The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins: Volume VII: The Dublin Notebook, edited by Lesley Higgins and Michael F. Suarez, S.J., Oxford University Press, 336 pp, £100, ISBN: 978-0199534029
The Dublin Notebook, more or less A4 in size, consists of sixty-six pages which Hopkins filled with notations of various kinds over a period of twenty-two months from February 1884, when he arrived in Dublin, to the end of the following year. Volume VII of The Collected Works – volumes I and II (correspondence) and volume IV (essays and notes from his time at Oxford) are already in print – is a facsimile edition of the notebook’s thirty-three rectos and versos, with a transcription page on the left and the manuscript image on the right. What cannot be shown in the black and white photographic facsimile are variations in pen nibs used and differences in ink colour and density but these are carefully tabulated by the editors.
Following his appointment as professor of classics at University College and fellow of the Royal University of Ireland, Hopkins was given a residence at 86 St Stephen’s Green. Here, like a pupil at the beginning of a new term, he turns to the first page of an unused notebook and dutifully enters his homework. Hopkins had found in his luggage an old notebook that had been purchased by him when a student at Oxford two decades earlier and now, on the first two pages, he neatly lists the required texts for the various examinations in which he will be involved, indicative of a professional resolve that would soon be sorely tested by pressures of various kinds. The stress he would experience drove him to distraction and this is textually rendered in the way his notebook becomes a seemingly random repository for jottings, lists, prayer and sermon notes, tallies and tables of examination marks, poetry drafts, musical matters, lecture notes – mixes of these sometimes appearing on the same page. At the same time, remarkably, he was also working on the astonishing poetry of the “terrible sonnets” and the Dublin Notebook records three rough drafts from the early composition of “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”.
Hopkins’s appointment was mired in difficulties even before he stepped foot on Irish soil. There were intra-Catholic tensions between pro-British “Castle Catholics” and those more sympathetic to the nationalist movement; Hopkins, an Englishman and a convert, served as a handy football to be kicked around by opposing factions. The poor man himself had had enough of cities and wanted to dwell “in a farm in the Western counties, glowworms, new milk … but I live in Dublin”. The increasingly radical position being adopted by Gladstone and the Liberal Party as regards Ireland’s right to self-rule did little to assuage Hopkins’s feelings and when he reflects on words of Jesus – “Let him that is without sin” – he adds in his notebook, “Pray to keep this spirit and as far as possible rule in speaking of Mr Gladstone”.
It is too simplistic to regard his time in Ireland as the cause of a growing despair; less-than-happy feelings occupied his thoughts before ever going there; unresolved tensions can be traced in “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and his sense of impotence and inability to finish a project only intensified in Dublin and made him think his whole life was a wreck of another kind. The content as well as the form of the notebook bears testimony to his difficulties as he struggles in his prayer notes to apply the Ignatian stricture of rigorous self-examination. After six months in Dublin he admonishes himself: “I must ask God to strengthen my faith or I shall never keep the par[ticular] ex[amen]’ – the Particular Examen, as the editors inform us, being the practice of moral self-inspection as laid out by St Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises. Private prayer of this nature would be demanding for the best of us and one feels for Hopkins’s plight as recorded in his retreat notes of January 1889 (available in an appendix to The Dublin Notebook), “I was continuing this train of thought this evening when I began to enter on that course of loathing and hopelessness which I have so often felt before, which made me fear madness and led me to give up the practice of meditation except, as now, in retreat, and here it is again.”
The Dublin Notebook’s introduction deftly covers aspects of Hopkins’s time in Dublin and the sorry tale will be familiar to readers of Norman White’s Hopkins: A Literary Biography and Robert Bernard Martin’s Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life. Notwithstanding, the editors of The Dublin Notebook manage to enrich and finesse the known facts by detailed analysis of primary source material, principally, of course, the entries in the poet’s notebook. In retrospect, it seems remarkable that the chapter in Martin’s biography covering 1884-5 makes no reference to The Dublin Notebook and Norman White in Hopkins in Ireland (2002) refers to it only briefly.
For readers, this volume from OUP is a labour of love as well as a wonderful and much-needed production. It is a larger book than Hopkins’s notebook and complementing the sheer pleasure of being able to see and read the notebook’s contents there is a set of notes that annotate in detail each one of its pages. Nothing startlingly new is encountered – scholars have always been able to visit Oxford’s Campion Hall and consult the original notebook – but this does little to diminish the interest of following his handwriting, reading what he wrote and seeing how it is arranged across the pages. Volume VII is an exemplary work of scholarship and we don’t need to consult the sibyl’s leaves to prophesy that as from now any serious piece of writing about the last phase of Hopkins’s life will rely on and be grateful for the painstaking work of the two editors of this volume.
Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012)