Gerard Manley Hopkins: Prophet & Exile
By John Murphy
Posted 9/7/08 at 11:05 PM
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
That final exhortation, Praise him, forms the essence of Gerard Manley Hopkins' vocation as a poet. Now enshrined in the Pantheon of Great Writers (the above selection, “Pied Beauty,” is frequently included in anthologies such as 100 Best-Loved Poems), Hopkins had no reputation as a poet in his own lifetime outside an inner circle of family and friends. He was a Jesuit priest, first and foremost, so fervently dedicated to his vocation that his love and talent for poetry could seem to him, at times, like a betrayal.
He was a small, pale, intelligent man beloved for his wit and eccentricities. He had taken an impressive double first at Oxford in Classics, an honor that might have led to a sterling academic career, but his conversion to Catholicism, inspired and encouraged by the famous English convert, John Henry Newman, came at a time when 'crossing the Tiber' was tantamount to treason.
He persisted in his calling and was eventually assigned to a teaching post at Dublin College. These desolate Dublin years were scarred by sickness, solitude, and spiritual anguish. He wrote during this period:
I Wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
Exiles is a novel filled with “the fell of dark, not day,” a beautiful and exacting account of mankind's fallen state – exiles from Eden, from Heaven, from God. It is the latest from much-lauded Catholic novelist, Ron Hansen, whose 1991 novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, is one of the masterpieces of Catholic fiction in the 20th century.
Mariette proved that a Catholic novel could earn praise from the secular press so long as it was indisputably brilliant and kept its Catholicism at a polite temporal distance – say, a hundred years ago. The historical element helps critics account for the deeply-felt faith of Hansen's protagonists as an anthropological curiosity rather than a spiritual reality.
Exiles, like Mariette, situates its Catholic protagonists in an historical context. Hansen turns his attentive gaze to a kindred spirit: a priest-poet who reveled in nature as a signifier of God's bounty, of God's grace, as expressed in the first lines of “God's Grandeur”:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Though Hopkins scrupled over his love of nature-infused poetry (wondering whether the art was suspect for its worldliness and emphasis on delights of the senses), his instincts were correct. As Hans Urs van Balthasar wrote in Seeing the Form, “The resurrection of the flesh vindicates the poets in a definitive sense: the aesthetic scheme of things, which allows us to possess the infinite within the finitude of form (however it is seen, understood, or grasped spiritually), is right.”
Nonetheless, Hopkins maintained an unofficial vow of poetic silence for many years after his ordination until he came across an article about a group of five German nuns who had perished in a recent shipwreck. They were on board the steamship Deutschland, bound for America via England, when the ship foundered somewhere near the mouth of the Thames during an unrelenting storm.
In Hansen's account, Hopkins, as he reads the newspaper account to his rector, verges on tears. His rector “kindly considered him and said, 'Perhaps someone should write a poem on the subject.'”
And so he does. The result is the “Wreck of the Deutschland,” one of the poet's finest works. On the surface, Exiles is about the poem's genesis in the shipwreck story, and Hopkins' composition of the poem during a stretch at an idyllic Welsh seminary. Hansen flits back-and-forth between Hopkins and the five nuns, who are fleeing the oppressively anti-Catholic regime of Otto Von Bismarck. The two narrative braids coil tighter and tighter as the story progresses, forming a double-helix shaped meditation on faith, suffering, and catharsis through artistic expression. Shot through the story is the sense that life is suffering, a “vale of tears” only passable in the company of Christ.
Strangely, the seminarian-set sequences featuring Hopkins are more dramatic than those featuring the stormswept nuns. In a novel, as opposed to a film, the interior drama of a man struggling with self-doubt and inner-anguish can be more compelling than the exterior drama of howling winds and massive swells. Because Hansen can focus so narrowly on his poet-protagonist, Hopkins comes alive as a sensitive, intelligent, sometimes silly young artist, ardent in his faith, though racked by scruples and low-ebbing confidence. Hansen is at home in the consciousness of a struggling writer, a poet fighting not only magazine rejections, but the gnawing sense that poetry itself is an unforgivable license, maybe even licentious. Most Catholic artists ask themselves the same thing.
Hansen dramatizes the suffering of sensitive souls attuned to Christ's passion. In Mariette in Ecstasy, Mariette's ecstasy in Christ's suffering was almost sensual. She wanted to experience his suffering in herself, in her own flesh-and-blood, by scalding her hands and scarring her body. Hopkins' ecstasy – which might also be called heightened sensitivity – is artistic, finding voice in poetry rich with delight in 'dappled things' -- the natural world that is God's canvas, dotted everywhere with symbols and signs.
Hansen is not only sensitive to the beauty of nature, but also to nature's sublime power. The eponymous story from his short-story collection, Nebraska, documented the horrifying effects of a blizzard in the Midwestern state. Exiles offers an equally unblinking account of a shipwreck in the Thames: cold, dark, hopeless. The five Franciscan nuns, each called to Christ in different ways from different backgrounds, seem senseless victims, chewed-up in the maw of wrathful nature, red in tooth and claw.
Is this metaphysical injustice what awakened Hopkins' poetic instinct? He wrote of the desperate night:
Hope had grown grey hairs,
Hope had mourning on,
Trenched with tears, carved with cares,
Hope was twelve hours gone;
And frightful a nightfall folded rueful a day
Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone,
And lives at last were washing away:
To the shrouds they took, -- they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.
Surely these words, comprising just one of 35 riveting stanzas, set Hansen's' imagination ablaze. No current novelist is more adept at evoking the past with poetic immediacy, and he must have felt an irresistible opportunity to render in earthy prose Hopkins' heavenly poetry. There are moments in the book when Hansen, seance-like, evokes the ghost of Hopkins. Then he images Exiles with impressionistic flicks of phrases that shimmer and gleam on the page-canvas. “The air smelled cleansed; the leaden sky was roped with cloud, a blue bloom seemed to have spread upon the distant south, enclosed by a basin of hills. And again he felt the charm and instress of Wales.”
Hansen uses the word instress to reference Hopkins' innovative meter, sprung rhythm, wherein a poem scans based on accents and stresses, emphasizing the sound of the words through assonance, alliteration, and internal rhymes. This isn't just technical jargon, but a way of writing that was truly original, groundbreaking. So much so, in fact, that Hopkins' truncated poetic career confirmed Christ's truism: a prophet is never accepted in his own country.
When Hopkins submits “The Wreck of the Deutschland” to the journal, The Month, “the subeditor's opinion was that the 35 esoteric stanzas were hardly readable and had only managed to give him a headache,” an opinion apparently shared by many, since Hopkins' poetry would only see daylight when his friend, the poet-laureate of England (now generally forgotten), grudgingly published the poems posthumously.
Yet Hopkins had anticipated the head-scratching that would greet his work. Hansen puts these words in Hopkins' mouth, as the frustrated poet confides in a friend, “Oh, it's a wreck this 'Wreck.' My rhymes carry over from one line into another, and there's a peculiar chiming inspired by Welsh poetry, and a great many more oddnesses that cannot but dismay an editor's eye. I shan't publish it. The journals will think it barbarous.”
His friend asks, “Why write it, then?”
Hopkins responds, “Why pray?”
Hopkins understood, as he wrote to a fellow poet, that “The only just judge, the only literary critic, is Christ, who prizes, is proud of, and admires, more than any man, more than the receive himself can, the gifts of his own making.” Poetry is not simply expression, commemoration, or wordplay; it is a holy act, a sacrament, a means of worship. Christ is the only audience.
Hopkins sought-for and found God in the texture of an oak tree, in the rhythm of water, and in the sanskrit of splintered ice. He looked for God as his own life shipwrecked on the shores of Dublin. He was a perennial exile. As a poet, he was exiled from the established literary community. As a Catholic, an exile from Anglican Oxford. As an educated Englishman, an exile in the rough-and-tumble Dublin backwater. And as a Jesuit, a member of a religious order long accustomed to exile.
On the deck of the Deutschland, one of the five doomed sisters asks asks her superior, “Christ was an exile, too. Wasn't he?”
Another sister, as she nears death, appeals to Mother Mary: Turn, then, O most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this, our exile... She stops on the world 'exile.' “The prayer was meant for a world sour with sinning. Exiles, then, not from Germany, not from Europe, but from Paradise, from Heaven.”
In this sentence the essential theme of the book emerges. We're all exiles, roaming confused and crippled in a world that seems bereft of faith and hope, an indiscriminately cruel place where five faithful nuns die in a hellish shipwreck, where a brilliant poet-scholar languishes forgotten in a crumbling college.
Yet in suffering there is solace in the fact that God's will isn't capricious. The five nuns chose their vocations and acted in the service of Christ to the very end, bestowing self-giving love on each other and their fellow passengers even as 'hope had mourning on.' Hopkins, likewise, served Christ in his vocation as a priest, accepting each desultory teaching post like a private obeying the command of a superior officer. Unlike young poets today who feel entitled to express their innermost selves to an adulatory audience, Hopkins' poetry was a celebration of God, not himself, and his audience was Christ.
Whether his poetry would ever find an audience “seemed to the conscientious Hopkins another vagary over which a good Jesuit should exercise no partiality.” In other words, priest first, poet second. That is why, lying on his deathbed in Dublin at the premature age of forty-four, an unpublished and unread poet, Hopkins could tell his gathered friends and family, “I am happy, I am so happy now.”
An earthly exile, Hopkins was going to his true home.
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