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 …

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