RNF Skinner

Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Use of Words

From Saturday 14th (Easter Saturday) 1991

Quoting ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins’ by Francis Noel Lees: “Throughout his life he shows an interest in the etymology + the sensory powers of words. He notes them down + makes conjectures frequently of a very perceptive kind about the kinship of words, + their sound symbolism. ‘What a philologist he might have made!’ is a recent expert judgment on this work of his. The literary critic notices rather the enriching of his vocabulary, the attuning of a sense of the complex potential of words. He notices, further, that the endeavour was to narrow the gap between the words + the reality, an exacting exercise in perception + expression…” 

The endeavour was to narrow the gap between the words + the reality”. Exactly! That’s exactly it! I’m not sure whether “he” refers to the critic who has just been quoted, to ‘the critic’ as a species, or to Francis Noel Lees himself commenting on Hopkins — whichever it may be, I think the reduction of the gap, although impossible ever to accomplish in toto, is the endeavour of all creativity. If it could be accomplished in toto, then the word + that which the word denotes would merge into a unity. The only entities for which no gap exists between the reality + the word is a word itself. i.e. the object we term ‘table’ is itself, + the label we apply to it — viz ‘table’ – is not itself a table. Between the table, + the word “table” there is a gap. An irreducible gap, one might say, but that gap can be asymptotically reduced for a given table by the use of adjectives – though no matter how great a piling up of descriptions may occur, they never undergo a transmutation into a table itself. The table-in-itself is, as it were, at the eye of a tornado of words, which endlessly circulate. 

However, if the entity under discussion is not a table (i.e. the thing denoted by the word ‘table’), but is the word ‘table’ itself, then there is no gap between the thing denoted + the word denoting it. The thing denoted is the word ‘table’, + the word denoting the thing denoted is that self-same word, ‘table’. The denoted + the denotee are identical. 

Perhaps that is the fascination of writing poems about writing poems, using words about words – for that is the only time when the poet is dealing directly with reality (the reality of the words), + not with all the rest of reality which is non-verbal. 

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