Study Guide to The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe

Study Guide to The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air We Breathe

This poem was written in Stonyhurst in May 1883, where Hopkins had returned to teach Greek and Latin to the Jesuits preparing for exams at the University of London. The poem originally was intended to be hung near the statue of the Virgin Mary along with other poems in other “tongues” or languages, in celebration of May Day, a feast dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Hopkins wrote his poem in English in the same meter as “Blue in the mists all day”—iambic trimeter couplets—written by his friend Canon Richard Watson Dixon. Instead of couplets, Hopkins, however, sometimes uses triplets. In this poem Hopkins contends that just as the atmosphere sustains our physical life and tempers the power of the sun’s radiation, so Mary sustains our spiritual life and mediates our relationship to God.

Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:

  • Mary’s traditional color was blue. Where and in what ways do you find the color blue mentioned in the poem?
  • Look at lines 3-8. Notice how each line runs right into the next line, i.e. there’s no ending punctuation—comma, semicolon, period—until we get to the semicolon after “life” ending line 8. This is called “enjambment” and appears often in the poem. Why do you think Hopkins used enjambment in this poem? How does the enjambment affect the rhythm of the poem, and how does it connect the thoughts?
  • Hopkins had begun teaching Latin and Greek at Stonyhurst, as he would continue to do for the rest of his life. Greek and Latin are inflected languages–the meaning of the sentence is determined by the endings of the words, not the order in which they are placed. Can you find instances of a similar disordered syntax in this poem, such as adjectives and nouns being separated by parenthetical phrases? Does this strengthen or weaken the poem, add spontaneity or confusion?
  • Think again about the poem’s title. How does Hopkins develop this unusual comparison, and how apt or persuasive do you find it to be?

For this poem you might want to be familiar with the following terms from the Hopkins Terminology:
alliteration | assonance | parallelism

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