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A Scottish Gerard Manley Hopkins?
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Waterfall at Inversnaid, by Graham Scott (wikimedia commons)

Waterfall at Inversnaid, by Graham Scott (wikimedia commons)

Why would a twentieth-century Scottish poet want to translate Gerard Manley Hopkins into Scots?

In 1968, Edith Anne Robertson published her translations into Scots of Gerard Manley Hopkins. This audacious collection maintained the sprung rhythm and verse form of Hopkins, and kept many of his rhymes or rhyme sounds, but transposed the diction into Lallans. The results demonstrated the capacity of Scots as a vernacular and poetic language to live up to Hopkins’ virtuoso versification. In her version of “God’s Grandeur” – “The Granderie of God” – for example, although the poetic form of the original is maintained, the tweaks to Hopkins’ rhyming change the sestet’s spent-went-bent into fleur-cour-floor, which gives a more melancholy open vowel sound to the lines which, in the original English, seems more certain and emphatic. And the final flourish of Hopkins’ sonnet, those “bright wings” of the Holy Ghost”, become in Robertson’s translation the more value-laden “gowden wings”. The implication is that, in Scots, Hopkins’ vision of a sacramental nature sounds less certain but gives more promise of reward.

Is Robertson translating Hopkins not only from English to Scots, but from his Jesuit faith to the Free Church of Scotland with which she was affiliated?

To make Hopkins a Scottish poet is not that far fetched. Although Hopkins himself only visited Scotland for two months, in August and September 1881 when he was posted to the parish of St. Joseph’s in Glasgow, his trip to the Highlands produced the famous “Inversnaid”, a poem about a village on the east bank of Loch Lomond. This was a tourist poem, a “spirit of place” descriptive lyric about a scene associated with Walter Scott’s romanticized  Trossachs and Wordsworth’s “To a Highland Girl: At Inversneyde, upon Loch Lomond”. As Alan Riach points out, Hopkins’ poem on this rural scene is a plea for leaving wilderness alone that combines an alliterative “r”, associated with a Scots inflection, with more familiar Hopkins-esque diction and stress (“fáwn-fróth”, féll-drówning”). This rolling “r” is clear in the recording offered by the Bodleian Library, here. Robertson’s translation returns the Highlands scene to its indigenous diction while once again remaining close to Hopkins’ meter and most of his end- rhyme sounds.

Robertson’s translations of Hopkins don’t just, however, turn him into a Scottish poet. Her  Scots interpretations also take on the legacy of Hopkins’ influence upon twentieth-century Scottish poetry, especially his influence on the Scottish Renaissance and on Hugh MacDiarmid in particular. Alan Riach explains Hopkins’ importance for MacDiarmid as a poet that challenged Victorian poetics, typified by Riach by the “familiar beat” of Tennyson and the dreary sentimentality and conventionality of Scottish nineteenth-century poetry. Certainly, Hopkins influenced the modernist movement, and in turn the Scottish poetic and cultural rejuvenation project spearheaded by MacDiarmid. But MacDiarmid’s gripe about the poverty of Victorian poetry, including Scottish Victorian poetry, is incorrect, as recent critics such as Florence Boos and Kirstie Blair have so eloquently shown (as have indeed, my UVic students studying Scottish women’s poetry). Rather than merely satisfying MacDiarmid’s revisionary modernist poetics, I like to think that Robertson’s translations place Hopkins back into a lineage of Scots nineteenth-century poetry that rejuvenated the Scots vernacular as a poetic idiom long before MacDiarmid’s attempt to re-invent a Scottish national literature against the sentimentality of the Kailyard School. Presenting a Scots Hopkins does not just translate his English poetic innovations into the Scottish tongue, it places him within the rich poetic legacy of Scottish Victorian poetry.

Works Cited

Blair, Kirstie. “‘A very poetical town': Newspaper Poetry and the Working-Class Poet in Victorian Scotland”, Victorian Poetry, Spring 2014 (forthcoming)

Boos, Florence. “Cauld Engle-Cheek: Working-Class Women Poets in Victorian Scotland”, Victorian Poetry 1995, 33: 1, 53-74

Riach, Alan. “Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Scotland” (2008)

Robertson, Edith Anne. Translations into the Scots Tongue of Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1968)

See also: Scottish Women Poets

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A Scottish Gerard Manley Hopkins? by Alison Chapman, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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