Inscape and “Dawness”

Recently I worked my way through the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Hopkins did not leave a large body of poetry, but what he did leave is unique. He experimented with techniques in his poetry that are in one sense old and in another ahead of their time. Hopkins had a particularly unique idea about poetry, one I have mentioned before, which he called “inscape.”

Hopkins’ idea of inscape comes from medieval philosopher-theologian John Duns Scotus. Scotus proposed the concept of “haecceity,” a Latin term which can be translated as “thisness.” Not everyone will see the value of haecceity. The ability to appreciate it probably indicates a susceptibility to philosophy in general. Haecceity is the quality of an object which distinguishes it from another object. It is what separates this oak tree from that oak tree or this spoon from that spoon. Hopkins translates this concept into poetry as inscape. Inscape communicates a unique environment or atmosphere in a poem. It is no easy task to do this in poetry because our language often fails to communicate “thisness.”

One technique that a poet can use to communicate inscape is to create new words. Borrowing is a common method for bringing new terms into a language. English is full of words drawn from Latin and French. Another method, which is common in Old English, the Germanic ancestor of modern English, is to form compound words. I don’t know how familiar Hopkins was with Old English, but his poetry is full of two and even three or more words crammed together. His “May Magnificat” speaks of a time “When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple / Bloom lights the orchard-apple.” In his introduction to his translation of Beowulf Seamus Heaney acknowledges how helpful an early acquaintance with Hopkins’ poetry was for his work.

One of my favorite lines from Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is, “Many a spear / dawn-cold to the touch will be taken down / and waved on high.” Forðon sceall gar wesan / monig moren-ceald mundum bewunden / hæfen on handa (ll. 3021-23). “Dawn-cold” is a compound striving to communicate the “thisness” of a particular type of cold. Presumably there are other colds, like winter-cold and water-cold. In this case the cold of the spear has the quality of “dawness.” Perhaps, from a scientific point of view, there is no difference between a spear cooled by liquid nitrogen and another by the night air, if the temperature is the same. Yet no so for the poet.

I remember getting up early on summer mornings to pick blueberries as a teen; the coolness of the air, the color of the sky, and the dampness of the dew all contributed to the special kind of coldness that I felt when I grasped the plastic handle of a bucket. There is a different quality to that cold than the cold of a gray Michigan afternoon in the dead of winter. As indefinable as that quality is, it is inscape.

It has been the goal of many authors to communicate haecceity in their writing. Hopkins, of course, labored at this. If he had not died at the age of 44 he may have developed it more. C.S. Lewis was aware of a similar idea in his own writing. In Spenser’s Images of Life he talks about the “Londonness” of London and the “Donegality” of Donegal. In other words, the haecceity of London or Donegal. Michael Ward draws on this in Planet Narnia to propose the concept of Donegality. (Readers of Lewis will naturally be suspicious of a book which proclaims to explain the secret pattern behind the seven Chronicles of Narnia books. Whether or not a reader agrees with Ward’s conclusion by the end of the book, I think they will still find it to be an excellent piece of Lewis criticism.)

Tolkien also experiments with haecceity in his work. In a passage from The Two Towers hobbits Merry and Pippin meet an Ent (something like a walking-talking tree) as he is standing on a rocky ledge. He tells them that some people call him Treebeard but then says,

For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate…For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.

He then tries to tell them the name of the place he is standing on,

I can see and hear (and smell and feel) a great deal from this, from this, from this a-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lind-or-burúmë. Excuse me: that is a part of my name for it; I do not know what the word is in the outside languages: you know, the thing we are on, where I stand and look out on fine mornings, and think about the Sun, and the grass beyond the wood, and the horses, and the clouds, and the unfolding of the world.

Treebeard settles at last on the word hill but considers it to be a hasty word. Indeed the closer a person attempts to get to the inscape of a thing, the longer its name will be. The true name of something would be a story. (I would really like this to connect to the mysterious verse in Revelation 2:17, “I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” Only we can know in full the true name of our lives.) Since ents live longer than many ages of man, they have the time to use lengthy language. Because human lifespans are brief, we are forced to abbreviate. We call a tree a tree unless we need to distinguish; then we talk of oaks, beeches, and aspen.

In spite of our short lives, I think inscape has value. Inscape and haecceity can re-vivify our language, make it richer and fuller. Pressures of life cause us to strip down language, to streamline it, to make it more mechanically efficient. In doing so we lose the ability to talk about certain things (even to remember that we have lost the ability), to express ourselves to the fullest, to follow the stress and “instress” of the contours of reality. Perhaps re-vivifying our language is a part of bringing life to ourselves, of coming to live in our full humanity.


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