Study Guide to Duns Scotus’s Oxford
This poem, like “Binsey Poplars,” dates not from Hopkins’s undergraduate years at Oxford but from his return to Oxford as a priest in 1879. It suggests a detachment from the enthusiasm Hopkins felt for Oxford in earlier years. John Sutherland describes it as an “Oxford Elegy,” connecting it to other poems focused on Oxford as an idyllic stronghold in a world filled with loss and change. But Hopkins’s Oxford elegy is unique in that it also focuses on one of his central inspirations, the medieval Oxford philosopher John Duns Scotus.
Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:
- What is the relationship between the town and the nature surrounding it? What is the speaker’s attitude toward each?
- This poem is perhaps the finest example of what Josephine Miles calls Hopkins’s “sweet and lovely language.” Notice especially the quaint and charming words like “towery” and “branchy.” What are the effects of the peculiar suffixes Hopkins uses throughout the poem?
- The poem ends on a surprising note by moving the reader away from Oxford. First the speaker mentions Italy and Greece and then moves to France, where Scotus once traveled to defend the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (“Mary without spot”). Why this change of perspective?
- One of the aspects of Duns Scotus’s thought Hopkins was most drawn to was the idea of haecceitas or “this-ness” as it is sometimes translated; it formed the basis for his concept of inscape. It is a way of capturing the unique, positive, and particular character of an individual—not just a person, but a place, object, moment, etc. How do you see “this-ness” showing up as a concern in this poem?