Study Guide to Tom’s Garland
Hopkins composed “Tom’s Garland” in Dublin, Ireland in 1887 amidst growing political tension by those advocating Irish self-governance (or “Home Rule”), a situation aggravated by occasionally violent unrest from angry, exploited manual laborers. Hopkins did not write much poetry about the economic and political controversies surrounding him in Dublin while he taught classics at University College Dublin and graded exams for the Royal University of Ireland. But we know from his letters that he found both the political pressure and his own university appointment trying and draining. Since 1887 was also the year of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, some scholars have called attention to the contradictory tension felt in “Tom’s Garland” between the instability of the British Empire in the face of economic and political threats and the simultaneous celebration of its stability in the person of the queen.
Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:
- “Tom’s Garland” is decidedly serious in its social and political critique. Notice the inscription of the poem, which tells us that Tom, like his friend Dick (“every Tom, Dick and Harry”), is an unemployed manual laborer, a navvy (l. 4). How might we describe the poem’s presentation of the experience of hard labor and unemployment on the human body and the psyche? What kind of life does a manual laborer usually choose, what are his values? What is his garland anyway?
- Hopkins borrows the caudal sonnet form to create this highly experimental poem. What experiments in Petrarchan rhyme scheme do you see? For example, the poem has two codas, i.e. added sections of two-and-a-half lines each that augment the poem’s impact. How does the interaction of the coda’s rhyme scheme with the rest of the poem affect the poem’s argument?
- Part of the complexity here stems from the poem’s multiplicity of voices. Hopkins gave the poem the inscription “upon the Unemployed” which can be read as a description of the poem’s theme by an external observer. How many observers, or speakers, or at least perspectives, can you identify, particularly if you distinguish between colloquial phrases in the poem and a “higher” language? How might you describe the different political opinions in the poem? Who gets the last say, and why?
For this poem you might want to be familiar with the following terms from the Hopkins Terminology:
alliteration | assonance | coinages | curtal sonnet | cynghanedd | parallelism | instress | sprung rhythm