Michael Dirda on 'Gerard Manley Hopkins'
Hopkins worked out his salvation with fear and trembling -- and poetry.

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

Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death

Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God.

On the surface, such a swirl of language might resemble logorrhea, yet Hopkins is always striving to be precise, to arrive at what he called the haecceitas, or thisness, the fundamental individuality of an idea or thing. Even now the poetry that resulted seems astonishingly modern. Imagine how rebarbative, how transgressive it must have sounded in the age of Tennyson.

There have been several previous biographies of Hopkins, including a fine one by Robert Bernard Martin, an eminent scholar of Victorian poetry. But Mariani's possesses three great strengths: 1) Mariani has lived with Hopkins's poetry his entire life, ever since writing a commentary on the poems as his first book; 2) over the past 40 years, he has produced biographies of American poets who might be loosely viewed as the "sons of Gerard": Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, John Berryman and Robert Lowell; and 3) Mariani is a believing Catholic, with consequent sympathy and insight into Hopkins's religious convictions and experiences. In several ways, then, this is a spiritual biography, intensely focused on the poet's inner life, coupled with close analyses of his major poems.

In general, we think of this great poet as a marginalized figure, both as a Catholic in Anglican England and as an artistic innovator of the most daring sort. (Some scholars have claimed that Hopkins was homosexual as well.) But Mariani reminds us that Hopkins's teachers included the great classicist Benjamin Jowett, that he was a friend of Coleridge's grandson and knew the aesthete Walter Pater, as well as many of the Pre-Raphaelites, that he corresponded with a future poet laureate, and that, late in life, he even visited the studio of an Irish painter, where he met the artist's 21-year-old son, a promising lad named William Butler Yeats.

Still, it is true that most of Hopkins's adult life was spent as a Jesuit, studying, preaching, working among the poor of Liverpool, going on retreat, instructing students in ancient languages at University College, Dublin. Even though he passionately loved poetry and music, could draw trees and rocks and flowers with a draftsman's skill and describe them with a naturalist's eye ("What would the world be, once bereft/Of wet and of wildness?") and enjoyed learning languages (even difficult ones like Welsh), he was, above all, a spiritual being. The world, he once wrote, was "charged with the grandeur of God." Time and again, Father Hopkins would stop writing poetry for a while, having decided that it was "incompatible" with his vocation.

While Mariani rightly emphasizes Hopkins's spiritual and artistic life, he also includes the kind of human details that vivify a biography. The poet noted, "Three of my intimate friends at Oxford have . . . drowned themselves, a good many more of my acquaintances and contemporaries have died by their own hands in other ways." Though a Jesuit, Hopkins remained an Englishman and something of a jingoist, telling Bridges that the British defeats early in the Boer War were "an unredeemed disgrace." He complained that Browning's poems give us "pointless photographs of still life" and "minute upholstery descriptions" and elsewhere confessed that "I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman's mind to be more like my own than any other man's living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession." Being familiar from the confession box with humankind at its most sinful and base, Father Hopkins deeply admired Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, adding that his own Hyde was even "worse." Once, according to a student, he looked up from a lecture on Homer's Helen to say, "You know, I never saw a naked woman," adding after a moment, "I wish I had." Like many modern readers, he even regarded "The Windhover" as "the best poem I ever wrote": "I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding/Of the rolling level underneath him steady air."

Hopkins seems to have been quite worn out when he died at age 44, though he may have suffered from undiagnosed Crohn's disease or been the victim of typhoid (rats had been seen in the college drains and kitchen). While Bridges promised Hopkins's mother that he would collect his friend's poems and publish them, he waited until 1918 before bringing out The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It took 12 years to exhaust the edition of 750 copies. But by then its author had been discovered and acclaimed not only a great poet but also a de facto modernist. Recently, one of those copies of that first edition of the poems sold for more than $7,000.

Hopkins once wrote, "I am soft sift/In an hourglass -- at the wall/Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,/And it crowds and it combs to the fall." This is, of course, the human condition, prey to the tyranny of time. But Hopkins also knew that he had been saved from oblivion or worse by God's gift of His only begotten son. While one may or may not believe this, there can be no doubt that Hopkins himself will be read and loved as long as poetry matters.

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, ' since he was what I am, and

Thís Jack, jóke, poor pótsherd, ' patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond. ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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