Study Guide to Henry Purcell
This sonnet is dated “Oxford, April 1879,” written while Hopkins was curate at St. Aloysius’s church. He enclosed the poem in a letter written that month to his friend Robert Bridges and later says he considers this poem, “one of my very best pieces.” Henry Purcell was an English composer (1659-1695) that Hopkins admired. Although Purcell incorporated Italian and French elements into his music, his style was a unique English form of Baroque music. Purcell was a problematic figure for Hopkins because he was Protestant (“listed to a heresy”); since Hopkins was now Catholic, he felt a need to defend Purcell and his interest in him. For example, Hopkins later compared Purcell’s music to the poetry of John Milton, another Protestant. The first two quatrains give a tribute to Purcell, defending his skill and alluding to the uniqueness of his style. The sestet, the last six lines, likens the thrill of hearing Purcell’s music to the wonder and joy of seeing a magnificent seabird riding the wind.
Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:
- This poem is preceded by a prose argument, a summary of the major points in a work of prose or poetry—“The poet wishes well to the divine genius of Purcell and praises him that, whereas other musicians have given utterance to the moods of man’s mind, he has, beyond that, uttered in notes the very make and species of man as created both in him and in all men generally.” How does this clarify the purpose of his poem?
- Hopkins often uses neologisms or “coined” words-words he makes up because the ordinary vocabulary fails to express his meaning adequately. Can you find some coined words in this poem? Why might Hopkins have felt the need for coined words in this poem in particular?
- Hopkins also uses epithets, an adjective or descriptive phrase which expresses a characteristic of the person or thing mentioned, in this poem. Often these adjectives are hyphenated. For example, see line 12: “The thunder-purple seabeach plumèd purple-of-thunder.” Why do you think Hopkins uses epithets in this poem, and what might he gain by using them?
- In this poem Hopkins is working out some of his ideas about inscape, the “this-ness” of a thing, the distinctive design that gives individual identity to a thing, a scene, a bird, a person. How is this idea of inscape expressed in this poem about Henry Purcell? To what does he compare Purcell in order to confirm his uniqueness?