Hopkins Lectures 2003



































































































































Levelling with God: Transcending Heights and Depths in Hopkins Poetry

Russell Murphy

Russell Murphy identifies two Hopkinses, one, the poet of a belabored orthodoxy, the other the poet of searingly honest acedia. We cannot fail to see the one in the other, the other in the one.

Russell Murphy, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, USA.

Aware of the necessary time constraints on this presentation, I decided that I had better conceive of it as an essay rather than a scholarly article per se, the better to get to the heart of my thesis by the most convenient route.

As is all too often the case, however, the more I conceive of a piece as an essay, the more like a speech it becomes, and the more the speech becomes a sermon, and so, with your indulgence, sermon it shall be. I might then take for my text an anecdote that someone recently shared with me about his wife when she was a three-year-old child. Standing on a sidewalk all by herself, some kindly adults pulled up in a car to ask her if she were lost. "No," she replied, "but my house is."

If any of us adults gathered here this morning were to be asked if he or she were lost, we might as likely reply, "No, but my culture is." The point is equally as well taken.

A culture, like a house, cannot in and of itself be lost; but the individuals who comprise that culture, like that small child, certainly can be. We are, each of us as individuals, on the same figurative street as that little girl, incapable of discerning just where we are, but certain that it is something other than ourselves that is lost.

Or I could take my text from a more biblical source, and turn to the Gospels for the story of the Roman centurion who came to Jesus to ask that he might heal the centurion's servant. All business and belief, the centurion tells Jesus: "Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof: but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I am also a man subject to authority, having under me soldiers; and I say to this one, Go, and he goeth, and to another, Come, and he cometh, and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it" (Matthew 8:5-9).

Pagan Roman, man of the world and of action that he was, the centurion had little or no time to waste on intellectual niceties and subtleties. Whatever it was that the centurion saw in Jesus, the point to be taken here now is that the centurion was capable of recognizing it, unabashedly and unquestioningly, for what it was that he did see.

What must he have seen, then, to have seen so clearly in Jesus not the Christ or the Messiah but divinity itself, simple, blatant, and unadorned, whose word alone was authority, so much so indeed that we are told that even Jesus "marvelled" at the man's faith (8:10).

Such eyes! Such conviction in the truth of their witness!

Seeing things for what they are, not for what we might wish to make them, and then, without recourse to consulting the dull brain that perplexes and retards, sharing such (in)sights with the rest of us, is the task, we like to imagine, of the artist, the poet, as well. Certainly it was at the very least the lifelong task of the poet under consideration now, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But how much more difficult it has become for each of us to see a thing for what it is, not for what we wish to make of it, is exemplified in the response that we find being generally made to the belief, equally unabashed and unquestioning, that is expressed in Hopkins's poetry. Belief not in Catholic doctrine or dogma, but in the manifestations of divinity that is there to be seen and savored in things.

Yet there is no other poetry that I know of that has become more dislodged from its foundation in belief as a species of human experience, as valid and as real as any other, than Hopkins's has.

Now that we as a culture have long since eaten, if not rapaciously devoured the bitter fruit of deconstruction, the hard pit of its root cynicism remains with us, an undisgorgeable reminder that all the roads of modernism lead the intellect to the same withered spiritual garden fructifying nothing.

It is important to note that the mind that has been trained to question everything is not only incapable of answering anything, but is incapable as well of accepting any answer.

So, then, while we may have become well schooled in negating, we have been rendered unable either to affirm or, worse yet, to imagine that any degree of authenticity or validity may appertain to the affirmations of others.

Examples of this state of affairs are so abundant, I will happily limit myself to a few egregious ones. Let's take the assaults upon the Judeo-Christian tradition for a beginning; surely it has been a major target if not victim during the so-called Culture Wars. To whit: We may find ourselves able to disparage the entire notion of that tradition's being divinely inspired through revelation by making the observation that passages from both the Old and the New Testament support the institution of slavery. Conversely, we can also disparage the foundations of the Christian end of that same tradition by arguing that its major strength during its formative centuries was its appeal to a slave mentality among its adherents. "Go figure," isn't the best riposte, but it will do for a starter. If our - meaning Western civilization's (a still permissible nomenclature, one must hope) - spiritual, Judeo-Christian roots suffer at the hands of such deconstructive sensibilities as these, it is perhaps heartening to note that our secular, pagan roots fare no better. In an intellectual atmosphere in which a text can, nay, must mean anything other than what it says, Virgil's Aeneid, that inflexibly fascist paean to Roman imperium, now is read as a subtext of mourning for the Roman treatment of their longtime Punic enemy, arguments based upon the utterances of a second voice in the text, one audible apparently only to us Moderns - a voice that, of course, deconstructs all the values of imperial Rome that, as far as any previous eras were concerned, Virgil had been mistakenly construed as expounding all along until we post-modern Moderns came along to set the record straight.

It is needless to note that these apparently contradictory viewpoints are not held simultaneously by the same individuals; the point is, they are held simultaneously by the deconstructive culture in which we now all find ourselves, one in which we wage war to maintain peace, worship death in the name of health, and sacrifice lives for the benefit of lifestyles. We behave as if no other age could possibly have had ideals or believed in their ennobling effects because we find it impossible to imagine that altruism or self-sacrifice, which do not motivate us, could ever have motivated anyone else. It is an age embarrassed not by sentimentality - those were our immediate predecessors, the Modernists - but by belief. Belief in anything.

If this line of reasoning has not led us inexorably to a consideration of the treatment which poetry, and in particular the kind of poetry that Gerard Manley Hopkins was wont to compose, has been forced to endure in recent times, it is through no fault of my own. It is the text itself that is under fire; the more ostensibly positive or affirming the text, the more is it fodder for the post-modernist mill (a mixed metaphor, but one that will do). What is positive in a poem or the poet's vision is suspect, what is negative validated if not manufactured whole cloth out of querulous subtexts. Especially susceptible, then, to the assaults of this logic of inversion are those very texts, be they the Gospels, Virgil, or The Windhover, that express the high seriousness of belief, for a serious belief is the most enduring enemy of intellectual frivolity and aimlessness.

My aim in the remainder of the brief essay, consequently, is to demonstrate that we cannot have two Hopkinses, one the poet of a strained and belabored orthodoxy, the other the poet of searingly honest acedia. Furthermore, that we cannot at the very least fail to see the one in the other, the other in the one. If I am attempting to respond to any particular recent trend, it is that tendency, most prominent in Norman White for one, to read the most spiritually positive, or at least enthusiastic, of the sonnets, as mystical effusions overlaid with a forced and perfunctory orthodoxy intended to placate his Jesuit superiors, an orthodoxy which is further easily belied by those nefariously subtle "second-voice" readings, whereas those notoriously terrible sonnets are read as authentic statements exposing the poet's true state of mind and spirit at the time of their writing. I would rather see in both extremes, if we can regard them so, a continual effort, on the poet's part, at transcendence.

First off, however, we must consider what is meant, or at the very least, what we may mean by "transcendence." Is it overcoming or rising above or enduring? Is it a denial of the physical realities of existence, the phenomenal, for the sake of an insistent belief in the more permanent though less substantiated realities of eternity, the noumenal? Certainly, as regards the perceiving entity, neither is essentially any less empirical than the other. As longstanding traditions of the nature of mystical experiences in many a disparate culture have long since convinced us, "real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency" (Coleridge, Chapter 14, Biographia Literaria).If I turn to Coleridge to assist me in characterizing precisely what I am driving at here, it is to underscore the difficulty of dealing with the noumenal as shaping events in the life of an individual. One breaks a leg or loses the faculty of speech, and we easily assign, rightly or wrongly, subsequent alterations in that person's behavior directly to those particular phenomenological events. One finds Christ or loses his faith, and we see those as nebulous, inchoate events, manifestations of psychological realties at best (Coleridge's delusions) that, as such, may or may not have any specific causal relationships to ensuing events in the physical, the real, the phenomenological world of activity and event, certainly none that can directly be traced. Now, it is in this regard that Hopkins seems to be a poet who virtually goes out of his way, throughout his poetic career, to seek, even to assert, direct causality to spiritual transformation, to, as it were, the transcendent, as a shaping force in the perception of and interaction with the typical, the trivial, the daily. For him, the turmoil of understanding that is the essence of art arises out of this very effort to avoid compartmentalizing experiences into the phenomenal and the noumenal, the empirical and the mystical, the ordinary and the transcendent (although we as readers, as consumers of poetry, may very well then call such a poetry transcendent or visionary). That such a posture in Hopkins can be viewed as itself the direct result of what I for one have ascribed to Hopkins's Catholic (i.e., sacramental) aesthetic does not make its manifestation in the poetry any more or less just that nevertheless: a demonstrable aesthetic whose particular moral or spiritual or philosophical or biographical source, albeit it may be of interest to scholars, is ultimately not in the least bit important.

Hopkins' devotion to, worship of, the otherwise insignificant for the sake of its transcendent prowess (inscape, might we dare say) is inescapable in those sonnets which, if he had composed only them, might have relegated him to the category of a merely inspirational poet endowed with incredible technical skills. Here we speak of the St. Beuno sonnets, of course, but The Wreck of the Deutschland, in which the poet finds the nexus of now and eternity in what the great world that we have constituted around us now might regard as the mewling prayer of a drowning nun, suffices as well. Compassion is our savior - feeling for and with and through Christ.

She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling 'O Christ, Christ, come quickly':
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.

Just so the speaker of The Windhover christens the fire that is Christ, that is belief in Christ, a billion times lovelier than a soaring falcon, the one all brute beauty and valor and air, the other no more visible a success story than the drudge of sheer plod that nevertheless keeps the polished plough viable and prepares the soil; the gold vermilion that gashes from a nearly consumed coal that has fallen through the grate into utter uselessness inasmuch as the practical universe of merely human aims in concerned.

Similarly, God's Grandeur evokes the endless, bottomless reservoir of significance that nature is even in the midst of our blind obedience to the anonymity or economic necessity:

. . . for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things . . .

Deep down inside the visible, the phenomenal, universe, just as within that blue-bleak ember, resides the noumenal, to be seen and witnessed; but we are, for the most part, as The Caged Skylark attests:

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage
Man's mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house dwells -
That bird beyond the remembering his free fells,
This in drudgery, day-laboring-out life's age.

Examples as gross as earth and rank as death exhort us everywhere in Hopkins, and they exhort us to recognize that the great and the mean meet massed in death - and massed in Christ. Indeed, a more balanced approach toward his poetry would show, I believe, that he finds the kernel of transcendent meaning in the diminished and demeaned not out of some misplaced, sentimental, democratic Christian fervour but out of a profound belief in the sanctifying power of grace that permeates creation.

He looks not at the overlooked because it has been overlooked but for the constant discovery, in the overlooked, of the same power and beauty that draws the great world's attention to the more overtly and, so, demonstrably magnificent - the falcon flight, for example.

From this perspective, the more enthusiastic and affirming sonnets are as fraught with negative energies as the dark sonnets. The resolution of The Windhover casts aspersions upon the apparent for the sake of the real; God's Grandeur does not triumph over our common sensibilities, it endures in spite of them.

Perhaps the home Hopkins found among the more progressive moderns is contingent upon this very feature of his vision: Its unwillingness to take anything for granted, and its willingness to look not through but at the surface, praise God for dappled things.

So, then, I have titled this paper "Leveling with God: Transcending the Heights and the Depths in Hopkins," because in Christ there is neither great nor small, man nor woman, saint nor sinner, height nor depth.

Which leads us to the critical question: Do the dark or terrible sonnets fulfill the requirements of this same formula? Do they, that is to say, assert the spirit's contrary and, therefore, transcendent vision only after first off succumbing to the limited perspective of the worldly, created, fleshy creature and then resisting the implications of that surrender?

Pitch past pitch of grief is a tall order of fall, we will happily concede. No worst, there is none, we are told as well, being called upon, perhaps, to recall how a nun made her own wild-worst Best.

Like the flight of the falcon, we confront the ultimate mastery, the achieve of the thing, of thingliness, Dinglichkeit, haeccitas, in this case, as such a unabating worldliness is manifested in the emotions of total despair.

But if we pay attention, by poem's end the poet achieves instead the same effective diminution of the self-important phenomenological (in this case as it is psychologically manifested) by punning on comfort and comforter, and turning to the tired anodyne that sleep, like death, cures even insomnia.

In other words, in this world - if this is all the world - not even pain endures, the poem tells us, any more than glory or power or fame or fortune, brute beauty or valour or act, air, pride, or plume. Even emotions are just things in which we find ultimately the same thing, Christ, since he is, literally, all in all (and in him we jacks, jokes, poor potshards, are, since we are what he is, immortal diamonds, hardened against the temporality of evil, as Teilhard defines it).

Likewise, Carrion Comfort ends with the poet wrestling with (my God!) my God. This is not a poetry of recantation. To find an analogy for the glory of Christ not in a falcon but in the tiring drudgery of plowing, in the breaking of a dying ember, is the same insight, only slight differently expressed, as to discover the real presence of the deity in one's life not in moments of exaltation but in moments of total despair.

These, too, are transcendent moments, moments both in and out of time, frequented but never quite as frequently explored for their own inscapes. To awake and feel the fell of dark, not day, is still to awaken, and so is no less a triumph of a transcendent spiritual engagement with the meager dimensions of the temporal than Dante's equally memorable awakening.

More important, the experience, in both cases, produces poetry, hardly an empty act. It takes imagination to see directly into things, as much as to see through or beyond them. Hopkins sees - or tries to see - things for what they are, whether it be joy or despair. "I see / The lost are like this . . ," living without God, without a sense of the divine or divinity, unable to imagine, we might imagine, that God, if there is a God, is not an idea, is the only reality.

Leveling with God, after all, is only leveling with life, since God is life. That is what Hopkins does both well and thoroughly, whatever the context.

In Hopkins's view, we are in the constant presence of the transcendent, which we must struggle only to engage. One must suspect that Hopkins would have welcomed as gifts of the spirit, however hard it might have been for the creature of flesh, mere bower of bones, to endure them, these opportunities to make his own wild-worst Best. For we must imagine, as he surely did, that all things are, in accordance with the will and the grace of the great God of creation, gifts to and of the spirit, if we will only see and seize them so. At worst we can only be wrong, at best we can be right.

Links to Hopkins Literary Festival 2003

|| Scottish View of Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins || Explore other areas of The Hopkins Archive || Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Climb to Transcendence || Hart Crane and Gerard Manley Hopkins | How Father Hopkins SJ Prays || Oscar Wilde and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Flannery O Connor and Hopkins || Levelling with God || || || Polish writer Norwid and Hopkins influence || Walker Percy and Gerard Manley Hopkins ||