Hopkins Lectures 2001

Christina Rosetti's "Escapist" Poems and Hopkins's "Heaven-Haven"

Kazuyoshi Enozawa, Japan

Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christina Rossetti were contemporaries.Born in 1844, Hopkins was fourteen years younger than Christina Rossetti. Hopkins met Rosetti only once, when he was introduced to her by his friend Ivor Gurney.

Gerard Manley Hopkins Archive 2001

Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christina Rosseti may roughly be considered contemporaries, though not in the strict sense of the word. Born in 1844, Hopkins was fourteen years younger than Christina Rossetti, who was born in 1830. When the former died in 1889, the latter had five years more to live before expiring in 1894. During his relatively short life, Hopkins did not have much chance to meet this woman poet. In fact, he met her only once, it seems, and that was in July 1864, when he was introduced to her at the London house of his friend Ivor Gurney.

Although Hopkins was writing poetry about that time, he was later to destroy some portions of it. The "slaughter of the innocents", as he called it, occurred in 1868, when he decided to enter the Society of Jesus. Seven years of poetic silence ensued, and although he resumed writing poetry from 1875 on, beginning with "The Wreck of the Deutschland' (1875 - 6), most of his poems were to remain hidden to the world at large until 1931, when Robert Bridges brought out the first edition of his friend's poems. During the lifetime of Hopkins, apart from Bridges and two other friends - R. W. Dixon and Coventry Patmore - and the editor of The Month who rejected his manuscript for "The Wreck" no one knew that Hopkins ever wrote poetry at all. Christina Rossetti, on the other hand, through her Verses privately printed in 1847 and her Goblin Market published by the Macmillan's in 1862, was already known to the literary world as a "poetess". It is possible to suppose that a mere meeting of Hopkins with Christina in that literary evening at the Gurneys could not have meant much to either of these personalities. In fact, it is hardly conceivable that Christina Rossetti, who was known during her lifetime to be in the habit of behaving as if she cared little for her reputation as a "poetess" and showed her poems, if ever, only to a small circle of close friends, should have taken any serious interest in Hopkins, an intelligent but practically unknown poet from Oxford. There are bits of evidence, however, that Hopkins on his side, even before being introduced to Christina Rossetti, had read some of her poems and may have felt an urge to rival her as a poetic artist. Notable among the poems he created out of this motive are "A Voice from the World" and "Heaven - Haven". The former, however, remains to this day only in fragments, whereas the latter presents itself, in its finished form, not only in many an anthology, but in all successive editions of Hopkins's poems. "A Voice from the World" was a tentative title when Hopkins first conceived the idea of composing an "answer" to Christina Rossetti's Convent Threshold. From July 1868 to January 1872 he seems to have reminded himself at times that what he had begun to write needed some revision. At some stage in the interval, he may even have felt a need to alter the very title of his work from "A Voice from the World" to "Beyond the Cloister". Unfortunately, the text of the poem under this latter title is now lost. In considering what Christina Rossetti as a writer may have meant for Hopkins, the aspiring poet, in and around the year 1864, a comparison of the two poems: Christina Rossetti's "Convent Threshold" and Hopkins's "A Voice from the World" (even though the latter lacks a number of its sections) - would be inevitable. Also, Hopkins's "Heaven-Haven" invites a comparison with Christina Rossetti's other poems - particularly those dealing with what may be termed an "escapist" theme, as, for example, in "Dream Land " or "Looking Forward".

It is my purpose in the present paper, first to consider Hopkins's "A Voice from the World" in relation to Christina Rossetti's "Convent Threshold"; then to examine that particular theme recurrent in Christina Rossett's devotional poems; and finally to see how Hopkins in his own way managed to deal with that same theme in his exquisite lyric, "Heaven-Haven". (2)

I may do well to begin by making my point that Hopkins, after all, failed to outshine Christina in his "answer" to her "Convent Threshold". And he had to admit part at least of his failure. There are some hints to suggest that.First, there is a hint that at some point between 1864 and 1866, Hopkins's initial enthusiasm for his venture cooled off somewhat, if not all together. Then there was a rather negative response to the work in progress from certain of his friends, and he had to accept their criticisms to some extent. Finally, he got round to paying respect to certain aspects of Christina Rossetti's poetic achievement. Let me trace this process briefly.The date at which Hopkins first referred to Christina Rossetti's "Convent Threshold" is 20 July 1864. In his letter, of that date, to A. W M. Maillie, he writes:

I have nearly finished an answer to Miss Rossetti's Convent Threshold, to be called A voice from the world, or something like that, with which I am at present in the fatal condition of satisfaction.

Even if this "answer" was later to alter its title, but not its substance, it looks strange that the intended work took nearly three years before it finally gave the poem the shape in which it appears in the Fourth Edition of Hopkins's poems, where no less than five whole sections are missing. We do not know whether this lacuna was the result of some authorial deletion, or whether it reflects a failure on the part of the author to go on with the composition. Be the case as it may, it is reasonable to surmise that Hopkins in 1866 still remained in the same "fatal condition of satisfaction" as he was in 1864. In his letter of 14 December 1866 to the Rev. E. W. Urquhart, he confesses:

About the other thing [presumably a copy of "Beyond the Cloister" many thanks for your criticisms and to Lord Neaves for his and for the trouble he has taken. I think them both just except the flattering opinion you have of Barnfloor and Winepress and am quite satisfied, for I have ceased to care for Beyond the Cloister being put into a magazine. Too many licences are taken for a beginner, but the objection is on the score of morality rather than of art, and the licences in themselves I still think justifiable. I need not alter what I cannot publish.(2)

Now this passage is interesting, in that Hopkins says he has "ceased to care for Beyond the Cloister being put into a magazine", and also, in that while admitting that there are "too many licences" in his work, he defends the licences". He concedes to the licences on the score of "morality, but not of "art". One can easily see through his defence to his concealed ambition for a rivalry with Christina Rossetti as a poetic artist. By March 1872, however, he was ready to yield the palm to her. In his letter to his mother, dated 5 March 1872, he says:

Miss Christina also has comparatively lately published some stories in Prose, I find. But she has been, I am afraid, thrown rather into the shade by her brother. I have not read his book Poems, 1870. From the little I have seen and gathered of it I daresay he has more range, force, and interest, and then there is the difference between a man and a woman, but for pathos and pure beauty of her work I do not think he is her equal: in fact the simple beauty of her work cannot be matched. (3)

What Hopkins valued in Christina's work is its "pathos"-- its beauty "pure" and "simple". What I want to suggest in my paper is that this very quality in Christina is in fact what Hopkins aimed to crystallize, not in his "A Voice from the World", or "Beyond the Cloister", but in his "Heaven-Haven". And this aim he achieved with great success.

3

Christina Rosset's "Convent Threshold" is a kind of love letter, addressed by a woman aspiring for an existence transcending this sinful world to her former earthbound lover. She writes it in the form of an imagined dialogue (her lover being invisible and inaudible because he isn't actually there), or rather a monologue (though addressed to her erstwhile lover), in a manner that smacks of didacticism. (the woman exhorting her to renounce the pleasures of earthly love). The woman admits that she was once in earthly love with her lover, but she has now renounced that love ("soiled with mud, / With scarlet mud") and aspires instead for a purified, spiritual love. The renunciation involves no less personal sacrifice with her than with her lover, but it brings ultimate spiritual joy to both. Says the spiritually awakened woman:

I choose the stairs that mount above,
Stair after golden sky-ward stair,
To city and to sea of glass, . . .
I seek the sea of glass and fire
To wash the spot to burn the snare;
Lo, stairs are meant to lift us higher:
Mount with me, mount the kindled stair.
I choose the stairs that mount above,
Stair after golden sky-ward stair,
To city and to sea of glass, . . .
I seek the sea of glass and fire
To wash the spot to burn the snare;
Lo, stairs are meant to lift us higher:
Mount with me, mount the kindled stair.
("The Convent Threshold" (4)

The woman bids her lover to "mount the golden sky-ward stair" - hand in hand, as it were - with her As she goes further along, her exhortations grow more and more urgent and insistent, forcing upon him one imperative after another:

You linger, yet the time is short:
Flee for your life gird up your strength
To flee; the shadows stretched at length
Show that day wanes, that night draws nigh;
Flee to the mountain, tarry not.

 

. . . Repent, repent, and be forgiven,
This life is long, but yet it ends;
Repent and purge your soul and save . . . (My italics)

Such impassioned pleadings may sound repellent to our post-modem ears. I do not know how Victorian readers in general, and Hopkins in particular, may have responded to that sort of fervent religiosity in poetry. But I do believe that Hopkins made a mistake -- and a decisive one at that -- in letting his poetic imagination so aroused as to compose an "answer" in the voice of a rejected lover, who had earned a chiding from the woman in the Convent Threshold. I may even push my point further and say that Hopkins's attempt to outdo Christina in his venture was from the very beginning doomed to failure. To begin with, let me invite you to listen to the voice of the rejected lover.

4

Bewildered by the familiar voice - the voice, unmistakably, of the woman he was once in love with, coming unexpectedly from the threshold of a convent, the lover in "A Voice from the World" wonders:

At last I hear the voice well known;
Doubtless the voice: now fall'n now spent,
Now coming from the alien eaves, ?
You would not house beneath my own;
To alien eaves you fled and went, - . . . From parts unlook'd for, alter'd, spent,
At last I hear the voice I knew. ("A Voice From the World" [5])

Bewilderment, along with a bit of remembered bitterness at the flight of his erstwhile love, away from him, into a convent, easily makes itself felt in such phrases as "at last", "alien eaves", and "fled and went". These little phrases, shaped so nicely and executed by such a skilful hand like that, say, of George Herbert, might well strike the reader as having issued from the pen of a very accomplished poet, even from that of Christina Rossetti herself. Use of monosyllables, such as "fall'n", "spent", and "house" (in "Would not house") is, I think, quite characteristic of Hopkins. In the lines omitted in the dotted parts of the quotation above, there are in evidence a number of other expressions -all too difficult and too obscure - which nonetheless characterize so much of Hopkins's later, maturer poetry, On the whole, the first section of the poem makes good enough reading. But what immediately comes next is disappointing:

I plead: familiarness endears
My evil words thorny with pain:
I plead: and you will give your tears:
I plead: and ah! how much in vain. . . .

The lover obviously had uttered some "evil words", "thorny with pain", to protest and plead to his love, when she told him of her intention of renouncing all the pleasures of this earthly world, including her relationship with him. He apologies for his use of unseemly language, but at the same time defends it on the score of its having issued out of the "familarmess" between them.

This ego-centric, selfish attitude in the man may well be the reason why the woman, despairing of all human vanities, was driven to seek peace and quiet in a prayerful life in a convent. She weeps, but he does not understand the meaning of her tears. This difference in both sentiment and mind between man and woman should have provided a good theme for Hopkins, but, alas, given the circumstances in which he grew up and the kind of training he received from school up to college, that was beyond expectation. He was simply not capable of dealing with such a delicate theme. The lacuna indicated by dots in the quotation above would suggest, rather than anything else, this very lack of confidence in him.

5

The basic reason why Hopkins failed to outdo Christina Rossetti in his "A Voice from the World" is that he had nothing in him that would enable him to sympathize with the mournful pleadings of the rejected lover, whereas he had everything in him that made Christina's ideas and sentiments, if not all attractive, but at least understandable, to him. For some time during the first half of his Oxford life, Hopkins leaned towards the ritualism of the Anglo-Catholic group within the Church of England. This period coincided with the time when Hopkins felt drawn towards the poetry of Christina Rossetti. I think it reasonable to suppose that Hopkins round about the year in 1864 was in a position to understand sympathetically Christina Rossetti's renunciatory attitudes towards worldly pleasures including love affairs, as "vanity of all vanities", and her concomitant longings for peace and quiet in the world beyond. In short, Hopkins was basically in the position of the woman determined to become a nun in Christina's "Convent Threshold", and not in the position of the lover deploring the misery of being rejected by his erstwhile love. Putting himself on the side of such a lover in his imagination, Hopkins could not have written anything to his satisfaction, and that stands to reason.

6

In connecting Hopkins's "Heaven Haven" with any of the poems Christina Rossetti had written before 1864, one need take note of those - rather than anything else - in which recurs a theme characteristic to the author. That theme may be called variously: "religious", "devotional", and even "renunciatory". Here I would like to call it "escapist", for in a number of poems Christina expresses a desire to flee from the world, flee from the harsh realities in the world - the world in which human beings cannot escape from suffering. From one of her earlier poems let me quote these lines:

Rest rest; the troubled breast
Panteth evermore for rest: -
Be it sleep or be it death,
Rest is all it coveteth.

Oh, I am weary of life's passing show,
Its pageant and its pain.
I would I could lie down lone in my woe,
Ne'er to rise up again;
I would I could lie down where none might know;
For truly love is vain. ("The Dream" [6])

The theme here is of course "vanity of vanities', and even what may be called the Victorian version of an idyllic love call from a lusty lad to his lass is here altered by this woman poet into something in the nature of a "renunciatory" lyric. Though the author wrote it when she was still in her late teens, here are already in evidence all the related themes of her later religious poetry: fleeting of time, transience of youth and beauty, longing for sleep and death. The short quatrain that tops the poem may be a quotation from some other writer, but thematically it is inseparably linked with the rest of the text. Setting the dominant theme apart, you may even detect easily a syntactic closeness of the last line but one of the above quotation to Hopkins's hauntingly beautiful lines:

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow. ("Heaven-Haven) [7]

The same motif of a longing for rest is seen also in yet another of Christina Rossetti's early poetry:

weary life a hopeless life,
Full of all ill and fear-oppressed;
A weary life that looks for rest
Alone after death's strife . . .

Then bring me to a solitude
Where love may neither come nor go;
Where very peaceful waters flow,
And roots are found for food;

Where the wild honey-bee blooms by,
And trees and bushes freely give
Ripe fruit and nuts: there I would live,
And there I fain would die.
("The Novice") [8]

Search the Gerard Manley Hopkins Archive
Albert Sweitzer and Gerard Manley Hopkins
Thomas Hardy and poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Walt Whitman and Hopkins