Hopkins on "Inscape" and "Instress"

by Glenn Everett, Ph. D. as found on The Victorian Web

In his journals, Gerard Manley Hopkins used two terms, "inscape" and "instress," which can cause some confusion. 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:

There is one notable dead tree . . . the inscape markedly holding its most simple and beautiful oneness up from the ground through a graceful swerve below (I think) the spring of the branches up to the tops of the timber. I saw the inscape freshly, as if my mind were still growing, though with a companion the eye and the ear are for the most part shut and instress cannot come.

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 Whát I dó is me: for that I came. "

Hopkins occupies an important place in the poetic line that reaches from the major Romantic poets, especially Wordsworth and Keats, through Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites to Hopkins, Pater, Yeats and the symbolists, and finally to Ezra Pound and the Imagists. His insistence that inscape was the essence of poetry ("Poetry is in fact speech employed to carry the inscape of speech for the inscape's sake") and that consequently, what he called "Parnassian" poetry (i.e., competent verse written without inspiration) was to be avoided has much in common with the aestheticism of Walter Pater (one of his tutors at Oxford) and the Art for Art's Sake movement, and sounds very much like the theoretical pronouncements of the Imagists of the early twentieth century.