Study Guide to Harry Ploughman
Hopkins’s Oxford tutor Walter Pater once declared that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” Harry Ploughman is Hopkins’s most radical attempt to follow Pater’s maxim. The manuscript of the poem includes a set of Hopkins’s diacritical marks to aid in performance, almost like a musical score, because the poem “is altogether for recital, not for perusal.” More than most of Hopkins’s poems the rich sounds threaten to overwhelm the meaning. While many of Hopkins’s other keenly observed poems about the ordinary people and parishioners tell a story, this poem seeks to capture the charged dynamism of one particular moment or movement. But as in “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;” the emphasis is on a characteristic action that expresses the subject’s essence, or “deals out [his] being.” The poem was written in the fall of 1887 when the poet was in the little market village of Dromore, now in Northern Ireland, and observed a farm laborer at work.
Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:
- The poem is notable also for its lack of narrative development. Hopkins called it a “direct picture of a ploughman, without afterthought.” Does Hopkins succeed in making Harry Ploughman “a vivid figure before the mind’s eye”? Why does the poem begin with a long sentence enumerating Harry’s qualities, delaying the sentence’s verbs (and hence the action) until the end?
- Notice the alliterations (rack of ribs, knee-nave, shoulder and shank); the assonance (by → eye; heed → steered; crew → to). These are all tightly clustered together; in fact, all of the latter are in one line. What effect do these knots of sound lend to the poem?
- Even more than in most of his poems, Hopkins employs neologisms in “Harry Ploughman.” He often does so by creating portmanteau words such as “Churlsgrace” and “Amansstrength.” What is the effect of these words on the poem? Why does Hopkins create and use them?
- Formally, Hopkins considered the poem an Italian sonnet, having an opening octave followed by a sestet, though he added in what he called “burden-lines” (the indented ones) to make this a caudal sonnet. What if any meaning does the division between octave and sestet bring to the poem? Note that each includes a slightly different view of Harry’s actions and interactions with his plow and team of horses.