The title of this post takes its cue from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Duns Scotus’s Oxford,” a lovely little poem I read earlier today. The post will talk about the poem and what (I think) it means. But there’s more to the story.
This is also a post about, in no particular order: an ethos I discovered, a book that taught me how to read, and a scholar whom I wish I’d met earlier in my life. None of these have any direct connection with Hopkins, Duns Scotus, or Oxford. Or so I thought, until I read the poem.
Anyway, let’s jump right in.
Gerard Manley Hopkins is a poet I’ve had very little familiarity with – though I vaguely remember reading “The Windhover” – so there’s not much I can say about him right now that hasn’t already been said by people who are far more versed in his work. His poetry, or at least what I’ve read of it so far, sounds awesome (i.e. awe-inspiring) though, as if it’s meant to be read by people with deep voices and strong emotions. Here’s the full text of “Duns Scotus’s Oxford:”
Towery city and branchy between towers;Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook racked, river-rounded;The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town didOnce encounter in, here coped & poisèd powers;Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, soursThat neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is groundedBest in; graceless growth, thou hast confoundedRural, rural keeping — folk, flocks, and flowers.Yet ah! this air I gather and I releaseHe lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are whatHe haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a notRivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;Who fired France for Mary without spot.
Fourteen lines and a regular rhyme scheme (A-B-B-A-A-B-B-A-C-D-C-E-C-E) tell us it’s a sonnet – and a near-Italian/Petrarchan one at that – but the meter plays a more interesting game. A “normal” sonnet in English has every line in iambic pentameter, which means that each line features ten syllables in an unstressed-stressed pattern, as in line 5: thou HAST | a BASE | and BRICK- | ish SKIRT | there, SOURS. Typical high-school-level English stuff, right? Yet Hopkins plays around with the rhythm in interesting ways, as in line 2:
CUCKoo-| ECHoing, | BELL-SWARMèd, | LARK CHARMèd, | ROOK racked, | RIver-rounded…
Here we get a seventeen-syllable line (by my count) with all the stresses in starting positions and the syllables grouped in uneven numbers. Hopkins called this meter sprung rhythm, and if you read with emphasis on the stressed syllables you can get an idea why the name came about. The line has an almost hopping feel to it, as though invisible springs bounce and propel the line forward, as opposed to the drifting, mechanical nature of line 5 – appropriate enough for a comment on how dull brickwork sours / That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded / Best in… Indeed, the tension between competing meters (structured iambic pentameter versus freer sprung rhythm) mirrors the tensions that Hopkins’ speaker expresses – we have conflict between the rural and the urban (country and town), stricture and flexibility (brickish skirt and neighbour-nature), modern and pastoral (graceless growth and rural keeping), and something involving Duns Scotus. But more on that later.
How about the words themselves? I like the touch that towery, branchy, cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, neighbour-nature, graceless growth and all the other unexpected (yet ‘natural’) phrases Hopkins uses here, because to me they evoke an Oxford that has a personality amidst the order of its architecture. Alliteration abounds in almost every line, and combined with the sprung rhythm the poem sounds out the forms it mentions: you can almost hear the “dapple-eared lily” springing into life (poor pun) as the syllables roll off the tongue.
But what does it all mean? This is where things got interesting for me, because while it’s relatively easy to discern Oxford in the poem, it’s more difficult to determine who Duns Scotus is, or why he should have anything to do at all with Oxford. Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308) was a Scottish theologian who promulgated, among other ideas in Christianity, a defense for the Immaculate Conception of Mary. You can read about his defense in the linked Wikipedia page, but the point is that Scotus’ argument provoked outrage from theologians in Paris; hence line 14’s comment, Who fired France for Mary without spot. As I mentioned earlier, I know very little about Hopkins’ life and beliefs, besides the fact that he became a Jesuit priest in 1877. It’s clear, however, that this poem’s speaker finds great inspiration in the Oxford – these weeds and waters, these walls that he imagines Duns Scotus to have “haunted” in earlier days (the theologian studied there around 1300). The highest honor gets bestowed on Scotus lines 12-13, in a lovely turn of alliteration and echoing r’s, v’s: Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not / Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece.
So here we have a sonnet praising the insights of a provocative theologian, and the institution he once resided in. It’s inspirational enough for the poem’s speaker, and maybe for anyone else who happens to agree with Duns Scotus or enjoy Hopkins’ poetry. What about the rest of us?
For me, at least, this poem marks both the end and the beginning of a personal, intellectual journey. Like anyone else who studied, or is studying English in college/university, I had many different professors who taught widely across historical eras and literary styles. I managed to learn as much about their personalities – and to some extent philosophies – as I did about their specialties. But there was one professor in particular, whose class I took in my last year (just seven months ago!), that left a deeper mental impression on me than I could ever have imagined.
He was – is – the kind of professor that exemplifies what makes education worthwhile…and a little terrifying. White-haired, spectacled, wide-eyed, and ridiculously well-read, this man taught an introductory class on poetry (he still does so, every semester) and a seminar on one particular author and his book. It was the latter class I took in my final year…and then he started talking about everything. The history of American expansion; Greek and Roman philosophy; linguistics; American medicine; Dickinson and Sterne and Pope and Swift; it wasn’t just a catalogue of Western civilization, it was his daily teaching. Every little comment on this book or that, this figure or another one sparked something in my mind.
At least, I wish it had at the time. All of the “English” I’d learned and read up to that point covered areas from just about everywhere else: South African novelists, Commonwealth writers, slave narratives, 18th-century women writers, etc. Yet I sensed I was missing the other half, the world that a “classical education” shaped for so many others yet somehow avoided shaping mine. And I felt too afraid to confess that to my professor, both out of a sense of futility (graduation was just around the corner) and out of fear of not sounding as intelligent as he was, and is. (Even now, despite all the links and references I’ve been adding here, I feel afraid to mention him by name, even though I know he does not venture out onto the Internet nowadays.)
Several months later, I’ve started to pick up the pieces and go after that ‘missing’ piece of education. There are lots of holes in any English major’s education, and I’m now trying – slowly but surely – to fill them up by reading more. As one starting point, I found and bought an old copy of a book on critical reading that same professor wrote over thirty years ago, because I knew that if anyone could teach someone else how to read, it’d be him.
I’ve only just started reading the book, but as it turns out, “Duns Scotus’s Oxford” made its way into the first chapter as an “exercise” for interpretation. So I decided to try it out, and…well, you’ve just read the rest.
Well, almost the rest. Another reason why I decided to read Hopkins’ particular poem is because of the version of Oxford – and really, of any brick-and-mortar university – it evokes. Towery cities that are branchy between towers might not be the most welcoming of sights, but it’s hard to deny that they bring out the grandeur that a solid, meaningful education can give to the human spirit. However, the broader lesson I’ve learned from “Duns Scotus’s Oxford” is a lesson about reading itself. Namely, that reading for meaning and structure – by looking up what the words mean, figuring out the syntax, and listening to the sound of it all – is really a rewarding experience. It’s not exactly the most pleasurable way to read something; certainly a lot of contemporary poetry tries to defy that sense of structure in the English tradition. But the process of interpretation, of taking language and transforming it into meaning, is more or less what scholars do for all of their lives.
And now, I think I’d like to join their ranks.