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Gerard Manley Hopkins, A Life

By Paul Mariani
Viking Press, 2008

If there’s any English poet in danger of being considered a saint, that poet is Gerard Manley Hopkins, and that raises two immediate problems: saints are difficult to assess, and Saints Lives are easy to condemn. Readers confronting Hopkins’ astonishing verse for the first time want nothing more than to know the man who made it – where do these weird, exultant tangles come from, what life story could possibly have formed them? And writers faced with that urge to weigh that life are tempted toward hagiography – tempted, indeed, from many directions: Hopkins was out of the limelight, ahead of his time, and early to his grave.

The most important question not to ask in Saints Lives is, you’ll pardon the term, damningly direct: wouldn’t he have been happier if he’d just lived some other way? Because we equate our saints with suffering, and in our lenient age all suffering raises first and foremost the question of its own necessity – and so when the modern reader comes upon a Victorian figure of repression, resignation, and premature mortality, some kind of liberation is naturally dreamt of. We’re awestruck by the very idea of Queen Victoria mourning her poor dead husband for forty unrelenting years; we want her to have a Hollywood moment, to undo her hair and dance a little on the lawn at Windsor.

How much more personal is this corrective urge when it comes to a poet, and not just any poet: the most restrained and yet hortatory poet in all of Victoria’s reign, one so complex and opaque that when we envision the whole spectrum of his reception among his readers, from initial obscurity and incomprehension to that era of complete transparency we believe accompanies complete knowledge, we unhesitatingly place ourselves not at the pinnacle but somewhere along the middle.
We’re confident in saying we know Gerard Manley Hopkins better than his contemporaries did (indeed, it seems impossible that he and Kipling could ever have hailed from the same plane of reality, let alone the same Empire), but we won’t swear to much more than that; he’s far enough beyond us that we’re willing to grant his true transparency to the understandings of people not yet born.

He himself knew his verses were obscure, that they had newness, that most obscuring quality of all. To the despair of the few people he let see his work (and to the unending fascination of posterity), he wasn’t all that uncomfortable with this obscurity. He rather liked it, and he could be prickly when confronted by lesser talents gently wishing to lessen his own talent with their patient misunderstandings.

So the dangers of writing a biography of Hopkins become manifest. Stray too far in one direction, and you’re casting unseemly doubt on the doxology of the devout; stray too far in the other, and you’re merely burnishing a reliquary. Either way, you’ve got Hopkins himself gently pulling against being fully understood, and the whole time the most important thing, the poetry, sometimes seems likely to slip through the cracks.

Despite these and other hurdles, Hopkins attracts his fair share of biographers. The latest, Boston College English professor, poet, and prolific biographer Paul Mariani, has been returning to Hopkins’ life and verse, so he tells us, repeatedly over the course of forty years, and his Gerard Manley Hopkin: A Life is in many ways the most powerful and certainly the most eloquent book on the poet yet published. As a visceral reading experience, it could hardly be bettered: Mariani writes in the present tense, chops his narrative into easily-digestible chunks of chronology, and everywhere uses a diction and tempo that convey consecutive immediacy – fitting, when you consider how continuously Hopkins has fascinated his biographer. That fascination only intensifies as it’s frustrated; Hopkins burned a large number of his own poems, his letters have maddening gaps, his friends (even his best friend, the editor and future Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, who in this book emerges as a steady and somewhat exasperated Horatio to Hopkins’ Hamlet) could be careless or clueless, and of course there are the poems, often as daunting in edition as they are in edification (Mariani makes knowing reference to their manuscripts, which Hopkins, “like his contemporary, Emily Dickinson,” left in “multiple kaleidoscopic versions”).

Hopkins is a prime poet of the ineffable. He draws great diaphanous mysteries out of the ether and cloaks them in the grandiloquent vestments of the Roman Catholic Church to which he converted when half way through his forty-one years of life. But his draperies are as insincere as only items of faith can be; his codes and codices only enhance the mysteries he means to illuminate. His poems are at bottom monstrously strange, and this divorces them from the superstructure of his newfound faith, which is only ever monstrous but not strange. Hart Crane called his verses as close to actual musical notation as words could approach, but he was wrong to imply composition – Hopkins’ poems aren’t symphonies, they’re the loud, strange, almost hypnotic sounds the orchestra makes warming up in the pit. Tissues and snatches of the musical banquet to come appear and disappear in the chaos, and the effect is often mesmerizing. Each of the musicians knows his individual part, and each of them knows the shape of the whole piece, but the glimpses and flashes only coalesce when the conductor’s baton goes up. Hopkins at his most ecstatic (and ecstasies come easy to man of weak constitution who’s given to fasting) would say the conductor is God, but if so, He yields the baton to this spindly little Jesuit every time.

Two terms adhere to any discussion of Hopkins. The first is “sprung rhythm,” the poet’s signal innovation, the crack in the wall of Western metrical regimentation through which the entire sprawling corpus of modern poetry escaped out into the world. Considering its central place in pegging Hopkins’ importance as a poet, sprung rhythm gets a curiously cursory treatment from Mariani, no doubt because he himself is so long familiar with it. I myself had only the sketchiest of ideas what it was when I started Mariani’s book (the Jesuits who taught me, back before the Flood, treated the subject of Hopkins with a perhaps understandable reticence), and some of you may be in the same boat, so a word or two here might help.

Hopkins conceived sprung rhythm as a liberation from the counted line-syllables that ruled the Victorian world. He saw a new kind of verse, one in which the count of syllables yielded place to the cadence of spoken sounds. One line could often begin with the unstressed final word of the line before it, and assonance and alliteration are as rife as holy stutters in every line, as in this passage from “Hurrahing in Harvest”:

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behavior
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?
I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
And, eyes, heart, what looks, what lips yet gave you
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

Critics and fellow poets in Hopkins’ own day hardly knew what to make of his “irregular” innovation, and the doubts haven’t entirely disappeared: even as late as the 1970s, one commentator could write about sprung rhythm, “… the language he [Hopkins] invented with so much originality is too specialized to reach much beyond other poets and religious and religious mystics.”

Accompanying this sprung rhythm innovation was a poetic philosophy that gave it motivation: ‘inscape,’ as Hopkins called it, a focusing away from the pomp of battle and the march of ideologies, toward the very poetic nature of things and how that nature feels. Hopkins wanted to see a splinter of divine life in all things, wanted to believe such things were illuminated from within by that life, and that words could be found to describe that illumination. Again, Mariani is little help to those of us who may not know his subject as well as he does; inscape is first met by the reader on the fly, as it were, and it’s never sat down and made to explain itself.

Mariani’s narrative is, thank God, much more informative on the raw facts of Hopkins’ life: born in 1844 to a financially comfortable and encouraging family, educated at Oxford, where he met Bridges and where, in 1866 while at Horsham on holiday he had his Road to Damascus moment of personal revelation regarding his own spirituality:

The reality of that insight [converting to Catholicism to more fully accept Jesus Christ] has come home to him here, in – of all places – a road leading to Horsham, here and nowhere, accompanied as he is by two friends. And suddenly, there it is, amid the trivialities of the quotidian, as plain as day itself: the impossibility of his remaining any longer in the Church of England. Nothing for it, then, but to surrender and go over to Rome, his best guarantee for the Real Presence in the Eucharist he so much desires now: no symbol but the ineffable thing itself, and there for the asking. In an instant, the interminable struggle of the past three years is over, and now the angel he has wrestled with day in and night out touches his hip and departs. And suddenly he sees what every pilgrim comes to see: that something has been lost even as something greater has been found.

The passage is typical of Mariani’s book, and readers will notice that this is both an intriguing thing and a dismaying one. Dismaying, surely, all those clichés so tightly-packed like early-morning commuters – and yet intriguing, to encounter such whetted, passionate prose in a scholarly work with a ten-page bibliography. Mariani’s own poetic soul is excited by his poet-subject (his book opens with a poem of his own titled “Hopkins in Ireland” and composed along what Mariani means to be Hopkinsean lines); flashes of highly figurative language glint all over the book’s sober surface:

At the museum in Basel [on vacation in June 1868], he notes “a noble dead Christ” by the younger Holbein and a crucifixion. Then, from his train window that afternoon, storks’ nests on church roofs and his first view of the Alps. In Lucerne that evening, he watches as bats flit about the pond at the base of Thorvaldsen’s statue of The Dying Lion, commemorating the Swiss Guard who fell protecting the French King during the French Revolution. Then by steamer to Kussnacht and Immensee. One morning, early, he glances out his hotel window and is struck by the “noble scape of stars.” Finally, in the dawn light: the pink snows of the Alps, morphing to white.

Following the Horsham moment, Hopkins converted to Roman Catholicism in 1866 and became a Jesuit priest, sent to some of the poorest slum-parishes of Victoria’s kingdom at the behest of the Society – London, Glasgow, Dublin, and Wales, where in 1875 he learned of the loss at sea of the German ship Deutschland with nearly 200 dead, including five nuns. The disaster got him writing poetry again (as mentioned, when he entered orders he destroyed trunkloads of his old poetry, as foolish poets have done ever since the invention of paper made it visually dramatic to do so), and he sent The Wreck of the Deutschland to Bridges for his thoughts. Poor, harassed Bridges, one senses, could never be attentive enough for the high-strung and sensitive Hopkins, and Mariani’s evolving portrait of their often testy friendship is the best part of his book, especially since he isn’t so fond of Hopkins that he won’t correct him, if warranted:

The same day [in 1877, while Hopkins was in North Wales] he writes Bridges, reminding him that the place where he has lived these past two and a half years is called St. Beuno’s and not Bruno’s, and the town St. Asaph, not Asaph’s. Again he thanks his friend for his offer to visit him in London, something that is out of the question now that he is here in Wales, a fact which Bridges also seems to have forgotten. “You have forgotten or else you never got a letter I wrote from this place a year or so ago,” he reminds him. “It was in answer to one of yours about Henry [Heinrich] Heine and other things [forgetful himself, he means Hegel, not Heine] and there too you, with the same kindness and futility as now, proposed to come and see me at Roehampton hundreds of miles away.”

This pettishness of Hopkins most definitely extends to his defensiveness about his poetry, specifically when confronted by the fishy eye with which Bridges viewed some of his more innovative and impenetrable concoctions (Bridges used the Greek term Perittotatos, meaning “unusual, remarkable, and over-subtle;” Hopkins “has reworked for his own amusement” into ‘potato style’):

“Granted that it needs study and is obscure, for indeed I was not over-desirous that the meaning of all should be made quite clear, at least unmistakeable. … you might, without the effort that to make it all out would seem to have required, have nevertheless read it so that lines and stanzas should be left in the memory and superficial impressions deepened, and have liked some without exhausting all. I am sure I have read and enjoyed pages of poetry that way.”

This is very human stuff, and it’s of a piece with the rest of Mariani’s book, with all that present tense and all those impressionistic flashes of quasi-poetry. Whenever he can (and often where, at least according to the actual evidence we have, he can’t), Mariani likes to draw his readers a vividly detailed tableau, a scene from the movie of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ life:

April, and still wintry: He sits at his desk in one of the small makeshift classrooms, administering an examination to his second-year Latin students. The subject is Virgil’s Georgics. He thrums his fingers on the desk, then – after a while – picks up one of the unused exam booklets lying near at hand and begins a wedding poem – his “Epithalamion” – for Everard and his fiancée Amy. He is thinking of Virgil’s pastoral world, and perhaps of Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion, and of the flowing Thames and then of the swimming places he used to frequent on the Hodder near Stonyhurst, and of the rivers along the Devonshire in the Long Vacation, and perhaps of Fred Walker’s painting of boys shouting and swimming in summer.

Only a writer who feels a great deal of personal connection with his subject will risk a stylistic gamble like this one, and that’s both the greatest strength of Gerard Manley Hopkins, A Life and its greatest weakness. There’s a problem eating at the foundations of this book, and that problem threatens the whole enterprise. It’s easy to describe that problem, and it’s even easier to see it, if you take a look at the Fred Walker painting Mariani mentions, 1865’s “The Bathers,” an idyllic pastoral scene as charged with homoeroticism as any NBA game ever played: a group of young men, aging from boys to well-defined late-teenagers, is engaged in vigorous disrobing preparatory to diving in the water. You take that painting, you mix it with the actual verses of Hopkins’ “Epithalamion” (in which an older male stranger comes upon a group of bathing boys and undresses to secretly watch them), and you quickly start suspecting something more is going on than the yearning evocation of innocence Mariani would have you believe is the only thing Hopkins was feeling when he wrote the poem. There’s an almost dizzying yearning passion in these lines, true, but it gets harder and harder to entertain even an allegory of wedded bliss:

Hark, hearer, hear what I do; lend a thought now, make believe
We are leafwhelmed somewhere with the hood
Of some branchy bunchy bushybowered wood,
Southern dene or Lancashire clough or Devon cleave,
That leans along the loins of hills, where a candycoloured, where a gluegold-brown
Marbled river, boisterously beautiful, between
Roots and rocks is danced and dandled, all in froth and waterblowballs, down.
We are there, when we hear a shout
That the hanging honeysuck, the dogeared hazels in the cover
Makes dither, makes hover
And the riot of a rout
Of, it must be, boys from the town
Bathing: it is summer’s sovereign good.

By there comes a listless stranger: beckoned by the noise
He drops towards the river: unseen
Sees the bevy of them, how the boys
With dare and with downdolphinry and bellbright bodies huddling out,
Are earthworld, airworld, waterworld thorough hurled, all by turn and turn about.

This garland of their gambols flashes in his breast
Into such a sudden zest
Of summertime joys
That he hies to a pool neighbouring; sees it is the best
There; sweetest, freshest, shadowiest;
Fairyland; silk-beech, scrolled ash, packed sycamore, wild wychelm, hornbeam fretty overstood
By. Rafts and rafts of flake-leaves light, dealt so, painted on the air,
Hang as still as hawk or hawkmoth, as the stars or as the angels there,
Like the thing that never knew the earth, never off roots
Rose.

In fact, as you read, you involuntarily start thinking of quite a different contemporary of Hopkins than Emily Dickinson.

And naturally, Walt Whitman’s name comes up in Mariani’s book – how could it not? Whitman’s verses were deeply innovative too, after all, and Hopkins had certainly heard of him, once famously remarking:

“I may as well say what I should not otherwise have said, 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. And this also makes me the more desirous to read him and the more determined that I will not.”

The minds being likened here were the safe, unreachable minds of geniuses, but it’s another shared affinity altogether that starts to nag: Whitman was gay. He was erotically fixated by beautiful young men. And so was Hopkins, who when younger confessed to exactly such erotic fixations, who madly pursued a handsome young man while at Oxford, and whose poems on the subject Bridges was tempted to suppress in order to protect the memory of his friend. Hopkins, it seems fair to say on the admittedly slim evidence, knew perfectly well at least the vague outline of what connected him to that very great scoundrel from America. Later scholars knew it: the great Randall Jarrell, writing in the 1950s, conjoins the two without a moment’s hesitation. He writes, “Serious readers, people who are ashamed of not knowing all Hopkins by heart, are not at all ashamed to say ‘I don’t really know Whitman very well.’” Tennyson was sitting right there; Jarrell picked Hopkins.

Mariani is having none of this, as he writes in one of the only passages from his book that will provoke even the neophyte poetry critic to point and stare:

But he and Whitman are two altogether different kinds of poet. Whitman’s is all irregular rhythmic prose, a rugged and savage art, to quote Whitman himself, whereas his own rhythms are “weighed and timed,” like the rhythms of those Greek tragic choruses he so much admires, or Pindar.

Hopkins’ verse may be weighed and timed (there’s some very precise math being done in all those sprung rhymes, which is why they work so well), but his end result is every bit as odd, eccentric, and memorable as Whitman; by whatever curious alchemy our art derives from our pain, these two men are as alike as brothers – both trapped in selves that long for the one thing their era prevents them from having, each turning to poetry as the love-lorn have since literacy, to say nothing of poetry, began.

There’s only one reason why a writer as experienced and conscientious as Mariani would indulge in all this dancing subterfuge and cape-waving: underneath his research and analysis, underneath his vast scholarship and lengthy bibliography, he’s writing a Saints Life of Gerard Manley Hopkins. His saint has hands that his pilgrim’s hands do touch, but that’s as far as it goes; Mariani’s mentions of Hopkins’ sexuality are so circumspect (“he is troubled by erotic urges”) and fleeting and quickly buried under snowdrifts of prose that the unwary reader could get through Gerard Manley Hopkins, A Life thinking it was some fuzzy general sense of “life” that tormented the poet and drove him to mortification and self-denial, rather than an explicit set of physical desires that haunted him until his final day.

As I mentioned when we began, that’s the essential sadness of Saints Lives; yes, they denied themselves in order to create things of immortal beauty, in order to form inspiring examples to like-minded souls … but they might have been happy instead. Hopkins once sighed melodramatically to a class of boys and said he’d never seen a naked female body – but if his dignity, livelihood, religious vocation, and perhaps precarious sense of self had allowed it, he might also have confessed that he’d never kissed a man. Had he done so, had Whitman done so (had Dickinson, come to think of it), the world might now be lacking some of the most challengingly beautiful modern poetry in its canon – but a few individual people would have had a respite from being saints.

And yet, despite such a willful act of blindness, Mariani writes a grand book. If his readers are well-advised to study Hopkins’ entry in their Chamber’s Biographical Dictionary before they take up Mariani, is that really such a harsh thing? A more duty-bound biographer wouldn’t be able to produce the frequent passages of Mariani’s work that excite and draw the reader in:

July 26, 1888: The sonnet he conceives on this Dublin afternoon between showers is “That Nature is a Heraclitean fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection.” Begin at the beginning with Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic philosopher who flourished half a millennium before Christ and who flourishes even now under a different name

Nature: springing from fire and returning to fire, in which everything and everyone will disappear. A world calculated in millions upon millions of years, a world in constant metamorphosis, evolving and devolving, a marvelous brouhaha of chance, with no one it seems at the helm. Enter Lyell, enter Darwin, enter Huxley and the Victorian scientific mind. Enter the whole shebang in the form of a drunken bevy of clouds high over Dublin in the interstices between one summer squall and another, July 26, 1888.

And we should keep in mind that Saints Lives serve their purpose too.

___
Steve Donoghue grew up in Boston during the smallpox outbreak of 1689. He stills bears the scars from the disease and consequently bides most of his time in basements and shuttered studies, where he reads, writes, and hosts the literary blog Stevereads.

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