Beacon and Eternal Beam
a review of The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: selections from his poems, letters, journals, and spiritual writings, edited by Margaret R. Ellsberg
by ELISE MATICH
SCRUPULOUS, MODEST, OBEDIENT, AND DEVOUT are words that will strike few readers as the qualities of a radical artistic genius. Yet, in a brief and thwarted lifetime, Gerard Manley Hopkins married orthodox rigor with poetic revolution. This English convert to Roman Catholicism, who took on the strictures of the Jesuit priesthood, posthumously transformed 20th century poetry, and became one of the most frequently reprinted poets of the English language.
Many editors have examined the religious influences that shaped Hopkins’ writing, yet few have ventured beyond dutiful references to medieval philosophy and Jesuit spirituality to confront role of dogma itself in shaping Hopkins’ groundbreaking verse. In her new compilation, The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: selections from his poems, letters, journals, and spiritual writings, Margaret Ellsberg approaches the poet-priest with refreshing perception. Her editing and analysis offer a nuanced portrait of the contentious beliefs and confounding decisions that defined Hopkins’ life and work.
Ellsberg introduces her subject as an eccentric heir to Victorian convention. The first son of a prosperous, artistic family, he followed an Oxford Double First with a conversion to barely tolerated Catholicism, quickly taking vows to its most exacting order. He burned his early writing, and foreswore poetry for seven years, until, at the suggestion of his religious superior, he composed his first shattering masterwork. “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, with its visceral “sprung rhythm” and unflinching self-denial, provoked dismay from both friends and fellow-Jesuits. Yet, this first, disquieting breath gave way to breath-taking poetic innovation. Before his death from typhoid fever at the age of 44, Hopkins would generate a small, unpublished trove of poetry that included images of exultant nature, expressions of emotional anguish, and stunning faith in the reality of redemption. Nearly thirty years later, as Europe staggered from the butchery of the First World War, Hopkins’ confidant, Robert Bridges, tentatively released the first volume of his friend’s verse. Hopkins’ anonymity swiftly receded as a new generation of poets, including W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Seamus Heaney, gave their ears to his unlikely voice.
In The Idea of a University, Hopkins’ famous mentor, John Henry Newman, argues systematically for the inclusion of theology in university curricula. Ellsberg echoes his insistence that, “all knowledge forms one whole,” in her presentation of Hopkins’ writings within the context of his theological precepts. She adds to the well-established influences of Catholic philosopher, Duns Scotus, and Jesuit founder, Ignatius Loyola, the impact of the essential (and deeply divisive) Catholic teaching on the Eucharist. Taking seriously the intellectual and artistic import of this dogma, Ellsberg writes:
Having recognized the power of words at the consecration of the Eucharist—words which, Catholics believe, transform ordinary bread and ordinary wine into the real body and real blood [of Christ]—never again could language prove merely decorative. For him, a consecration made from human language reversed existential randomness and estrangement, the experience of which shadowed many of his contemporaries. Assuming that human language possessed this power, Hopkins went on to untie the bindings and stretch the known limits of poetry.
She goes on to explain Hopkins’ original concepts of “inscape” (a thing’s intrinsic pattern) and “instress” (the experience, or “taking in” of a thing’s inscape) in terms of his belief that, by consuming the Eucharist, he literally took God into himself. In Ellsberg’s view, this sacramental perspective—discomforting as it may be to non-Catholics—must be considered if we are to fully comprehend the significance of his artistry.
Ellsberg employs theological sensibility even more strikingly in her challenges to the “well-worn opinion” that Hopkin’s vocation stifled his promise of poetic accomplishment. Hopkins’ commitment to the priesthood squelched his enviable prospects of secular success, and enforced a severe discipline on his writings that resulted in his seven-year’s poetic silence. He broke it boldly, but scrupulously, constantly seeking to align his efforts with “the cause of [his] religion”. In the final years of his life, Hopkins suffered acutely from the mental and physical strain of his assignment as a Classics instructor at University College, Dublin, where poor sanitation would result in his early death from typhoid. The “terrible sonnets”, composed in the darkest moments of this period, reveal the intensity of Hopkins’ spiritual and emotional crises.
Observing the impact of Hopkins’ profession on his genius, most scholars lament his vocation as a personal and artistic tragedy. Ellsberg contends that Hopkins’ seemingly incompatible callings of priest and poet were, in fact, interdependent. Delving deeply into Hopkins’ masterful final poems, Ellsberg argues that, by surrendering himself to a “great will”, Hopkins liberated the greatness of his abilities. She presents an understanding of vocation defined, not by illusive destiny, but by continual discernment. The conventional view, with its’ notes of pagan fatalism, neglects the specifically Christian hope that yielded “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire” and “Thou art indeed just”. The Christian faith begins, rather than ends, with a dying god, generating a constant promise of new life. Hopkins, who died repeating, “I am so happy, I am so happy,” lived by glimpses of “a beacon, an eternal beam”. Like Newman’s “Kindly Light”, and the sanctuary lamp of later literary convert, Evelyn Waugh, Hopkins’ beacon illumines the constant possibility of redemption.
Ellsberg’s presentation of Hopkins’ life and writings is thorough, intimate, and engaging, though occasionally uneven. Readers unfamiliar with the poet’s inventions of “inscape”, “instress”, “selving”, and “sprung rhythm” may find frustrating Ellsberg’s causal unpacking of the terms. Ellsberg’s choice to omit the poem, “The Blessed Virgin Compared with the Air We Breathe”, in spite of references to it in Hopkins’ correspondence, and in her own chronology, is similarly puzzling. Yet, as a whole, The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins is a revealing, often inspiring anthology. Though of particular interest to Christians, Ellsberg’s treatment will appeal to any reader who recognizes the significance of belief systems—whether embraced or rejected—to a person’s artistic life. The reader who respects the relevance of Masonry to Mozart, Orthodoxy to Tolstoy, and Judaism to Chagall will admire Ellsberg’s integration of Catholic teaching with her study of Hopkins’ astonishing work.
Photograph by Eduard Militaru