- Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life by Robert Bernard Martin
HarperCollins, 448 pp, £18.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 00 217662 9
On a walking tour in 1866, just before his conversion, Hopkins visited Tintern Abbey, and paid it the highest compliment he could think of by saying it reminded him of the architecture of Butterfield, designer of Keble College. When we say X has no sense of humour it means he has one different from our own, but Hopkins’s idea of fun is very Victorian, very religious, very remote indeed. It certainly did not include Butterfield, or belief. But when rediscovered in the 1920s and 30s, he seemed so amazingly of our time, and his poetry almost a necessary part of Modernism, that its obvious roots in Victorian Gothic looked hardly relevant. Since then, its popularity has been canonised and its complexities have found a firm niche in the Eng Lit curricula. To read the poems in youth is still an intoxicating experience, for he is very much a young person’s poet: but comparatively few of the poems mature and increase in our understanding with age. Like the work of Butterfield or Ninian Comper, their bright apparatus feels fixed in the museum of the past.
So many Victorian things do; it seems a feature of that epoch. R.B. Martin’s skills as a biographer, already manifest in his detailed and persuasive studies of Tennyson, FitzGerald and Charles Kingsley, are at their best in that rich Victorian ambience where religion, art and sex mingled in an unself-conscious totality. He several times takes for granted in criticism or exposition that Hopkins is one of the ‘great’ Victorian poets, but though a few poets are classifiable by this cliché Hopkins is surely not among them. His early poems are almost as unsatisfactory as those of his would-be young friend Digby Dolben, and for the same reason: they are directly inspired by the yearning and frustration of having a crush on someone, and have developed no true verbal equivalent for such feelings. On the other hand, his precocious school prize poems, ‘The Mermaids’ and ‘The Escorial’, are accomplished but without any of that foolish but original fervour that marks the verse of a youthful prodigy like Keats.
Indeed, it seems quite possible that if Hopkins had not joined the Roman Catholic Church and the Jesuit order he might never have developed his voice and idiom as a poet. He was an excellent scholar and fastidious critic; he would certainly not have been satisfied with the verse he was writing at 20 and 21, which Martin quotes for the first time from surviving private papers. The sonnets he wrote under the influence, apparently, of his sudden love for Dolben have a certain amount of Butterfieldian decoration about flagellation and penance – ‘the ever-fretting shirt of punishment / Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease’ – but the love sentiments show no more than good dull Elizabethan cleverness.
You see that I have come to passion’s end;
This means you need not fear the storms, the cries,
That gave you vantage when you would despise:
My bankrupt heart has no more tears to spend.
Robert Bridges, who, as Martin says, ‘understood perfectly well both Dolben’s role and Hopkins’s emotions in writing’ these sonnets, noted on the autograph copy that they ‘must never be printed’. Had he become a fellow of Balliol and a Classics don, Hopkins would neither have printed them nor probably have continued to write verse, but would have devoted himself to Aeschylus and Greek negatives and the possible derivation of Attic culture through the Phoenicians from Egypt – activities which he rather touchingly took up again during his last years as a Classics professor in Dublin. All his life Hopkins was haunted by the sense of personal bankruptcy and impotence, the straining of ‘time’s eunuch’ with no more to ‘spend’, and this sense of inadequacy, graphically expressed in the last sonnets, turns out to be equally marked in the early ones.