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Hopkins’s Wound

Sean Sheehan

The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins: Volume IV: Oxford Essays and Notes, Oxford University Press, edited by Lesley Higgins, 392 pp, £134, ISBN: 978-0199285457
The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins: Volumes I and II: Correspondence, Oxford University Press, edited by RKR Thornton and Catherine Phillips, 1,184 pp, £175, ISBN: 978-0199653706

Good things in life are worth waiting for, if we manage to live long enough. When complete, there will be eight volumes in The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins and now, seven years after the first (Volume IV) was published, Volumes I and II are on the shelf. Of the remaining five, The Dublin Notebook (Volume VII) might be published before the end of this year and Volume III, Journals and Diaries (which will include all of the previously expurgated diary entries from 1865-66), should appear in 2014. Volume V, Sermons and Spiritual Writings, is due the following year, while Volume VI, Sketches, Notes and Studies, and the final Volume VIII, covering the poetry, are hovering somewhere on the horizon. Serendipitous it may seem, even haphazard when Volume IV, entitled Oxford Essays and Notes, does not include all of Hopkins’s prose texts from his Oxford undergraduate years; his writings in a large notebook from 1862-65 (the manuscript now known as B.II) will be part of Volume VI instead. Any such response would be churlish to say the least when consideration is given to the difficulty of the task facing editors working to compile and present the most complete collection of Hopkins’s writings that is humanly possible. When it comes to just his correspondence, never mind other issues, the two volumes have a “Lost Letters” section detailing what is known to be missing or destroyed by Hopkins and others.

All being well, the complete set of eight volumes will be available before the centenary of the first publication of some of Hopkins’s poetry arrives in 2018. For this we should all be grateful because the preservation, never mind the publication, of his work has always faced considerable difficulties. Hopkins was careless about the fate of his poems, trusting to Heaven to make something of them – though it would take divine intervention to rescue those that the poet himself burned (the “slaughter of the innocents” as he noted in his journal) – and while Robert Bridges chose to delay for decades publication of the poems he had in his possession it should also be remembered that had Bridges not thought to ask the Jesuit Fr Wheeler in Dublin for the remaining papers of the priest the world would have lost the incomparable last sonnets. As Christopher Devlin, editing Hopkins’s sermons and devotional writings in the late 1950s, put it: “[Hopkins] treated his muse in public like a slut and her children as an unwanted and vaguely sinful burden.”

Volume IV gives us forty-five assignments completed by Hopkins at Oxford (most of which have not been published before), his notes from lectures on Plato, a Platonic dialogue “On the Origin of Beauty”, short passages he copied from the works of others, plus a superb eighty-five-page introduction by the meticulous editor, Lesley Higgins, that sets the pedagogical, chronological and cultural backgrounds for the contents. Her volume concludes with the especially interesting set of teaching notes that Hopkins began writing after leaving Oxford in the summer of 1867 to take up a post at Newman’s Oratory School in Birmingham. The teaching notes are on Greek philosophy and they bear fascinating testimony to the convergence of his interest in the classics, the influence of German idealism, or at least the version of it that he was introduced to by Jowett and TH Green at Oxford, and his own emerging aesthetic. The most important of these notes, on Parmenides, has been available in The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by Humphry House and completed by Graham Storey, but this 1959 book has long been out of print and, besides, it lacks the essential textual commentary provided here.

Parmenides, like Hopkins, expressed his philosophy in verse, and both poets, in their struggle to find a form for their subject matter, exhibit syntactical knots that reflect their striving to capture the infrangible bond between reality and thinking. For Parmenides, thought connects with being through language, seen as its natural conduit; being is not just the content of thought but constitutive of it. What cannot be expressed is that which is not; thought without being lacks content. Hopkins responds warmly to this – “[Parmenides’] feeling for instress, for the flush and foredrawn, and for inscape is most striking” – before elaborating on what he means:

There wd. be no bridge, no stem of stress between us and things to bear us out and carry the mind over: without stress we might not and could not say /Blood is red/ but only /This blood is red/ or /The last blood I saw was red/ not even that, for in later language not only universals would not be true but the copula wd. break down even in particular judgements.

What Hopkins means here is not crystal clear but “bridge” and “stem” point to some connection, if not unity, of parts and what is thus cohesively held (“foredrawn”) is its essential being – that which it is – and this is its “inscape”. What Hopkins is already calling inscape is the truth of being that thought (Parmenides’ nοein) grasps and one can turn to Heidegger for another expression of this idea. Heidegger was also drawn to Parmenides and when, in his Introduction to Metaphysics, he emphasises the importance of turning away from a simple division between thinking and being he is making a point not dissimilar to Hopkins’s:

Apprehension is not a way of behaving that the human being has as a property; to the contrary, apprehension is the happening that has the human being. Thus Parmenides always simply speaks only of noein, apprehension.

There is a shared sense of Being not just embodying but constitutive of an electric-like force, a current that connects us with the world — the ‘bridge’ and ‘stem’ that Hopkins has mentioned — and for Heidegger this is the ‘happening that has the human being’. It is not surprising, as evidenced in one of his Oxford essays, that Hopkins was not attracted to the serene, exquisitely balanced compositions of Claude’s paintings (some of which he would have seen at the National Gallery in London). What they gain in the harmony of form is lost for Hopkins in the absence of thouness, the living presence that brings apprehension and comprehension together, a presence that is not rule-governed (by, say, laws of perspective) but experienced reciprocally, existentially one might say. In his notes on Parmenides, after quoting a line from the ancient Greek, he comments:

Not-being is here seen as want of oneness, all that is unforedrawn, waste space which offers either nothing to the eye to foredraw or many things foredrawing away from one another. [Two more lines of Parmenides are then quoted in Greek.] To be and to know or Being and thought are the same. The truth in thought is Being, stress, and each word is one way of acknowledging Being and each sentence by its copula is (or its equivalent) the utterance and assertion of it.

Here in brief and condensed form is the philosophy underlying Hopkins’s aesthetic of literature and it brings home the vital importance of Parmenides in what was a crucial year for Hopkins, poised as he was between his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1866 and the start of his novitiate of the Society of Jesus in 1868. He has yet to read Duns Scotus; it is Parmenides who sets him off on a philosophical journey that will protect him from succumbing to merely romantic celebrations of nature’s ephemeralness. Readers who find themselves wanting to know more about the Presocratic philosopher should turn to The Fragments of Parmenides, a revised edition of the text with a detailed commentary and translation, published by Parmenides Publishing in 2009. Designed to be read by those with and without a knowledge of ancient Greek, The Fragments of Parmenides comes as close as possible to recreating some of the intellectual rapture that Hopkins must have experienced when he read and thought about the ancient philosopher poet.

Hopkins’s correspondence, the content of the recently published Volumes I and II, replaces what has previously been distributed across three out-of-print books (The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins including his Correspondence with Coventry Patmore) so there is an immediate virtue in having everything brought together in Oxford’s new companion volumes. Forty-three letters, discovered since the three earlier books were published, have been added to the existing four hundred but while the new material is undoubtedly welcome this is not what makes the new edition from Oxford so worthy of value. Previously, the material was organised into separate sequences according to the main addressees but now all the poet’s letters are set out in chronological order. Moreover, all the surviving letters that were written to Hopkins are included at the appropriate date and this adds a welcome dimension to an appreciation of what was occupying him at particular times. Best of all, the correspondence is superbly annotated by the editors and their work alongside the letters brings home the sheer brilliance, depth and originality of Hopkins’s mind.

Robert Bridges, certainly on the basis of surviving correspondence, was the individual to whom Hopkins wrote most letters. They first met as students at Oxford but it was in epistolary form that their relationship developed and, blending impersonal logic with personal honesty in a way that is peculiarly characteristic of him, Hopkins noted the deepening of their affection for one another in a postscript to a letter on Christmas Eve in 1867:

You sometimes now address me by my Christian name and I like it but I do not you by yours, for first it wd. not feel natural to me and secondly it wd. be unnecessary, for your surname is the prettier.

A strange mix of diffidence and confidence is also apparent is Hopkins’s first letter to Richard Watson Dixon in June 1878, establishing contact with his former teacher at Highgate School in London. They corresponded for ten years and as noted in the Oxford introduction to Volume I, the teacher/pupil role with which their relationship began is gradually reversed. Yet they only met each other face to face on one occasion and it turned out to be of little consequence:

I wish our meeting cd. have been longer for several reasons, but to name one, I fancied you were shy and that time would have been needed for this to wear off. I think that I myself have very little shyness left in me, but I cannot communicate my own feelings to another.

What partly prompted Hopkins to contact Dixon in the first place was the recognition that as poets they were both likely to remain neglected and unrecognised. Only the month before, “The Loss of the Eurydice” had been rejected by the official Jesuit monthly The Month. This was the same publication that had earlier accepted “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, but it was then rejected by the editor, who couldn’t understand it, and Hopkins never again attempted to write anything so marvellously ambitious and experimental. Hopkins’s biographer, Norman White, who taught at University College Dublin until his retirement, is in little doubt in Hopkins in Ireland (2002) that were it not for the Jesuits’ discouragement the poet “would have been capable, with his knowledge and understanding of verse and language principles, of developing much stranger and more wonderful creations than even “The Wreck of the Deutschland’’’.

No one today could refute the fact that people have been wounded by the Catholic Church ‑ the consequences of the hurt done to Hopkins palls in the light of recent revelations about abuse by priests – but there is also the question whether people can be hurt by the belief system of Roman Catholicism: an issue of theology rather than of an institution. The griefwork of Hopkins’s final sonnets is not the result of an editor’s former discouragement, and the strain of too scrupulously teaching at University College Dublin and marking hundreds of examination papers for the Royal University of Ireland can be only be a contributing factor in Hopkins’s despair. Nor can one fall back on casual racism, as Norman MacKenzie does in Excursions in Hopkins (2008): “a sensitive Englishman trying to deal with immature Irish classes and a hostile political climate”. A poem like “Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves”, begun in 1884 when the Jesuits moved Hopkins to Dublin but not finished until two years later when he returned to the poem, reveals a mind tormented by thoughts of the day of judgement:

 Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds—black, white; / right,
wrong: reckon but, reck but, mind
But these two; ware of a world where but these / twó tell, each
off the other; of a rack
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, / thoughts
agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd

The marks for stress and pauses are Hopkins’s, serving to drum home the self-lacerating pain of someone who, feeling that earth’s “being has unbound; her dapple is at end”, lays anguished at the thought that all that was varied and plural is summarily reduced to a binary and bleak opposition. This is Catholic fundamentalism of a Taliban kind, heard in the relentless repletion of “two” and “but” and the frightening finality that comes close to outlawing words of more than one syllable.

The possibly negative role of Catholicism is not an area sanctioned by a Hopkins scholarship that for too long has been mantled by an assumption that to enjoy the Jesuit poet entails entering into, if only agnostically, his religious beliefs. One does not have to be a libertarian socialist to appreciate and champion the poetry of Blake or Shelley, even though such political radicalism is central to their thought and to much of their poetry; quite the opposite, indeed, given the way Blake’s “Jerusalem” has been conscripted by the Establishment (though it would be nicer if soccer fans sang “Jerusalem” at England’s internationals instead of feudally abasing themselves with renditions of “God Save Our Queen”). And with Hopkins, while fully acknowledging the way his poetry embodies theological concepts, it is also possible to understand his God in a metaphysical way that is open to secular readers. Derrida writes of God in Kierkegaard as “the name of the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not from the exterior” and such a mode of interiority is there in the passion that informs Hopkins’s poetry. His intellectual and emotional response to existence, aroused in his reading of the pagan Parmenides, found expression in his religious convictions. In a letter to his father begun on October 16th, 1866, explaining his conversion to Roman Catholicism, he declares:


I shall hold as a Catholic what I have long held as an Anglican, that literal truth of our Lord’s words by which I learn that the least fragment of the consecrated elements in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar is the whole of Body of Christ born of the Blessed Virgin, before which the whole host of saints and angels as it lies on the altar trembles in adoration. This belief once got is the life of the soul and when I doubted it I shd. become an atheist the next day.

His conversion to Catholicism was driven by a need for a confirmation of Being that he found missing in Protestantism. The divine is really there, wholly and utterly, in the bread and wine of the sacrament of Communion and Hopkins’s poetry seeks to be equally transformative. The ardent fervour of his religious ontology expressed here is not dissimilar to what can be enjoyed as a pagan response to a kestrel in flight in “The Windhover”. The unique experience celebrated in that poem cannot be boiled down to something tiresomely symbolic about God or beauty; the moment being celebrated is an ontological one. The raptor’s attributes “caught” that morning exist in one precious moment of time and place. The “meaning” of the poem is not something religious or mystical; the bird’s existence is the meaning and this sheer moment of existence is what the poem succeeds in recreating. Poetry that lacks this essential fusion of moment and meaning, time and truth, no matter how beautifully expressed, becomes for Hopkins something hollow. In a letter to Bridges, begun on February 27th, 1879, he distinguishes between the truly great poetry of Tennyson and work like his “Idylls of the King” by way of an analogy to a game of charades with affluent players.

Each scene is a triumph of language and of bright picturesque, but just like a charade – where real lace and good silks and real jewellery are used, because the actors are private persons and wealthy, but it is acting all the same …

In Dublin, towards the end of his life, Hopkins was stricken with the thought that his philosophy of harmony through difference no longer found resonance. The symphonic plurality celebrated in “Pied Beauty” is gone, the stem is broken and Hopkins is terminally wounded.

The collected works of Hopkins being published by Oxford represent a major achievement for everyone interested in the poet and his work. When complete, the eight volumes will constitute the nucleus of any Hopkins library and the putting together of such a library could begin with the three volumes currently available. Alongside them on the shelf, I would suggest, would be copies of Robert Bernard Martin’s Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life and Norman White’s Hopkins in Ireland (2002). There are plenty of books by Catholic writers and one of the better recent ones is World as Word by Bernadette Waterman Ward, published by The Catholic University of America Press (2002). For literary criticism of a more secular kind, there is Angus Easson’s Gerard Manley Hopkins (2011) and The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Sourcebook, edited by Alice Jenkins (2006).

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).




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