One Hopkins is enough,” said the poet A. D. Hope. By this he meant: Enough with the oohs and ahs over beautiful creation, enough with the “arch-especial” and the “sweet especial,” enough with “all this juice and all this joy” and all the “froth and waterblowballs” and “ah! bright wings”which allegedly are what we talk about when we talk about the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Hope, of course, is totally crosswise with the critical consensus on Hopkins. Among academic critics, it is an article of faith that there is not “One Hopkins,” but rather two: There is Hopkins the Poet, and there is Hopkins the Priest. Hopkins the Poet (of whom academic critics, pace Hope, cannot get enough) wrote Hopkins’s Nature Sonnets of the 1870s. Hopkins the Priest (who they wish had never been born) wrote Hopkins’s so-called Terrible Sonnets of 1884 and following.
The Nature Sonnets are full of the quirky, technicolor “Hopkinsian” vision, hymning “all things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled.” They are quirky to the point of self-parody, perhaps, but commonly celebrated as a major literary achievement, an eruption of Modernist poetics fifty years early.
Whereas the Terrible Sonnets, written during the miserable five years in Dublin that would kill him at forty-five (open sewers, typhoid), are done in black-and-white. They warn starkly of “two flocks, two foldsblack, white; right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind / But these two.” Everybody is in one “flock” or the other, bound for heaven or for hell. Every action tends either to salvation or to damnation. (Hopkins was a Jesuit, back when that meant something.) These poems are less vibrant than the Nature Sonnets, less baroque, less original, less “Hopkinsian” in short.
So you can paint by numbers the common critical picture of Hopkins’s artistic decline. The more dogmatic, the less poetic. You can be a Poet or a Priest, orthodox or original, a dogmatist or an artist.
Now, of course these binaries are nonsense. Biographically speaking, Hopkins had been a Priest when he wrote the Nature Sonnets, and he was still a Poet when he wrote the Terrible Sonnets. Of course the Terrible Sonnets are less colorful than the earlier worksbut they are no less poetic and original. Hopkins’s much-lamented dogmatism was what allowed him to discern divine design in unlikely places. This vision was the wellspring of his originality, and it was operating in Dublin as impressively as beforeperhaps more so.
Like most modern types, Hopkins was in college when he discovered the mode of dogmatism that was right for him. In his student journals, everything is “black, white; right, wrong.” We find the young poet scrupling over such offenses as “talking lightly about Millais,” “killing a spider,” and “intemperance at dessert” (editor Norman MacKenzie explicates, “He is accusing himself of taking perhaps a second candied pear”). Neurotic? Perhaps. But apropos of the spider, MacKenzie commends the poet’s “sensitivity to creatures to whom little attention was then paid.”
What is striking here is the counterintuitive nature of Hopkins’s perfectionist assessments, how his dogmatism upsets conventional hierarchies of significance. If everything is “black, white; right, wrong,” then every thing and every action matters. God has designed, and has His eye on, absolutely everything, including those things to which little attention is commonly paid.
Cue the “Hopkinsian” aesthetic: “All the world is full of inscape and chance left free to act falls into an order as well as purpose: looking out of my window I caught it in random clods and broken heaps of snow.” Hopkins’s journals of the 1860s and 1870s are full of such passages, recording unlikely forms of meaning and beauty and design. (Some very unlikely: “The slate slabs of the urinals even are frosted in graceful sprays.”)
This is the vision, so idiosyncratic and strange, that is celebrated by academic critics. But we should note that it is totally consistent with the dogmatism those same critics decry: Both modes look closely at things to which little attention is commonly paid, in the confidence that everything is designed by God and overseen by Him.
The “Hopkinsian” vision erupts classically in the Nature Sonnets of the 1870s, written in Wales and other rustic locales. Dogmatically speaking, we have here simply the ideas of providence and the goodness of creation. “All things rising, all things sizing” are reasons to “praise him.”
Yet this visiona vision of the strangeness of creation as viewed in light of dogmais the reason for Hopkins’s oddball idiom, with its alliteration (“wildness and wet”) and nonce compounds (“waterblowballs,” “silk-sack,” “wilful-wavier”) and exclamation points (!) and daring infelicities (“May-mess,” “lovely behaviour”), shows how orthodox theology may inspire unorthodox poetry.
But what happens when we take the Poet-Priest out of his “sweet especial” countryside, away from “March-bloom” and “May-mess” and “wildness and wet”?
In 1884, Hopkins’s Jesuit superiors posted him to the Catholic University in Dublin, a “joyless place” full of rats, and Irish people, and colleagues who thought him “more or less crazy.” There he taught Classics, and he was given so many examinations to grade (1,785 in 1887 alone) that he feared permanent damage to his eyes and his sanity. It was a fairly inglorious martyrdom. Cue dismay: In a letter to future poet laureate Robert Bridges, Hopkins exclaimed: “AND WHAT DOES ANYTHING AT ALL MATTER?”
No wonder, then, if Hopkins’s poetry became less quirkily vibrant in Dublin: Less technicolor, more black-and-white; less original, more orthodox; less artistic, more dogmatic; less about Nature, more about Terror, as the vision of Hopkins the Poet gave way to that of Hopkins the Priest. So they say. But this narrative, beloved of academic critics, is misleading.
There is a sense in which, if the Terrible Sonnets did not exist, Christopher Hitchens would have had to invent them. Their gist is “THOU SHALT NOT,” and they could be read as “dogmatic” in a bad wayas punitive and reductive.
They seem punitive, as Hopkins finds himself on the wrong side of the “black, white” dogmatic binary. Hopkins’s whole selfhood is corrupted, embittered, by God’s verdict against him: “God’s most deep decree / Bitter would have me taste.” When he yearns for an escape from his troubles, he is thwarted by “dark heaven’s baffling ban” against suicide. Verily, religion poisons everything.
The natural world all but disappears, as his gaze turns to an internal landscapewhere he finds only “ruins of wrecked past purpose.” Life seems pointless: “why must / Disappointment all I endeavor end?” Goodness. If religion does not lend believers a sense of purpose, what is it good for?
Now, a poet may look forward to death and still be a fine poet. One thinks of Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and any number of celebrated poet-suicides. But the case of Hopkins is felt to be different. Hopkins’s value is felt to lie in his seeing that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” and in his writing poetry that is “charged” with his strange perceptions of that “grandeur.” If he can no longer do that, what is he good for?
Whatever academic critics and the New Atheists may say, in the Terrible Sonnets, dogma is artistically productive and existentially recuperative. Nowhere more so than in the conclusion of “Carrion Comfort,” one of the greatest of the Terrible Sonnets. Here, Hopkins sums up his time in Dublin: “That night, that year / Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.” It’s been a long, dark night (of the soul). But now Hopkins gets resourceful with typography and dramatizes how he looked again to find a dogmatic redemption.
Parentheses, of all things. Signaling the addition of supplementary material, parentheses can bring the process of reappraisal, or revision, into a finished work. Coming after a dark night, the double cry “(my God!) my God” is a classic revision, or re-vision (re-seeing)a recognition in the morningthat alludes to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, as well as to the Last Words in Matthew 27. Re-vision in light of dogma allows Hopkins to see God anew (as a friendly combatant). Ditto his own experience: Through all his wretchedness in Dublin, Hopkins has been engaged in active struggle, tested by his God and imitating Christ.
So in “Carrion Comfort,” Hopkins turns something very mundanepunctuation!into something quite extraordinary: An emblem of dogmatic re-vision, of the looking-again that reveals the providential order underlying a world in which NOTHING AT ALL SEEMS TO MATTER. Here we have dogmatism inspiring artistry, orthodoxy inspiring originality, and the Priest doing what the Poet does.
Hopkins the Priest of Dublin does not get enough credit for his poetic ingenuityat least, not from the academic critics, who are busy lamenting that he isn’t still writing “The Windhover.” Though no more dogmatic (on a careful reading) than the Nature Sonnets, the Terrible Sonnets seem (on a secularist reading) to show all the downsides of dogmatismand so to fulfill the prophecy that good art these days must be non- (or anti-)dogmatic.
In Hopkins’s own day, Christian dogma seemed clearly defunct, as a program for ethical conduct and as a program for literary art. All the Eminent Victorians said so. (George Eliot, famously: Traditional religion is “inconceivable.”) Too clearly controverted by lived experience, dogma could hardly be “proved upon our pulses,” as Keats said poetry must be.
But Hopkins’s genius is to make a poetic virtue out of the contradiction between dogma and experience. The designs of providence, running athwart appearances (and our wishes), require the orthodox to look again at the world, to see it in new and original ways. When dogma and experience are read into and against each other, they licensethey do not foreclosean idiosyncratic and creative vision.
They also license Hopkins’s mundane martyrdom in Dublin, an imitation of Christ that is obscure, but no less heroic (perhaps more so) for all that. In 1871, Eliot’s Middlemarch declared the age of “spiritual grandeur” over, thanks to “meanness of opportunity” and “tangled circumstance.” But Hopkins achieves a Christlike “spiritual grandeur” in Dublin, where perhaps one had thought such things were “inconceivable.” I would submit that Hopkins’s discovery of providence in the modern city, where NOTHING AT ALL SEEMS TO MATTER, is a more impressive featboth spiritually and artisticallythan his ability to see divine designs while he was a happy oddball amid the hills and dales of Wales.
Hope, then, had it right in spite of himself: One Hopkins is enough. Let’s have Hopkins the Priestwho is, in the end, the better Poet.
Julia Yost is a Ph.D candidate in English at Yale University. Image from AMC.