Habit of Perfection by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The poem, Habit of Perfection, was written in 1866 when Hopkins was still studying at Oxford. The poem was originally called ‘The Kind Betrothal’. The poet in this poem states his resolution to take to a religious and austere life and to discard all the pleasures of the senses. Instead of the sweet strains of music to gratify his sense of hearing, Silence will sing a ‘still’ music to him. In other words, he will content himself with silence and not seek the pleasurable notes of music. Nor will he indulge in the eloquence or rhetoric of speech; his eloquence will reside in his remaining dumb and not allowing his lips to utter any words.

What he really means to say here is that he will write no more poetry, so as to devote himself fully to asceticism –Likewise, he will deny himself the pleasures of the senses of sight, taste, smell and touch. He urges his eyes to shut themselves to confusing picture which worldly activities offer to the beholder, and to perceive God’s creative energy by looking inwards. He exhorts his sense of taste to deny itself the delicious food and wine which a glutton craves, and to find satisfaction in observing a fast or in observation a fast or in eating dry bread to be washed down with plain water.

He calls upon his nostrils to find pleasure in the sweetness of the incense that is burnt in the church and not to seek the scents and perfumes worn by grand ladies. Nor will he let his feet or hands enjoy the pleasures of contact with things that are soft. Instead of walking on velvety grass he will walk to church where he will participate in the sacred rites that are performed there. And how about that pleasures of sex? He will wed Poverty; Poverty will be his bride; and instead of fine robes this bride will be content with lily-colored clothes.


Use of Imagery

 The Habit of Perfection is a poem of complete self-denial, and yet it is noteworthy that it abounds in pictures that are richly sumptuous. Especially striking are the images of the sense of taste, smell and touch. The poem indicates Hopkins’s desire to become a priest; but the surrender to asceticism is made in terms so delicately sensuous that the fusion of the artist and neophyte is strangely tense and poignant. In other words, the choice of an ascetic, rather than an aesthetic, approach to life is codified by Hopkins in this self-instructional poem.

Paradoxically, however, it contains more memorable sensuous imagery than any other poem of these Oxford years. This problematic relationship between sensuous enjoyment and religious dedication was only resolved eleven years later in The Wind-hover and its companion Welsh sonnets. Some may think that the conflict between Hopkins the artist and Hopkins the ascetic was never fully resolved.


Habit of Perfection Analysis

Elected Silence, sing to me

And beat upon my whorled ear,

Pipe me to pastures still and be

The music that I care to hear.

In the poem, The Habit of Perfection, the poet rejects the pleasure of listening to music, and chooses Silence instead. He personifies Silence and calls upon it to sing to him only silent melodies and tunes, as he is not interested to the shepherds’ playing upon their pipes and producing musical tunes in the pasture where their sheep graze. In actual fact Hopkins is here rejecting the pleasures of poetry. The meaning of ‘Elected Silence ‘is chosen Silence which the poet elects or chooses in preference to speech.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:

It is the shut, the curfew sent

From there where all surrenders come

Which only makes you eloquent.

In the second stanza, the poet rejects the pleasure of speaking and indulging in rhetorical or eloquent speeches. He calls upon his lips to remain shut. By surrendering their power of speech his lips will attain true eloquence. Indirectly Hopkins here expresses his resolve not to write any more poetry. Writing poetry would be contrary to his chosen path of religion and asceticism.

Be shelled, eyes, with double dark

And find the uncreated light:

This ruck and reel which you remark

Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

In this third stanza of the poem, the poet rejects the pleasure of seeing beautiful sights, urging his eyes to remain tightly close against external sights ad perceiving only ‘the creative energy of God’s mind’. All the variegated sights of the world and the entire whirl of material interests simply ensnare and bewilder the beholder’s eyes which should therefore refuse to witness such things.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,

Desire not to be rinsed with wine:

The can must be so sweet, the crust

So fresh that come in fasts divine!

In the fourth stanza of the poem, the poet rejects to gratify his sense of taste or his gluttonous desire for delicious foods and wines. He would like to observe fasts which please God, and to satisfy his hunger only with dry bread and plain water.

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend

Upon the stir and keep of pride,

What relish shall the censers send

Along the sanctuary side!

In the fifth stanza of the poem, the poet, addressing his organs of smell, says that they should take pleasure in the sweetness of the incense that is burnt at church when holy ceremonies are performed, and that they should not crave the exquisite scents and perfumes which proud ladies wear.

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet

That want the yield of plushy sward,

But you shall walk the golden street

And you unhouse and house the Lord.

In this sixth stanza of the poem, the poet, addressing his hands and feet which normally seek the touch of  soft things, says that he would not seek the pleasure of walking upon thick, velvety grass but would walk to the church and there partake of the consecrated bread which is symbolic of the body of Christ.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride

And now the marriage feast begun,

And lily-coloured clothes provide

Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

This is the last stanza of the poem wherein the poet’s bride would be a pretty maiden, but Poverty. With Poverty as his bride the poet would not have to look for ostentatious and showy robes but would be content with simple clothes which, like the lilies of the field, involve no labour or toil.


About Hopkins And His Poetry

Hopkins‘s reputation, as a writer, was confined to a very small circle. None of his work was published before his death, and the only individuals to see much of his poetry in manuscript were three friends who were themselves poets too. Their names were Robert Bridges, R.W. Dixon, and Coventry Patmore. Although these men were not always appreciative, their criticism and comment stimulated Hopkins to define his ideas more closely.

It was during the twenties and thirties of century, Hopkins’s poetry gained considerable appreciation, largely owing to Bridges’s meticulous preservation of Hopkins’s work. Many of the traits of Hopkins’s poetry endeared it to a generation weary of Victorian rhetoric and Georgian miniaturism. These traits included modernity of idiom, absence of poeticism, rhythmic energy and experimentation, and freshly-minded imagery.

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  • Avatar Elizabeth says:

    This is a simple-to-understand and interesting explanation of this poem. What is meant by “Georgian miniaturism?” Thanks.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I think the insinuation is that poetry during the Georgian era had become too simplistic for his tastes.

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