Hopkins Lectures 2002

Self as Other in Hopkins

Peter Milward SJ

Peter Milward SJ sees Hopkins's life in terms of a search for Self, partly by means of, partly at the expense of the Other which inclines him to like-minded friends and to the remnants of the old Oxford Movement led by Edward Pusey and Henry Liddon and to read Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua .

Peter Milward SJ Tokyo, Japan


For my text let me take three of the sonnets composed by Gerard Manley Hopkins at Dublin during his dark year of 1885.


To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers ....
I am in Ireland now; now I am at a third


I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, 0 what black hours we have spent
This night!...
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours, I mean years, mean life.


My own heart let me more have pity on; let .
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.

Now, let me go back into what Shakespeare calls "the dark backward and abysm of time", to the boyhood years of Hopkins, following what he speaks of as not just "hours" but "years", and even "life". I am thinking of the time of adolescence when, as Wordsworth says, "Shades of the prison-house begin to close/ Upon the growing boy." For this I have no concrete evidence to present, but only the fact that a precocious boy like Hopkins, outstanding not only in his studies but also in a talent for poetry, only less so on the playing fields, must have been looked at askance by his class-mates and even his teachers. With his growing intellect, he is more than ordinarily aware of himself and correspondingly cut off from his fellows, from others. And here we already have that contrast between the Self and the Other which is to play so large a part in the development as well of his personality as of his poetry.

In a sense the whole of Hopkins's life as person and poet may be seen in terms of a search for Self, partly by means of, partly at the expense of the Other. This is what inclines him at Oxford to form one of a close circle of intimate friends at Balliol College those who are like-minded with him in intellectual, poetic and above all religious interests. This is what draws him to the remnants of the old Oxford Movement under the direction of Edward Pusey and Henry Liddon and to read with avid attention the pages of Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua soon after its publication in 1864. This is what introduces him not only to the thought of "two luminous beings, myself and God", but also to the rejection of the Anglican Church as a "Half-way house", not a permanent home for his restless spirit. And so he leaves his family, his friends, even his studies behind him, to be received into the Catholic Church by Newman himself at Birmingham. And, with Newman's approval, he even goes one step further and joins the Society of Jesus at Manresa House, Roehampton.

No wonder Hopkins has come to seem a stranger in the eyes of almost everyone. He has cut himself off from almost everyone, family, friends, countrymen, in his search for those two "luminous beings" of Newman, himself and God. In order to become himself and to find God, to lose himself so as to find himself in God, or as Coleridge puts it in his Biogrpahia Literaria, to "proceed from the Self, in order to lose and find all self in God", Hopkins has as it were renounced his connections with the Other, all the inhabitants of the outside world, for the sake of his religious formation in the Society of Jesus. It is his way of interpreting the call of Christ the King as presented to him by St.Ignatius Loyola in the book of Spiritual Exercises, "to act against his own sensuality, his carnal and worldly love", even including his love of his family, friends and countrymen, to be detached from all these things and persons so as to be free to follow Jesus and him alone.

The poetry of Hopkins, too, is included in this act of self abnegation, in the form of what he later somewhat regretted as a "massacre of the innocents", as he resolutely imposed upon himself a rule of "elected silence". So when he subsequently feels himself freed by a suggestion of his superior at St.Beuno's College to return to the composition of poetry, he begins his new poem, "The Wreck of the Deutschland", with the old Newmanian, yet new Ignatian, juxtaposition of "Thou mastering me/ God!" He also speaks of a mysterious moment of spiritual struggle, when, like Jacob in his wrestling with the angel, he felt himself overwhelmed by a divine power and "I did say yes/ 0 at lightning and lashed rod." Was this, we wonder, the moment of his conversion at Oxford from the Anglican to the Catholic Church under Newman's influence? Or was it the other moment of his conversion to a dedicated religious life as a Jesuit under the influence of St.Ignatius? Or was it perhaps a "golden thread" in his life, leading him, like Newman as we read in the early pages of the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, from moment to moment of successive conversions in a gradual purification of his lower human self to union with the supreme Self or I AM of God?

One thing we notice in the succession of bright sonnets composed by Hopkins in the aftermath of his "Wreck of the Deutschland" is his new insistence on self, the new self he has discovered by his rejection of his own self, in. contrast to "the Other" - to "what man has made of man" in the outside world. This is also Newmanian, as Newman also describes in his Apologia how, after starting "with the being of a God", he looks out of himself "into the world of men" and sees "a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress". Already in "The Wreck", we note how readily the poet speaks to himself, as "My heart, but you were dove-winged, I can tell", and as "mother of being in me, heart"; while he can never forget "the Other", not with rejection but with compassion, feeling "pity of the rest of them", those others involved with the five nuns in the shipwreck - like Miranda in Shakespeare's Tempest. From them he has turned away in his resolution to devote himself to Christ in religious life as a Jesuit; but that was only to turn back to them more effectively after his years of religious formation. He has had to lose himself and all else in order to find himself in union with Christ, not for his ftm sake alone, but to help others to find their true selves in the same union with Christ. A notable example of this new concern comes in the very first of Hopkins's "bright sonnets", "God's Grandeur". Here we find him not only, as he puts it in his translation of the Latin hymn of St, Thomas Aquinas Adoro Te Devote, "Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art" - at the God whose grandeur is everywhere present :'under the world's splendour and wonder" - but also filled with grief that men "now not reck his rod". This contrast comes up everywhere, not just as an opposition between the reformed self of the poet and the unreformed selves of men in the outside world.

Rather, when he feels tempted to make such an opposition, as in "The Candle Indoors", Hopkins suddenly, even bewilderingly, rounds on himself with the indignant self-criticism, "Come you indoors, come home!" and "Are you beam-blind, yet to a fault/ In a neighbour deft-handed?" Rather, the opposition as he sees it is between the world of nature, as created by God and still retaining everywhere vestiges of his creative presence,and the world of men, who are even now in the industrial age treading all things underfoot, searing all with trade, blearing and smearing all with toil, infecting all with their nasty smudge and smell. Such is his lament, a strangely prophetic, ecological lament, for the recently felled trees in "Binsey Poplars" and for the Earth itself, "sweet Earth, sweet landscape", in "Ribblesdale". It is all the handiwork, all the responsibility, of him whom he describes as "dear and dogged man", who is at once "the heir" to the kingdom of heaven and yet "To his own selfbent so bound, so tied to his turn".

So long as Hopkins was living his Jesuit life in seclusion from "the world", so long as he was pursuing his philosophical and theological studies in his Jesuit formation at St.Mary's Hall Stonyhurst and St.Beuno's College, he could see all this from a distance and shake his head over it, while maintaining his joy in "the grandeur of God". But once he leaves that formation and is sent as a priest into the world in a succession of temporary tasks, at Farm Street church in London, at St.Aloysius's church in Oxford, at St.Joseph's church in Bedford Leigh, at St.Francis Xavier's church in Liverpool, at another church of St.Joseph in Glasgow, he sees - as Newman has already seen it at his Oratory in Birmingham - all the misery of the Victorian industrial age from close up, and it is a sight which fills him - as it had filled Newman - "with unspeakable distress". From time to time it may fill him, as in his brief acquaintance with the dying "Felix Randal", with unspeakable comfort; but even that comfort is not unmixed with tears of distress.

And then the climax to all this comes when Hopkins is sent by his provincial superior, not as a priest but as a professor, to the reestablished university college founded by Newman in Dublin. It is a climax in the sense of a crescendo of grief, as "More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring", a grief in which the poet can find no comforting, whether from the Holy Spirit, "the Comforter", or from "Mary, mother of us". For now he feels even more cut off than ever before, cut off not only from family and friends, but also from "England, whose honour 0 all my heart woos, wife/ To my creating thought". Now he is not even a priest, as when he tended to the spiritual needs of the faithful in industrial cities, but a mere university teacher, involved more in the correcting of examinations than in the more rewarding task of giving lectures. Now he is "at a third remove" from his English home in Dublin, in a land "where wars are rife", wars against his own country and countrymen. Now he hasn't even the comforting presence of friends who can appreciate his poems, nor can he get them printed and divulged to "the yet unknowing world". Now he can only hoard them without getting them any hearing; or if he can find friends to hear them through correspondence, such friends as Bridges seem with their criticisms to let them pass unheeded; and so he feels left "a lonely began". With all his priestly and religious formation, he has been sent by his superiors, as it were in the place of Christ, into the world; and, like Christ, the world has not received him. And so he feels all the abandonment of Christ on the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned me?"

No wonder Hopkins wakes in the early hours one day in Dublin in 1885, feeling 'the fell of dak, not day'! No wonder he looks back not just ove 'the black hours' he has spent alone with his heart during the neight, but over all the years of his past Jesuit life, of his serie of religious conversions, of his life as a whole. All this time he has devoted to thecause of God, and for this he is rejected not only by the world (which would be understandable) but by God himself. As he complains in the spirit of Job and jeremial, in another, later sonnet, "Oh, the sots anthralls oflust/Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,/ Sir, life upon thy cause." To God he has given up everything; but for God he has received nothing but abandonment. "Wert thou my enemy," he complains to God as "my friend", with echoes of a similar complaint made to Christ by St. Teresa of Avila, "How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost/Defeat, thwart me?" He is nothing if not frank and straightforward with God!

And so we come to the climax within the climax, or rather the anti-climax within the anti-climax of complaint, as within the pitchblack darkness of this "dark night of the soul", Hopkins seems to cut a dividing cleft not just between himself and the outside world, "the Other", but within layer upon layer of himself. Now he feels himself paradoxically other to himself. In denying himself to follow Christ as his true self, he has found himself as it were divided from himself. Nor is it just the unreceptive outer world that is rejecting him and dividing him from himself, but he is himself dividing himself from himself; or as he himself puts it in this third of the texts we are now considering, living "this tormented mind/ With this tormented mind tormenting yet". Here, it seems, is the poor poet, tormenting himself; and the instrument with which he torments himself is "this tormented mind". Here, it seems, in another sense from which he had used the phrase in the preceding poem, he is "at a third remove", not just from family, friends and countrymen, but from his very self. He is one self; as subject. He is engaged in tormenting himself, as object. And the instrument with which he torments himself is his own tormented mind. One after another, all are engaged in the inner circle of self-torment, as it were an inner circle of hell, as when he sees "The lost are like this, and their scourge to be/ As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse."

In other words, Hopkins is indulging in what may well be called a paroxysm of self-pity, which he evidently knows to be morally wrong even when he exhorts himself,

"My own heart let me more have pity on. It is a strangely paradoxical situation, in which he wishes to show more pity on his heart by indulging less in self-pity. For in such a situation, when a person is preoccupied with thoughts of self-pity, the only advice one can give him is . . . "

Forget about yourself! Go for a walk! Do something to occupy your mind with something else!" And that is precisely how Hopkins advises himself in this poem. "Soul, self!" he urges himself, "Come, poor Jackself, I do advise/ You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile/ Elsewhere; leave comfort root?room." If he is always thinking about himself, worrying about himself, indulging in pity for himself, how can he expect God to come to him bringing words of comfort, smiling to him "as skies/ Betweenpie mountain"? Then it is that he may expect, as he shows in his later poem on "Nature as a Heraclitean Fire and the Comfort of the Resurrection", to see the divine light of comfort as "A beacon, an eternal beam" shining across his "foundering deck", and directing his eyes beyond the abandonment of the cross to the hope of the risen Christ.

All this process of loss and gain, of conversion and rejection, we may interpret, if we like, in medical terms of chronic ill-health exacerbated by an Irish exile, or in Freudian, psychological terms of ill adjustment to his contemporary world and to his own psychic disposition, or in biographical terms of the depressing air of Dublin and the work for which he was ill-suited being loaded onto his shoulders, or even in mystical terms of a "dark night of the soul" which he had to undergo during these years in the inscrutable designs of divine providence. But for my present purpose it is enough to present the process in terms of an intricate interweaving of the self and the other in the deeply concerned mind of Hopkins. At the same time, it may be presented in terms of his age, which was absorbed, more than any preceding age in human history, in the preoccupation with oneself. In particular, we may find this as no small part of the influence of Newman on Hopkins; but it was also deeply operative in the subsequent influence of St.Ignatius, whose whole aim in his Spiritual Exercises may be said to bring the exercitant face to face with himself, with such a question as "Who am I?", before bringing Him face to face with God, in the further question, "Who art thou?" Newman himself, of course, may have learnt this double question, even in his Anglican years, from St.Ignatius. Or he may have learnt it from Descartes, with his famous dictum, "I think; therefore, I am." Only what many people overlook about this dictum is that Descartes
went on to prove the existence of God, by using St.Anselm's famousontological argument; and so, well before Newman's time, he shows us "two luminous beings". If only he hadn't so soon forgotten about God's luminosity in his further concern about the outside world or "the Other"1 Anyhow, from Descartes comes so much in modern philosophy, not least the German idealism from Kant and Fichte onwards, with its deepening concern with the transcendental Self.

But there, I am again allowing myself to get distracted from the process in Hopkins, by looking away from his own self-description in poetic terms to all the various conflicting influences at work in the world of his time. Again, it may be good to pay some attention to them,, as it may be good to pay some attention to the medical, the psychological, and the biographical terms mentioned above. But it is always necessary to come back to the poet himself and to his poems in which the interrelations of the Self and the Other are continually criss-crossing in endlessly repeated and variegated patterns. Yet at the same time, I am irresistibly reminded, more than of Newman or St. Ignatius or Duns Scotus (whom I haven't yet mentioned), of William Shakespeare with his ceaseless intertwining of "To be" and "Not to be", or "I am" and "Nothing", or the merely human "I am" (which is all we find in poor Descartes) and the divine "I AM" ? as when he declares almost blasphemously in his sonnet, "I am that I am", and when he puts the same repeated word into the mouth of Cordelia at the climax of King Lear, when the poor father recognizes his dear daughter through his tears, "Do not laugh at me;/ For as I am a man, I think this lady/ To be my child Cordelia", and she answers through her responding tears, "And so I am, I am!" And that is all I have to say.

Search the Gerard Manley Hopkins Archive
Mariology in The Wreck of the Deutschland
A Nun called Gertrude and Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins,God and the Artist