On picking up Paddy Kitchen's biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, one is at first relieved and pleased. Here is - unbelievably - a biography that can be held in one hand, read without straining wrists and eyes. Compression-that vital factor that so many other biographies lack-must be the secret, or so one surmises.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Kitchen, a British novelist, biographer and critic, has not compressed but has omitted, even, in many instances, skirted the responsibility of the biographer: She simply fails to communicate Hopkins' essence.
Granted, the life of the Victorian Jesuit poet who lived from 1844 to 1899 is from a modern point of view almost incomprehensible. After converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism, Hopkins became a Jesuit priest bound by vows of perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience. Upon entering the Jesuits, he destroyed his early poems, fearing poetry would distract him from his vocation. Only at the request of his superior did he break a 10-year silence to write "The Wreck of the Deutschland." As a Jesuit he wrote infrequently, and even then suffered from misgivings about making capital of his religious feelings to compose poems. Periodically his intense scrupulosity led him to resolve not to gaze deliberately at anything beautiful-a staggering decision for a poet. Because he considered Christ the only true literary critic, he counted the approval of his contemporaries as so much dross. Not fulfillment and aggrandizement, but renunciation is the key to Hopkins' spirit.
To understand such an uncommon temperament one must understand Victorian spirituality, Victorian Catholicism, and, above all, the "Spiritual Exercises" of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Because Hopkins as a Jesuit priest would have fashioned his interior life after the model of Christ help up in Ignatius' teaching, the biographer must strive to elucidate the influence of Ignatian spirituality upon Hopkins and his poetry.
But about matters closest to Hopkins-matters of spirit-Kitchen is cursory and timid. In "Obedience," the chapter in which she is chiefly concerned in describing Hopkins' life in the Jesuits, she avoids offering her own insights; instead she quotes incessantly from other writers. In a chapter of 21 pages, there are a total of 10 full pages of quotations. What is the nature of the nine-day retreat that all Jesuit novices make? Kitchen answers that question by quoting from R. F. Clarke, a contemporary of Hopkins, and then drops the matter. What, one asks, were the subjects of Hopkins' meditations? And further, what is the relationship of his prayer to his poetry? No answer or, at best, partial answers. On one page, chosen at random, Kitchen devotes only eight lines to Hopkins' feelings and thoughts; the rest is given to a description of place, of weather, of Hopkins' room-anything and everything, but not Hopkins the man and poet.
Other questions also remain unanswered. Why did Hopkins choose the Jesuits? Why not Cardinal Newman's Oratory or the Benedictines? Kitchen hedges: "Hopkins presumably partly chose the Jesuits because he was attracted by the rigour of their training and the purposefulness of their mission. In doing so, he was defying the widespread unpopularity of the Society . . ." Surely the reader deserves mrore certitude than "presumably" and "partly" for such a monumental choice.
At times Kitchen might also be accused of superficiality. Concerning Hopkins' decision "'to give up all beauty' until God indicated that he should do otherwise," she remarks that such a renunciation is "sad, if inevitable." Why sad? For one supposedly immersed in a study of Hopkins it should be cleart that such a renunciation preceded the passionate outbursts of his great poems. Without such discipline Hopkins might have ended up a second-rate Keats or Tennyson, not the brilliant and original poet he is. For Hopkins, renunication always led to poetic enrichment, not to sterility.
Kitchen remains on the periphery, and there she is at her best. Her prologue, which summarily presents the climate of Hopkins' Oxford, is informative and helpful. Her cameo biographies of Hopkins' friends and acquaintances-Robert Bridges, Cardinal Newman, Walter Pater, Digby Dolben, R. W. Dixon and others-are brisk and well integrated into the narrative. For not wandering into Freudian excesses when discussing Hopkins' sensuality she also merits praise.
Paddy Kitchen has written "Gerard Manley Hopkins" because "Hopkins is my favorite poet, and I was curious to explore the creative chemistry behind the words that affect me, an agnostic, so strongly." Those who read the book for a similar reason will be largely disappointed. Kitchen does not fulfill a major requirement of the biographer, which, in the words of Samuel Johnson, is to lead the reader into the sbuject's "domestic privacies and to display the minute details of private life."