[There are lots of dialect and unusual words here, for Hopkins loves to explore joyously the extremes of language. Several words here are highly unusual or even invented.]
1 burn: a stream
2 rollrock highroad: the path of the stream is like a road down which it can roll rocks. “Rollrock” is a made-up (or nonce) adjective.
3 In coop and in comb: in low and in high parts of the stream’s bed.
4 Flutes: i.e. divides into lines of water (as it falls over a ledge or rock shelf). The meaning is from the architectural meaning of “flute” as a noun: a long groove going down a carved stone column.
5 windpuff-bonnet: this is shape of the froth, like a woman’s bonnet puffed by the wind..
fawn-froth: i.e. some fawn-coloured froth (light yellowish brown): the water is probably peaty.
6 twindles: meanders. This is probably a coinage, and even the experts aren’t sure what it means. Perhaps it is a combination of “twists”, “winds”, and “dwindles”. One critic suggests it means the froth divides up, becomes “twins” as it were.
7 fell-frowning: i.e. the high hills (fells) seem to frown down on the pool of water. They cover it with such shade that the water seems “pitchblack” (7) in colour.
9 Degged: sprinkled (a Lancashire dialect word).
10 braes: hillsides.
11 heathpacks: heather.
12 beadbonny: i.e. with beautiful (bonny) berries (beads). The lovely red berries of the mountain ash in autumn.
In the autumn of 1881, Hopkins (both priest and poet) headed north for a holiday, up from Glasgow, to the Scottish Highlands, and the beautiful Loch Lomond: “The day was dark and partly hid the lake, yet it did not altogether disfigure it but gave a pensive or solemn beauty”. He landed at the small settlement of Inversnaid, but we’re unsure where exactly this is on modern maps. Is it Inverarnan, at the north end of the lake?
Once you’ve worked out the basic meaning using the glossary, the first thing to think about is the rhythm, which is strong and pronounced. Hopkins was fascinated by a kind of rhythm he called “sprung rhythm”. Instead, as often in verse, of paying attention to the number of syllables in the line, he concentrated on the number of strong beats or stresses in the line. In “Inversnaid” there are four strong beats in each line, often further emphasized by alliteration. This gives a buoyant, uplifting feeling to the poem’s movement.
“Inversnaid” is a celebration of the sheer beauty of the rugged Highland landscape in autumn time, in particular a stream (burn) racing down the hillside, going over a waterfall, and then passing across a dark pool, shaded by the great high hills (fells) that surround it. Hopkins notices the details of the “fawn-froth” (5), the froth made by the peaty brown water, as it passes across the pool. The high hillsides (“braes”) are sprinkled (“degged”) with dew. There is beautiful heather and fern, and the wonderful shining red berries of the mountain ash. The whole landscape seems alive and vigorous, and the poet celebrates it by a great playfulness and inventiveness in his language. Some of the words here are dialect, some of them are probably coinages.
As a priest, Hopkins had worked in the slums of both Liverpool and Glasgow. He knew the horrors of the Victorian city at its worst, and the sufferings of the poor there. He worried about the materialistic nature of nineteenth-century civilization and the way in which it could create such squalor. So, he was really interested in what opposed this: the beauty and purity of Nature, untouched by humankind. His concern to celebrate the unspoilt “wildness and wet” (15) of this landscape make this a Green poem before its time. It anticipates our own concerns with how we interact with nature, our crucial debates on the environment and global warming.
To think about the poem’s rhythm, you might think about any musical knowledge that you have. If you know about three-beat waltzes or two-beat marches, maybe you can drum out the four-beat line here. Is the poem like a dance? Is the rhythmic beat almost too strong?
In lines 13-14 Hopkins asks a good question. What is your view of it? In unpoetic English it would be: “What would the world be like if there were only towns? If there was no wilderness left to us?”