In the first episode in a new series of Close Readings, our ‘revolutionary . . . ★★★★★’ (The Times) podcast that considers the life and work of Anglophone poets from the (increasingly) long 20th century, through pieces written about them in the LRB archive, Seamus Perry and Mark Ford take on Gerard Manley Hopkins: Victorian literature’s only anti-modern proto-modernist queer-ecologist Jesuit priest.
Further reading in the LRB
Seamus Perry: Welcome to the first of a new series of LRB podcasts of Close Readings, in which we discuss the life and works of American, British and other poets who wrote in English from the long 20th century, drawing on the extensive history of pieces published in the LRB - critical, essayistic, biographical, about the great writers of the age. My name is Seamus Perry, I teach English at Oxford and I’m talking to Mark Ford, a poet and professor at University College, London, and today we’re talking about Gerard Manley Hopkins, who isn’t really a poet of the 20th century, strictly speaking I suppose, since he was born in 1844, but in some ways Mark he is still considerable as a 20th century poet.
Mark Ford: He’s one of those strange poets, like Emily Dickinson would be another example, who was unpublished pretty much during the time that all their poems were written, who then suddenly strike a later age as having all sorts of things that that age is interested in. So Hopkins died in 1889 and his executor was Robert Bridges, and Bridges waited almost 30 years before bringing Hopkins’s poems before the public. By the time he did Bridges was poet laureate, so there was a bit of push to them from his reputation, and even after they came out in 1918 – I think the first edition of 750 copies took ten years to sell out. But it was during the 30s, a lot of the major modernist critics and poets became interested in Hopkins, so you get pieces by I.A Richards, F.R. Leavis, William Empson, Herbert Read, and these were all sort of Eliot-educated critics and they were excited by the intensity of Hopkins’s poetry, and, I think, its combination of extreme verbal compression along with a real formal rigour, and that connected with the kind of modernist ideal of a really tightly woven poem, nothing too flabby or Tennysonian or Swinburnean.
SP: So we have a poet who in many ways feels one of the modernists and yet of course his real origins, his real lineage, is solidly Victorian, so perhaps we should start by talking as it were about his Victorian identity before maybe moving on to how he acquires a kind of modernity.
MF: He was a Victorian – he was an odd Victorian, I think we’re agreed on that. One of the things I guess that happens to poets like Hopkins and Dickinson is they become canonical and everyone gets used to the way they write, but when you look back at them and think of them writing, the first reaction, which was the reaction of Robert Bridges or Hopkins’s friends R.W. Dixon or Coventry Patmore, the small circle of people who saw his poetry, it was: this stuff is weird. There is no way to account for what this poetry is doing or understanding exactly how Hopkins could have invented such a bizarre and baroque and original idiom, and also how he could have thought other people might want to read it. I mean, Bridges was famously sceptical, particularly about ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, which is seen by many as Hopkins’s great long poem. He called it in his edition of 1918 a great dragon which was guarding the portals of Hopkins’s work, and he advised readers to skip it. So Bridges was fascinated by Hopkins but he was by no means an uncritical admirer, and in many ways modern opinion is that Bridges was wrong about ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’. But let’s not forget how extraordinarily original and unusual the poetic idiom that Hopkins evolved is, and that Bridges is right that there was no market for this kind of stuff in the 1870s and 80s.
SP: So let’s just say something about how he gets to that position, how he gets there. He’s born in 1844, as I said at the beginning. The family move to Hampstead in 1852 and he’s at Highgate School. His dad is actually quite well-to-do, isn’t he, he’s made quite a lot of money out of marine insurance and they have the life of a happy, successful, middle-class Victorian family with trips to Europe and walking tours and so on, and the young Hopkins is an ambitious juvenile poet who writes a lot of poems, at least those that have survived, sort of in the mode of Keats.
MF: Yes, he’s the eldest of nine children, so it was a very substantial family, and yes his father is, it’s worth pointing out, given Hopkins’s own obsession with wrecks, his father was an insurer of sea vessels. So both of them made money out of wrecks. Or, Hopkins made poetic capital out of wrecks and his dad made real capital out of wrecks. And Hopkins was rather scornful, I think, of his father’s bourgeois and mercantile capitalist upbringing and livelihood, and was himself an aesthete, and I think that comes over in those early poems, which are precocious. I mean, they’re terrifically kind of skilled and effective, if not really very personal. And so there’s this strange contrast between these poems which are good examples of, to borrow Hopkins’s own term, ‘parnassian’, they somehow mirror much of the kind of Victorian idioms, with the sudden emergence in ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ of a kind of poetry which seems to be operating according to wholly different kind of criteria.
SP: So he’s clearly a very bright boy. He’s a gifted artist, isn’t he, his drawings are terrific, as a young man he’s doing extraordinarily beautiful drawings. But he’s also academically very gifted, he wins a scholarship to Balliol, he gets a First in the first public examination in 1864. Jowett, who’s the leading tutor of Balliol, is reported as saying he’s the star of Balliol, and it’s while he’s at Oxford as an undergraduate he meets Bridges, who you mentioned already, who is not at Balliol he’s at Corpus Christi College, but is another poet and they befriend one another in a way which lasts for the rest of their lives, even though they’re quite dissimilar people. He also meets this character called Digby Mackworth Dolben, who, although he barely knows this guy, who’s a friend of Bridges, Bridges introduces them, they’ve been at Eton together. Even though Hopkins barely knows this guy, he seems to have had arguably quite a decisive effect upon his life at this point.
MF: Well biographers kind of see Digby Dolben as the clue, in some ways, to Hopkins’s exploration of his own sexuality, which you can’t really avoid in discussion of Hopkins, though Hopkins himself avoided it completely, and possibly wouldn’t even have been aware of the kind of queer terms in which he’s construed by many of his readers these days, who see his work as the kind of - Helen Vendler makes this point, doesn’t she, in her piece in the LRB – that they see the energies of his poetry as deriving from a kind of deflected homo-eroticism. And there’s no doubt that Hopkins was massively, aesthetically attracted to young men and not at all attracted to women, and Digby Dolben was, like Hopkins, High Church veering towards Catholicism. He took it even further, he used to wear a monk’s outfit and walk around barefoot. And if you read about the Oxford of those days in the circles in which they move there’s a sense in which Anglo-Catholic/gay was the atmosphere in which they were moving. Another friend that he met there and was close to was Walter Pater, who was also a confirmed bachelor. So Hopkins is moving in circles which nowadays would be called gay circles, of very intellectual aesthetes, who were also fanatic, in a way which is perhaps hard for the modern day really to understand, about which kind of Christianity you adopted. So, going over to Rome was the big question that dominated these people’s intellectual and emotional trajectories, and Dolben was going to go over to Rome. Unfortunately, he drowned, and Hopkins in his letter about that says, ‘I looking forward more than anything to him becoming a Catholic’. So the idea of Digby Dolben and Hopkins somehow sharing their religious beliefs as Catholics was a kind of ideal or vision for him. But it was an enormously charged decision that Hopkins made, so when he told his parents he was going to become a Catholic, that really wasn’t like saying 'I’m going to Ibiza on holiday', that was a rejection of all they stood for and they were mortally wounded and upset, and it was very very distressing for them.
SP: It’s also a very trenchant or tendentious decision to make within Oxford, isn’t it, because there were other kinds of Christianity, as it were, on offer in Oxford. And Jowett, Hopkins’s admiring tutor, represented the alternative, didn’t he, which was a kind of extremely liberal theology, also represented maybe by another Balliol figure like Matthew Arnold, who thought that there were possibilities of keeping all sorts of aspects of Christianity alive while dropping all the metaphysical baggage, and that felt, in some sort of self-conscious way, like the more modern kind of Christianity. and so Hopkins’s decision to move to Rome in this way, following Newman to Rome in this way, is a very determined and explicit and emphatic decision not to take the route of modernity.
MF: Yes and the notion was the Catholic Church was the one that connected to the original Fathers of the Church, so that there was a kind of authenticity there. And Hopkins did believe that Protestants, however believing they were, would go to hell when they died. And, you know, when he breaks the news to his parents they say, you’re leaving us, and he says, no, no you become Catholics and join me! And so he was very dogmatic about that and I think this decision, which is the crucial decision of his whole life, is worth talking a little bit about it before we move on to the poetry, because it dramatises the extent to which he was both the contrarian – I mean a rebel, somebody who was defying all that was expected of him – and it meant that he could’t get a job that would earn money, he was exiled from a lot of the society in which he moved, that he was somehow a real oddball. At the same time, becoming a Catholic and then a Jesuit a couple of years later involved complete obedience to the rituals of the Jesuit calendar. So the ways in which Hopkins’s poetry is both formally kind of recognisable – they’re mainly sonnets or odes – most of them, an awful lot of them are sonnets and yet they don’t look like sonnets, and they use this very bizarre, baroque language, is somehow an acting out of that schism between the contrarian Hopkins and the obedient Hopkins.
SP: Yes. you don’t need to be a profound psychologist to speculate that someone who craves authority is someone who recognises in themselves a kind of wildness, or a kind of errancy that needs to be corrected, or needs to be brought into obedience.
MF: Yeah the discipline is extreme, and the kind of great symbolic gesture which exemplified this was what he called the ‘slaughter of the innocents’, a sort of take on the bonfire of the vanities, and actually Digby Dolben and Hopkins were both great admirers of Savanarola, the original of the bonfire of the vanities. And the aesthetics – and this is where Hopkins’s poetry becomes so interesting – that the aesthetic life was seen as inherently guilty, somehow involved in transgression of some kind, and he would impose on himself these strange penances, such as walking for six months looking down, forbidding himself to look at nature, from which he got so much pleasure. And he would also wear hair shirts, and I forget what they’re called now, these kind of things you wear round your thigh – well I don’t, but other people did, he did, which dig into your thigh and kind of remind you of the penance of the early saints. So it was quite a literal attempt to recreate the life of the early saints and the ideal of the martyr.
SP: Yes he says rather poignantly in his journal, about that penance where he’s forced to look at the ground most of the time, that it ‘prevented my seeing much that half year’. And as you say for a person who absolutely adored the visual world, and that’s maybe a theme we’ll come back to, that must have been penance indeed. So he’s joined the Catholic Church, he’s received into it by Newman at the Birmingham Oratory on the 21 October 1866, which is Coleridge’s birthday, I don’t know if you knew that? He teaches at Birmingham for a bit and then, as you said a moment ago, he decides to become a priest, and he burns the poems because, as he explains to Bridges, ‘I saw they would interfere with my state and vocation’. And there’s some hesitancy about what kind of priest he’s going to become – is he going to become a Benedictine monk? No he’s going to become a Jesuit, which is about the most severe training and life that you could choose from that spectrum. He has training at Roehampton he then has extensive training at Stonyhurst, and this is a very tough, intellectually and emotionally and spiritually, kind of exhausting and in some sense catastrophic training for him, isn’t it?
MF: They would have 30-day retreats, and you were on retreat, and you would not talk to anyone, meditate on the Gospels or the Passion, and yes in a way the discipline was important to him, because he felt art was was dangerous. He talks about it ‘putting a strain upon the passions which I should think it unsafe to encounter’. If he allowed his artistic sensibility free rein, who knows what would happen? And again, we can’t help but think about this in erotic terms, that somehow the love of beauty would extend to sensuality of some kind. And he was very much always chastising himself for sensuality of any kind, it might tempt him to – I think you can decode his notebooks and work out that he’s tempted to commit the sin of onanism, which he saw as a great sin. So all kind of erotic or sexual self-expression was really very strictly forbidden, and he saw characters such as Shakespeare’s Beatrice as an evil wicked woman for tempting Benedict to his doom in some way. So there was, perhaps, I wouldn’t necessarily say a strain of misogyny in the circles in which he moved, that might be going too far, but the women he liked were the women like the five nuns who were drowned on the Deutschland, which was the poem which – it is the dragon at the gates of Hopkins’s poetic oeuvre, so perhaps we should think about how that came to be written.
SP: Yes, okay, so he’s been, as I say, for some years at Roehampton, then he served three years doing philosophy at Stonyhurst, and then the next move after another little stay at Roehampton as a teacher this time is to go to North Wales, where the Jesuits had their theological seminary. And he moves there in 1874, and almost at the very end of 1875, the 5 December, some news comes through, which is that a boat called the Deutschland has sunk. So could you tell us something about the backstory to that?
MF: Yes, this is covered in Patricia Beer’s piece in the LRB, she reviews a terrific book by Sean Street which gives you a really full account of the Deutschland, which was a boat which was taking immigrants from from Germany to America, and among the passengers were five nuns who were driven out of Germany because of the Falk Laws, that there was a kind of anti-Catholic movement, and they were moving to America. And this boat gets caught in a terrible storm, the captain loses the way, and they get stranded on the Kentish Knock, and for about 24 hours the boat is battered by these terrible seas, and lifeboats don’t arrive. And the nuns are below decks and one of them keeps shouting out: 'my god, my god come quickly'. Which, I mean, one person has pointed out, she may have been shouting to a lifeboat when she said that. But Hopkins interpreted it as her embracing her death and a vision of a rapturous, sort of erotic descent of Christ to both ravish and redeem her at the same moment. That’s the kind of climax to which the poem builds, and he had this taboo on writing poetry, but his superior said, when he saw about the wreck of the Deutschland, he said, well, someone should write a poem about that, Gerard. And Gerard said, well, my hand is out but I’ll give it a go. And what’s the other quote he talks about – the strange haunting rhythm, a rhythm that been haunting me.
SP: That’s what I was going to ask you next, what he says in the letter recollecting that moment when the rector says someone should write a poem about this, is that ‘I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realised on paper’, and in the course of just a few weeks over the turn of 1875-76 he writes his longest poem, doesn’t he. So what would you say this new rhythm was, what is new about it? Or how are we meant to understand this new kind of writing?
MF: Well he writes in some detail that sprung rhythm and I don’t think we’ve got the kind of time to go into what he meant by it. Basically it means you just count the stressed syllables, and it was a way, really, of packing the line. So Hopkins’s work is terrifically compressed, and it’s alliterative and it very often connects with what he saw as the authentic, un-latinate words, the authentic British or Celtic words, he was learning Welsh at the time.
SP: The ‘thew and sinew of the English language’.
MF: Yes, and this was a notion, similar to the authenticity of the Catholic Church, the kind of authenticity of the language. But maybe I could read the first couple of stanzas of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’. The poem starts out in part – the first part is this description of a kind of spiritual dark night of the soul, and this is – Hopkins wants us to know about the spiritual dark night of the soul because he wants us to trust him as a kind of spiritual interpreter of the wreck of the Deutschland itself, so this is him presenting his sort of spiritual credentials, his CV so to speak. But it is so powerful and so intense that the only comparisons you can think of to the kind of poetry that’s going on here is what you get in Sylvia Plath, I think, or Robert Lowell – these kind of extreme, intense, confessional poems, which seem to be presenting experience in the most visceral and powerful of ways. And when you look at the language you’ll also notice the extent to which God is being figured as, not to put too fine a point on it, a kind of sadomasochistic tormentor or sadistic tormentor, and Hopkins is somehow embracing this extreme treatment he’s receiving from this vast, powerful God figure:
Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
I did say yes
O at lightning and lashed rod;
Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
Thy terror, O Christ, O God;
Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:
The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
Hard down with a horror of height:
And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.
SP: It does go absolutely straight into that early Robert Lowell voice, doesn’t it, of ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’, or something like that?
MF: But he also wants us to know, this happened, ‘Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night’ – I’m not making this up, and he told Bridges this in a letter: this actually happened to me. So what particular retreat he had this kind of terrible experience on, or this sense of being deserted by God – but one should just throw forward to the late Dublin sonnets, those are the sonnets in which he feels abandoned by God. This is the moment in which he is moving from not having God to this experience of God, the real God, physical, actual presence is kind of invading Hopkins and somehow making Himself so present to Hopkins that he’s absolutely terrified, but realises that he’s face to face with his all-powerful Redeemer figure.
SP: So as you were saying, part one of the of the poem, which is the shorter of the two parts, is this confessional piece where Hopkins talks in these sort of brilliantly mystifying ways about a spiritual crisis of some kind that he’s been through, and part two is an extraordinary kind of imaginative, mythologizing account of the sinking of the ship and the behaviour of the nuns on the ship. And the implication I suppose is that Hopkins is qualified to write about the nuns in the second part because he’s been through something very much like what they’re going through in the first part.
MF: He has been completely ‘unmade’, and this is one my favourite images in all poetry:
I am soft sift
In an hourglass—at the wall
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
And it crowds and it combs to the fall;
That he has somehow completely lost all grounding. And so part of Hopkins’s experience of God is of complete surrender. When you talk about the submission or the obedience, that involves a complete abandonment of selfhood to discover the self much more fully. So the paradox of this weird language is that on the one hand it seems completely instinct with Hopkinsian-ness, haecceitas – is that the phrase from Duns Scotus? ‘Thisness’, of the distinctiveness, of Hopkins’s own idiom. At the same time, thematically, it’s all about surrendering yourself to a power beyond you and complete – allowing yourself to be ravished by that power and letting it invade you, and fulfil every sort of corpuscle of your being.
SP: Yes, that’s right. So one of the key words in this poem is the word ‘master’, isn’t it, or different forms of the word ‘master’. And in the verse that you read out a moment ago he invents this new compound epithet, ‘mastering me’, as a way of describing God, and mastery comes in repeatedly in the poem in one form or another. We get at the climax of the poem an extraordinary use of ellipsis, three dots, as it were, to dramatise a gap or a hesitation in the window, as it were, the present tense of the making of the poem:
But how shall I … make me room there:
Reach me a … Fancy, come faster—
Strike you the sight of it? look at it loom there,
Thing that she … there then! the Master,
Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head:
He was to cure the extremity where he had cast her;
So the poem begins with Hopkins acknowledging the mastery of God, and the climax of the poem is this extraordinary self interrupting hesitant verse in which he imagines her having a vision of the master.
MF: Well it is, and it’s like Leda and the Swan, isn’t it, that he descends: ‘Do, deal, lord it with living and dead; / Let him ride, her pride, in his triumph, despatch and have done with his doom there.’ That this is a supernatural being descending to kind of ravish her in her extremity, and to that sense you can see the classical education that Hopkins had, and as always in Hopkins there’s a mixture of the extremely exaggerated or baroque or even rococo, and a kind of naivety or a kind of simplicity in the actual notion. So, Christ descends, and I think his description of the storm itself has an amazing kind of literalness – the way he describes the sea, ‘flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow’ and the snow is ‘Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow / Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.’ That presenting the physical world he does so with a gusto and an intensity and an originality, but also a kind of directness, visual directness, and as you say he wanted to be a painter, and his brother Arthur Hopkins was a painter, in fact illustrated Hardy’s Return of the Native, which you may not know?
SP: I did not know that, no. So one thing that people often say about this poem in the commentaries about it is that it is a way of bringing together at once the mastery of God, but also the mercy of God. And what I’ve always felt about the poem is that I get the mastery, but I find the mercy a little bit more looser, what do you think?
MF: Yes, I think the mercy is conceptual. And Bridges particularly objected to the end in which Hopkins plays a kind of Catholic trick, so to speak. He says, well all the other people who weren’t Catholics on the boat may have heard the tall nuns cry and been converted at the last minute and have gone to heaven because they’ve become deathbed Catholics. Also this tall nuns cry is going to convert the rest of England to Catholicism, at last, so this will overturn Henry VIII and all that, and the dissolution of the monasteries, because this tall nun cried as she was dying. So there was a kind of queer patriotism going on, I find, in Hopkins’s work, which is somewhere he’s close to a Houseman I think, who’s another kind of queer nationalist in their kind of vision – they both had things about soldiers. But maybe we can come on to that. So the idea in the last stanza is that,
Our King back, oh, upon English souls!
Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east,
More brightening her, rare-dear Britain,
So this idea that Christ – a Catholic Christ – will return and England will see the error of its ways. And bridges thought this presumptuous, but he spelt it wrong, and Hopkins wrote back saying: it can’t be presumptuous, there’s no such word. He could be a bit of a pedant at times.
SP: It’s important, though, isn’t it, to make that point that this is a very tendentiously counter-reformation poem, and there’s a mention of Luther, isn’t there, at one point. He’s rude about Luther. So this isn’t a purely aesthetic piece of writing, is it, it’s not even a purely elegiac piece of writing. This is a piece of writing that’s actually engaged self-consciously in a sort of doctrinal war of some kind or another.
MF: Absolutely, and that’s what makes the kind of Jesuit response to his poetry so bizarre, that they all completely thought – well, the word that comes up again and again in reports on him is the word ‘eccentric’. He was too ‘eccentric’ for this or too ‘eccentric’ for that. He goes to Dublin, they say, you’ll find him a bit eccentric. But he submitted this actually to Coleridge’s grandnephew, Ernest Coleridge, who couldn’t make head nor tail of it and sent it back. And Hopkins had everything turned down by the Jesuit editors to whom he sent things. He even tried to write one for a kind of Stonyhurst May Magnificat celebration of Mary, and everyone else got their poems tacked up, but Hopkins’s got rejected. So it must have been quite gruelling for him to be aware that he was in command of or had evolved this idiom of fantastic originality and power, but to have no one appreciate it, except Bridges and Dixon, who was a nice guy. Dixon had taught Hopkins at Highgate and was clearly a nice bloke, but he was rather baffled. And unfortunately Dixon himself wrote extraordinarily long poems on kind of obscure themes which he would send to Hopkins, asking him to criticise them, and Hopkins would go through them line by line. Vendler is very funny about this in her piece in the LRB. He would go through them line by line saying, this is no good, this is no good, you’ve got to change this. Dixon must have got these things back and said, why did I bother? But Hopkins did nothing by half measures. I think that’s one way of putting the kind of person he was, he was an extremist.
SP: Absolutely right, and Vendler says in that piece, doesn’t she, that he is a poet of extremes. He’s in that kind of extreme romantic tradition of Blake or Hart Crane who, although obviously coming from a totally different religious or doctrinal position.
MF: So, once he got going, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ got going, and he suddenly thought, I’m on to something. And he wrote the – in some ways, you can mark Hopkins’s life in terms of his postings, over which he had no say. You would get a message from the Jesuit hierarchy that you were off to Wales or Liverpool or Glasgow in the afternoon, and you’d be off by evening. And there was absolutely no saying, ‘oh I don’t quite want to go there’. It was complete obedience. But while he was in Wales he wrote some of the most glorious sonnets in the language: ‘God’s Grandeur’, ‘As kingfishers catch fire’, ‘Spring’, ‘Hurrahing in Harvest’ (one of my favourites), ‘The Windhover’, very famous one. They’re all kind of amazingly precise in their descriptions of beauty, but always that beauty is then converted into a dialectic which is illustrating the greatness and power of God.
SP: And we should also say, just in passing, shouldn’t we, that at the same time – I mean throughout his life, discontinuously, but especially in this Welsh period, he’s writing amazing journals, journals of natural, well the same kind of interpolated natural description and religious reflection. Just as an example, there’s a lovely description of the of the landscapes he sees from the college:
the clouds westwards were a pied piece: sail-coloured brown and milky blue; a dun yellow tent of rays opened upon the skyline far off. Cobalt blue was poured on the hills bounding the valley of the Clwyd and far in the south spread a bluish damp, but all the nearer valley was showered with tapered diamond flakes of fields in purple and brown and green.
And you can see, when you read that kind of description, the truth of the thing that he was once reported to have said, which is that he had originally wanted to be a painter.
MF: Yeah, I mean it’s very Paterian as well, isn’t it. It just shows his reading of The Renaissance and the Paterian aestheticism. I mean, the thing about The Renaissance which caused such a fuss was that it was un-anchored to morality and religion, it said you enjoy these things for their own sakes, and that was exactly what Hopkins was reacting against. So he takes the Paterian diction and vocabulary and fine writing, the purple prose so to speak, and he harnesses it to delivering God’s message. He ‘buckles’ it, to use the phrase from ‘The Windhover’, he ‘buckles’ it to God’s truth being existence, which is then experienced in the poem.
SP: Yes, that’s right, John Bayley says in his LRB piece about Hopkins that perhaps one reason why Hopkins wanted to find God in nature was because otherwise nature became just a world of impressions, perhaps striking or beautiful impressions, but nevertheless merely a subjective thing, and somehow finding God in it gave it a sort of a substance or a richness or a there-ness that otherwise disappeared in the Paterite flux of one thing after another.
MF: Well I think that’s why the modernists liked him. It’s about meaning and discovery of meaning. You think of the way Pound, who also experimented with authentic archaic languages and things like ‘The Seafarer’. That pound would reduce a poem to,
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
– would reduce them to that particular crystallisation and the meaningfulness of that. And Hopkins’s nature is insistently, overwhelmingly meaningful, and the poem enacts the discovery of the meaning, and not only the discovery of it, the communication of it to you as the reader in the poetry. That’s sort of what he means by instress and inscape, two words that bedevil Hopkins scholarship, don’t they. That somehow you capture the quintessence of something and are able to kind of pass it on through the transmission of its energies.
SP: Yes, that’s right. So anyone who goes away after this podcast and reads in Hopkins’s own journals will see that he uses words, the words inscape and instress, both as nouns and as verbs a lot, and at the risk of sounding as if I know what I’m talking about, inscape seems to be, as it were, the innermost innate sort of structure or pattern that shapes a natural object or a scene, or a tree, or a leaf, or a river, or whatever it might be. And instress seems to be the kind of divine, god-given energy that sustains that shape, sustains that inner pattern, inner structure. And both of these ideas seem to be Hopkins’s own invention, don’t they, but they draw a lot on the 13th century philosopher who you mentioned a moment ago, Duns Scotus, who was an Oxford philosopher who Hopkins revered. And he’s an unusual thinker, as I gather from reading the literature, because he insisted upon what he calls the principle of individuation, that what mattered about the world was that things were individual and particular and themselves and idiosyncratic and that you could reach to universal truths, like the truths of God or something, through the agency of really absolutely and completely imaginatively apprehending individual things in their own uniqueness and individuality. And Hopkins just goes a blast on this idea.
MF: Well you get, in the way the sonnets work, the octave gives you the perceptions and then the sestet gives you the interpretation of it in relation to God.
SP: Shall we look at one?
MF: ‘As kingfishers catch fire’ is the most obvious dramatisation of the Scotus ideal:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
and that’s a pure illustration of what you’ve been talking about. But the sestet then goes on:
I say móre:
(This is the sermonist in Hopkins saying ‘another point, dearly beloved’:)
the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
So you get the kind of economy whereby Christ is present in the human and then goes on to God the Father – it’s a kind of divine economy, a virtuous circle of the divine circulating from God through Christ to mankind and on again. And that’s all an illustration of nature’s ability to sing itself, to perform itself, and the poem is performing it. I mean, they are performances, aren’t they, in their most kind of operatic and extravagant of ways.
SP: They are and they take the form of the sermon and and do something sensational with it, don’t they, in the sense that the form the sermons, as Alan Bennett told us in Beyond the Fringe and so on, the form that sermons normally take is an anecdote from life about, as it were, leaving the railway station by the wrong exit, and someone shouting, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’, and then from this anecdote you turn and you draw a homiletic reflection on it. Where do we think we’re going? And that’s kind of the structure of this sonnet ,isn’t it? It’s an extraordinarily vivid, rather kind of hallucinatory description of the light effects of kingfishers and dragonflies. ‘As kingfishers catch fire’, which is a brilliantly figurative description of the flash of their blue feathers as they cross over a pond or a stream. ‘Dragonflies draw flame’, and then the natural description, as you say, is then turned in this entirely priestly or sermonistic way in the sestet to, as it were, a religious purpose.
MF: And these extravagant metaphors which kind of develop it, and also the ways in which the internal rhymes going on all the time, this patterning is absolutely – I think it’s compulsive for Hopkins. I think that’s where the juice lies for him, somehow, the pleasure that he gets out of these internal rhymes and the way that he compresses language – it’s like Mozart composing his symphonies. He’s getting a kick out of it. And it’s a kick which he has to believe is doing God’s service. You can’t just have it because you’re getting a kick out of it. So, yes, you could read it in a kind of sixties druggie way, but you’d be getting it wrong. That’s not how Hopkins experienced it, although it is visionary and mystical in all sorts of ways, it then always becomes doctrinal. And it’s guilty if it’s not doctrinal. So the poems that don’t get finished often are because he’s unable to make the connection between the sensual experience and the doctrinal meaning, which he’s trying to impose or inscribe on that experience.
SP: It’s an interesting point, isn’t it, because it might imply that a lot of the time there is a kind of tension between the sheer exuberant evocation of this sort of natural experience, this vividly keen sensory experience, and the doctrinal duty to which it’s meant to be put. There’s kind of a tension between those two things that sometimes he can’t resolve. Sometimes where the sheer exuberance of sensory experience is just too much for him to to buckle in.
MF: That becomes particularly evident when he’s writing poems about beautiful young men, something like the ‘The Bugler’s First Communion’ is a good example of how the overwhelming beauty of this bugler, who is asking for his first communion, and Hopkins is the priest in Oxford, he’s moved from Wales to Oxford at this point, he’s got two years in in Oxford, and he gets to give him his first communion, which is a holy moment that he’s giving, he describes the wafer, ‘Low-latched in leaf-light housel his too huge godhead.’ So that’s God compressed into a wafer, which I suppose could be seen as the dominant metaphor for all of Hopkins’s poetry, the way in which the wafer is God, is the body of God, that you are ingesting in the communion. But he gets really rather excited at the ‘Breathing bloom of a chastity in mansex fine’ and this gorgeous young man whom he’s administering the host to, he compares to a ‘pushed peach’, he ‘Yields tender as a pushed peach’ to all that Hopkins teaches him, and there’s a sense in which an erotic transaction is mimetic of the ways in which the spiritual is being presented to the young bugler. And Hopkins was so excited about this that he couldn’t bear to think of this bugler later in life somehow sullying his gorgeous innocence, and he says to Bridges in the letter that accompanied the poem, I hope he dies in Afghanistan before he’s had the chance to start sleeping with women or anything like that.
SP: I suppose there’s a long tradition, isn’t there, of thinking about religious experience in erotic terms, but what’s peculiar about this is that you can’t imagine that Hopkins would conceivably have accepted that these were erotic terms.
MF: It’s one of those areas that the Victorian era somehow eludes us. I mean. we read In Memoriam and think, well surely they thought that Tennyson’s relationship with Hallam was a little bit more intense than it should be, and in fact Hallam’s father did complain slightly, didn’t he, about that. But I mean, Whitman is someone to whom Hopkins once compared himself, he says, my mind is more like Whitman’s than anyone else, and since Whitman was a great scoundrel that’s a rather terrible thing to admit. But actually in terms of Whitman’s own poetry it wasn’t the Calamus poems about beautiful young men which caused the scandal, it was the ones about heterosexual experiences about which he didn’t know a great deal, which had Emerson and all the reviewers upset. So the extent to which male friendship in the Victorian era was permissible and the expression of it in in the most intense and seemingly, to us, homoerotic of ways, didn’t didn’t cause a fuss. But we think Bridges probably understood. Bridges was a doctor and understood the different categories of human sexuality. He probably understood Hopkins’ leanings.
SP: I think he had the tabs on Dolben, yes.
MF: And so Hopkins returns to Oxford, not very happily really, he has two years there on the outskirts. Like Ruskin, he complains of the fact that the beautiful grey towers of Oxford are being encroached upon by industrialism. So another aspect of the kind of queer nationalism would be the kind of queer NIMBYism which you get in Hopkins, that somehow he’s got a vision, almost a medieval vision in England, and that is starkly in contrast, as you said, with modernity and all that late nineteenth century culture – the directions in which it’s heading.
SP: Yes so in this Oxford period, which was 1878-89, he writes ‘The Bugler’s First Communion’ which we just talked about, and quite a few other poems, quite a productive time in his life, isn’t it. He writes a poem called ‘Duns Scotus’s Oxford’, which is actually about how Oxford is no longer Duns Scotus’s Oxford, because it’s got a horrid, brickish sort of suburban fringe to it, which he doesn’t like. But he also writes a really lovely poem which of course is very popular, called ‘Binsey Poplars’, Binsey’s a little hamlet just outside Oxford and he goes there on a walk in 1879, and the poplars have been cut down. I think actually, strictly speaking, they’ve just been pruned back, which is what you’re meant to do with poplars. Anyway, it becomes a different kind of poem within his oeuvre, it becomes a kind of environmentalist poem, almost kind of proto-environmentalist poem.
MF: He couldn’t bear seeing trees cut down, it was one of the things in his life, that he couldn’t bear it. So when these trees are cut down it’s both a kind of tragedy to him, but it also inspires him to recreate them poetically, incredibly fully:
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
I mean Hopkins just holds nothing back. That’s one of the reasons I think that one reads him open-mouthed, that he just, he turns the amp up to 11 every time. There’s no kind of irony, and I think that might be why John Bayley in his interesting piece actually doesn’t like Hopkins. He says that you enjoy Hopkins in adolescence but afterwards you don’t enjoy him. I mean, he’s generalising here about his own experience, that somehow he doesn’t have the same kind of satisfactions, because there’s something so full-on about it that once you’ve experienced it it’s got no inside or it doesn’t develop. He says ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, once you’ve got the hang of it, isn’t actually a very interesting poem. But that’s to look for an inside in the poems which I think is not what they’re about, and I think one of the aspects of their modernity is the extent to which they are happening fully on the surface all the time. There’s no kind of inner secret there of some kind of private life. The privacy is all dramatised and in the language itself.
SP: Yes that’s part of the extremity, isn’t it, I think, that feature. There’s a terrific journal entry about six years before, just picking up on your point about how he hated to see trees cut down, and there’s an ash tree outside his window that’s been cut down by someone, and he writes in his journal: ‘I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed’ – that’s the tree – ‘there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed anymore.’ So often with Hopkins you have the sense of a person who had absolutely no middle ground. It must have been an exhausting existence to pursue.
MF: Well that goes into one of his most popular poems, doesn’t it:
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Which was much enjoyed by modernist critics such as Richards and I think Empson. In that sense it’s a quite straightforward nature poem, but the twists and the unusualness of the idiom gives it a really personal pathos. I think to that extent the originality of Hopkins, the individuality, the distinctiveness – you read a bit of Hopkins, as with Dickinson, no one else writes like that. There is no parnassian happening, it’s all that person and only that person. And Hopkins was unable to write ordinary stuff after his – I think it was Kingsley Amis said to Martin Amis, he can’t write a sentence, he got up and left the room, closing the door behind him. Hopkins is particularly incapable of writing an ordinary sentence. It’s all got to be ‘charged with the grandeur of God’. And I think that’s what makes it so wearing, and I think that’s what possibly appeals to, or in Baileys reading, to the adolescent reader. The intensity and the freshness, and the importance, that somehow all of this stuff matters so much.
SP: It does depend, doesn’t it, on an unceasing moment-to-moment inventiveness. It has to be, as it were, minute examples of brilliant inventiveness at every point. It has no home idiom.
MF: And I think also, up to the dark sonnets, it’s so dependent on the visual, and on making links between the visual, and connecting. It’s like a crossword puzzle, that everything works through ‘the grandeur of God’ and through the beneficence and the multiplicity of nature, and there is a kind of appalling logic whereby what get called the ‘dark sonnets’ or the ‘sonnets of desolation’, which he writes in Dublin, where he was unbelievably miserable. He was marking 1,800 exam papers, can you imagine that?
MF: Just drudgery, and he was living in a place where – he died of typhoid – and there were rats in the kitchen. And also his patriotism came out there. He didn’t like the Irish. He didn’t like the Irish in Liverpool because of course a lot of the Irish in Liverpool were Catholics, and he didn’t like the whole sort of Fenian movement, and the Irish didn’t seem to like him very much. And possibly, I think, is it Helen Vendler suggests he might have been bipolar in some ways, that there’s a kind of depressive aspect to his cycles of exhilaration, and then the downside. But these poems, I remember reading them as an adolescent and they do take your breath away. And they are, in there kind of frankness, and the ways in which they conjugate or parse absence, and it’s the absence not just of a lover, it’s the absence of all that makes life meaningful, of God. So the love language is used, but there’s nothing since, I don’t know, John Donne’s ‘St. Lucy’s Day’ to compare with ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’.
SP: So we should just fill in a little bit of the backstory there, shouldn’t we. So the next posting he gets he’s sent to Glasgow, he goes back to Roehampton, he goes back on Stonyhurst again. And then the final posting he gets is to Dublin, where he’s the professor of Greek at the new University College in Dublin. And as you say, although that sounds quite a grand and established post, in fact it was an extraordinary onerous post, with vast amounts of marking, which he set about with utterly scrupulous attention, agonising over fractions of marks out of a hundred over the transcriptional or slight mis-transcription of a Greek word. And in this point of his life, by 1885, he’s in a very bad way, isn’t he. He talks to friends about a deep fit of nervous prostration, and a little bit later he describes ‘my state as much like madness’. And when he sends these poems to Bridges, one of the reasons we have so many of these poems is because he sends them to Bridges, and Bridges curates them, doesn’t he, as it were as Hopkins’s editor before he actually sees them into print. And Hopkins says to Bridges of one of these poems, if ever anything was written in blood, one of these was. So these really are, to go back to your original analogy, with Lowell or Plath or, you know, the confessional schools of 60s America, this is part of that same kind of – not quite primal scream, because it’s still extremely controlled, isn’t it – but part of that very raw kind of confessionalism.
MF: And I think while doctrinally you can understand that to lament the absence of God is part of the overall religious experience, that it’s not necessarily an anti-catholic cry from the soul. But they are, sort of, ‘why hast thou forsaken me?’ I mean, they do have that primal power.
To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.
So Christ, you know, my parents won’t talk to me and my brothers and sisters won’t talk to me. I’ve given it all up for Christ, and he’s gone, he’s not here. And:
England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.
I am in Ireland now;
(’To Ireland I’ as Donalbain puts it in Macbeth)
now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.
I’ve never seen that word used as a noun before: ‘began’. So that’s a complaint, isn’t it. I mean it is really unnerving to have given everything up and to feel betrayed in this way.
SP: It’s also, and I’m sure self-consciously, it’s a poetry coming out of exactly the opposite inspiration to where all of the earlier poems came from. So all the earlier poems came from an extraordinary sense of the exuberance of natural creation, even within the terrible dark circumstances of the Deutschland wreck, still nature’s exciting, because of what it’s doing. And at these points, and in these last terrible sonnets nature is entirely uninspiring, isn’t it. But then the curious thing is that he manages to write a poetry out of that state.
MF: Yes, I mean, they become kind of self-conjugations, they look inside and they just find cliff after cliff of emptiness or voids, and that he himself is his own kind of worst enemy:
I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
So it’s kind of solipsism turned into a vertiginous – and again this does seem a terribly twentieth-century existential, vertiginous experience in which you’re spiraling into a kind of absence after absence, and you’re just finding new metaphors to conjugate that absence, but it only makes it more perilous and lacking in footholds.
SP: That’s true. I suppose the only thing about it that doesn’t feel completely modern is that there’s no suggestion at any point that god doesn’t exist, is there. I mean his faith in that sense is rock solid and the awfulness of these poems is that believing in God doesn’t bring any consolation because God’s not being good to him.
MF: But it’s kind of imagining his own damnation at the end of ‘I Wake and Feel…’:
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves, but worse.
It’s odd that Eliot says that he’s not a religious poet, Hopkins isn’t a religious poet in the way that Baudelaire is a religious poet, because Baudelaire was man enough to be damned. But I think in these poems Hopkins is saying, yes it might not work out for me afterwards. Or certainly that the vision of hell is not one exclusively reserved for Protestants or atheists, that he can imagine himself somehow participating in those agonies.
SP: It’s also drawing upon a Romantic tradition, isn’t it. One of the poems that I think is behind these extraordinary sonnets is Coleridge’s ‘Dejection: An Ode’, which is all about the failure of natural vision to sustain your religious sensibility or your religious consciousness. And when, in this extraordinary poem called ‘Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord’ he writes things like:
See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
And these are lines that are actually describing his inability to write something that will last, and yet in a weird kind of paradox, of course, these are some of the lines that have lasted best.
MF: And they’re making use of Shakespearean sonnet sort of paradoxes, aren’t they, about art in that sense. And ‘Time’s eunuch’ is the kind of phrase one might find in a Shakespeare sonnet, but he kind of means it as, well doesn’t he. And it is kind of heartbreaking in that you can’t help reading the trajectory of his overall life as somebody who has bet on this particular vision, or it’s been the one which he has invested himself in, committed everything, and somehow the returns aren’t being delivered. It’s like the marine insurance, you know, the wreck has happened but no one is paying out. And the wreck of Hopkins’s own health, which Helen Vendler is very explicit about, or she summarises from the index all his illnesses, and she lists them in that passage, and it’s one thing after another which he suffers from: operation for his piles, adult circumcision, and then the endless series of illnesses that beset him. And I think the loneliness is what also is quite painful to read, in the Norman White biography or the Robert Martin biography. That in Dublin he really is a ‘lonely began’ that there’s no one there who understands what he’s about. All he’s got is this lifeline to Bridges and Dixon through the letters, and the eccentricity is somehow not, kind of, ‘funny old Hopkins’, it’s ‘who is this nutter?’ And he sort of finished – I mean, the last poem, that is addressed Bridges, also suggests that his muse has left him. That like ‘time’s eunuch’, that somehow the sense in which all his poetry was a way of praising God, even that’s been taken away from him.
SP: Why don’t we end with that poem, why don’t you read that to end.
The fine delight that fathers thought; the strong
Spur, live and lancing like the blowpipe flame,
Breathes once and, quenchèd faster than it came,
Leaves yet the mind a mother of immortal song.
Nine months she then, nay years, nine years she long
Within her wears, bears, cares and moulds the same:
The widow of an insight lost she lives, with aim
Now known and hand at work now never wrong.
Sweet fire the sire of muse, my soul needs this;
I want the one rapture of an inspiration.
O then if in my lagging lines you miss
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.
(‘To R.B.’, 1889)