A Heart Lost in Wonder:
The Life and Faith of Gerard Manley Hopkins
by catherine randall
eerdmans, 195 pages, $22.00
Every book, whether it be a crime novel, a collection of poems, or a history of the Pacific War, is the product of thousands of choices, from the macro-level (deciding what the book is about) to the micro-level (substituting one word for another) and everything in between. While some choices may simply be wrong, inept, or incompetent, many involve trade-offs.
Consider one of the most important choices Catherine Randall makes in A Heart Lost in Wonder: The Life and Faith of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the most recent entry in Eerdmans’ excellent Library of Religious Biography. Randall decided to refer to her subject as “Gerard.” A digital search could tell us how many times his given name appears in the course of the book: The answer would be “a lot” (eight times on page 113, for instance). For some readers, myself included, this will be unwelcome, a persistent irritant. But was it simply a mistake? Not at all. The use of Hopkins’s first name sets a tone of intimacy and informality that many readers will welcome, even as others grit their teeth.
This stylistic choice, which may seem rather trivial, turns out to tell us something significant about the book, which differs from the others I’ve read in the Eerdmans series (though they are themselves quite various). It is short (129 pages, not counting the back-matter). It is both more devotional and more inspirational than a reader of earlier volumes in the series might expect, though with none of the cheap effects that mar much writing marketed as “inspirational.” Calling Hopkins “Gerard” establishes a relationship among Randall, her readers, and the subject of her book—a relationship quite different from that which is implicit in a scholarly biography. Lauren Winner puts it beautifully in her foreword to Randall’s book: “A Heart Lost in Wonder is hagiography insofar as the experience of Hopkins’s faithfulness moves us to ask about our own.”
Randall herself is a scholar I have long admired. (I reviewed her book Building Codes: The Aesthetics of Calvinism in Early Modern Europe in the March/April 2000 issue of Books & Culture.) While literature is not her primary field, she is deeply acquainted with Hopkins scholarship. But in this book she is drawing both on scholarship and her own immersion in Hopkins to write for that fabled creature, the “general reader.”
You can read and love Hopkins’s poetry (I hope that you do!) while knowing little about his life, but your appreciation may be deepened by Randall’s concise and empathetic account. The single most significant event in his life was his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1866 at age twenty-two, under the influence of John Henry Newman. Newman had famously taken the same step in 1845, the year after Hopkins was born. In 1868, Hopkins decided to become a Jesuit, as Newman had advised.
Hopkins was intellectually gifted, fey, hypersensitive, “overscrupulous” (as Catholics say) to an extreme degree, passionate in his appreciation both of the arts and of the natural world, strongly attracted to male beauty, and “physically frail” (as Randall puts it). For all his tortured inwardness, he had a gift for friendship. He was in some ways spectacularly unsuited for life in the Society of Jesus but was in other respects perfectly at home there. Where else would he have fit?
He spent his last five years at University College, Dublin, where he felt like an outcast, teaching and grading examinations not directly connected with his classroom work. This task was made more burdensome by his conscientiousness. He died of typhoid in June 1889, just short of his forty-fifth birthday.
Who would guess, from such a summary, that Hopkins experienced again and again the passionate joy he expressed in poems such as “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover,” a joy communicated to countless readers in the 130 years since his death? The same man who suffered from profound self-loathing (especially in his last years), was able to revel in the presence of God as revealed in the natural world. What strange creatures we are.
One last thought. We should be thankful for Randall’s fine telling. But it would be possible to tell the story of Hopkins’s life in a different way, one that would emphasize its comedy without losing all sense of sympathy. Describing Hopkins’s difficulties as curate at St. Aloysius, “a rather nondescript structure” in Oxford to which he was posted in 1878, Randall writes, “Gerard was not an ideal clergyman to minister to working-class folk, anyway; his flamboyant affectations, such as waving a bright red handkerchief to emphasize whatever he was saying, were seen as suspect.” Were they now? There’s comic potential to be mined here, with no disrespect for the author of “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.
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