It sounds like a good infield for the Yankees in the 1930s, but it is really a progression of three of the finest poets of the last century and a half. We lead off with Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins was a Jesuit priest in England, who died in 1889 with little of his poetry having been published. Thanks to the efforts of Robert Bridges, Hopkins’s poems were collected and published in 1918 and have remained in print ever since. Hopkins is a master of language and rhythm. In poems such as “The Windhover,” he captures the grace and beauty of a falcon in flight in the rolling ups and downs of his verse. There is, as you would expect, a strong religious component to Hopkins’s poetry. His verse explores the way the natural world reflects the glory of its creator. Hopkins developed a new metrical form for his poems, “sprung rhythm,” where the meter is traced by the number of stressed syllables in a line without regard to the number of unstressed syllables. This metrical structure gives Hopkins’s poetry an unusual feel, especially when read aloud.
Next in the lineup is Thomas Hardy, an English poet of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hardy is best known as a novelist, the author of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge. It is less commonly known that once he achieved financial success with his novels, Hardy gave up fiction writing, returning to his first love, poetry, for the rest of his writing life. Hardy is a poet of everyday life and a storyteller in rhyme. He mined the lives of Wessex country folk for many of his poems, and his tales of false loves and broken romances can still chill the hearer. But all is not bleak; throughout Hardy’s poetry there is a sense of redemption that one also finds in Hopkins. Try “The Darkling Thrush,” Hardy’s poem to the new century, composed on December 31, 1900. Hardy is a more metrically straightforward poet than Hopkins, but they share a love of the natural world and a faith in the resilience of human nature.
Finally, we come to Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate from Ireland. Heaney’s work shows the influence of both Hopkins and Hardy, in its freeness, its concerns with the lives of ordinary people, its foundations in the natural world, and in its sense of redemption. Since the 1960s, Heaney has been publishing poems that roam across the centuries and the lives of the Irish people. Like Hopkins, Heaney has a feel for the rhythms and cadences of the English language, as well as those of the Irish Gaelic, and he uses this sense to great effect. In poems such as “The Tollund Man,” Heaney takes the listener from the Neolithic burials in Jutland to the sectarian violence in Ireland. It is a powerful poem, whose language rings in the ear.
Give any of these three poets a try, and again, be sure to read their works out loud for the beauty of the language and the deftness of the rhythms.
Check the WRL catalog for Gerard Manley Hopkins
Check the WRL catalog for Thomas Hardy
Check the WRL catalog for Seamus Heaney