Gerard Manley Hopkins is a poet known for his use of powerfully vivid images, and his poem ‘The Windhover’ provides some beautiful examples, such as the following:

No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

In particular the image of the falling embers is a striking one, with the verb ‘gash’ and the intensity of colour suggested by the hyphenated phrase ‘gold-vermillion’ conveying the violence and the sudden flash of colour powerfully to mind. When he was younger, Hopkins had an ambition to be a painter, and this visual imagination infuses his poems. He is therefore an interesting poet to discuss in terms of the relationship between word and image.

Word and image have a complex relationship, especially in poetry where the image is called to mind through language that is often tightly compressed and dense, and can thus suggest the visual image much more quickly than can narrative prose. It can often seem as though we are ‘seeing’ the image instantaneously in our mind’s eye, rather than slowly piecing it together bit by bit as a sentence progresses. The word might then be argued to be a medium for conveying the visual, a tool that allows the reader to access the greater expressive value of the image. However, it can also be argued to be greater than the image, since it can convey the visual in addition to its other expressive powers.

A game of one-upmanship between the two is of no particular value, but it is interesting to compare the ways in which images function in poetry as compared to painting. Hopkins was a religious poet and here he gives us poetic images from nature (that of the windhover battling the current of the air) which are transmuted into an image of the suffering Christ (‘O my chevalier!’) This choice of address is significant – figuring Christ as a ‘chevalier’ or knight was a medieval trope. Both devotional paintings and devotional lyric poetry in medieval literature were designed to give the viewer or reader a religious image on which to contemplate; for example the ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ presents an image of a wounded knight lying in bed, which is traditionally thought to be an image of Christ presented so that we might contemplate his sacrifice for our sins. This calls to mind the ‘Ecce Homo’ style of religious paintings, in which the suffering Christ is presented for our view, but it might usefully be applied to many religious images that are supposed to make us contemplate the suffering of Jesus. There is already an interesting correlation here between word and image – the image is supposed to call to mind a story that we are presumed already to know in order for the image to function as powerfully as it should. The image, however, invites us to look past the narrative and to feel for the situation of the suffering Christ. In this contemplation, one line of argument goes, we transcend our mortal, sinful state and approach something beyond the simple narrative of the story.

However, this argument strays from the ways in which imagery works in Hopkins’ poem. Here we are not presented with a still image for our attention. On the contrary, the poem is striking for the restless way in which it never allows our attention to rest upon any of its images. The dense, confusing syntax (for example: ‘in his riding / Of the rolling level underneath him steady air’) means that we are always striving to make sense of the blizzard of nouns, adjectives and verbs that Hopkins assaults us with in order to convey his complicated sense of the motion of the bird and the sensations and thoughts it evokes in him. The interrelation of words is a dynamic process; each subsequent word modifies the preceding sense we had made of things and each previous word folds onto the new image in order to place it within a larger context. This process does not happen in painting, at least not with such dynamism and intensity. Images and objects within a painting may impact the meaning we take from other images (for example in William Holman Hunt’s The Shadow of Death the objects from the Nativity in the corner of the painting are juxtaposed with the shadow on the wall in order to compare the ideas of earthly kingship with the destiny of the heavenly king on Earth) but this process is nothing like as dense or as complex as the ways in which language operates in Hopkins’ work.

Last modified 11 October 2007