Poet's Pick April 24
Gerard Manley Hopkins: "To Seem the Stranger Lies My Lot, My Life"
Selected by Debra Allbery
National Poetry Month 2012

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Debra Allbery's Poetry Month Pick, April 24, 2012

"To Seem the Stranger Lies My Lot, My Life"
by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.
England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.

I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven's baffling ban
Bars or hell's spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

* Debra Allbery Comments:
GMH to Robert Bridges; September 1, 1885:  I shall shortly have some sonnets to send you, five or more.  Four of these came like inspirations unbidden and against my will.

We don’t know the order of composition for the “terrible sonnets,” five of the six existing as fair copies on a single half-page of sermon paper from 1885-1886, but “To seem the stranger” feels an entryway in its exile and divide.  Estranged, unknown, and ‘seeming’— Hopkins’ isolation in 1885 was multiple: a Jesuit distanced from his Anglican family and his homeland, an Englishman teaching in Dublin during a time of political strife, an unpublished poet whose work “erred on the side of oddness” and who was striving to reconcile his artistic and religious callings, a priest confronted with dark heaven’s baffling banMy peace my parting is at the heart of the cloistered octave, its paralleled contraries and each dark-mirrored chiasmus enacting the braided binds—duty and desire, choice and sacrifice, voice and silence.  Were I pleading, plead nor do I.

For it is widely true, that fine pleasure is not to do a thing but to feel that you could and the mortification that goes to the heart is to feel it is the power that fails you… it is the refusal of a thing that we like to have.
I think of Dickinson, No being for her “the wildest word we consign to language.”  ED, too, at multiple removes in 1885, a stranger to the Church and her society and the poetry of her time.  A twin mind-mountain, in her collisions and subversions of language, the eccentric circumference of her vision; her adamant music also hoard[ed] unheard, heard unheeded.  Elizabeth Bishop tried to put Hopkins and Dickinson together in a poem: caged birds in a “complicated” double sonnet, as she described it in a letter to Lowell in 1955. From the early draft: “They lock together, unseen.” She returned to the poem in the mid-1970s, but never finished it. Isolate fragments drawing together their parallel lines:  “They chose, themselves, their cages.” And, further down the page: “the same god…sustained their songs with iron.”  

So with me, if I could but get on, if I could but produce work I should not mind it being buried, silenced, and going no further, but it kills me to be time’s eunuch and never to beget. 

If the octave documents the distance, the sestet situates him in the confines of his time and place: I am in Ireland now, now I am at a third / remove:  Ireland itself naming his state of displacement, a location foreign to his “creating thought.” But still, he has, through letters, contact with his own “kind,” and there is sustenance within:  Only what word / Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven's baffling ban / Bars or hell's spell thwarts. The helix of that sentence, the charged alliteratives of exhalation:  how the line pushes forward and rises—the word / Wisest (language and Logos, poetry and Christ) as his protector, his guide. But even this becomes a pleading not pleaded: to hoard unheard, / heard unheeded. A lonely began, never to beget.  The pang of that verbal substantive, a present locked into past tense. 

I am afraid I shall be ground down to a state like this last spring’s and summer’s, when my spirits were so crushed that madness seemed to be making approaches—and nobody was to blame, except myself partly for not managing myself better and contriving a change.


“The thin gleanings of a long weary while,” Hopkins called these sonnets, promising to send them (and again, not enclosing them), in a letter to Bridges two years later.  Against the effusive particulars of his 1860s journals and the dense dapplings and jammed-stressed word-chords of the earlier poems, “To Seem the Stranger” is spare, a thought prayer. That seeming seems the furthest remove, the defining estrangement—wherefore sing, Dickinson imagines herself asking a hidden bird, when no one hears?  (“I could wish, I allow, that my pieces could sometime become known,” Hopkins wrote to R. W. Dixon in 1879, “but in some spontaneous way, so to speak, and without my forcing.”) “My business is to sing!” Dickinson’s bird replies, taking wing. “How do I know but cherubim, once, themselves as patient, listened, and applauded her unnoticed hymn?”

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily.  Selected Letters.  Ed. Thomas Johnson.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986. 177, 246.
Harrison, Victoria.  Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Intimacy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. 36.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley.  The Major Works.  Ed. Catherine Phillips.  Oxford:  Oxford UP, 1986. 166, 263-4.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Selected Prose. Ed. Gerald Roberts.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980. 77, 79.


About Debra Allbery:
Debra Allbery won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for her first book, Walking Distance and the Grub Street National Book Award for Fimbul-Winter (Four Way, 2011). Other awards include two NEA fellowships, two fellowships from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, the “Discovery”/ The Nation prize, and a Hawthornden fellowship. Her work has appeared in Poetry, TriQuarterly, The Yale Review, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, FIELD, and elsewhere. Currently the director of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, she lives near Asheville, North Carolina.

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