Jesuit poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins died, in 1889, as he had lived: in obscurity. Neither as a scholar nor as a teacher had he met with success; even as a priest, he had been largely ineffective. His poetry was unpublished, and his poems, to the few who had read them, seemed a confusing rush of wild magnificence. Almost 30 years after his death, however, Robert Bridges published Hopkin's poems, and, within a decade, the passionate, modern, highly original poetry of this Victorian English Jesuit astounded the ENglish-speaking world.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, by Bernard Bergonzi, is a concise, chronological survey of Hopkin's life. Particularly valuable are Bergonzi's discussions of Hopkins's conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism; his political views; his exile to Dublin and his correspondence with Robert Bridges, R. W. Dixon, and Conventry Patmore.
But Bergonzi's book is, in the main, disappointing. The charge leveled against one of Hopkins's Oxford tutors may well be pressed against Bergonzi: "What he gave us was all the small change of scholarship, most conscientiously doled out. But he one thing missing was grasp." Bergonzi offers scant insight into the anguish Hopkins suffered fusing the vocations of poet and priets, and even less on the exquisite poems hewn from that strain.
In discussing the peoms, Bergonzi may be accused of overkill: so intent is he on likening Hopkins to other writers that even Hopkins's lines buckle under his comparisons: the poems are, several times over, Arnoldean, Coleridgean, Jamesean, Joycean, Keatsean, Mallarmean, Miltonic, and so on down the literary alphabet. And surely for an audience nurtured on modern literature, Bergonzi exaggerates the "partially unassimiable" nature of "The Wreck of the Deutschland. " He is also unforgivably trendy in speculating - with little cause - about Hopkins's sexuality whenever the poet discusses friendship, male beauty, or Walt Whitman.
Nonetheless, this book is useful. Bergonzi compresses much biographical information between two covers; reopens discussion of Hopkins's place in English poetry; and quotes liberally from Hopkins's prose and poetry; which, for any reader, to borrow the poet's own words, "is more than violets knee-deep." (Macmillan, $8.95; paperback, $4.95)
- Paul Piazza