Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Hopkins and Haecceity

We had a very interesting discussion in our Catholic reading group a few days ago. The subject of this session was the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I would like to thank Ben, in particular, for sharing Hopkins' As Kingfishers Catch Fire with the group:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves - goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is--
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
The poem illustrates quite nicely the influence Bl. John Duns Scotus had on Hopkins' theology, particularly concerning the concept of haecceity -- that which pertains to the haecceitas, or thisness, of a person or object, that identifies it as being individual or distinct from other things. God made us as human beings, but he made each one of us, and all living creatures, unique. This would better explain some terms Hopkins identified: inscape and instress, which are described here in more detail:
By "inscape" he means the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things, and by "instress" he means either the force of being which holds the inscape together or the impulse from the inscape which carries it whole into the mind of the beholder...

The concept of inscape shares much with Wordsworth's "spots of time," Emerson's "moments," and Joyce's "epiphanies," showing it to be a characteristically Romantic and post-Romantic idea. But Hopkins' "inscape" is also fundamentally religious: a glimpse of the inscape of a thing shows us why God created it. "Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:/ . . myself it speaks and spells,/ Crying What I do is me: for that I came."
You see this generally reflected in Hopkins' poetry. He writes about this bird, this tree, this person, rather than about birds, or trees, or people in general. Exquisite.


Lee Faber said...

Actually, to get technical, an haecceity is a contraction of the universal species from (=essence) to singularity. It is formally distinct from the essence. Essence does not distinguish, as an essence is formed by a difference contracting a genus. An haeceitty contracts the entire porphyrian tree to singularity.

Alan Phipps said...

Thanks, Lee. My use of the term 'essence' is obviously very loose here in an attempt to keep the explanation relatively simple (I don't profess to be a philosopher). I'll clean it up a little.


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