Writing in 1920 to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sister Kate, the poet Robert Bridges, who had seen Hopkins’s poems through the press in 1918 (almost thirty years after Hopkins’s death), ventured a prophecy: ‘I think it very probable that his letters will some day be printed … It is possible enough that if I should live to be very very old I might myself edit the letters.’
At the time, Bridges was 76, and not in good health. The letters had to wait until 1935 to see partial publication. Later, in the 1950s, Claude Colleer Abbott published revised editions of separate correspondences (to Bridges and to the Reverend Richard Watson Dixon), followed by the miscellaneous Further Letters, filling out the picture of Hopkins as son, brother and priest. The letters immensely improved the understanding of Hopkins’s life and work, but the editor assumed a readership of educated English scholars. The 499 extant letters by Hopkins, magnificently re-edited, have now been issued in the Oxford series of Hopkins’s Collected Works that will run, when complete, to eight volumes: the two-volume Correspondence; Diaries, Journals and Notebooks; Oxford Essays and Notes; Sermons and Spiritual Writings; Sketches, Notes and Studies; The Dublin Notebook; and finally, the Poems. The energetic and exhaustive notes and the biographical register of Hopkins’s correspondents offer constant illumination.
Oxford’s new presentation of the correspondence (including 43 letters, none remarkable, that have come to light since the earlier edition) differs in two striking ways from the volumes of the 1950s. All the correspondences have been merged into one lifelong chronological sequence, and – in a felicitous addition – all known letters to Hopkins from his correspondents are inserted (in a different typeface) as they were received. A marked narrative of intellectual and personal engagement arises as one letter follows another, and as the correspondences with poets come and go like eddies in the flow of mail. The edition also adds, in an appendix, the letters written to Hopkins’s parents after their son’s unexpected and premature death in Dublin from typhoid at the age of 44. I quote the most intimate one, written to Hopkins’s mother by a close friend at Oxford, Alexander Baillie:
I cannot express to you how grieved I was to learn [of] the death of my dear friend … It is impossible to say how much I owe to him. He is the one figure which fills my whole memory of my Oxford life … All my intellectual growth, and a very large proportion of the happiness of those Oxford days, I owe to his companionship … Apart from my own nearest relations, I never had so strong an affection for any one.
Other friends expressed equal grief, feeling that they had lost the most unusual person they had known.
Hopkins was known as Gerard to his family and friends (Bridges inserted ‘Manley’ on the title page of the Poems to differentiate the poet from his nephew, the writer Gerard Hopkins). Born in 1844 as the eldest of nine children to a well-off Anglican family, he grew up surrounded by music and art: his father was a marine adjuster who wrote a book about shipwrecks (as well as a book of poems). Hopkins went up to Balliol to do Greats, but was caught up in the wake of the Oxford Movement, and, following in Newman’s footsteps, converted to Catholicism. This prompted the most painful exchange in the letters: Hopkins makes a stiff and formal announcement to his father that he is confirmed in his desire to convert, and his parents, in turn, write back in a manner that is both bewildered and stiff; the letter is worded as from his father but the extant draft is in his mother’s hand. It begins with logical argument against his conversion, but ends with a mother’s outcry:
All we ask of you is for your own sake to take so momentous a step with caution and hesitation: have we not a right to do this? Might not our love & sorrow entitle us to ask it? & you answer by saying that as we might be Romanists if we pleased the estrangement is not of your doing. O Gerard my darling boy are you indeed gone from me?
This decision to convert – probably opaque at the time to Hopkins himself – determined the rest of his life: he became a Jesuit, did badly in his third-year exam in dogmatic theology, was not chosen to stay on for a fourth year, and was ordained at a lower level than some fellow ordinands (he was a Spiritual Coadjutor rather than a Professed Father). He was unable to rise higher in the order thanks to this judgment on his suitability. His subsequent posts were only occasionally successful, and his last – which entailed marking hundreds of national exams twice a year and teaching classics at Newman’s new university in Dublin – uprooted him from England. During his time as a Jesuit, letters were his chief means of contact with the intellectual and literary world.
These letters present, as the editors say in their introduction, ‘the priest, the poet, the playful friend, the dutiful critic, the observer of the beauties of the world, the speculative thinker, the experimenter, the linguist, the master of prosody, the anguished self-analyst and the loving man’. I would add to this list the fastidious aesthete (seen especially in his remarks on the use and misuse of language and in his corrections of others’ verse) and the intemperate dogmatist, seen in his nearly deranged letter of 21 August 1885 to Coventry Patmore about Sponsa Dei, a long poem of Patmore’s depicting the relation of man to God by analogy with the marital relation of woman to man. Beginning with the generalisation that ‘anything however high and innocent may happen to suggest anything however low and loathsome,’ Hopkins goes on to interpret the poem as a possible incitement to masturbation, saying that ‘acts of unnatural vice’ were portrayed by a heretical priest and ‘a congregation of nuns somewhere in Italy’, as ‘acts of divine union’ (adding that such practices ‘appear widely in the Brahmanic mystic literature’). ‘I am sorry to disgust you with these horrors,’ he adds, ‘but such is man and such is Satanic craft.’ In his 1992 biography of Hopkins Norman White characterises this letter as ‘a gentle warning’, but like many others, he tends to protect his subject. Hopkins arouses affection in his readers.
I first encountered Hopkins in the 1944 Eleanor Ruggles biography, borrowed by my mother from the local library. My youthful reading had stopped at Tennyson, and I was astonished by Hopkins. I bought the poems and found them effortlessly inserting themselves into my memory. Although I had been raised a Roman Catholic, it was not Hopkins’s Catholicism that captured my interest; it was that ‘new rhythm’ that he ‘long had haunting [his] ear’ which drew me into its vortex as it had drawn and driven the poet himself. Of course I had found the early poems of his twenties, Oxford sonnets and religious poems alike, beautiful, recognisably traditional and regular in form and rhyme:
Elected silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb;
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.
But what buoyed me up and carried me along, in my first acquaintance with Hopkins’s work, was the extravagance of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, in which his ‘new rhythm’ beat irresistibly in a stanza both irregular and propulsive:
For how to the heart’s cheering
The down-dugged ground-hugged grey
Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing
Of pied and peeled May!
Blue-beating and hoary-glow height; or night, still higher,
With belled fire and the moth-soft milky way,
What by your measure is the heaven of desire,
The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?
After reading the poems I went to the poet’s correspondence, and met another Hopkins, attractive in his successive enthusiasms and his incorruptible honesty, but immensely strange in his intransigent literary morals. In his late thirties, for instance, he excoriated the witty Beatrice of Much Ado about Nothing: ‘It is the same in literature as in life: the vain women in Shakspere are the impure minded too, like Beatrice (I do not know that I may not call her a hideous character).’ His own sexual anxieties (then unknown to me) made him intolerant of the erotic freedom of literature, even when it was Shakespeare he was rebuking. I read the letters eagerly, but with the very imperfect understanding of an inexperienced American unaware of 19th-century customs and controversies, not to speak of English and Irish politics.
In letters, Hopkins always spoke his mind with trenchancy and purpose, even to the point of endangering his ties to his correspondents. His enlivening wit sprang frequently from the pages, as did his sardonic commentary on aspects of Victorian language and culture. To watch him develop from a rather priggish Oxford undergraduate to a man of troubling sorrow and (in his own words) ‘helpless self-loathing’ was to be educated in a process I was then too young to understand fully. The letters delighted me by their revelation of what Hopkins’s prose could become when it was relatively untrammelled (his sermons, never uninteresting, were nonetheless constrained by their double obligation to dogma and to homiletic intention).
Hopkins’s unstoppable drive to write had free rein until he joined the Jesuit order and decided (on his own) that his vocation was incompatible with the writing of poetry. His private moratorium on poetic composition ended when his religious superior suggested in 1875 that someone ought to commemorate the five German nuns (fleeing Bismarck’s dissolution of the religious orders) who had drowned off the coast of Kent in the Deutschland. A dam broke with Hopkins’s composition of the poem (which undoubtedly sprang at least in part from his father’s book on shipwrecks). During the preceding years of poetic silence, letter-writing had become Hopkins’s chief – and sometimes sole – outlet of creative expression, and it continued strongly, especially in dry periods, even after his resumption of poetry. Since his conversion from the family’s Anglicanism had caused a never entirely repaired breach (none of his family attended his ordination), Hopkins released his thoughts and poems more freely to friends and fellow poets such as Bridges (although he did enclose some poems in letters to his mother).
As time went on, Bridges became an overworked physician, a married man with children (and the usual family cares), and, when he developed lung disease, a patient himself. He nonetheless responded always to Hopkins’s letters and poems, keeping the manuscripts safe until he undertook their posthumous publication. He took his guardianship seriously, planning to create a reputation for the unknown poet by gradual publication in anthologies or journals before publishing a collection. Early enthusiasts included Empson and I.A. Richards; and Hopkins was for a time placed among ‘modern’ poets rather than Victorian ones. The letters (and much recent scholarship, together with the new edition of the Oxford Essays) fix him firmly in Victorian philosophical, visual and scientific contexts, whereas early discussions had been more often preoccupied with his religious beliefs and his prosody. Elsie Phare’s wonderfully intuitive short book on Hopkins, published in 1933, brought Hopkins criticism to a new level. And in 1948 William Peters, a Dutch Jesuit, did a linguistic analysis of the poetry that has not been bettered. From the 1940s on, Hopkins criticism thrived.
The subjects that interested Hopkins were chiefly intellectual ones; even his most sensuous responses to the natural world were immediately referred to the intellect, which, in the poetry, meant referral to philosophical or theological thought. Although it has seemed regrettable to some readers that Hopkins grafted religious sestets onto octaves of natural beauty, it must be acknowledged that if he had led a different life, his penetrating sense-perceptions would even so have had to be presented to, and mediated by, his intellectual preoccupations (which, in that alternative life, might have been philosophical rather than religious). In any case, the two aspects – the senses and the intellect – would still have had to struggle into stand-offs, reconciliations, suspensions – the very things that happen in the religious poems.
The overwhelming elation Hopkins felt in the presence of natural phenomena (and his consequent grief at the destruction of natural beauty) could not exist unaffected by second-order reflection. Sometimes, as in the exquisite ‘Moonrise, June 19, 1876’, a natural scene did escape the grasp of explicit intellectual scrutiny. Waking in Wales, near dawn, the poet sees the rise of a waning moon, and because it is an hour in which nothing in the way of work or liturgical practice is expected of him, he can see ‘innocently’, without scruples or anxiety, can feel natural beauty presented ‘so easily’. It is a scene that could easily have been allegorised (the source of light entangled with darkness), but in his half-awake state Hopkins can experience it as pure joy:
I awoke in the Midsummer not-to-call night, | in the white and the walk of the morning:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe | of a fingernail held to the candle,
Or paring of paradisaïcal fruit,| lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, | of dark Maenefa the mountain;
A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him,| entangled him, not quit utterly.
This was the prized, the desirable sight, | unsought, presented so easily,
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, | eyelid and eyelid of slumber.
This unusual poem – of seven lines with seven beats each (a symbol of perfect order) – has a midline ‘rest’ (marked by Hopkins) after the fourth beat, and cadences which end always in ‘feminine’ rhymes. The slow and serene rhythm (‘presented so easily’) in no way resembles the atmosphere excited at more anxious moments by the presence of the external world – ‘Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!’ With the arrival of the intellect, the stars must be placed in the visual world of Christian iconography, becoming a ‘piece-bright paling’ enclosing ‘Christ and his mother and all his hallows’.
Moments of peace such as ‘Moonrise’ were not frequent, and the letters reveal increasing depression (diagnoses after the fact have mentioned unipolar depression and bipolar illness). Hopkins was fully aware of his tormented state. Apologising to Baillie for a late reply to a letter, he writes: ‘This is part of my disease, so to call it’:
The melancholy I have all my life been subject to has become of late years not indeed more intense in its fits but rather more distributed, constant and crippling. One, the lightest but a very inconvenient form of it, is daily anxiety about work to be done, which makes me break off or never finish all that lies outside that work … when I am at the worst, though my judgment is never affected, my state is much like madness.
One suspects that no matter what adult life he had chosen, Hopkins would not have been spared such psychological suffering.
After the issuing of the poems, the Jesuits hastened to write about Hopkins in somewhat defensive ways (they feared, Bridges said, what the opening of Hopkins to the public eye might reveal – without specifying what that might be). The publication of Hopkins’s youthful confession notes at Oxford (scratched over by him but made visible by technical scrutiny) and his recorded attraction then and later to male bodies made it inevitable that he would be perceived as homosexual in sensibility and inclination. (No one has ever doubted his lifelong celibacy.) The publication of his grim retreat notes provoked responses accusing the Jesuits of not recognising his gifts, of putting him in unsuitable postings and so on. By now, most of these position-takings have waned, but it is still thought – judging by the poems most often anthologised – that he is primarily a ‘nature poet’ and a ‘religious poet’. It is true he cared very much for the urgent sentiments expressed in the poems, but if one chooses to characterise him by manner rather than by subject matter, he belongs among the poets of extremes: Blake, Shelley, Hart Crane. In Hopkins, we find embodied the highest euphoria and the wildest despair, from ‘Hurrahing in Harvest’ to ‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves’, both extremes finding eloquent expression.
For all his ecstatic wonder, Hopkins is by no means an untutored child of the earth. In fact, he is an exceptionally interesting example of the intersection of four very strong influences: visual impressions, compulsive verse-writing, classical higher education and Roman Catholicism (superimposed on his residual family Anglicanism). He came to adulthood in the throes of the Oxford Movement, and nothing seemed of more consequence to him and his closest friends – as the youthful letters demonstrate – than the choice between England and Rome. Newman had already ‘gone over’ to Rome and become a priest; the new converts who were persuaded in part by his example – Hopkins was one – urged conversion on their friends with emphatic insistence. To his Balliol friend Edward William Urquhart, already an Anglican priest, the 22-year-old Hopkins wrote in almost peremptory terms: ‘I have been for about two months a convert to the Church of Christ and am hoping to be received early in next term: I most earnestly hope you will delay no longer… . I am hoping for your conversion and expecting it and of course I do not omit to pray for it.’ Although Urquhart remained in the Anglican communion, others among Hopkins’s friends became converts like himself. It may seem strange, now, that such passions were excited by the respective claims of England and Rome, but the Oxford community of the time was small enough for such religious enthusiasms – fostered by Newman’s compelling sermons and his own conversion – to be contagious.
Reading Hopkins’s early letters to Oxford contemporaries whose names are today unfamiliar makes one grateful for the editors’ biographical register and their lengthy footnotes. ‘We have annotated generously,’ they say, ‘taking account of the international readership which Hopkins now has; and have incorporated and built on the annotation of earlier editors.’ Sometimes they err by excess in footnotes more minutely detailed than necessary. And sometimes they err by defect. Readers lacking Latin will be frustrated by the occasional lack of translation. Although the Latin of Hopkins’s own remarks is translated, Latin elsewhere is not. In Hopkins’s letter of 31 October 1886, for instance, when he is translating a passage of Bridges’s poetry into Latin, there are 16 lines of untranslated Latin. A footnote refers us to the English original in Bridges’s six-volume Poetical Works, but few are likely to have those volumes to hand when reading Hopkins’s translation. And, so far as I can see, the editors have not listed separately the 43 added letters by Hopkins; one comes across them adventitiously, as the eye catches the date of their modern publication in journals.
Most useful to the contemporary ‘international readership’ is the editors’ introduction, which, after a surprisingly unfortunate opening sentence (‘Hopkins’s letters are his secular confessional’), sketches the poet’s life rapidly and winningly, quoting some of the best lines in the best letters and outlining the difficulties – real and self-inflicted – of Hopkins’s career. The editors aptly call the letters ‘the nearest he would ever come to writing an autobiography’, although they might have remarked that the ‘autobiography’ inferred from the letters omits the darkest autobiographical sentences Hopkins wrote, which occur in his Dublin retreat notes. The later letters testify to an exhaustion coming close to madness (as Hopkins himself wrote), and to a despair over absence of achievement, but do not – cannot, since Hopkins is writing in the necessarily public genre of a letter – entirely expose the mind’s dangerous ‘mountains, cliffs of fall/Frightful’ which appear in the terrors of the later poems.
Hopkins’s two chief poet-correspondents, Robert Bridges and Richard Watson Dixon, were both Protestants, and with them Hopkins kept reserves of privacy, knowing that Bridges especially found his religious life incomprehensible. When Bridges, disliking ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, apparently intimated that it would not please the public, Hopkins shot back: ‘I do not write for the public. You are my public and I hope to convert you.’ And when Richard Watson Dixon couldn’t understand Hopkins’s conviction that his work as a priest only rarely permitted him to spend time on poetry, Hopkins declared: ‘I have never wavered in my vocation, but I have not lived up to it.’ To neither of these close friends could Hopkins entirely unfold the trials of his life as a Jesuit. The restraint of both Bridges and Hopkins in their correspondence is admirable, since Bridges’s unsympathetic attitude towards Catholicism never changed. When Bridges is planning to issue Hopkins’s poems, for instance, he writes to A.E. Housman requesting he compose a Latin dedication to Hopkins’s mother, adding, by way of explanation: ‘I am editing the poems of an old college friend … – became a Jesuit very foolishly – “pervert” [i.e. a convert] before he took his degree, and died 30 years ago at Dublin.’ Hopkins was well aware of Bridges’s view of his conversion and Jesuit life, and yet was forbearing enough to address his friend throughout the correspondence as ‘Dearest Bridges’. Even in 1918, just before Hopkins’s poems were printed, Bridges, writing to Hopkins’s sister Kate, is still annoyed enough with ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ to say: ‘That terrible “Deutschland” looks and reads much better in type – you will be glad to hear. But I wish those nuns had stayed at home.’ However humorous he is being, he is still wishing Hopkins’s ‘Pindaric ode’ into non-existence.
A reader can follow the various themes of these letters by letting the eye run down the subject headings in the excellent index, especially the 12 columns devoted to ‘Hopkins, Gerard Manley’. The most plangent heading is ‘health’, under which a chronological list of subtopics becomes ever more dreadful (even as it omits Hopkins’s 1877 adult circumcision):
very weak, cold, ill lately, daily indigestion, medicine, sick in bed, diarrhoea, operation for piles, diarrhoea and vomiting, fagged, jaded, chilblain, dentist, in a great weakness, nervous prostration, nervous weakness, permanently injuring my eyes, dying of anaemia, coffin of weakness and dejection, much like madness, murderous cold and rheumatism, usual despair, in a prostration, eczema, toothache, gloomy mind, feeling very old, distress of mind, ill, rheumatic fever.
After such a recital of suffering, the final (and fatal) entry, ‘typhoid’, comes almost as a reprieve. Hopkins’s frailty of body and mind cruelly impeded all he desired to do, and one must believe his frequent accounts of prostration. These subheads of illnesses begin when Hopkins is only 23, and continue until his death at 44; a young man would not usually experience so much ill-health in two decades. Teaching bled him white: after Oxford, when he was teaching at Newman’s Oratory School (where he had also to tutor and supervise sport) he wrote to Baillie,
I must say that I am very anxious to get away from this place. I have become very weak in health and do not seem to recover myself here or likely to do so. Teaching is very burdensome, especially when you have much of it: I have. I have not much time and almost no energy – for I am always tired – to do anything on my own account.
Twenty years later, in Dublin, where Hopkins (the only English Jesuit in Ireland) feels himself intolerably isolated, the refrain has not changed. Writing again to Baillie, Hopkins says his friend’s letter ‘helps to cheer my very gloomy mind’.
Hopkins’s mind, however, was not invariably gloomy. Whenever he found a holiday escape from his work, and could immerse himself in nature, his buoyancy reappeared. And creative or intellectual questions could always challenge him into wit or argument: many of the letters record spirited discussions – of poetry, music, language, history, politics. Those who have read the letters in the earlier edition will encounter with undimmed pleasure Hopkins’s literary letters, both those on writers (Wordsworth, Keats, Browning, Tennyson, Hardy, Eliot, Barnes) and those on literary topics: archaism, Parnassianism, dialect, rare words, etymologies and prosody. The degree to which Hopkins was intellectually alert can be estimated from the many interests – from astronomy to Egyptology to musical composition – that approach and recede in his letter-writing. The one constant, never receding, is the interest in language (steadily recurring in the journals as well). It manifests itself in the famous letters on ‘sprung rhythm’ (the Hopkinsian prosody in which one counts only stressed syllables; a stressed syllable can be accompanied by several unstressed syllables or even by none at all). The didactic letter of 21 August 1877 to Bridges is the best known of the letters on prosody, but the less technical one that Hopkins wrote to his brother Everard is the more persuasive to the modern reader. In it, Hopkins objects to the habit of reading poetry silently, with the eye, and declares that poetry is intrinsically intended as speech: ‘The merely mental performance … is not the true nature of poetry, the darling child of speech, of lips and spoken utterance.’ But neither is poetry merely performance: like an orchestral score, it must be studied before it can be recited:
Neither of course do I mean my verse to be recited only. True poetry must be studied. As Shakespere and all great dramatists have their maximum effect on the stage but bear to be or must be studied at home before or after or both, so I shd wish it to be with my lyric poetry. And in practice that will be enough by itself alone to any one who has first realised the effect of reciting; for then, like a musician reading a score and supplying in thought the orchestra (as they can), no further performance is, substantially, needed.
To Bridges, Hopkins defends his ‘sprung rhythm’ as ‘the nearest to the rhythm of prose, that is the native and natural rhythm of speech … combining, as it seems to me, opposite and, one wd have thought, incompatible excellences, markedness of rhythm – that is rhythm’s self – and naturalness of expression’. Disappointed in Bridges’s bristling response to ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, Hopkins wrote to him the following year, wryly and ironically complaining, even while being amusing on the subject of his own metaphorical phrasing:
I am sorry you never read the Deutschland again … You would have got more weathered to the style and its features – not really odd … The Deutschland on her first run worked very much and unsettled you, thickening and clouding your mind with vulgar mud bottom and common sewage (I see that I am going it with the image) and just then unhappily you drew off your criticisms all stinking (a necessity now of the image) and bilgy.
Nothing technical meant more to Hopkins than the ‘sprung rhythm’ deployed in the ‘Deutschland’, but he can still laugh at himself as he extends his image of ‘stinking’ bilge. The letters are always entertaining when they take up English usage, often playfully, especially with Bridges. Bridges has used the word ‘disillusion’ and Hopkins teasingly chides him for it:
‘Disillusion’ does exist, as typhus exists and the Protestant religion. The same ‘brutes’ say ‘disillusion’ as say ‘standpoint’ and ‘preventative’ and ‘equally as well’ and ‘to whomsoever shall ask’.
And when Bridges sends along his poem ‘The Dead Child’ saying it is his best, and also (we infer) that his language in it aims to be ‘severe’, Hopkins shows no mercy (the ellipses are his own):
‘Wise, sad head’ and ‘firm, pale hands’ do not strike me as severe at all, nor yet exquisite. Rather they belong to a familiar common place about ‘Reader, have you never hung over the pillow of … pallid cheek, clammy brow … long, long nightwatches … surely, Sir Josiah Bickerstaff, there is some hope! O say not all is over. It cannot be’ – You know.
Nor does Hopkins spare the celebrities of his day, hating the blank verse that ‘the scare-crow misbegotten Browning crew’ and others have ‘exuded’, adding ironically that ‘the Brownings are very fine too in their ghastly way.’ In a later letter Hopkins makes his most famous remarks about Browning. Browning, he says, has
a way of talking (and making his people talk) with the air and spirit of a man bouncing up from table with his mouth full of bread and cheese and saying that he meant to stand no blasted nonsense … Indeed I hold with the old-fashioned criticism that Browning is not really a poet, that he has all the gifts but the one needful and the pearls without the string; rather one should say raw nuggets and rough diamonds.
Hopkins’s vivacity in his harsher criticism is one of his charms, though I hesitate to think of the effect on his correspondents of his comments on their verse. Yet he did give appreciative and reasoned criticism to Bridges and Dixon and Patmore, labouring over their manuscripts almost line by line, annotating and commenting. (They were outwardly grateful for Hopkins’s eagle eye and painstaking discrimination, but didn’t, for the most part, adopt his corrections.) Reading the objections made by Bridges and Dixon concerning the (far superior) poems Hopkins sends them, one can only wince. Hopkins sends an early draft of ‘Spring and Fall’ (‘Margaret, are you grieving’) to Dixon, who immediately wants to smooth out its sprung rhythm into a more conventional scansion, saying:
It seems to me that in the couplet
Nor mouth it, no nor mind expressed
But heart heard of, ghost guessed:
it would be an improvement to bring the latter line into common rhythm –
But heart heard of it, ghost guessed.
Just two weeks earlier, in a long letter, Hopkins had explained (he thought) his ‘sprung rhythm’ to Dixon, who had replied: ‘Your exposition of Sprung Rhythm is profoundly valuable, & most lucid.’ Yet at the first sign of irregularity, Dixon hastened to suggest an alteration into smoothness. To find his rhythmic invention misunderstood, even by his poet friends, discouraged Hopkins. As he wrote dryly to Bridges not long afterwards:
I sent [the poem ‘Brothers’] to Canon Dixon and he objected to the first four lines. Your objection begins after them. I have changed it to suit both. Do you think it improved?
And as even ‘dearest Bridges’ continued to goad him about his ‘eccentricities’, Hopkins retorted in exasperation:
You give me a long jobation about eccentricities. Alas, I have heard so much about and suffered so much for and in fact been so completely ruined for life by my alleged singularities that they are a sore subject.
His ‘singularities’ affected Hopkins’s life as a Jesuit as well. The examiners in his last stage before ordination essentially failed him in dogmatic theology, giving him marks of ‘below average’ and ‘average’. Hopkins could scarcely have failed on intellectual grounds, but he might have failed out of nervousness. It has been suggested (and disputed) that the examiners thought Hopkins heterodox in his preference for Duns Scotus over Thomas Aquinas. Scotus’s argument that there was a ‘thisness’, a haecceitas, in each separate creature confirmed the way Hopkins intuitively perceived the world, as abounding in individual difference. The countryside was full of a ‘pied’ and changing beauty, and Hopkins felt himself called to praise ‘All things counter, original, spare, strange’. He himself embodied – in every community in which he lived, beginning with his family – each of these adjectives: he was (especially to the Irish) ‘counter, original, spare, strange’; and if common taste ran to the monotony of uniformity, he would prize, even if he was alone in prizing them, ‘dappled things’. Like some other early poems, ‘Pied Beauty’ – intended to be a poem about the reconciliation of the Many in the One – skirted danger as it advanced from animals’ dapple and the farmer’s ‘gear and tackle and trim’ to an adjective denoting a questionable human quality: ‘fickle’ (quickly erased by ‘freckled’). The doom-laden ‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves’, as many have said, reduces ‘dapple’ to ‘black, white; right, wrong’ allowing for no intermediate gradations. Hopkins’s clearsighted courage in taking on human nature in addition to physical nature is one of his bravest advances, since he was himself more at ease with a neutral beauty than with ‘mortal beauty | – dangerous; / does set danc- / ing blood’.
Hopkins’s youthful practice of drawing (Ruskinian in its careful rendering of differentiating details) helped him to note a host of individual qualities and aspects even in a single creature. When his heart is ‘stirred’ by the non-‘dangerous’ beauty of the kestrel’s flight (in ‘The Windhover’) and he wishes to grasp it as a whole, he must first discriminate each of its aspects: ‘Brute beauty’ and ‘valour’, and ‘act’, ‘air’, ‘pride’, ‘plume!’ Only after such an inventory of difference can he gather the bird into one ‘inscape’. This is an effortful thing to do– to turn an object into an authentic symbol by synthesising all its separate qualities into a single whole: it is the most strenuous act of the poetic mind. Hopkins therefore commands himself – in a self-directed imperative, a form not uncommon in poetry – to ‘buckle’ those psychically assimilated qualities to his own ‘stirred’ heart, alchemising them into the subjective world of feeling, and thereby generating the imagination that renders them inseparable from human import. Once the outer world has been wholly internalised into symbolic form, then (to use his own word) the meaning ‘explodes’.
Readers will be struck, as I am, by passages they have semi-forgotten; for me, it was Hopkins’s outraged sputter to Bridges about the impossibility of introducing the Greek gods (as Bridges had) into modern verse:
In earnest, not allegorically, you bring in a goddess among the characters: it revolts me. Then not unnaturally, as it seemed to me, her speech is the worst in the play: being an unreality she must talk unreal. Believe me, the Greek gods are a totally unworkable material; the merest frigidity, which must chill and kill every living work of art they are brought into… . [They are] cowards, loungers, without majesty, without awe, antiquity, foresight, character; old bucks, young bucks, and Biddy Buckskins.
He runs on colloquially, ‘talking’ warmly and unselfconsciously. If only his friends could do the same. Since Bridges destroyed his own letters to Hopkins, the new material in this edition – the letters back to Hopkins from his other correspondents – seems pallid, lacking originality, when juxtaposed to his own athletic prose. Patmore disliked Hopkins’s poems (pressed on him by Bridges), and Canon Dixon, although sympathetic and genial, doesn’t produce much vivacity. It is good to have the canvas of the exchanges filled in, and there are some livelier moments (especially in Dixon), but these letters from friends don’t add substantially to our sense of Hopkins’s own crisp messages. They do, however, show the poets’ appreciation for Hopkins’s attention to their work, which often came at a high cost to him. What must he have felt, apprehensively, as he read, in a letter from Dixon: ‘I sd be glad to have your opinion of a narrative poem in couplets, of the Byzantine times, that I have,’ and what must he have felt, even more apprehensively, when he received the manuscript – was it ‘The Story of Eudocia’? Wearily he sat down, when he had no energy even for his own work, to write a critique of Dixon’s uninspired couplets, on and on. As usual, Hopkins begins his critique with all the compliments he can muster, but then his tolerance wears to tiredness, and he indicts construction, metrics and, most of all, archaism (‘I look on the whole genus as vicious’). Even in profound depression, Hopkins remained immutably honest in aesthetic judgment, a great and rare virtue visible throughout these letters, counterbalancing to the end his anxious fears and his recurrent sorrows.