It is commonly accepted that Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., was a depressed and frustrated oracle, an artist whose lyrical talents were stymied at many turns by his religious superiors, a morose and fragile genius who achieved recognition as a wordsmith only years after his unfortunate and early death. His career can be summed up in his famous lament that “birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,/ Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.”
A vivid reputation, to be sure, and one that has persisted through many decades even as Hopkins’s poetic fame has grown. But was it ever true?
In Ron Hansen’s well-wrought historical novel Exiles, the reader encounters a different Hopkins: a poet who finds the supposed constraints of Jesuit life an occasional boon to his creative impulses and who draws fecundity from the spare soil of a life of asceticism and contemplation. Also an exile, to be sure, as Hopkins was in almost every setting of his 44 years, but hardly the wasted and thwarted talent of popular lore, in which Hopkins is reduced to the despairing author of the “terrible sonnets” of his later years. In Exiles, Hopkins needs nothing more than a Jesuit superior’s gentle prodding to inspire a return to poetry.
Hansen intersperses his tale of Hopkins’s composition of his famous poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” with embellished accounts of the lives of five German nuns who were among the 157 victims when the Deutschland foundered at the mouth of the Thames river in 1875, and works around those narratives to give us Hopkins’s life story as well. It is an enormous amount of material to cram into barely 200 pages, precluding treatment of many themes that might make up a more comprehensive biography, but Hansen’s flair for the portentous moment and ear for dialogue help fill some of these gaps. He also includes the text of “The Wreck of the Deutschland” itself in an appendix, providing valuable context for quotations in the novel as well as for Hansen’s own sly use of Hopkins’s turns of phrase.
In other novels, such as Mariette in Ecstasy, Atticus and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Hansen has demonstrated his interest in exiles and those living on the fringes of society. Exiles embraces that pattern again, giving close biographical details (some of them, in Hansen’s phrase, “fiction based on fact”) for the nuns on the Deutschland who have been driven from their home by Bismarck’s Kulturkampf and are headed to America to start new lives. In his portraits of these five distinct women Hansen also accomplishes some subtle literary wizardry: they are described not only in the authoritative voice of the author but also in terms of the perceptions they have of themselves and of their fellow travelers. In the course of their individual journeys, each adopts certain roles vis-à-vis other members of their community, consciously or unconsciously, and begins to take on the characteristics attributed to her by her peers.
Hopkins, too, was a kind of exile throughout his life: a Catholic convert in an Anglican land; a bookish scholar at home with Robert Bridges and John Henry Newman, who worked in various country parish churches and raucous classrooms; an Englishman who spent his final years teaching in a Dublin he never truly considered home. But neither Hopkins nor the nuns are too tortured in Hansen’s account; while we know their fates before the novel begins (a serious problem in fiction grounded in historical reality), we meet them not as tragic figures only but as real, complicated people with idiosyncratic personalities and their own histories, which go far beyond a few lines in a salacious newspaper story or a compendium of 19th-century poetry.
Hansen depicts Hopkins, still a seminarian at the time of the Deutschland tragedy, as an odd but well-liked fellow with an ascetical bent (he had abandoned his poetry years before, burning much of it in what he wryly called “the slaughter of the innocents”). He was captivated by the intricacies of language, even (alas) by puns, and was much taken with the foreign sounds and rhythms of the Welsh spoken in the villages around St. Beuno’s, his home in Wales during theology studies. These pedestrian influences, Hansen hints, may have had as much to do with the curious structure of “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and Hopkins’s later poetry as his more celebrated theories of inscape and instress.
Nowhere is this fine book better than in Hansen’s retelling of the wreck itself, the result of fog-induced navigational error followed by endless rough seas that prevented a quick rescue. In his suspenseful account of the increasing desperation of passengers and crew, who first thought their accident a minor inconvenience, Hansen recounts in vivid detail a harrowing progression from carefree tea parties all the way to frozen corpses clinging to masts, an inundated ship and the slow succumbing to the wet cold by passengers with the words of Christ on their tongues.
Hansen has written elsewhere that he admires Hopkins in part for his ability to “imitate in poetry the operations of the mind and spirit at a heightened moment of graced perception,” and allows both the poet himself and Hopkins’s literary subjects such grace—in Hopkins’s poem, one sister dies crying, “Christ, come quickly”; in Hansen’s account, another dies realizing that their exile is “not from Germany, not from Europe, but from Paradise, from Heaven.” There is no question that Hopkins himself experienced many moments of graced perception, and not just in the course of writing “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” In the closing pages of this novel, we see Hopkins in such a moment on his deathbed, as his final words provide a curious contrast to the reputation he would gain after his death: “I am so happy.”
Listen to an interview with Ron Hansen.