Michael Dirda on 'Gerard Manley Hopkins'

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, November 2, 2008


A Life

By Paul Mariani

Viking. 496 pp. $34.95

Excepting his juvenilia and various fragments, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844- 1889) wrote only about 50 poems, most of them "counter, original, spare, strange." As Paul Mariani tells us in his new critical biography, nobody wanted to publish these angst-ridden, prayerful cries from the heart, and so Hopkins was reduced to sharing his work, via letter, with a handful of friends. Even the most sophisticated of these, the future poet laureate Robert Bridges, confessed to finding "The Wreck of the Deutschland" -- Hopkins's first masterpiece -- unsympathetic and incomprehensible. After all, its themes were nothing if not seriously theological: God, Nature, salvation, providence, human despair and spiritual exultation.

In themselves such religious subjects, which were to remain central to Hopkins's poetry, would have been attractive to the morally earnest Victorians. But Hopkins eschewed the gentlemanly observance of an Anglican curate. His faith burned hot and strong. As a young Oxford undergraduate, he had converted to Catholicism -- being received into the church by Cardinal Newman himself -- and had then, to his family's shock and sorrow, become a Jesuit. As a result, he wrote less from the heart or mind than from the depths of the soul, either celebrating God and His creation or, later on, addressing his own feelings of loneliness and desolation: "Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee. . . . O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. . . . I am gall, I am heartburn. . . . O thou lord of life, send my roots rain."

Like John Donne and T.S. Eliot, both of whom he sometimes resembles, Hopkins pressed hard against what were the boundaries of acceptable poetic convention. Instead of employing nice regular rhymes in iambic pentameter, his poems struggle to contain an ecstatic syntax, the words twisting and contorting and breathlessly straining to articulate some almost inexpressible mystery: "How to kéep -- is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep/Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, . . . from vanishing away?"

As these opening lines from "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo" indicate, Hopkins nearly always ignored the usual tuh-dum, tuh-dum of classic verse for a much looser metric he called "sprung rhythm." This, he wrote, is generated by "scanning by accents or stresses alone, without any account of the number of syllables, so that a foot may be one strong syllable or it may be many light and one strong." Mariani adds that there might be "one, two, three, or even more unstressed syllables between accents. Or none." Sometimes the resulting poems call to mind the iron-hammered alliteration of Old English, made manic with a headlong, rushing breathlessness. They are meant to be recited, not read:

Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,

Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace --

Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath,

And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs, deliver

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