Study Guide to To R.B.
“To R.B.” is Hopkins’s final poem. He dated it April 22, 1889, less than two months before his death from typhoid fever. At first glance, the poem presents the end of Hopkins’s poetic career not as a bang but a whimper. Upon closer inspection, however, the poem contains both inspired and inspiring ideas and turns of phrase, notwithstanding the speaker’s declaration that “I want [i.e. lack] the one rapture of an inspiration.” The main metaphor that the poem explores is familiar enough: poetic creation compared with human reproduction. Hopkin’s unique version of this metaphor portrays “fine delight” as a father-like principle, a fleeting inspiration that leads to a long, slow period of work, similar to the maternal work of gestation. Lacking the former (“the sire of muse”) the speaker cannot have the latter, and as a result, produces only “lagging lines.”
Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:
- The phrase “fine delight,” with its assonance and suggestiveness, has caught the eye of many writers and critics. What is “fine delight”? Does “fine” have the sense of “delicate”? Or “perfect”? Or “sharp”? Could it have other meanings as well, or perhaps more than one of these meanings?
- Hopkins is not the first poet to write a great poem about the inability to write a poem. The opening canto of Sir Phillip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, for example, also begins with a (poetic) declaration that the poet cannot find the right words, and in Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” the poet says he lacks the inspiration that comes from “Joy, virtuous Lady, Joy.” But is the poem’s claim really true, i.e. that poetry—by Hopkins or anyone—must spring from these emotions? No matter your field, you too have experienced periods of creativity: based on those experiences, what do you think of Hopkins’s claim that joy is a prerequisite to creativity? Does the poem, intentionally or unintentionally, undermine this claim?
- This poem’s more casual or personal tone belies the fact that it, like many of Hopkins’s poems, attends carefully to formal prosody. The poem is a sonnet. Notice, in that regard, how the opening octave of the poem makes general statements about the mind, thought, and insight, while in the sestet we see a shift inward and personal pronouns begin to appear. Hopkins makes the poem a poetic epistle to his friend, recalling the fact that the poem is simply titled “To R.B.” [Robert Bridges].