That was all right,’ said my husband after listening to Paul Scofield read the whole of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ on Poetry Please. I hope they are not going to axe Poetry Please as part of Radio 4’s improvements. It’s the sort of thing that happens after 33 years of success.
We have grown so used to the verbal innovations of Gerard Manley Hopkins that the surely derivative language of Dylan Thomas sounds merely playful. In Under Milk Wood, Thomas nods in one place to two phrases from ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’. Hopkins’s ‘the sea flint-flake, black-backed’ and ‘lush-kept plush-capped sloe’ together help to produce Thomas’s ‘sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea’. Dylan Thomas’s sea is one that would float a toy Noah’s Ark, a ‘black, dab-filled sea’, not Hopkins’s ‘widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps’.
Another phrase in Under Milk Wood echoes a dark passage in Hopkins: jollyrogered sea evokes the rash smart sloggering brine. Smart here denotes ‘smartingly painful’, not ‘clever’, but my attention was caught by a coinage of Hopkins’s, sloggering.
Sloggering can be related to slop, slabby, slobber and slubber. James Milroy, in his book on Hopkins’s language (1977), rejects the idea that slogger has the primary sense of ‘to strike hard’. He insists it is ‘meant to suggest the sound of breakers dashing against the ship and then drawing back with a sucking gurgling noise’. Connections with similar sounding words are obvious: slosh, slush, slurp, sludge.
A striking detail in Milroy’s analysis concerns iterative or frequentative words, such as patter (from pat) or clatter (connected with clack). But just as fleck generates the word freckle, not fleckle, so flick produces not flickle but flicker. An ‘l’ in the root word has to give way to an ‘r’ in the iterative form. So Hopkins is consistent in making the iterative form of slog not sloggle but slogger. It is his familiarity with such implicit sound-systems of English and the aesthetic hints of different sounds that make Hopkins’s poetry expressive even when he uses an invented word.