A Novel Reason for Rapture
Friday, May 30, 2008
By Ron Hansen
Farrar Straus Giroux. 227 pp. $23.
Here is what happened when I began raving to some (very nice) friends about "Exiles," a new novel by Ron Hansen about how the 19th-century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins came to write perhaps his most inaccessible poem, "The Wreck of the Deutschland," after hearing of the death of five German nuns in a shipwreck on the shoals of the Thames.
Each time, I started with that ever-new amazement when you get to read something dazzling and beautiful, then segued into how the book had kept me up after midnight three nights in a row (and even made me late for lunch once), then went on to how the author had cunningly included the entire text of the poem at the end of the novel so that the reader could read it once and then keep going back again until about 60 percent of the poem becomes clear, but no more than that -- it's left for the reader to work out the rest of the mystery -- and then I threw in the fact that the finest academic lecture I'd ever heard in my life was when Dame Helen Gardner turned 400 blase undergraduates into Hopkins fanatics when she explicated "God's Grandeur," making it clear that falling head-over-heels with God might be the most skin-tingling, illicit emotion available to man, and that's why people didn't mind being burned at the stake for that love not so long ago. . . .
This is how they replied: "I hate poetry. I don't read it. It's a damned waste of time." Or, "Do you know the immense amount of harm organized religion has perpetrated over the years? Even if you do accept the notion of a personal god?" Or (my favorite), "Have I told you about my grandmother's road trip from Austin to Del Rio, Texas? Of course, she had her caretaker with her."
Finally and, in its way, almost as disconcerting was the conversation I had while sitting next to a sophisticated lady-poet at a literary lunch. "I've been reading the most amazing book about Gerard Manley Hopkins," I said, "but I can't seem . . ." " That guy!" she answered. "Once he gets his claws in your brain, you're a goner!" Involuntarily, I began, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God./It will flame out like shining from shook foil." But she had already chimed in with "I caught this morning morning's minion, king-/dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon." And we went on like that for maybe six or eight more lines each, caught respectively in "God's Grandeur" and "The Windhover," and then stopped, a little flushed and embarrassed. It was like making love with words, and we didn't know each other all that well.
So. Here's this amazing book I'm going to tell you about; try to keep your mind off your grandmother's road trip. Forget that you might not be Catholic or that you've had it with the clergy or that you don't care about a 19th-century shipwreck or that you don't read poetry. Remember that although Ron Hansen wrote about the stigmata in "Mariette in Ecstasy," he also wrote about the assassination of Jesse James by the dirty little coward Robert Ford. Instead of thinking about the upcoming election or whether you prefer blue cheese to ranch, unhinge your mind and let it trip, as we used to say in the '60s.
Follow Hansen to a snowy seminary in Wales some 150 years ago, where a high-strung, highly educated former scholar from Oxford has converted to unfashionable Catholicism and believes in it. He believes in the whole shebang. He believes in "The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe." The world is divine to him -- shot through with grace. He once had a gift for poetry, but he has given it up; to be too much involved with things of this world would, he feels, be an insult to God.
Then he reads of the shipwreck that killed, among others, those five German nuns, who, because the German government had been going through a spasm of anti-Catholicism, had been dispatched to be missionaries in Missouri. It's sad that they died, of course. And yet -- if you believe in the reality of God -- shouldn't it be a happy occasion when some of God's chosen return to Him? Hopkins's superior suggests to the young priest-poet that he write a poem about it. He does, but it comes out garbled, strange, even a little creepy -- embarrassing in its intense, private declaration of love. Here was a man who was absolutely gaga about Jesus and didn't care who knew it. Besides, the style in which he wrote, which he called "sprung rhythm," would be opaque to the uninitiated.
So Hopkins's poem doesn't get published. Then he flunks a crucial oral examination (an agonizing scene), which will keep him from ascending in Jesuit ranks. He's banished from the seminary he loves and sent to Ireland, where he corrects endless exam papers (the Jesuit equivalent of Freshman Comp). In his despair, he keeps on writing. He dies young, a failure in his own eyes and the eyes of his friends.
But the nuns -- imperfect, ordinary -- have been recognized if not immortalized in his poetry. God has been honored. And if you have the patience for "Exiles," dear reader, you will perhaps glimpse the world, for a few days, with new eyes, and be reminded, as Hopkins writes, "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things."
Or, there's always your grandmother's road trip.
Sunday in Book World
· The war that made Israel.
· The Pentagon in flames.
· Scott McClellan looks back.
· What Nixon wrought.
· And the dangers of wife-swapping.