Richards and McLuhan – The Windhover

I.A. Richards was one of the first to comment on the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins after they were posthumously issued in an edition by Robert Bridges in 1918.  Richards’ essay ‘Gerard Hopkins’ was published in The Dial in 1926.1

In this short (8 page) piece, Richards cites The Windhover, complete, and quotes a letter from Hopkins to Bridges in his explication of it:

Indeed, when, on somebody’s returning me [The Loss of] the Eurydice2,  I opened and read some lines, as one commonly reads, whether prose or verse, with the eyes, so to say, only, it struck me aghast with a kind of raw nakedness and unmitigated violence I was unprepared for: but take breath and read it with the ears, as I always wish to be read, and my verse becomes all right.

One of McLuhan’s  first published literary essays, ‘The Analogical Mirrors’ (Kenyon Review, 1944, reprinted in The Interior Landscape) is a detailed consideration of The Windhover. Hopkins’ letter to Bridges is cited in GG, p 83.

Richards ends his essay with the suggestive sentences:

He did not need other beliefs than those he held. Like the rest of us, whatever our beliefs, he needed a change in belief, the mental attitude, itself.

Absent the penultimate sentence, the last would seem to equate “belief” with “the mental attitude, itself” and to indicate the “need” in Hopkins for a “change” of it. Given the penultimate sentence, however, as well as the qualifying phrase “like the rest of us”, this reading can be ruled out. Instead, Richards must be equating “the mental attitude, itself” with the “need” for “change”, as if it were the essence of the exercise of mind to deploy itself freely on a kind of fulcrum, across an open gap in different possible experiential takes. Richards may have been suggesting that Hopkins misconceived his (and our) “need” — whereas he thought he “needed” “beliefs”, what he really “needed” was appreciation of our potential to effect “a change in belief, the mental attitude, itself”. Hence Richards’ intense preoccupation with ambiguity, multiple definition and the meanings, plural, of meaning — and even with that which is “between truth and truth” (the title of a 1931 essay3 by Richards).

For McLuhan this “gap  is where the action is” and is first of all ontological — and then, because ontological, therefore operative in all human experience. Its transitivity is what enables perception, thus also the learning and use of language, thus all the distinctively human occupations in the arts and sciences.

Between Richards and McLuhan, then, the central difference is not that Richards values human freedom as fundamental and McLuhan does not. Instead, both value human freedom as fundamental, but draw very different consequences from this.  For Richards, freedom undercuts perception and especially ontological perception, precisely because it could be different (if not possibly different, then not possibly free); for McLuhan, freedom enables perception and especially ontological perception, precisely because this opens a new relationship with the environment (one that a plant or an animal lacks) on the basis of which something like language (and so, truth and value) first becomes possible.



  1. ‘Gerard Hopkins’ was reissued by Richards in his “uncollected essays”, Complementaries (1976).
  2. HMS Eurydice went down in a storm in 1878 with the loss of 317 lives. Hopkins’ poem on the catastrophe is available online here.
  3. Reprinted in Complementaries (1976).

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