Basso and Orchestra
"Inscape" was Gerard Manley Hopkins's term for a special connection between the world of natural events and processes and one's internal landscape--a frame of mind conveyed in his radical and singular poetry, written in Victorian Wales and England up to his death in 1889. In fact, his poetry was so innovative in sound and sense, it remained practically unknown until his friend, Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, published the poems in 1918.
Since Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, he is a religious poet. As W. H. Gardner has written, "Religion for him, was the total reaction of the whole man to the whole of life...As Hopkins [served and praised God] with complete sincerity, so too his disappointments, protests, and revulsions were stated with complete candor." The conflict between the ideal and real, and the internal struggle to accept the dilemma as God's will, is played out in the poet's dynamic view of nature in images such as "shining from shook foil," "wild winch whirl," "behavior of silk-sack clouds," "thy wring-world right foot rock," "cloud-puffball, torn tufts," "the hurl and gliding rebuffed the big wind."
My interest in Hopkins's poetry has had many phases. I tried to set it twice before this occasion but found that doing justice to the poems was simply too much for me; while I was greatly attracted to Hopkins's language and rhythm, something was lacking. More recently, my continuing interest in Eastern philosophy and aesthetics has created a new entrance into the poems. The Chinese Taoist and Buddhist view of nature as process--transient, vivid, and holistic--seemed entirely captured by Hopkins's sensibility, and I recognized Hopkins's inscape as something I had already understood and experienced in a familiar context, albeit a non-Western one. For a while I thought that my new understanding was simply and utterly idiosyncratic, but I was delighted to find that many recent writings on Hopkins confirm my intuitions.
When I received a commission from the Eastman School to write a work celebrating the school's 75th anniversary, I decided to fulfil it with a set of orchestral songs for Thomas Paul. I chose a series of six contrasting poems that would nevertheless create a narrative to unify the entire work. The narrative centers on the resolution of Hopkins's dilemma.
The first poem, "The Sea and the Skylark," sets the stage for one aspect of the conflict. After an orchestral prelude depicting the roll of tide and the sounds of shore birds and other fauna, the poem contrasts "our sordid turbid time," with the "tide that ramps against the shore," and the lark's ascent. The segregation is exacerbated as the poem comes to its concluding phrase: "drain fast towards man's first slime," the image of which is taken up in the terbulent and almost hectic orchestral interlude. "Ribblesdale" cuts off the orchestra with its first word "earth" and takes up the conflict from another point of view. Here the earth in itself has no tongue to plead or heart to feel--it is sheer being as opposed to "dogged man...so tied to his turn" away from God and nature.
Autumn gusts are suggested by the orchestral interlude, "the Bright Wind Boisterous," serving as an introduction to the exultant poem, "Hurrahing in Harvest," with its vision of God's "world-wielding shoulder" supporting the earth. But the opening line, "Summer ends now," also suggests the transience of this moment of joy. So I chose the next poem "Carrion Comfort," to provide the inevitable opposite: a bleak mood of weary dispair.
The following orchestral interlude makes the long transition from the depths of "Carrion Comfort" to the radiant epiphany of perhaps Hopkins's most famous poem, "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection." The title, as if of a sermon, both suggests and belies the spiritual breakthrough recorded in the poem, something akin to the experience of kensho or satori in Zen. This connection is striking, for the the last lines, "I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and this Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, is immortal diamond," contains a number of figures frequently found in Buddhist literature. But, rather than end the cycle triumphantly, I chose to shroud the music at the end in quiet, dense chords suggesting the ineffable mystery underlying Hopkins's spiritual victory.