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Betrayal as an Act of Faith

Sean Sheehan

The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins: Volume V: Sermons and Spiritual Writings, edited by Jude V Nixon and Noel Barber SJ, Oxford University Press, 688 pp, £145, ISBN: 978-0199238651

Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Poetry of Religious Experience, by Martin Dubois, Cambridge University Press, 238 pp, £75, ISBN: 978-1107180451

It seems incongruous as a comparison, but the turn to communism by the Cambridge spies in the 1930s echoes in some respects Gerard Manley Hopkins’s abandonment of his Anglican religion and conversion to Catholicism. For Hopkins it was a defection motivated, like those of Kim Philby and his confreres, by the sincerest of convictions, and one never reneged on or regretted. (“I do not waver in my allegiance, I never have since my conversion to the Church,” writes Hopkins in notes he made during his final retreat in 1889.) Their decisions were ideological: the Church of Rome and the Soviet Union each represented an ideal, a vocation to be wished for, so important and necessary that fidelity to it entailed rejection – betrayal – of a loyalty that others thought could be taken for granted.

Before their exposures, the Cambridge spies seemed a safe set of hands to the British establishment. Given that class loyalty was unquestionable, it was beyond the pale to think members of their caste could become traitors. Hopkins’s conversion was out in the open but it still felt like treachery to his parents – “O Gerard my darling boy are you indeed gone from me?” asks his father in a letter – and, as with the Cambridge spies, those who came to feel betrayed could not understand how or why someone could reject a set of beliefs considered inviolable.

Oxford was the laboratory for Hopkins’s conversion; Cambridge for Philby, Burgess and the others. Hopkins’s life-changing decision was bound up with his attendance at a series of lectures by Henry Parry Liddon, whose late Tractarian proclivities were held responsible for an inordinate number of students turning to Rome. Kim Philby was introduced to communism by an economics lecturer.

The Oxford Movement had got under way before Hopkins was born and the secession of cardinal-to-be John Henry Newman took place a year after his birth. Catholicism’s appeal remained strong when nineteen-year-old Hopkins arrived at Oxford, at a time when old-school Christianity was facing the challenge of Darwin’s Origin of Species and German biblical scholarship. Old certainties were shaken by a questioning spirit of dissent in a way not dissimilar to the situation seventy years later when equally earnest students, like Philby and Burgess, were shaken by political awakenings that questioned the validity of the capitalist system. If time is a river that flows from your past, Hopkins and the Cambridge spies found themselves moving downstream but floating adrift, seeking a sense of direction.

Hopkins sought more than theological certainties. His sacramental understanding of nature is consistent with his enthusiasm for Ruskin’s aesthetic and that critic’s sense of a divine presence in art. Hopkins’s endorsement of this was supplemented by a rigorous discipline of mind that sought rationality as well as emotion. Beauty was to be intellectually as well as rhapsodically experienced and for Hopkins, the Victorian architect William Butterfield achieved such a combination of liturgical correctness and visual splendour (even the briefest of visits to St Margaret’s church off Oxford Street in London, designed by Butterfield, gives a sense of what Hopkins was responding to).

In the earliest of his extant poems, “The Escorial”, written when he was only sixteen, Hopkins praises Gothic architecture for its “form divine, a fiery chivalry – / Triumph of airy grace and perfect harmony”. He looked to medievalism for something that low-church Anglicanism failed to provide and in a letter to his father he writes of Catholicism’s “consolations, its marvellous ideal of holiness … its consistency and unity, its glowing prayer, the daring majesty of its claims”.

Catholicism for Hopkins, and communism for Philby et al, would fill a spiritual deficit and offer deliverance from what they experienced in their different ways as a spiritual bankruptcy. “They come,” said Newman of converts to Rome, “not so much to lose what they have, as to gain what they have not.” Anglicanism failed to provide what Hopkins needed from religion; capitalism, for the Cambridge cohort, failed to provide the basis for a just society. Such conversions came at a cost: family estrangement for Hopkins; betrayal of one’s country for the spies. The comfort that came with commitment was underlaid by personal periods of grief, grim reckonings that had to be faced in solitude.

Hopkins speaks of the call to conversion at the end of a sermon he gave in Oxford in 1879, identifying it as an act of God’s will that cannot be ignored: converts “are bound to go, it will be sin to stay, God calls them”, and, referring to his own experience as evidence, speaks of hearing a voice and seeing a “beckoning finger”. In another sermon at Leigh in Lancashire, after a highly empirical account of the paralysed man who is lowered through the roof of a house where Jesus is present, he concludes that miracles are a confirmation to those thinking of converting to Catholicism that they should “listen to the calling voice and follow the beckoning finger”.

The fifth volume of The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins replaces Devlin’s The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1959), the volume that, until now, has been the standard reference for the extant sermons and other religious writings. In editorial line with the other volumes from CUP, this volume allows the reader to see how Hopkins scrupulously corrected and revised his own writings; in addition, it provides a level of painstaking annotation not previously available in one edition. In the introduction, Hopkins’s homilies from the pulpit are rightly situated within the sui generis genre of nineteenth century sermons, and while the attempts of Jesuit commentators to relate them to his poetry are not always convincing the sermons do offer a fascinating insight into Hopkins the devout working priest striving to communicate his Catholic truths to parishioners. He explicates biblical passages with a startling, endearing literalism and, while always remaining bound to the strictness of scripture, does not seek to reconcile religious experience with the kind of intellectualism he had earlier pursued in his philosophical enquiries at Cambridge. Based on a conviction that the doctrines and practices of Catholicism are more in harmony with the divine than any other body of beliefs, Hopkins is comfortable with religion as an institutional and disciplined presence in his life.

Hopkins’s notes on Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises – constituting, along with the sermons the greater part of this volume – are misleadingly presented in Devlin’s edition as a tidily organised critical commentary on the sixteenth century text. What they actually are is a compendium of spiritual and theological reflections, ranging from the profoundly serious to the inconsequential, and only very loosely related to the writings of the Jesuit founder. This, far from making them uninteresting, allows Hopkins to make remarks that are fundamental to how he saw the world. Creation possesses an intrinsic goodness and the substance of the world comes out of God: “God’s utterance of himself in himself is God the Word, outside of himself is this world. The world then is word, expression, news of God.” The theological aesthetic that Hopkins develops from this statement of belief – “I know the beauty of the lord by it [a bluebell]” – is the concern of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Poetry of Religious Experience by Martin Dubois.

Dubois opens a space for wondering if the Jesuit order which Hopkins entered was best suited to his particular understanding of the Christian faith. The cerebral nature of Jesuit teaching distanced divine revelation from ordinary life in a way that was alien to Hopkins. The poet saw and felt God in what he saw around him and this subjective experience of the divine was something available to everyone within the context of their quotidian existence. Through close readings of poems like “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, “Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves” and “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”, and with a keen ear for prosody capable of handling the linguistic daring of Hopkins, Dubois insightfully unpacks the theological narrowness of Hopkins’s notion of a final judgement and its contrast with the beauty and dignity of natural and human life that his best-loved poems celebrate. His insistence on doctrinal rigour does not come to the fore in his nature poems but it lies at the heart of his spiritual writings.

What Hopkins came to realise as a result of ministering to working class communities was the social reality that made it difficult for the impoverished to warm to the presence of God in their lives: “a conviction, a truly crushing conviction … of the degradation even of our race, of the hollowness of this century’s civilization: it made a burden to me to have daily thrust upon me the things I saw”. These words, from a letter Hopkins wrote in 1881, could have been written half a century later by one of the men at Cambridge. Their convictions made them communists, and Hopkins famously wrote how “in a manner I am a Communist”.

The parallel can only be pursued so far – after all, there was a jingoistic reactionary side to Hopkins’s politics – but there is a final, dismaying similarity in the way their lives drew to an end. Burgess, Philby and Maclean all took to drink in Moscow and suffered varying degrees of loneliness and depression; Hopkins avoided the bottle but the six sonnets he wrote in Dublin express his extreme despair at not being able to reach the God who for so long had been a familiar part of his everyday life. While the three spies could finally shake off their years of subterfuge when they fled to Moscow, Hopkins had to live a kind of double life in Dublin: a dutiful Jesuit to those around him but in private a deeply unhappy man for whom the sacramentality of earthly existence had given way to eschatological anxieties and self-questionings of an intensely personal kind.

Hopkins’s spiritualism when approached through his poetry alone does not readily prepare the reader for the profound discomfort of the final sonnets. Living in Dublin was not congenial for Hopkins but it cannot wholly account for the dark turn taken in his poetry. Sermons and Spiritual Writings helps provide the larger context for Hopkins’s priestly life – curate at St Aloysius’s in Oxford, St Joseph’s in Leigh, St Francis Xavier’s in Liverpool (plus short periods in Glasgow and Roehampton) – and his relentless concern with the nature of human relationships with the metaphysical.

1/3/2019

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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