A poet approaches language in the spirit of a woodman who asks pardon of the dryad in a tree before he cuts it down. Words are inhabited by the accumulated experience of the tribe. The average poet adds about as much to the language as he adds to the nitrogen content of his native soil. But he can administer the force that resides in words.
It is the magic inhabiting the language that he administers, all the lived meaning that the noises have picked up in the days and nights since they were first uttered. He finds ways to revive that total meaning, or a part of it he wants to use, as he makes his verbal artifacts. His very attentive use of a word, associating it with other words used with equal attention (for no word is an island), astonishes us the way we would be astonished to hear a dryad speak pardon out of an oak tree. And as if this were not all elfin enough already, he does the job largely at a subconscious level. His intelligence stands around, half the time, like a big, friendly, stupid apprentice, handing him lopping-shears when he wants the chain saw.
In “Duns Scotus’s Oxford,” Hopkins demonstrates this magic of association in the tremendous energy of the opening and closing lines. “Towery city and branchy between towers;”—who would have imagined there was all that going on in those six words before they were joined in that sequence? And of Duns Scotus himself, the final line says, “Who fired France for Mary without spot.” Kinesis is all, and the energy is in the words rather than in the thinky parts of man’s mind.
He goes on to discuss his own poetry and my attention wanders, but I like that opening. (Via wood s lot.)