Hopkins Lectures 2002

Irish Exile and Hopkins's Terrible Sonnets

Peter Milward S. J. Japan and United Kingdom

Perhaps Hopkins's Terrible Sonnets are the most poignant portrayals of exile, of being a stranger, in English literature.Gerard Manley Hopkins describes the sad predicament of his Dublin years, of his Irish exile, in the 'terrible sonnets'.


Poor Hopkins! We can't help feeling sympathy for him, caught as he was in the sad predicament he describes for us so poignantly in the 'terrible sonnets' of his Dublin years. Surely there can be no poems in the whole compass of English literature that so painfully portray such agony as he feels in his Irish exile. It may all be seen as coming to a precisely defined climax in the sonnet, 'To seem the stranger'.

To seem the Stranger

Not only in the Dublin 1885, but for almost as long as he can remember — for his agony isn't just a matter of hours or days, like the toothaches, 'but' he says, 'where I say hours I mean years, mean life' - he has experienced the pain of 'seeming the stranger' and of living his 'life among strangers.' From the times he was cut off from his warm family circle in Hampstead on going up to Oxford in 1863, and from the time he further cut himself off from the intellectural circle of his Oxford friends on his reception into the Catholic Church in 1866, and from the time he went on to enter the noviciate of the Society of Jesus at Manresa House, Roehampton, in 1868, he was moving more and more into an exile first of his own choosing, then at the discretion of his religious superiors, till he was sent by them across the Irish Sea to Dublin in 1884.

Hopkins, Hiding his English Identity

Now he finds himself 'at a third remove' from his family, from his friends and acquaintances, even from his homeland, which he now hails as 'wife to my creating thought.' Here in Ireland he feels everything against him as never before, not only in his surroundings 'where wars are rife', but even in himself, so as to make him 'weary of idle a being'. In Wales, at St. Beuno's College, he had been able to adjust himself to his foreign surroundings, partly because he was still with mainly English companions, partly because with his Welsh name of Hopkins he wan't altogether a foreigner but was back in the land of his fathers. But in Ireland, at University College, he had little in common with the Irish around him, many of whom regarded him with hostility as an Englishman, while he for his part took no pains to hide his English identity.

And then ... an Unsympathetic Biographer

Now, however, as if all this wasn't trouble enough for Hopkins and more than enough to evoke our sympathy for him, along comes this unsympathetic biographer, Norman White, intent on knocking more metaphorical nails into the poet's coffin with his new study of Hopkins in Ireland (University College Dublin Press, 2002), as it were insulting over his lonely, anonymous grave in the cemetery of Glasnevin.

Driving a wedge between Hopkins's Priesthood and his Poetry

Already Hopkins has had more than his due share of unsympathetic biographers, who delight in driving a wedge between his priesthood and his poetry - a wedge for which Hopkins himself ws partly to blame, owing to occasional words written in his letters to his family and friends. But, now his latest biographer leaves us in doubt whether the poet wouldn't have been far better off if he had never become a Catholic or a Jesuit or a priest.

A Narrowly Victorian Manicheism?

From his all too jaundiced viewpoint, which he presses upon us again and again, what the poet found in his religion, in his religious order and in his priesthood was next to nothing but 'the limits of a narrow dogma' (41), an unrelenting insistence of a didactic moralism, a 'conformity to the correect ideological stance' (101), a 'moral straitjacket' (110), the heavy obstacle of a 'priestly philosophical framework' (121), 'a narrowly Victorian Manicheism' (139), a set of 'rigid intellectual schemata' (177) - if I may range these repetitive phrases in the order they occur in the text.

Within such narrow limits and under such rigid supervision as the author is always imagining for us, one wonders how Hopkins was able to write poetry at all, let alone poetry of such surpassing excellence as is acknowledged by almost all literary critics - with the solitary exception of White.

How, one may further wonder, has White come to such an unfavourable conclusion, while advancing the claims of the artist over those of the religionist? 'Art' he affirms, ' could provide and succeed where religion had failed.' (188) He is speaking about the sonnet, 'Thou art indeed just, Lord'. Yet even here he is disappointed at 'the stilted, derivative opening with Jeremiah, which provides a false start', owing (he surmises) to the rigid form of the religious retreat which the oet has just completed, preventing him from expressing and exorcizing 'his intimate feelings' (193). Also in the sonnet's conclusion he criticizes, 'the overdone alliterative harmony of the final line.' (192) All in all, he has hardly a good thing to say about this sonnet which he has put forward as an example of the triumph of art over religion!

Even in the earlier sonnet, 'Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves' to which he devotes alonger, more etailed analysis, White can't help contrasting the oet's foregoing expression of 'nature's aesthetic qualities' with th way they are 'nullified into black and white, and replaced by human ethical concerts'. (178) All he is able to apreciate in Hopkins is an aesthetic perception of natural beauty, but he is unable to follow the poet once the latter looks from the immediacy of nature to what he can oly see and criticize as a moral didacticism.

The Corruption of the Poet is the Generation of the Critic - T.S. Eliot

This is what White again and again rejects as 'narrow'. But it may be questioned whether the narrowness is in the mind of the poet or of the critic. As T.S. Eliot has siad, in another context, 'The corruption of the poet is the generation of the critic'. Eliot is, of course, speaking of one individual like himself, first a poet and then a critic. But in the present case, one may say it is the critic who sees the poetry as corrupt, and it is his distortion of the poet tha has made him so carping a critic, till hardly a poem of poor Hopkins is left unbleared, unsmeared with his critical toil.

From White's overwhilemingly critical viewpoint, wouldn't it have been better, one wonders, for Hopkins to have remained true to his poetic vocation, without subjecting his free mind to the petty trammels of the Catholic Church, the Society of Jesus, and his ultimate destination as a Jesuit in Ireland?

At least, we can see for ourselves the contrast beween his earlier poems composed in his undergraduate days at Oxford and the later poems following on his seven years of 'elected silence' after joinin g the noviciate of the Society of Jesus. It is the contrast between (say) 'The Alchemist in the City', which in some ways looks forward to 'The Windhover' with 'my heart in hiding', and that suprememe expression of Hopkins's genius, which he dedicaed 'To Christ our Lord', and which he described as 'the best thing I ever wrote'.

There are, I suppose, few critics who prefer the earlier poems to the later, in which almost all recognize a distinctive maturity of style. And that maturity is generally seen as achieved not in spite of but because of the intervening formation of the poet as a Jesuit and as a priest. Yet for some hidden reson, on which one can only speculate, it seems that White is incapable of admitting anything good or enriching or poetically formative in it.

Mistakes that may well be Stigmatized as 'schoolboy howlers'

Abstractly speaking, one assumes that as a scholar, White has made the careful study of th Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus tha tis naturally expepcted of one who would venture to criticize the influence of those institutions on the mind of Hopkins. But when it comes down to concrete fact, his knowledge is patently defective, even to the extent of landing him in mistakes that may well be stigmatized as 'schoolboy howlers'.

Thus, concerning the Catholic Church, and following the order in which these errors occur in the text, White speaks of 'the approved theologian Thomas Aquinas' as the 'traditioanl opponent' of'the downgraded philosopher Duns Scotus' (8); whereas in fact, it was Scotus who not only followed Aquinas but also went out of his way to oppose him - partly because Scotus was a Frnaciscan andAquinas a Dominican. It may be true that Aquinas is generally 'approved' in the Church, but Scotus has never been downgraded, least of all in his own Franciscan Order.

Next, White refers to the contrast drawn in 'Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves' between 'black, White; right, wrong' as originating in the old hymn Dies Irae (25), which is not so very old as hymn go - only thirteenth centure; whereas the cotnrast goes all the way back to the teaching of Christ and his apostles, if not to Moses. He then affirms that 'in times of prosperity . . . the religious person believes that virtue will be rewarded on earth' (40) ; whereas that is by no means the teaching of Job or Jeremiah, let alone that of Christ himself. Their teaching may have been born in times of adversity, but it is still accepted by their followers in times of prosperity.

White goes on to dismiss what he calles 'the weary pleas for rest and mercy of the Agnus Dei' (40), which prompts one to wonder if he has ever listened to a Gregorian chant of that triple invocation of Christ as lamb of God at Mass. The weariness is surely all in the mind of the lsitener (if he has ever listened), not in that of the chanter. Then, he is so confident that 'according to the theology of the time (Hopkins's) family, as Protestants, could not enter Heaven after death' (52); but that is hardly the theology we find in the poems on 'TheWreck' or 'The Loss of Eurydice', let alone 'Henry Purcell'.

Again, White oddly of 'Aquinas's prescription that hope is the oppositie of despair' (99), which may be compared to a spuriuous appeal to Aristotle for the common saying tha t'Honesty is the best policy'. He goes on to mention 'Christian authorities' (whom he prudently refrains from naming) as responsible for allegorizing 'the epithalamic Song of Solomon into unsympathetic Christian contexts before its inclusion in the Bible' (139); whereas it had been the Jewish authorities who first included that book in their canon of the Bible long before the Christinas drew up their canon.

The Attitude of the Society of Jesus to Hopkins's Poems

As for the attitude of The Society of Jesus to Hopkins's poems, White seems so sure that this religious superiors disapproved of the poems - on the slender basis, to which he keeps on returning, that 'The Wreck of theDeutschland' (which the poet had written at the express suggestion of his Recotr at St. Beuno's) was turned down by t he editor of the Jesuit periodical The Month, Fr. Henry Coleridge, who happens to have been a good friend of Hopkins. White is adamant that this judgement - incidentally shared by Hopkins's poetic friend, Robert Bridges - represents an 'official rejection' by the Society of Jesus (8,59,65,185); whereas few Jesuits, apart from Fr. Coleridge and some of his close contemporaries were even aware that Hopkins was a poet.

Still less, of course, was the Church aware of the fact, or Victorian society at large, nor did Hopkins ever go out of his way to advertise his poetic wares. Even Bridges, who kept all the poems he had received, not without his own criticism, from his friend, judged that the time wasn't ripe for publciation till thirty eyars had elapsed since his death in 1889. Why then blame the Society of Jesus or the Catholic Church for not having recognized the value of poems that White him seems unwilling to recognize?

Turning now from the Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus in general to the deleterious influence they are imagined to have exerted on the poetry of Hopkins, this is continually presented by White in terms of an awkward transition he discern in them from the delicate description of the natural world in the octave, which is for him the characteristic response of the poet, to the supervening imposition of a narrow moralistic dogma, which is for h im the characteristic reflection of the priest. This transition is what White repeatedly returns to I the instance not of any Dublin poem but of the earlier sonnet on 'spring', which is ever preying on his mind.

Thus he laments the way 'the sestet starts with a startling (sic) contrast: 'What is all this juice and all this joy?' and he goes on to assume that for Hopkins 'all nauture is a fable, and that as a priest he has the key and is the intermeiary and interpreter' (23). This is what he subequently calls 'a jerky change of voice', a 'an awkward change of attention halfway through', and a 'shrill confidence in an over-wide viewpoint' (39). Or again, it is what White sees as an attempt to force natural perception 'within the limits of the narrow dogma he is expoinding', as the poet's native freedom is 'taken over by the simplistically limited but all-powerful forces of orthodoxy' (41). Or yet again, it is what he calls 'a clumsy standing back from the octave's subject matter' (41).

After all, what White admires in this sonnet is all too narrowly restricted to the first eight lines of natural description, which is for him the only constituent of true poetry. And so, he continues, 'the octave is too powerful to play merely a subordinate role to the moralistic sestet, and drowns the fale in 'juice and joy' (129). How astonished he might have been to hear the poet's voice from beyond the grave, if in the words of T.S. Eliot: 'That is not is al all, That is not what I meant at all.'

Norman White examines the Dublin Poems

When he comes to the Dublin poems, this is again what White objects to, as, for example, in 'Carrion Comfort' (where he wrongly glosses 'carrion' as 'both flesh and non-flesh', and 'comfort' as 'encouragement' (98). He lambastes the poem as 'a conflation of disparate elements into a sonnet fomr which confers a superficial untiy at odds with the material' (97) - a material which for him lacks the natural perception of the earlier, brighter poems. In it he still admits a powerful description of despair; but he objects to Hopkins's way of 'introducing traditional images' into the description so as to break up 'the poems' continuity' (1001).

In general, White observes, 'Conformity to the correct ideological stance destroys genuine continuity', and so he takes the poet to task for having derived his answers 'from the Bible, not from reality' (101) - as if 'reality, in his sense of the word, has any answers to give. He further divides the poem into four sections, which he sees as 'quite distinct, with artificial hinges, betraying their discontinuity' (101). Again, he finds 'there is naivety and superficiality in this quick application of emasculated metaphor to substantial troubles.' (193) - Though again we might ask where is the superficiality on the side of the poet or on that of his critic?

As for the lst line, with its awed realization that the poet has, like Jacob, been wrestling with God himself, White can descern no sense of humble awe, but only 'the pride tha come with the Jacob-like realization . that his wrestling adversary was no less than God' (101), and 'the self-congratulatory tone' that 'leaves the poem in pieces' - in short, nothing but 'a demonstration of the clash between the priest and the poet' (104).

Such - without going into more examples, which would only build up a sense of reiterated tedium - is a burden of White's relentless codemnation of the priest behind the poet in Hopkins. For him, the priest, as official representative of a narrowly dogmatic and authoritarian church and of a rigid, uncomprehending, unappreciative religious order, is altogether opposed to the natural, spontaneous emotions of the poet. The former is the Censor or Super-Ego, imposing its rigid structures of authority on the would-be inspiration of the latter's Libido. It is this contradictory juxtaposition of these two aspects or influences which is seen as running through all Hopkins's poems and radically undermining them, till there is hardly a poem, at all evetns none of those on which there is any lengthy comment in this boook, which White can whole-heartedly commend.

Nor can the author see any good in this 'clash' of opposing forces or tendencies, or what Hopkins himself recognized as a creative strain (as in Part 1 of 'The Wreck'); but he would have the oet without the priest, the artist without the bonds of morality or religion, or in other workds, a poe and artist of his own devising such as Hopkins might have become if only he had not been received into the Catholic Church or admitted into the Society of Jesus.

White, it seems, has no patience with the poet of the mature poems from 'The Wreck' onwards, whether in the bright or the dark period, for in them all the poet is excessively subsumed by the priest. Thus, in the literal sense of the word, he is a rank 'heretic' in his understanding of Hopkins, not only in differing from the Hopkinsian 'orthodoxy', but also in picking and choosing those bits and pieces among the poems which catch his fancy (which is what the Greek work 'heretic' originally means). He cannot take the poems as they are or make sense of them as a whole, but he is always imposing his personal prejudices on them, his own ideas as to how the poems ought to hav been composed to suit his post-modern, post-Christian sensitivity.

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