Learning from the Masters

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A style is found by sedentary toil
And by the imitation of great masters.

W.B. Yeats, Ego Dominus Tuus

One of the classes I’m taking this term is a poetry writing course, and it’s been at once one of the most challenging and most delightful things I’ve ever tackled. I’ve learned so much about style and form, and I’ve been required to produce such a quantity of poetry on demand (and publish it in the course forums!), that I’m feeling rather intoxicated on words these days. It might be a stretch to say that I’m dreaming in iambic pentameter, or that my fingertips are calloused from beating out syllables on my desk—but there’s no doubt I’ve written more poetry in the last couple of months than I have in the whole past year.

I’m loving every assignment, but my favorite thus far has been an exercise in learning from the great masters. In much the same way that art students in a classical atelier learn to “see” as painters by the practice of drawing plaster casts, any serious study of poetry is going to involve identifying the masters that have inspired you and practicing the attributes you admire until you are able to reinterpret them in your own unique way. At first, we were asked merely to name our greatest poetic influences, and to elaborate on specifics of style, subject, and form which we admired. Next, we were instructed to choose a favorite poem and draft a piece of our own which attempted to incorporate some of the techniques employed by this master.

The poets I most admire are Keats, Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot, and G. M. Hopkins, and there’s no doubt that I’ve been influenced by them. Wordsworth has fed my reverence for nature, and his high tone and poetic structure is something I’ve always instinctively admired and been drawn to, though I’m only now beginning to fully appreciate just how and why as a result of this course. I love Eliot’s daring; his experiments with form; his bold commentary on life and faith: with them he has given me a framework to help me understand the structure and possibilities of free verse.

However, I would have to say that of all poets, G. M. Hopkins has most influenced both my style and my subject matter over the years. I’ve definitely imitated his alliterative bent; I’ve thought long and hard to come up with metaphors as surprising and creative as his are. He, in fact, is the one who really taught me what a metaphor is, in the truest sense, with his shocking images that at first seemed so disparate to what they were referring to, and then, all at once, were absolutely perfect. I admire, and seek to emulate, the close attention Hopkins paid to the world around him: he was known to take detailed daily notes of weather and nature to hone his descriptive powers, and this is something I need to be more disciplined about as a writer. I’m also challenged by his deep honesty with regards to both sorrow and joy. Both subjects take great courage.

Hopkins has inspired me to find my own voice by expressing his unique one so beautifully, and I think that this is the most profound way I’ve sought to make the values I’ve found in his poetry my own. Shakespeare taught me how to write a sonnet, but Hopkins taught me to love them.

The poem I chose as my source of inspiration was G. M. Hopkins’ exquisite sonnet, Hurrahing in Harvest. It’s written in his characteristic sprung rhythm, and like many of his sonnets, depicts a profound experience in which he celebrates the presence of God “within the world’s splendor and wonder.” The first stanza in “Hurrahing” is purely descriptive, the second more than hints at that presence, and the third expresses his encounter with the Divine in jubilant terms.

My attempt sought to follow this pattern somewhat. But giddy as I was over this experiment, I found it to be the most challenging assignment to date. What came of it in the end was a hard-wrung and highly imperfect draft, within which I learned to admire Hopkins’ genius more than ever. The debt I owe him is enormous, past all my powers of expression. As I was reminded, drawing on the riches of the masters’ experience is not merely imitation: it’s part of an arduous process of finding our own voice.


Lift, lift up, your molten-maple gladness, trees,
Your ambered arms and age-wracked fingers ringed
With yellow gold! Cerulean sky, your firstborn sapphire sing!—
As down your favor kingly falls on all you see.

Beneath blue hazes, violet-veilèd meadows dream, till seized
With wakeful western fire, upstirring wingèd
Embers from the brume. To Grace in all this glory, rememb’ring
Earth lifts chaliced ‘thorn, decanting praises on the breeze.

Dear dying world, such seasoned glories seem twice fair
As those with which your youth was clothed in April’s mirth.
This death a likeness of that sorrow none could bear
But He; this beauty vouchsafe of that birth
Which follows death. Mark, my soul, such sweetness in the air!
What secrets in decaying leaves and sodden earth!


So what about you? Who are your masters? How have their works helped shape your style, subject matter, and vision?