Last night I finished reading Paul Mariani’s astonishing new biography, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, which we reviewed in a "Bookings" section of our magazine a few weeks ago. It is simply extraordinary.
For many years, the standard biography of Hopkins has been Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life, by Robert Bernard Martin, which, while very good on the his comings and goings, and very fine on his poetry, fails to grasp how closely connected were Hopkins’s vocation as a Jesuit and his work. Robert Bridges, GMH’s longtime friend and the fellow poet responsible for (finally) getting his poetry to public attention, never quite understood Hopkins’s unusual poetic form (which he called "sprung rhythm") and always blamed the Jesuits for, in essence, killing the sensitive poet with overwork. “He seems to have been entirely lost and destroyed,” wrote Bridges to a mutual friend, “by those Jesuits.” Mariani adduces two reasons for his early death: typhus or, more likely, what would later be called Crohn’s disease.
Mariani rightly restores spirituality to the center of the life of one of the greatest of all English poets. And this is no surprise for not only is Mariani a Catholic, he is also professor at Boston College, author of the book Thirty Days, about his experience making the Spiritual Exercises, but also the father of a Jesuit, to whom his book is dedicated. (And, btw, he’s the former poetry editor of America.)
Mariani’s book also challenges the now standard portrait of Hopkins as living a miserable life after he entered the Society of Jesus (a depiction influenced by those who relied heavily on a few sources, and, especially, Bridges, who grieved for what he saw as the loss of his friend’s muse after entering the novitiate). Hopkins’s Jesuit life, particularly in Ireland, was exceedingly stress-filled, but he is in earlier years as a beloved member of the community, mainly for his humor. He is described by one fellow Jesuit as follows: “He was the most popular man in the house. Superiors and equal, everybody liked him. We laughed at him a good deal, but he took it good-humouredly, and joined in the amusement.”
Mariani’s book is itself like a poem. I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography where the author himself uses the style of the author so effectively. And Mariani does this unannounced, using his own "sprung rhythm," as here, in describing a set of “extraordinary sonnets” the poet would write in 1885. “A hodgepodge, bitter spelt not from leave os grass but from scattered leaves rustling across the floor to be read by some Sybil, syllables leaving the indelible impression of someone having been to hell and back. Pieces of cloth and flesh left behind for others to somehow reassemble.” That’s Mariani, not Hopkins. Needless to say, Mariani provides superb analyses of Hopkins’s poetry, introduced at the time in his life the Jesuit penned each poem, enabling the reader of this biography to understand the resonances between his verse and his daily life. This masterful handling of Hopkins’s poems befits Mariani’s own status as a poet and a teacher of poetry. Some of these poems are clear to me for the first time in my life.
It’s a grand book and a fascinating window into this long-misunderstood Jesuit, for so long portrayed as a depressive, yet whose final words, on his deathbed are, “I am so happy. I am so happy.”
James Martin, SJ