Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life
Gerard Manley Hopkins died in Dublin on June 8, 1889. Twenty-nine years later, in December 1918, the first collection of his poems was published, assembled and edited by his friend, the poet Robert Bridges. In a prefatory poem Bridges wrote:
Our generation already is over- past,
And thy lov’d legacy, Gerard, hath lain
Coy in my home….
The poems were not coy, they were haughty, sure of their force. Bridges liked Hopkins, and kept up a nearly unbroken correspondence with him for many years, but he rarely saw the point of the poems, they seemed to him mannered and unnecessarily obscure. But by 1918 he felt he owed it to Hopkins to let him display “thy plumage of far wonder and heavenward flight.” In the event, the book took ten years to sell. But some of its readers were the critics who mattered, notably I.A. Richards, William Empson, and F.R. Leavis. By the time a new and larger edition was published in 1930, with an introduction by Charles Williams, the poems were pretty well known. It was audacious of Leavis, but not eccentric, to present Hopkins, in New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), as first of the distinctive modern poets, companion to Yeats, Eliot, Pound, and Empson.
Of Hopkins’s life, little was then known. G.F. Lahey’s Gerard Manley Hopkins (1930) was merely a sketch, not a finished portrait. For many years, readers knew little more about Hopkins than that he was born into a Protestant family, converted to Roman Catholicism, became a priest, and wrote some gorgeous and several jaw-breaking poems. Much of the work on Hopkins in the past sixty years has been a gathering and editing of documents: hundreds of letters to Bridges, Canon R.W. Dixon, Coventry Patmore, and other friendly recipients, and in recent years many journals, diaries, undergraduate essays, and sermons. Several biographies have been published, but they have been in one degree or another interim books; the evidence has been incomplete. It will remain incomplete, because Hopkins destroyed some documents and more were burned after his death. It is unlikely that much new material will turn up. Robert Bernard Martin’s book proceeds on that assumption.
Professor Martin is justly admired for his biographies of Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, and Edward Fitzgerald. In these books he has enjoyed a certain latitude: he has not felt bound to a strict distinction between the “life” and the “work.” In the preface to Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart (1980) he wrote:
My own belief is that pure criticism and pure biography are like two very different but friendly nations between whom there is an unguarded frontier; it is not difficult to recognize the further reaches of either as very unlike the other, but it is easy to stray across the border without being aware of it. Since the real reason for a biography of Tennyson is that he was a great poet, I need not apologize for including some discussion of his works; it will probably be too little for those whose sole interest is criticism, too much for those who believe that poetry has little to do with real life. Both seem to me to deny the final importance of poetry, and I suspect that both are wrong.
I have never known anyone “whose sole interest is criticism,” or anyone who thinks that “poetry has little to do with real life.” I assume that Professor Martin is merely saying to his readers: trust me, I’m not astray, I know exactly where I’m going. Professor Martin is concerned with Hopkins’s life, and he deals with the poems mainly as evidence, but from time to time he crosses the border into criticism.
Hopkins was born on July 28, 1844, in Stratford, Essex, the first in a family that eventually had nine children. His father, Manley Hopkins, was an average adjuster or marine insurance broker; his mother, Kate, was the daughter of a London doctor, John Simm Smith. A comfortable, upper-middle-class family, a house with several servants, moderately High Church parents. When Gerard was eight, the family moved to an even better address, Oak Hill, Hampstead. Gerard went to a good grammar school, Highgate, as a boarder for most of the time. He studied English, Latin, French, German, Greek, History, Mathematics, and Religion. In April 1863 he went up to Balliol on a scholarship, and started upon the life, agreeable no doubt, of an Oxford undergraduate. He was tutored at various times by Benjamin Jowett and Walter Pater. Dainty, barely 5‘6” tall, Hopkins was not a muscular athlete, but he was active in hockey, football, skating, and hill walking. Mainly but not exclusively attracted to young men, he worried over his susceptibility to beauty in any form: it distracted his spiritual life. In a period of ten months, according to one of his diaries, he found himself guilty of 1,564 sins, or an average of five a day: 238 of these were sexual. He was much beset by nocturnal emissions, and given to masturbation.
In February 1865 Hopkins met one of Bridges’s friends, a young Etonian named Digby Mackworth Dolben, seventeen years old, a golden lad of devout and ritualistic temper. Dolben, infatuated with another Etonian, Martin Gosselin, had no sexual interest in Hopkins, but he was impressed by evidence of religious devotion just as ardent as his own. Hopkins and Dolben met only once, and when Dolben left Oxford Hopkins pursued him with letters, most of which remained unanswered. It is assumed that this disappointment resulted in the sonnet which begins:
Where art thou friend, whom I shall never see,
Conceiving whom I must conceive amiss?
Hopkins never even saw Dolben again; he died in a drowning accident in the river Welland on June 28, 1867.
Professor Martin is not alone in thinking that the meeting of Hopkins and Dolben was “quite simply, the most momentous emotional event of Hopkins’s undergraduate years, probably of his entire life.” He refers to “the central place Dolben had occupied in Hopkins’s life.” The claim has been questioned. It is clear that in the weeks after Dolben’s death Hopkins thought of little else, but within a few months we find him agreeing with Bridges that in Dolben “there was a great want of strength—more, of sense.” Dolben was a beautiful boy, and he might have done wonders, but he spent most of his short life being daft. It is hard to believe that Hopkins continued for the rest of his life to be in love with him.
Hopkins’s years at Balliol were intellectually and spiritually exacting. His spiritual life was intense, an apparently continuous wrestling with God. But he did enough secular reading to get a Double First degree. His conversion to Catholicism was not a sudden illumination—“as once at a crash Paul”—but a slow, logical movement of his will. He demanded a lot of himself and of Christianity. No Church was High enough for him. As early as June 1, 1864, he admonished E.H. Coleridge:
Beware of doing what I once thought I could do, adopt an enlightened Christianity, I may say, horrible as it is, be a credit to religion. This fatal state of mind leads of infidelity, if consistently and logically developed. The great aid to belief and object of belief is the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Religion without that is sombre, dangerous, illogical, with that it is—not to speak of its grand consistency and certainty—loveable.
Even before he became a Catholic, Hopkins made life suitably hard for himself by fasting and doing penance, living an endless Lent. His model in the repression of sensory desires in favor of asceticism was Savonarola:
I must tell you he is the only person in history (except perhaps Origen) about whom I have a real feeling, and I feel such an enthusiasm about Savonarola that I can conceive what it must have been to have been of his followers. I feel this the more because he was followed by the painters, architects and other artists of his day, and is the prophet of Christian art, and it is easy to imagine oneself a painter of his following.
Professor Martin claims that Hopkins took defiant pleasure “in finding difficulties to face, making one wonder whether he would ever have become a Catholic if the path had been easy.” But the strange quality of Hopkins’s conversion is the mixture of willed difficulty and inescapable logic that propelled him to it. Origen and Savonarola were satisfactorily tough models, but Hopkins’s true master was closer to England and home: John Henry Newman, a convert, a priest, not yet a cardinal. It was easier for Hopkins to take the path to Rome from Oxford and High Church because he had Newman’s kindly light to lead him. It was not necessary to work through the whole Oxford Movement again. Once was enough.
The particular issue on which Hopkins’s conversion turned was his doubt, which gradually enforced itself, about the historical legitimacy of the Church of England in administering the sacrament of the Eucharist. Doubting that, he could no longer receive Communion. On July 17, 1866, he decided that he could not stay in the Church of England. Three months later, on October 21, Newman received him into the Roman Catholic Church. Not surprisingly, Hopkins’s parents were the last to know of his intention. Belatedly, on October 16, he wrote to his father, trying to explain that a belief in the Real Presence, the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, required a ground in Infallibility, and that the only such ground was papal Infallibility. He must go to Rome, in spirit and faith:
I shall hold as a Catholic what I have long held as an Anglican, that literal truth of our Lord’s words by which I learn that the least fragment of the consecrated elements in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar is the whole Body of Christ born of the Blessed Virgin…. This belief once got is the life of the soul and when I doubted it I shd. become an atheist the next day. But…it is a gross superstition unless guaranteed by infallibility. I cannot hold this doctrine confessedly except as a Tractarian or a Catholic: the Tractarian ground I have seen broken to pieces under my feet.
On November 7, 1866, he wrote to one of his former Protestant confessors, Rev. H.P. Liddon, who had accused him of letting himself be driven, dazzled, into Catholicism:
You think I lay claim to a personal illumination which dispenses with the need of thought or knowledge on the points at issue…. If you will not think it an irreverent way of speaking, I can hardly believe anyone ever became a Catholic because two and two make four more fully than I have.
Having become a Catholic, Hopkins did not doubt that he should become a priest. He had no difficulty in deciding that he should apply to join a religious order. But which one? It came to a choice between the Benedictines and the Jesuits. For a while he was afraid that Newman might think he should offer himself to the Oratorians, but there was no need to fear. “St. Benedict has had the training of the ancient intellect, St. Dominic of the medieval, and St. Ignatius of the modern,” Newman told him. On September 7, 1868, Hopkins entered the Jesuit novitiate at Roehampton. He was ordained priest on September 23, 1877.
Hopkins’s Jesuit years were, on the whole, fretful. He didn’t chafe at the discipline. Indeed, Professor Martin maintains that Hopkins was happy only when his days were strictly ordered, the discipline rigorous; he was irritable if left to his own will. Over the years, he was posted to several Jesuit houses: Manresa, St. Beuno’s in Wales, St. Mary’s, Stonyhurst, Farm Street in London, St. Mary’s, Chesterfield, St. Aloysius’s in Oxford. He was assigned to parish work in Liverpool, stints of teaching in various houses, and, for the last years, teaching Greek at University College, Dublin. He was happiest, probably, at St. Beuno’s:
Lovely the woods, waters, mead- ows, combes, vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales….
But nearly everywhere else he was on edge, nervous, in poor health. He could be jolly, but mostly wasn’t. Many of the personal entries in his journals are querulous. Besides, he was a snob. Like most English writers from Wordsworth to Hardy and Forster, he hated to see cities encroaching on rural life. In London, Liverpool, and Dublin he came upon squalor and could only express dismay. A poem about the unemployed ends, “and their packs infest the age.”
The years in Dublin were the worst. He had a few respites, an enjoyable vacation in Wales with his friend Robert Curtis, and weekends in a congenial guest house in Monasterevan. But generally he thought himself lonely, overworked—all those examination papers to be graded—and he sank into despair. He diverted himself a little by imagining that he had a gift for musical composition. He asked Sir Robert Stewart, Professor of Music at Trinity College, Dublin, to comment on two of his settings of “Who is Sylvia?” Stewart replied:
You always excuse yourself for anything I object to in your writing or music so I think it is a pity to disturb you in your happy dreams of perfectability—nearly everything in your music was wrong—but you will not admit that to be the case—What does it matter? It will all be the same 100 years hence—There’s one thing I do admire—your hand-writing!
Meanwhile Hopkins was afraid that God had exiled him not only to Dublin but beyond the range of His caring. He turned his despair into sonnets, but he couldn’t rid himself of it. Professor Martin thinks that the discontinuity of Hopkins’s life in the Dublin years is “a reflection of a gradual disintegration of his mental health.” He had trouble with his eyes, or thought he had. He became obsessed with eyes for a time, and wrote Bridges a long account of a medical student who tore out his eyes with a stick and some wire. No wonder the last sonnets are told through Oedipus Rex and King Lear. But Hopkins was calm between the storms, and wise. “The effect of studying masterpieces,” he told Bridges, “is to make me admire and do otherwise.”
Professor Martin’s description of those years in Dublin is relentless. I am not a Dubliner, but I wince upon reading again the passage in which Hopkins, preparing to go on retreat in Tullabeg, makes some notes on his state of mind and soul. They begin steadily enough:
But how is it with me? I was a Christian from birth or baptism, later I was converted to the Catholic faith, and am enlisted 20 years in the Society of Jesus. I am now 44. I do not waver in my allegiance, I never have since my conversion to the Church.
But after a paragraph of patience, chaos comes again:
I was continuing this train of thought this evening when I began to enter on that course of loathing and hopelessness which I have so often felt before, which made me fear madness and led me to give up the practice of meditation except, as now, in retreat and here it is again. I could therefore do no more than repeat Justus es, Domine, et rectum judicium tuum and the like, and then being tired I nodded and woke with a start. What is my wretched life? Five wasted years almost have passed in Ireland. I am ashamed of the little I have done, of my waste of time, although my helplessness and weakness is such that I could scarcely do otherwise. And yet the Wise Man warns us against excusing ourselves in that fashion. I cannot then be excused; but what is life without aim, without spur, without help? All my undertakings miscarry: I am like a straining eunuch. I wish then for death: yet if I died now I should die imperfect, no master of myself, and that is the worst failure of all. O my God, look down on me.
He never recovered his spirits. In the spring of 1889 he fell ill again, rheumatic fever was diagnosed, and then it was thought to be “a sort of typhoid.” His last poem, “To R.B.,” was written to explain to Bridges why, from “my winter world,” he could no longer write. It was one of his best poems.
There are severe problems in writing a life of Hopkins. For instance: Professor Martin thinks it important that Hopkins, a convert to Catholicism at the age of twenty-two, spent the first half of his short life as a Protestant:
If we can believe what most psychologists tell us, the psyche is formed early in our existence. When Hopkins was converted at twenty-two, the personality, intellect and spiritual cast of mind that characterized him at his death were well established, and the outlines of the great poet he was to become were already implicit.
If so, it is the more interesting to discover how Hopkins made his will obedient to the will of God through the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. Professor Martin hasn’t been able to explain this—perhaps it can’t be explained. But he makes matters harder for himself by treating religious belief reductively. He speaks of an Anglican “swallowing” Roman dogmas, of “fulsome religiosity” in Crashaw’s poems, of Hopkins “hedging his bets” before becoming a Catholic, and of his “flirting with conversion.” Further, he maintains that Hopkins’s “unconscious drives may have been as powerful in changing his mind as any systematic chain of reasoning.” These phrases are nearly useless for apprehending the issues they address.
The first generation of Hopkins’s serious readers worried over the same issues, faced with the poems; they couldn’t believe that Hopkins made his will accord with the will of God. There had to be conflict between priest and poet. Richards was interested in Hopkins’s poems because he thought of poetry by analogy with the central nervous system: in working order, it registers many conflicting impulses and somehow brings them to a state of equilibrium. In Seven Types of Ambiguity Empson took the word “Buckle” in Hopkins’s “The Windhover”—“Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then”—as an instance of the type of ambiguity that occurs “when the two meanings of the word, the two values of the ambiguity, are the two opposite meanings defined by the context, so that the total effect is to show a fundamental division in the writer’s mind.” In the poem, “Buckle” can mean buckle as in fastening a military belt or as in a collapsed wheel, so it “convey[s] an indecision, and its reverberation in the mind.” This famous crux in the “The Windhover” has not been resolved. The favored practice, I suppose, is to choose what you regard as the dominant meaning, and feel decent misgiving about slighting the other ones. That there are conflicting values in the case, I don’t doubt, but I would describe the tension in Hopkins differently.
On May 11, 1868, in preparation for entering the Order of Jesus, Hopkins burned his poems. “Slaughter of the innocents,” his diary for that day reads, his version of Savonarola’s bonfire of the vanities. He didn’t write seriously again for seven years. But when he read a newspaper account, on December 11, 1875, of a disaster at sea, he was greatly moved. On December 7 the Deutschland, a British-built ship bound from Bremen to New York, ran aground on the sands of Kentish Knock near Harwich. Among those who perished were five German nuns, exiled from Germany by Bismarck’s anti-Catholic Falck Laws. Fr. Jones, Hopkins’s superior at St. Beuno’s, suggested that he write a poem about the disaster. The result was “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” Hopkins’s most ambitious poem, a work in two unequal parts. In the first part, Hopkins expresses his own experience of being mastered by God; in the second, he imagines the dread, terror, and awe of one of the nuns, drowning, crying to Christ. The first part contains some of Hopkins’s greatest writing:
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;
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall
Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein
Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.
The poem was finished by June 1876, and Hopkins offered it to The Month, a Jesuit magazine, for publication. The editor couldn’t understand it, and in the end turned it down. In August 1877 Hopkins sent it to Bridges with an explanation of its meters. Bridges read it and told him that not for any money would he read it again. He asked Hopkins’s permission to call the poem “presumptious jugglery.” Hopkins replied:
You ask may you call it “presumptious jugglery.” No, but only for this reason, that presumptious is not English. I cannot think of altering anything. Why shd. I? I do not write for the public. You are my public and I hope to convert you.
That hope miscarried. When Bridges put the “Wreck” at the beginning of the main section of Hopkins’s poems, in 1918, he said that it was “like a great dragon folded in the gate to forbid all entrance, and confident in his strength from past success.”
So Hopkins was spared the pains of authorship. But he was still a poet, in some relation, however equivocal, to Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, and Christina Rossetti. His theme as a romantic, Victorian poet was the relations between God, the created world, and man. In the presence of beauty, he feared for his soul, but he found in Duns Scotus—“Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller”—assurance that he could freely pay attention to objects, forms, and appearances, since they were parts of God’s Creation. Scotus’s theology of the Incarnation worked out the logic of the birth of Christ—the Word made flesh—God coming into time and body. The world itself was sacred because it was created by God and given as His gift to mankind. Under Scotus’s auspices, Hopkins could pay as much attention to natural forms as Ruskin did, and think of this attention as a form of prayer. “Pied Beauty” goes as follows:
Glory be to God for dappled things—For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; For rose-moles all in stipple
upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; fin- ches’ wings; Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
In “Hurrahing in Harvest” the act of looking at the landscape and the sky at harvest time is designed “to glean our Saviour.” The hills “are his world-wielding shoulder/Majestic.” In this poem Hopkins is correcting Keats’s “To Autumn,” giving credit to God, where it is due.
But he had another program, besides being a romantic, Victorian poet. Spared of a public, he imagined for himself in freedom the historical and linguistic conditions denied him in practice. He started by summoning into existence an England that hadn’t existed for centuries; Catholic England, that had not suffered a Reformation, an Enlightenment, or an Industrial Revolution. In “The Wreck of the Deutschland” he prayed for the conversion, even yet, of Protestant England—“Our King back, oh, upon English souls!” His heart was in the Oxford not of Jowett and Pater but of Scotus, thirteenth-century Franciscan theologian.
He summoned, too, or invented a corresponding language, English as it might have been if its major writers had followed the direction of Beowulf and Langland’s Piers Plowman rather than assimilating the idioms of Norman-French and Italian. Writing to Bridges on November 26, 1882, Hopkins praised the poet William Barnes for trying, in his poems as again in An Outline of English Speech-Craft (1878), to develop an English language in the spirit of Anglo-Saxon:
It makes one weep to think what English might have been; for in spite of all that Shakspear and Milton have done with the compound I cannot doubt that no beauty in a language can make up for want of purity. In fact I am learning Anglosaxon and it is a vastly superior thing to what we have now. But the madness of an almost unknown man (Barnes) trying to do what the three estates of the realm together could never accomplish! He calls degrees of comparison pitches of suchness: we ought to call them so, but alas!
But Hopkins didn’t give up. In his poems, he devised an adversary English, the language as it would have developed if Standard English hadn’t taken a different tack. So he often used verbs as if they were nouns, like “achieve” in “The Windhover”:
My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
He used nouns as verbs; “selves” in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;
Crying What I do is me: for that I
“Goes” is an intransitive verb, but not in “goes itself.” Again, Hopkins often omits conjunctions, as in the unspoken “like” of the third line of “Spring”:
Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heav- ens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
He preferred compound participles to simple adjectives; as in “Carrier-witted” in “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” meaning to have the instinct of a homing pigeon:
My heart, but you were dove- winged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.
When Bridges was baffled by “rashfresh more” in the original version of “The Sea and the Skylark”—
Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend
With rash-fresh more, repair of skein and score….
Hopkins told him that it meant “a headlong and exciting new snatch of singing, resumption by the lark of his song.” But he changed it to read:
Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend
His rash-fresh re-winded new- skeinèd score
In crisps of curl….
—not much of an improvement.
Professor Martin thinks that much of the difficulty in Hopkins’s poems is caused by his blurring “the distinction between the human observer and the surrounding physical world.” To illustrate this, he quotes an extraordinary passage from Hopkins’s journal for October 20, 1870:
Laus Deo—the river today and yesterday. Yesterday it was a sallow glassy gold at Hodder Roughs and by watching hard the banks began to sail upstream, the scaping unfolded, the river was all in tumult but not running, only the lateral motions were perceived.
The point is well taken. But I think Hopkins’s way with English is clarified by two further considerations. Both are given in a note of February 9, 1868, when he was thinking about Greek philosophy. “All words mean either things or relations of things,” he wrote; and a few lines down, “Every word may be considered as the contraction or coinciding-point of its definitions.” If the first is true, it would be possible to give the relations at once and postpone specifying the thing. Hopkins does this, making a difficulty, at the beginning of “The Windhover.” He doesn’t say: this morning I saw a windhover hovering in the sky. He says:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dap- ple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air….
Thirteen words, before he says what he saw: Falcon. Before giving the bird, he has given in “minion” and “dauphin” hierarchical or chivalric relations that can only later be related to “Falcon.” He has also introduced a frisson between minion and king before dispelling it by making “king” the first syllable of “kingdom.” He does this again in his poem “Henry Purcell,” the relations preceding the name that inspires them:
Have fair fallen, O fair, fair have fallen, so dear
To me, so arch-especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell.
Bridges got himself into a muddle with this one. He remembered from Love’s Labour’s Lost: “Now fair befall your mask!—fair fall the face it covers!” but he thought “have” was a plural. Hopkins corrected him:
Have is not a plural at all, far from it. It is the singular imperative (or optative if you like) of the past, a thing possible and actual both in logic and grammar, but naturally a rare one. As in the second person we say “Have done” or in making appointments “Have had your dinner beforehand,” so one can say in the third person not only “Fair fall” of what is present or future but also “Have fair fallen” of what is past. The same thought (which plays a great part in my own mind and action) is more clearly expressed in the last stanza but one of the Eurydice, where you remarked it.
It played that great part because Hopkins regularly invoked a sequence of events adversary to the historical one.
The second note, about a word as the contraction or coinciding point of its definitions, makes for difficulty too. It is a theory not of indeterminacy but of ambiguity, and brings us back to Empson. As a case in point, the word “breathes,” in “To R.B.,” is the contraction of several definitions. So far as I know, Professor Martin is the first to note that the style of this poem is closer to Bridges’s common style than to Hopkins’s, and that Hopkins in sending it—his last poem—to Bridges was paying his friend a supreme if belated tribute:
The fine delight that fathers thought; the strong
Spur, live and lancing like the blowpipe flame,
Breathes once and, quenchèd faster than it came,
Leaves yet the mind of a mother of immortal song.
Nine months she then, nay years, nine years she long
Within her wears, bears, cares and combs the same:
The widow of an insight lost she lives, with aim
Now known and hand at work now never wrong.
Sweet fire the sire of muse, my soul needs this;
I want the one repture of an inspiration.
O then if in my lagging lines you miss
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.
Here inspiration is, to begin with, divine breath, the Father. A spur can’t breathe, but transition to breathing is facilitated by the reference to flame, which may be fancied as breathing. Norman MacKenzie has observed, about this poem, that in medieval art the creating force of the Holy Ghost is often represented as a ray of light pointed toward the ear of the Virgin Mary. So “breathes,” in this first stanza, is a contraction of several definitions, vital, sexual, masculine, procreative, spiritual. In Hopkins’s theology the Holy Ghost is the love of God the Father and God the Son. In the sestet of the sonnet, playing on the rhyme of “fire” and “sire,” Hopkins speaks as the woman, desiring the act of love to impregnate her. Lacking it, she languishes in her winter world, “that scarcely breathes that bliss.” Here the breathing means the taking in of breath, the receiving of inspiration. The connotation is merely physical: she has not enough breath to live on. “With some sighs” is heartbreaking, since a sigh is a breath of sorts.
Professor Martin’s biography, good as it is, is unlikely to prove decisive in the understanding of Hopkins. Not merely because there is much more to be said. There is always more. Professor Martin is learned in Victorian life and literature. He is genuinely sympathetic to Hopkins. But he has set rather narrowly the limits of that sympathy.* He often sounds like Hopkins’s father, exasperated by a religious belief he regards as an aberration, not as the very means by which Hopkins made sense of his life. Belief didn’t make Hopkins content, but it gave his life substance and density. The poems, too, Professor Martin takes largely for granted; which is the way they can’t be taken. He considers Hopkins and Yeats the greatest poets of their time, but he leaves this judgment to establish itself as if it were self-evident. It isn’t. Yeats is not our present business. But in many of Hopkins’s poems, as Leavis argued in The Common Pursuit, there is a discrepancy between the linguistic hubbub and the substance it supposedly serves. The poems are not saying as much as they claim to be saying. There is also at least a question of decadence in several of Hopkins’s poems; in the sense of decadence as Paul Bourget described that quality and Havelock Ellis made it available to English readers in 1889. Linda Dowling has quoted Ellis in Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siècle (Princeton University Press, 1986):
A style of decadence is one in which the unity of the book is decomposed to give place to the independence of the page, in which the page is decomposed to give place to the independence of the phrase, and the phrase to give place to the independence of the word.
“The Bugler’s First Communion” might be read with this in mind. Hopkins describes how he administered the Eucharist to a young soldier from Cowley Barracks:
Here he knelt then ín regimental red.
Forth Christ from cupboard fetched, how fain I of feet
To his youngster take his treat!
Low-latched in leaf-light housel his too huge godhead.
How can Christ’s godhead be too huge? I can only think that “too” is there to give yet another spin to the alliterative “h”s—“housel his huge godhead” corresponding to the artfully balanced “I”s of “Low-latched in leaf-light….”
In Hopkins’s finest poems, I don’t find any discrepancy, any decadent independence of word from phrase, phrase from line, line from the whole. My short list includes “Spring and Fall,” “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” “The Windhover,” “The Caged Skylark,” “Pied Beauty,” “Henry Purcell,” “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” “Carrion Comfort,” “No Worst, There is None,” “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark,” “My Own Heart Let Me Have More Pity On,” “That Nature is Heraclitean Fire,” “Thou art indeed just, Lord,” “Felix Randal,” and “To R.B.” In these, the relations proposed between things are often daring, but they are justified in the end; as in the sonnet to Purcell the comparison of Purcell’s sacred music to the flight of a great seagull. Hopkins had to make several attempts to explain the poem to Bridges. At one point he told him that it meant: “Purcell’s music is none of your d—d subjective rot”:
…so some great stormfowl, when- ever he has walked his while
The thunder-purple seabeach plumèd purple-of-thunder,
If a wuthering of his palmy snow- pinions scatter a colossal smile
Off him, but meaning motion fans fresh our wits with wonder.
“It is,” Hopkins explained, “as when a bird thinking only of soaring spreads its wings: a beholder may happen then to have his attention drawn by the act to the plumage displayed.” It is a mark of Hopkins’s best poems that they give the thing—Purcell’s music—and relations which the thing may reasonably incite in the beholder’s mind—comparison with the flight of the stormbird—the wuthering of the bird’s wings, seen in human terms as a smile. “Meaning motion” is not only what the poem is about but what, to Hopkins, life itself is about.
Virginia Ridley Ellis's Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Language of Mystery (University of Missouri Press, 1991) provides a valuable corrective in this respect. Her book is an unusually responsive account of Hopkins's major poems in the light—and it is light—of the poet's sense of mystery. Professor Ellis quotes, and is justly impressed by, the letter in which Hopkins tells Bridges: "You do not mean by mystery what a Catholic does. You mean an interesting uncertainty: the uncertainty ceasing interest ceases also. This happens in some things; to you in religion. But a Catholic by mystery means an incomprehensible certainty: without certainty, without formulation there is no interest (of course a doctrine is valuable for other things than its interest, its interestingness, but I am speaking now of that); the clearer the formulation the greater the interest. At bottom the source of interest is the same in both cases, in your mind and in ours; it is the unknown, the reserve of truth beyond what the mind reaches and still feels to be behind. But the interest a Catholic feels is, if I may say so, of a far finer kind than yours."↩
Virginia Ridley Ellis’s Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Language of Mystery (University of Missouri Press, 1991) provides a valuable corrective in this respect. Her book is an unusually responsive account of Hopkins’s major poems in the light—and it is light—of the poet’s sense of mystery. Professor Ellis quotes, and is justly impressed by, the letter in which Hopkins tells Bridges: “You do not mean by mystery what a Catholic does. You mean an interesting uncertainty: the uncertainty ceasing interest ceases also. This happens in some things; to you in religion. But a Catholic by mystery means an incomprehensible certainty: without certainty, without formulation there is no interest (of course a doctrine is valuable for other things than its interest, its interestingness, but I am speaking now of that); the clearer the formulation the greater the interest. At bottom the source of interest is the same in both cases, in your mind and in ours; it is the unknown, the reserve of truth beyond what the mind reaches and still feels to be behind. But the interest a Catholic feels is, if I may say so, of a far finer kind than yours.”↩