It can be said, using William Wordsworth’s phrase, that academic criticism will often “murder to dissect.” More exactly, the process of dissecting a poem is the murder itself, as abstract analysis can make creative engagement with a text nearly impossible. Two new books on the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins approach this dilemma in radically different ways. The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins, by the English professor Joseph Feeney, S.J. (Ashgate), adheres doggedly to modern tenets of academic criticism, while Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, by the professor and poet Paul Mariani (Viking), accomplishes a kind of ventriloquial channeling of the often ecstatic religious poet. The latter is a much more fulfilling read.
To “get” humor, like much poetry, you really have to “be there,” since so much depends on context and on what the teller and hearer bring to the occasion. Feeney justifies his study of Hopkins’s playfulness by noting that Hopkins “as both poet and person has long been viewed as serious and anguished” and that his study of the poet as “also playful, consistently playful, even compulsively playful, throughout his life…is painting a new portrait of Gerard Hopkins.” I never doubted that a poet who could open a serious poem about a nun taking her vows with such lines as “I have desired to go/ Where springs not fail” (“Heaven-Haven”)—lines in which two words serve simultaneously as nouns and verbs and thus gleefully suggest the simultaneity of the material and the spiritual in our world—is playful or humorous. Isn’t that, after all, what a joke does? It sets side by side in our minds two disparate, not usually associated things or ideas. That is also what metaphor does. Humor and poetry have much in common, and poetry is certainly a form of play.
Feeney reviews all possible instances of humor and playfulness in Hopkins’s writings, sometimes specifying that the poet is playful in “151 instances” here or “311 instances” there. Feeney does his job thoroughly, and I am sure there are critics who will welcome this book as opening a new perspective on the poet, but simple lovers of Hopkins’s poetry will probably not profit greatly from it. The glory of Hopkins’s poetry is in its momentary mysteries, which are lost when pinned down, like the life of a butterfly. Hopkins tries to show us that all things are both related and discrete, that all things have material and spiritual value (or inscape) at once. Holding that simultaneity in mind is a momentary grace. Critical analysis too often insists on truths that can be captured in denotations rather than connotations, and such critics have to be very careful about their facts.
Feeney identifies many playful words or word combinations as Hopkins’s own “coinage,” but he is sometimes wrong. More to the point, such a claim, wrong or right, is a distraction from the powers and possibilities of Hopkins’s poetry: it rationally distances us from the mystery Hopkins unfolds for us; its sureness protects us from Hopkins’s challenges to us. Great poetry does not lend itself to neat analysis; it opens up mysteries.
Paul Mariani’s life of Hopkins, on the other hand, is an emotional, even personal portrait of the poet. In fact, it is misleading even to call this book a “life” of Hopkins, as it does not catalog the events of the poet’s life in the traditional way. It begins with Hopkins’s decision to move from Anglicanism to Catholicism and then backtracks only a few years before that decision, with very little discussion of childhood experiences or other standard biographical details. This book is more properly a spiritual biography—really almost a spiritual autobiography, as Mariani speaks through and for Hopkins, both literally (in quotes from Hopkins’s journals and letters) and figuratively (as a kind of super-conscious disembodied voice accompanying Hopkins). Here is an example of how the two voices intermingle (with Hopkins’s words in single quotation marks): “The biggest problem with critics is that they are too often theory-driven, cramping in by rules the free-movement of genius, the ‘first requisite for a critic’ being ‘liberality, and the second liberality, and the third, liberality.’” The biographer in part speaks for the poet, in part quotes the poet, and the resultant compound voice is provocative and convincing.
Mariani is ideally suited for this creative ventriloquism. He is a master biographer and poet; his doctoral dissertation (which became his first book) was a study of the poems of Hopkins. He has written a book (Thirty Days) on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the foundation of the Jesuit experience, after undertaking them himself, specifically in order to better understand Hopkins. And his oldest son, his namesake, to whom he movingly dedicates this book and of whom he is openly proud and marveling, is a Jesuit priest. And so we have a comprehending and compassionate internal portrait of this extraordinary Jesuit poet.
The portrait is sometimes difficult to behold. Feeney characterizes Hopkins as “anguished” for good reason. Hopkins in his youth, as an Anglican at Oxford, became fully convinced of the original rightness of the Roman Catholic Church through his exposure to John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement. As he proudly noted throughout the rest of his life, Hopkins never questioned the rightness of his conversion or his calling as a Jesuit priest. But the work assigned to him as a Jesuit was very often spiritually and physically punishing to his particular nature. Hopkins complained again and again that he had no energy, that he was ill; he spoke of being in hell, of being buried alive; he called himself again and again a eunuch. Clearly his artistic side, dependent on the sacramental beauties of nature and on some spiritual and physical ease, was at odds with his religious side, in which he sought to live as ascetic a life as possible, in imitation of the great love of his life, Christ.
Mariani describes this effort as “the radical emptying of the self, like Christ on the cross.” Hopkins’s community sent him to teach or preach in what Hopkins felt were some “sordid” places: Liverpool and Dublin, among others. Yet Hopkins would at times deliberately turn away from the consolations of nature, even when they were available to him, if he felt the need to discipline his soul (again, Hopkins’s words are in quotation marks):
On the 23rd, [Hopkins] goes out with the novices to Beaumont for Rector’s Day and notes the “shires-long of pearled cloud under cloud,” then the “beautiful
blushing yellow in the straw of the uncut rye fields” waving in the July breeze. All this, he confesses, he “would have looked at again in returning but during dinner I talked too freely and unkindly and had to do penance going home.”
Hopkins too often denied himself the pleasures of life, beyond even the strict requirements of the Jesuit order. After fasting one Lent, Hopkins boasted in a letter to his mother that he was “thinner than I ever saw myself in the face, with my cheeks like two harp-frames.” Such a statement is painful to the reader who loves Hopkins’s poetry and knows that he in turn loved the poems of the Romantic poets, who at times compared their own poetic singing to the sounds of wind harps. Indeed, Hopkins’s very good friend (and later editor) Robert Bridges would call Hopkins’s insistently ascetic lifestyle “a self-holocaust”; Hopkins himself jokingly termed his destruction of his early poems after becoming a Catholic a “Slaughter of the Innocents.”
It cannot be known whether Hopkins’s most magnificent poems, such as his “terrible sonnets,” necessarily developed out of this “self-holocaust” or whether many more great poems would have come to us from a more self-accepting, self-trusting poet. And Mariani almost never steps far enough away from the poet to judge or analyze him in order to provide us with answers to such abstract questions. What matters in the end is that because he deeply loved the natural world as God’s creation and despised the way man was heedlessly abusing it, Hopkins sought to help us to see the inscape, the spiritual value of each thing, as an introduction to God: “I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it.”
Hopkins, an individual certainly at least as beautiful as that bluebell, memorably spoke for all living things in his magnificent sonnet “As kingfishers catch fire”—What I do is me: for that I came.” Yet Hopkins also denied his own individuality in his desire to be as much like Christ as possible, and in doing so he forsook responsibility to nurture the very life and talents that he would admit God had given him. Mariani admirably presents the poet’s conflicts and contradictions without judgment. He also offers us a lifeline of sorts at the end of the book, when he suggests that Hopkins might not have died of typhus only, as has always been assumed, but of that “illness made worse by another complaint, which will not even be named until 1932: Crohn’s, a disease marked by constant fatigue,” as well as by the nearly lifelong debilitating plagues of the digestive system from which Hopkins suffered.
So maybe Hopkins was not entirely his own self-tormentor. And Mariani helps us also to slow down in our readings of the great poems by putting them in the context of the poet’s life, so that we may notice the individual diamonds within them. Hopkins’s poetry is so intense, so dense, that it is sometimes difficult to absorb every detail in some of the longer poems, such as the depiction in “The Wreck of the Deutschland” of mortality as “soft sift/ In an hourglass.” Now, in the context of Mariani’s appreciation of this poem, that phrase stabs deep.
In the end, Mariani’s portrait of Hopkins is tragic—as, indeed in all honesty, it needs to be. Early in the book Mariani states starkly: “Come tomorrow, [Hopkins] will turn twenty-two and half his life will have been lived.” And those latter 22 years had more than their fair share of painful self-denial and psychological and physical suffering. But the tragedy of this life is also potentially universal. It is the story, in Mariani’s words, of any human who faces bravely “into the intense fire surrounding the face of God, in praise as in anguish, without flinching or drawing back.” We try to remain standing as best we can; we try to understand the power and the mystery confronting us as best we can; and eventually, hopefully, we learn to revalue our weakness and incompleteness as our strengths. In this sense, we are all sick and anguished—and all the more grateful to Hopkins for helping us to feel our way beyond the limitations inherent in human mortality to the life-giving “juice” and “joy” of this world.
Reading these two books, I was reminded of a plea by Plenty Coups, chief of the Mountain Crow people. He asked the white man not to try to conquer and study, or learn about, animals and native Americans, but to respect them and learn from them. Much the same is true of poetry. While Feeney performs an academic service by analyzing and learning about playfulness and humor in Hopkins’s writings, Mariani accompanies Hopkins through his life, learning from the poet’s most intimate writings, and making that spiritual knowledge available to us as well.