Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life
by Paul Mariani
Viking, 496 pages, $34.95
Too often, Gerard Manley Hopkins is lost in the halo-glow of hagiography—Glory be to God for dappled things!—or the searchlight of psychoanalysis—To seem a stranger lies my lot, my life. That, or the man is reduced to his metrics: the proto-modernist sprung rhythm that freed us from Victorian singsong.
Yet the real Hopkins refuses to be reduced to any one thing. He was a priest and a poet, a man of England and a man in exile, a herald of modernism and a champion of tradition. Revealing how these many identities merge to shape his person and poetry, Paul Mariani, his latest biographer, shows the truth of Hopkins’ words: “Surely one vocation cannot cancel out another.”
As flailing poets like to remind themselves, Hopkins’ verse lay all but forgotten during his life and for nearly thirty years after his death. Only in 1918 did his friend Robert Bridges publish a collected edition, prefaced by an apology for the “exaggerated Marianism” and “perversion of feeling.” Nevertheless, with his surprisingly modern metrics and arresting tropes—what Robert Lowell praised as his “inebriating exuberance”—Hopkins broke into the canon of English poetry. In barely a decade, dilettantes of Catholic literature had canonized him, while critics were calling him one of the greatest poets (a slap at the Victorians, who, twentieth-century critics insisted, daftly ignored their best man).
Time is supposed to give perspective, but in Hopkins studies, Bridges’ original complaints have cycled back in new glory. After generations of laudatory studies, the early 1990s saw the publication of critical biographies exposing the poet as both oppressed and repressed: a man constrained by the Catholic Church and its Jesuit militants, an effeminate who hated the name Manley. The problem with such studies, Mariani noted at the time, is that they dissect Hopkins’ life with scholarly precision, only to examine it through the wrong lens. These scholars understand “the imagination of Freud far better than the imagination of St. Ignatius of Loyola,” and thus they miss “the essential drama that shaped Hopkins.” We still need, he wrote, “a biography that will give us a portrait of Hopkins shaped by his intense indwelling on the Spiritual Exercises. A biography that might show us Hopkins’ preoccupation with the example of his real lover...Christ.”
In Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, Mariani depicts Hopkins as neither an isolated id nor an angelic spirit. He was a whole man, body and soul, who was awed by the natural world’s majesty and intensely aware that it “is charged with the grandeur of God,” the giver of all breath and beauty: Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) / With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; / He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change. This is a joyful catalogue of the created world, lovingly formed and held by the Lord, yet Hopkins was far from an Edenic mystic. Winter comes, night falls, he knew too well, and the world is blind to the “brute beauty and valour” of its Redeemer.
Lapsing into hedonism or transcendentalism is easy, but Hopkins continuously struggled to balance his love for both Creator and creation, eternity and change. Mariani does not mask these complexities but presents them with a vivid patchwork of journal entries, letters, sermon excerpts, and verse. He provides, of course, enough commentary and chronology so that the reader can follow Hopkins through his Oxford days, his conversion and admission to the Jesuits, his marathon religious formation and shuffling between schools and parishes, and finally his bleak years in Dublin and early death. But throughout, it is primarily Hopkins’ voice that carries the story, and, while the book might have spared us some detail, the figure that emerges is not a glowing icon but a real and rambling man.
Mariani perceptively pulls Hopkins’ Oxford conversion to the forefront of the story, as the decision that set the course of his life. Attempting to echo Hopkins’ own poetic prose, Mariani sometimes distracts the reader with his exuberance: “So give it a day, a date, a going forth, a crossing over, all in an instant . . . an anointing, a yielding, a yes.” Still, his account of Hopkins’ religious wrestling—with Tractarian claims, the validity of Anglican sacraments, the logic of papal infallibility—is forthright and firm-footed. Ultimately, Hopkins was left defenseless before grace; as he wrote to his father, he had “no power . . . to stir a finger: It is God Who makes the decision and not I.” The more he came to understand Catholic doctrine, he confessed, the more he realized that its truth “only wants to be known . . . to be loved—its consolations, its multiplicity, its array of saints and martyrs, its consistency and unity, its glowing prayers, the daring majesty of its claims.” Logic might have spurred him on, but the splendor of truth was what allured.
Why me? Hopkins duly wondered, for “neither learning, genius, nor holiness nor all three can bring anyone to the Church.” When he presented his case before John Henry Newman, with the remark that he could “see no way out,” the great convert laughed, “Nor can I.” There was but one response then, a response Mariani rightly hears voiced in Hopkins’ poetry: I did say yes / O at lightning and lashed rod; / . . . And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
Yet these charged lines would come later, for, at the age of twenty-three, shortly after his conversion, Hopkins collected his youthful poetry and quietly burned it. “Slaughter of the Innocents,” he jotted in his journal. The decision to renounce poetry—past as well as future—was radical but not ridiculous; Hopkins had resolved, with the same abandon that propelled his conversion two years before, to give his whole life to the Church.
Here most other biographers recoil in horror, but as Mariani presents it—as Hopkins himself presented it—the young convert could desire nothing less. And, in the following chapters, the book shows how Hopkins’ formation as a Jesuit priest contributed to his formation as a poet. To his scholastic teachers’ chagrin, he discovered Scotus’ metaphysics of haecceitas—thisness—the dappled distinctiveness of everything in Creation. And from the diverse members of the Jesuit community, he listened to Welsh, Irish, and Anglo-Saxon dialects, deliberately enriching his classical tongue with the heartier speech of his countrymen. Similarly, he became fascinated by the ancient rhythms and structures of Anglo-Saxon verse, which he would adapt as the sprung rhythm later admired by the modernists: As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage / Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house dwells.
No less important for Mariani is how Hopkins’ eyes and heart were shaped by his Jesuit vows. As a novice, for instance, he once sent his mother a feather with the note: “I practice at present the evangelical poverty which I soon hope to vow, but no one is ever so poor that he is not . . . owner of the skies and stars and everything wild that is to be found on the earth.” Asceticism, he learned from the Jesuits, is not mere detachment from the world, but the freedom to love it more purely, more fully. In Ignatius’ words, “Man was created to praise, reverence, and serve our Lord,” and the beauty of the world is ordered to “aid him in the prosecution of that end.” Properly appreciated, the ascetic and aesthetic are inseparable.
At last, after years of watching and listening, studying and praying, he was ready, in Mariani’s words, to “strike the iron in the forging fire.” He had read reports of the shipwreck and haunting death of five Franciscan sisters, and the thirty-five-stanza “Wreck of the Deutschland” flowed almost spontaneously from his pen: the Master, / Ipse , the only one, Christ, King, Head: / He was to cure the extremity where he had cast her.
As Mariani puts it, his “self-imposed exile” was ended. But trials of a peculiar sort would soon shadow the next fourteen years. His closest friends did not grasp the depth of his verse, his superiors knew almost nothing about it, and the drudgery of teaching and preaching weighed heavily. That he would fail to achieve acclaim in any aspect of his literary or religious vocation seemed likely. But, as Mariani stresses, Hopkins knew that darkness and desolation have spiritual power. Fame “is a thing which lies in the award of a random, reckless, incompetent, and unjust judge, the public, the multitude,” he wrote to his university friend Robert Bridges. “The only just judge, the only just literary critic, is Christ, who prizes, is proud of, and admires, more than any other man, more than the receiver himself can, the gifts of his own making.”
And so, with this literary theory formalized by vows of poverty and obedience, Hopkins did not seek remuneration from the world or special treatment from his superiors; after the Jesuit journal The Month rejected “Deutschland” and “The Loss of Eurydice” (“my two wrecks,” he wryly put it), he did not attempt to have any of his other poems published. Moreover, he confided to Bridges, “I cannot in conscience spend time on poetry, neither have I the inducements and inspirations that make others compose.”
Yet, remarkably, his religious life animated his literary life. Poverty formed his sporadic verse by freeing him to treasure the gifts of creation; obedience formed it by forcing a harsh but fertile asceticism on his pen. No less important was the heartfelt commitment of chastity: “Feeling love in particular is the great moving power and spring of verse, and the only person I am in love with seldom, especially now, stirs my heart sensibly.”
To give up this love would be unthinkable, Mariani makes clear. Poetry came haltingly and painfully. But as any true Jesuit would—any true Christian, for that matter—Hopkins tried to combat desolation by contemplating and imitating the life of Christ. Reflecting on Jesus’ self-emptying during his yearly spiritual exercises, he realized that self-immolation is “the root of all his holiness.”
Thus, on the fifteenth anniversary of his entrance to the Society of Jesus, he offered the rest of his life to the Lord, begging that God “should have [the poems] as his own and employ or not employ them as he should see fit.”
Absent a biblical understanding of sacrifice, a biographer would be left to scorn or pity the poet. Mariani probes deeper. Without trying to plumb the mystery of Redemption or our participatory role, he knows that no gift of love is futile, and he sees this truth manifest in the poet: “There is something in Hopkins that keeps fighting his own extraordinary creativity, keeping it under adamantine compression so intense that it has even affected his physical well-being.” Fire burns, even the fire of love. Yet the flame of sacrifice, he adds, left “behind a scattering of diamonds to be lifted from the ashes of time.”
That is the secret of Hopkins’ life: not the passion of Cupid but the passion of the Cross, not the Song of Myself but the Song of Songs. Three decades after his quiet death—“I am so happy, I am so happy,” were his final words—the power of his verse, with its striding meter and tumbling imagery, would break into the literary world with lasting impact. But the inspiration at its core is something—someone—no creative-writing department can explain.
Paul Mariani’s messy portrait of Hopkins is not for the faint of heart. But in the midst of its tangled moods and details emerges a vivid and overdue picture of the struggle that ultimately propelled the verse.
As Hopkins said, “Surely one vocation cannot cancel out another.” For him, poetry was the fruit of a tension between free personality and vowed Jesuit identity, poetic order and creative innovation, the fire of pain and the fire of love. In Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, Mariani shows the struggle of this priest and poet, with full trust that darkness does not have the final word and that struggle is not life’s end.
Amanda Shaw is assistant editor of First Things.