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The Flight of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life

by Robert Bernard Martin
Putnam’s, 448 pp., $29.95

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.

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