to predominate:

  • ‘fond yellow hornlight' is particularly significant. In early notebooks, Hopkins plays around with the derivation of the word ‘horn', and also describes the Northern Lights as ‘like the crown of horny rays the sun makes behind a cloud'
  • This contrasts to ‘her wild hollow hoarlight', as if the two types of light were going to be the shuttle on which life itself was wound

Winding and unwinding

  • The image of ‘wound' anticipates ‘ah let life wind' (l.10)
  • The imagery of earth is more about undoing, as Hopkins feels his world falling apart- a strange opposition to the image of winding, which is more to do with binding up or collecting up - this is part of the ‘thoughts against thoughts'
  • The strong image of ‘rack' now suggests torture, a torture rack on which he has placed himself.
Investigating Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves
  • Gather together images and words suggesting torture.
    • Investigate the meanings of the word ‘rack'.
  • Collect images of light from the poem.
    • What sort of light is it?
    • How do the images manage to suggest darkness at the same time?
  • What images suggest a loss of identity?
    • How symbolic of Hopkins' own inner state are they?
  • Explain ‘the beak-leaved boughs dragonish damask the tool-smooth bleak light'.
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