Diamonds and dross compete in this book, all for a good cause. The diamonds: the sparkling poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, along with some less known but splendid prose. The dross: the preface, introductions and commentary, which are inaccurate, overreaching and based on outmoded sources. The good cause: presenting a new poet in “The Mystic Poets Series,” which works to share spiritual and faith traditions and “deepen our relationships with the sacred.”
Hopkins (1844-89), a Jesuit priest, is one of the world’s finest poets of nature and spirituality, as well a major experimenter in sound and rhythm. Many of his best poems are of course included here: “God’s Grandeur,” “Pied Beauty,” “Spring,” “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” “The Starlight Night,” “The Windhover” and “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire.” Other choices are unusual and apt: “At the Wedding March,” “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe,” “The May Magnificat” and (interestingly) all 35 stanzas of the difficult but wonderful “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” A few poems seem remote from spirituality: “Duns Scotus’s Oxford,” “Binsey Poplars” and “Inversnaid.” But all the poems are wonderful, as are two extracts from a sermon given in Liverpool in 1879, which the editor entitles “The Physical Beauty of Jesus Christ” and “The Mind and Character of Jesus.”
But such sparkle is encased in dross: the preface (by Thomas Ryan, C.S.P., (author of Prayer of Heart and Body) and the introductions and commentary (anonymous). First, some facts and texts are wrong. Facts: the poet died at age 44 (not 45), began studying theology in 1874 (not 1875), was curate in London in 1878 (not 1877). Texts: in “Carrion Comfort,” words are incorrectly spaced, ruining the effect of the famous climax “(my God!) my God”; in “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” lines are mis-indented, damaging the rhythm; in “Pied Beauty,” the editor says the phrase “the bent world’s brink” does “not make sense,” whereas Hopkins actually wrote, “morning, at the brown brink eastwards, springs—/ Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods.…” The editor got it all wrong.
The book is better on mysticism, which Father Ryan defines in popular terms: “In the Catholic tradition of Christian faith, mysticism is essentially a deeply human life.... The human person is mystical by nature, that is, experientially referred to a holy, loving Mystery.” Mysticism as Christian “must be incarnational, affirmative,” but mysticism as mysticism must have “negative...elements that strip one of the supports previously relied upon and bring one in one’s naked being into the presence of the ever-greater God.” But he overreaches in presuming that Hopkins’s lost contact with God in Dublin (1885-86) is a mystical experience. Many scholars, myself included, find Hopkins’s pain fully explainable by a complex of natural reasons: headaches, bad eyesight, exhaustion, worry, depression, separation from friends, Dublin’s gloom and pollution, scrupulosity, political irritation, fear of madness and worry about lost poetic inspiration. Mysticism might be involved, but a writer should not presume it is.
The book’s research in Hopkins is shallow. Sources are outmoded, including only essays of 1909, 1918 and 1919, and a book of 1942. Countless fine books and essays have appeared since then. And sources are not even noted for the sermon, nor—more seriously—for the texts of the poems. The book seems put together too quickly, without sufficient knowledge of Hopkins.
By the end, though somewhat dulled by their setting, Hopkins’s poems and prose still glitter. One hopes that the rest of this “Mystic Poets Series”—on Hafiz, Tagore and (forthcoming) Hildegard and Whitman—will reflect more skill.