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The Poet & the Wreck’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Poet and the Wreck from the January 15, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

Viewing Van Gogh’s night paintings at the MoMA recently, it struck me how quickly someone with a knife could slash his Starry Night, or worse, a person’s face, and what a long period would have to pass before either was restored to its original state. So with Mark Ford’s ad hominem dismissal of my biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and his patronizing dismissal of Ron Hansen’s Exiles [NYR, January 15].

After stealing whatever he could to write his aptly named “The Poet and the Wreck,” and in effect rewriting the facts behind the wreck of the German steamer the SS Deutschland, he then rewrites Hopkins to fit in with his other writing on Raymond Roussel, John Ashbery, Hart Crane, and Frank O’Hara to reclaim Hopkins for his own “side,” as it were. But it won’t do. The subtext of his bright, vicious essay is this: Hopkins was a gay man turned into a wreck by his becoming a Jesuit priest. That is the real wreck he alludes to.

But first he must rewrite Hopkins’s poem, to show that the five nuns drowned in the shipwreck acted cowardly in some final opéra bouffe, and that Hopkins then rewrote their deaths as “an almost erotic apprehension of the spiritual bridegroom’s masterful descent on his virginal supplicant,” so that “Christ’s death-dealing becomes one of Hopkins’s most powerful versions of his recurrent fantasy of simultaneous rape and redemption.” This reading wouldn’t be too bad if Ford didn’t seem to read this literally, for he goes on then to speak of Hopkins’s “desires for adolescents and young men” as so “transparent that it verges on the risible.” Hopkins, in Ford’s reading, “had a thing about soldiers, and he almost swoons when contemplating this ‘Breathing bloom of a chastity in mansex fine.’” And so forth. But the fact is that Hopkins detested anything that might rob a young person of his innocence, and if such thoughts rose unbidden—as they do in every human being I have ever met—then he did everything in his power to kill those thoughts.

Yes, Hopkins had homoerotic thoughts, but there is nothing—nothing in the record which I have researched now for four decades—to suggest that he ever acted on those impulses, and in fact tried with his elective (as opposed to affective) will to turn his mind to the things of God. Even in his late “Epithalamion” he remains apart from the boys swimming in the river to bathe by himself, though Ford would have it that what he is doing is secretly ogling the boys. Yes, Hopkins was tempted by the sensuous and even by the homoerotic, but he was a priest first and foremost, and his “dearest” love was neither Digby Dolben, nor Robert Bridges, nor the boys in the barracks, but God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God as Creator, rather than as a male dominatrix, as Ford suggests.

My responsibility as a seasoned biographer was to tell Hopkins’s story in light of everything I could discover in his papers, his poems, his letters, his diaries, his undergraduate papers at Oxford, his notes on Homer and Aeschylus and Cicero, as well as to reveal his life as an Anglican first and later as a Jesuit priest. I began this journey back in the 1960s and have continued it ever since, cutting away whatever stories have accrued to Hopkins through the misrepresentation of his contemporaries and even the misunderstandings of his close friend, Robert Bridges.

…What Hopkins wanted more than anything else was to write for the greater glory of God, a logocentric rather than a phallocentric vision as your misogynistic and virulently anti-Catholic “reviewer” would have it. Nor was Hopkins’s life the wreck Ford would have it, any more than Christ’s was, but a story of darkness and light, of death and resurrection.

Paul Mariani
Professor, Department of English Boston College Boston, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

In reviewing Paul Mariani’s biography Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, the poet Mark Ford scants both Mariani’s book and Hopkins’s life as a poet and a Jesuit. He diminishes Hopkins’s rich poetry by reading it from a restrictive neo-Freudian perspective, and he diminishes his life by not knowing the data. “Even the Jesuits found him hard to fathom,” Ford writes, and it took him seven years as a Jesuit to feel a “barely containable excitement in finding himself at last permitted to unleash his poetic powers.” His rector’s hint that he write “The Wreck of the Deutschland” “was about all the encouragement he was to receive from his fellow Jesuits for his poetic labors.”

But the reality is different: a Jesuit called him “the most popular man in the house” at St. Beuno’s, and he enjoyed lifelong Jesuit friends; his first seven Jesuit years produced eleven poems; finally, Jesuits knew, admired, and kept copies of his poems, and between 1871 and 1888 Jesuits asked him to write “Haec te jubent salvere,” “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” the comic poem “‘Consule Jones,’” “The Silver Jubilee” (in three languages), “Ad Reverendum Patrem Fratrem Thomam Burke,” and “St. Alphonsus Rodriguez.” Mark Ford clearly admires Hopkins, but he was hardly the “long-stifled poet” or Jesuit misfit that Ford presents.

Joseph J. Feeney, S.J.
Professor of English
Saint Joseph’s University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Co-editor, The Hopkins Quarterly

Mark Ford replies:

It seems to me unlikely that Mariani’s biography of Hopkins will achieve the cultural importance of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and there is surely a difference between slashing a painting, let alone a face, and writing a review that is critical of a bad book.

My piece did not, as he suggests without substantiation, “rewrite” the facts that led to the wreck of the German steamer, the SS Deutschland. What facts exactly did I get wrong? The garbled language in which his accusations are couched makes them a little difficult to refute: “first he must rewrite Hopkins’s poem, to show that the five nuns drowned in the shipwreck acted cowardly in some final opéra bouffe….” I think he’s complaining that I quoted from a couple of eyewitness accounts that appeared in contemporary newspapers. I had no wish to present the nuns’ deaths as opéra bouffe. My point was to show how Hopkins transformed news reports of the wreck and of the deaths of the nuns in the poem he wrote on the subject. And I fail to see how my quoting these items makes me misogynistic.

Nor am I guilty of reading Hopkins’s poems literally. Nowhere do I suggest that Hopkins ever engaged in any physical expression of his homosexual desires. Mariani is the one who seems to have trouble disentangling the literary from the actual. When I talked of Hopkins’s “desires for adolescents and young men,” I did not mean he acted on them, but he certainly wrote about them. This is hardly new territory, and I recommend to readers interested in this strand of Hopkins’s work Julia F. Saville’s A Queer Chivalry: The Homoerotic Asceticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins (2000). Many, many critics have written on the unconscious homoeroticism of Hopkins’s poetry; my review referred to only one, Helen Vendler, and it was from Vendler that I borrowed the word “risible,” which she uses in her discussion in The Breaking of Style (1995) of “The Bugler’s First Communion”; in this poem, she observes, “metaphor takes on such unconscious sexual analogy that a psychoanalytic reading finds it almost risible (the bugler boy ‘to all I teach / Yields ténder as a púshed péach’).” Is Vendler also claiming Hopkins for her “side,” presumably, in Mariani’s view, the side of gay men, of which I am not one—for like me she has written on the poetry of Hart Crane, John Ashbery, and Frank O’Hara?

Mariani also accuses me of “stealing whatever [I] could” from his book to write my piece. He is on dangerous ground here. His is not the first biography ever written of Hopkins, as I think he knows. An interesting instance of his approach to research occurs when he talks of Hopkins calling on various Oxford acquaintances, including “Pater and his wife.” How could a biographer writing on a major Victorian poet for a respectable publisher, and one who has spent, his letter tells us, over forty years researching Hopkins and his circle, think Pater was married? The answer is simple enough: on page 307 of his Hopkins: A Literary Biography (1992) Norman White writes, “He [Hopkins] dined with the Paters.” He is referring, of course, to Pater and his sisters, Hester and Clara.

In response to Joseph Feeney’s more measured letter, I would like to point out that I never suggested that Hopkins was unpopular with his fellow Jesuits, merely that he failed to progress as far in the Society as might have been expected of a man of his talents. Clearly his superiors had doubts about his suitability for high office. And, despite the requests from fellow Jesuits for occasional poems that Professor Feeney documents, I would imagine that even now, over a century and a quarter later, it is still considered by members of the Society to be rather a shame that its principal periodical, The Month, rejected for publication both “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and “The Wreck of the Eurydice.”

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