Hopkins Lectures 2004

Hopkins Scholarship of Norman White

Brian Arkins

Brian Arkins assesses assess biographies of, and articles on Hopkins, by Dr. Norman White, a leading authority on the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The major works in question are: Hopkins: A Literary Biography (Oxford, 1992); Gerard Manley Hopkins in Wales (Bridgend 1998); and Hopkins in Kildare(Dublin 2002).

Brian Arkins National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland

Three things we look for in a biography. Biographies, including literary biographies, should provide us with three things.

Firstly, a comprehensive account of the external events in the life of the subject, what Dr. Johnson - himself a noted biographer - called ' the minute details of daily life' (1).

Secondly, a concise account of the various contexts that are important in the subject's life. In the case of Hopkins, these include his time in Oxford: the ethos of the Jesuit order; the philosophy of Duns Scotus; and the political situation in nineteenth century Ireland.

Thirdly, an insight into the personality of the subject and an assessment of hos tha tpersonality affects the subject's work; this is what Virginia Woolf calls 'the real current of the hero's existence' (2). In the case of Hopkins, this involves a stress on his profound religious experience as a Roman Catholic priest, and on his expression of that Catholicism in his poetry.

Examples of biographies that success is providing us with these three things are Riochard Ellmann's biographies of Yeats, of Joyce, andof Wilde; Lyndall Gordon's two biographies of Eliot; Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Pound; James Knowlson's biography of Becket; and Ann Saddlemayer's biography of George Yeats. (3) It is worth noting that, over the last 200 years, professional writers have surpassed the former leading candidates for biography in Western culture: royalty, saints, and military heroes. (3a)

Strenths of Norman White's Hopkins Biographies

One of the major strengths of White's literary biography of Hokins is that, if you want to know where the poet was and what he was doing on a particular day, then you will find it here. For White exhibits an Aristotlian devotion to empirical facts, which future biographers are most unlikely to surpass. Two examples will make the point (4):

On Firday 17 April 1863, Hopkins travelled up to Oxford with his father. Though the railway offered the least imposing aproach to the city, there was the view across Christ Church madow, and Tom tower rising above thd ingy streets of St. Ebbe's. Balliol College was half-deserted on Hopkins's first night; as most of the students were not due to arrive untl Saturday or Sunday.

On June 15 1866, Hopkins and Addis set out on a walking tour of western English cathedrals . . . They took the train from Oxford to Glastonbury, and after looking at the Abbey, walked to Wells, where they stayed overnight. The next day, they walked over the Nendips to Bristol. During the next three days, they heard a Gregorian setting of a psalm or canticle at St. Raphael's, a High Anglican Church near the Brisot docks, walked from Chepstow to Tntern Abbey, then to Ross-on-Wye and on to Hereford.

Good in Spots like the curate's egg

White's account of the contexts of Hopkins's life is, like the curate's egg, good and bad. White is excellent on Hopkins's student days in Oxford in the year 1863 - 67, including the poet's studies in Classics, and the impact Ruskin's view of art had on him. He is also very good on Hopkins's time in the Jesuit Order, the circumstances leading to the poet's appointment as Professor of Greek in University College, Dublin, on Hopkins's trips to Monasterevin, and on his interest in English etymology and dialect.

But White's treatment of the various strands of thought in the Church of England, of the philosophy of Duns Scotus, and of Irish politics is deficient; more is need here.

It is the third category of what is required in a biography, an account of the subject's inner life and its relationship to her or his work, that White's biographies become, at times, very unsatisfactory. Quite simply, White can be very uneasy with the fact that Hopkins is a Jesuit priest who expounds Roman Catholic doctrine in his poetry. White therefore exhibits what Daniel Murphy sees as a general trend: 'explicitly religious themes in contemporary works of liteature are frequesntly ignored or misrepresented in critical scholarship, their religious significance apparently being played down.' (5)

An acknowledgement in White's book Hopkins in Ireland give the game away: ''Joseph J. Feeney SJ has remained a good friend, in spite of my continuing icompehension of his religion' (6) But Professor Feeney has correctly understoon the importance of religion in Hopkins's work: making use of what Karl Barth calls 'the Catholic and, he notes that 'Hopkins is a religious poet of great religious variety - of piety, sin and guilt, of excape from and lvoe of the world, of Christ and the Trinity, of the Eucharist, scripture and the sacraments of morality and the spiritual life'. (7)

Indeed, many scholars have addressed, a ariety of religious topics in Hopkins: transcendence, the man-God relationship, Christology, Mariology, the Real Presence, Ignatian meditation, theological aestetic, prayer and piety, nature and the supernatural, the dark night of the soul, hell. (8)

To be analysed here is an undercurrent in Whie's work that leaves him unable to accept the fullness of Hopkins's world-view as expounded in the poems. In regard to the poem 'Carrion Comfort', White produces the old chestnut that 'the effort seems to be an esxample of another clash between Hopkins's poetic and priestly personae' (10) (note the word 'another'. But this clash exit only in the fervid imaginings of practicing atheists. For it is vital to stress that Hopkins did not become a great poet until he joined the Jesuits, The Wreck of the Deutschland of 1875 - 76 being an altogether radical improvement on the sub-Keatsian verse that preceded it. (Mutatis mutandis, Wilde did not become a great artist until he became homosexual.) So, in the poem 'Carrrion Comfort', we have an Ignatian meditation, at whose end, as Caro says, 'the full and affective realization dawns on the speaker that his dark night truly was a stuggle with Son of God and that he has emerged transformed'. (10)

Does White misunderstand Hopkins's view of the natural world?

White also seems to misunderstand Hopkins's view of the natural world. Blake held that 'Natural Objects always did and now Weaken deaden and obliterate Imagination in Me. Wordsworth must know that what he Writes Valuable is not to be found in Nature'. (11) But, Hopkins, like Wordsworth, had a much more positive evaluation of nature and sees it as mirroring the divine: 'The world is charged with the grandeur of God'. Writing of Hopkins's accounts of nature, written during his studies at Stonyhurst, White states that 'The extended descriptions record joyful experience, although they were nothing to do with his course or any Jesuit part of his mind.' (11a)

But Catholic and Protestant theologians have long held that the created world of nature is a mirror, though doubtless inadequate, of the divine world. Hence, Cardinal (later Saint) Belarmine writes in his treatise on The mind's ascent to God through the ladder of created things (12): 'Though the mere multitude of created things is itself wonderful, still more wonderful is the variety which appears in that multiplicaton, and it leads us more easily to the knowledge of God; for it is not difficult for one seal to make many impressions exactly alike, but to vary shapes almost infinitely, which is what God has done in creation'. So, Hopkins's devotion to nature exemplifies orthodox Christian thinking.

Similar things can be said about White's notion that the poem 'Pied Beauty' 'might be seen as an attack on the idea of God as the god of the conventional'. (13) Devoted ot Scotist 'thisness' (haeceitas), Hopkins was not likely to favour 'the conventional', but there is nothing 'conventional' about 'Pied Beauty', which extols interesting, not to say contrary, aspects of God's creation, and links them to God, not least by exhoing the Jesuit mottoes Ad maiorem Dei gloriam (for the greater glory of God) and Laus Deo Semper (Praise to God always).

A consequene of White's lack of sympathy for religious themes in Hopkins's poetry is that, while he seems at home with the sonnets of desolation, he cannot bring himself toaceptthe full implication of the great sonnet 'That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection'. White is, of course, good on the notion that, while the processes of nature are ongoing, that of man is strictly limited, but offers a very ill-judged analysis of the volta or turn in the sonnet, which points out that the Resurrection of Christ changes everything, that human being may have a new life after death; the first part of the poem is 'followed by its rejection and replacement by a conventional Christian panacea message' (14). The adjective ''conventional' is doubly wrong here: firstly, the doctines of the Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection of Christ are radical as little else in human thought: secondly, the end of this sonnet present us with verse as magnificent as anything else in Hopkins, who single-handedly revived the religious sonnet. Then the noun ''panacea' smacks of Marx's celebrated dictum that 'religion is the opium of the people', a view favoured by atheists, but hardly likely to be held by any serious theist, and certainly not by Hopkins struggling with various forms of misfortune in Dublin.

Another variant of White invoking nieteenth century rationalistic views of religion occurs when, at the beginning of 1899, Hopkins began a retreat at the novitiate of of the Irish Jesuits near Tullamore. Hopkins was required to meditate on Ignatius of Loyola's Principle or Foundation: 'Man was created to praise, reverence and serve God Our Lord, and by so doing to save his soul. And the other hings on the face of th earth were created for man's sake and ot helphimin the crryingout of the end for which he was create'. White comments: 'It was a voice from another age, and its anachronistic message could be accepted only by people who had wilfully ignored the revelations and implications of The Origin of the Species and the Dscent of Man' (15) But this is to posit a clash between science and cannot be in opposition to each other, for the simple reason that they deal with different things, science with the physical, religion with the metaphysical.


To conclude, this brief paper has sought to provide a critique of biography along the lines suggested by Backscheider (16). 'Rather than reciting the most exciting parts of the subject's life, they will tell us how well it is written and composed, how skillfully evidence is used and intelligently interpretation done, how decisions are made about personality and life shape, whether it is art, and whether a respectable or exemplary actualizaiton of the form'. As is the case in other areas, scholarhip on Hopkins does not advance in a flash, at a trumpet crash; reather, by dint of sheer plod, this scholarship proceeds by means of trickling increment. White's biographies of Hopkins's register spectacular success in listing the daily detail of the poet's life; offer accounts both good and bad of the contexts within which Hopkins should be viewed; but fail to capture sympathetically the overwhelmingly religious tone of Hopkins's peotry. We await a biogrpahy that matches White on daily detail, improves on the treatment of contexts, and takes full and generous account of the religious poetry; a biography tha tcan accept that Hopkins wrote ad maiorem Dei gloriam , for the greater glory of God.


1. Dr. Johnson, quoted in A. Shelston, Biography (london 1977), p. 5.

2.   Virginia Woolf, quoted ibid., p. 64

3.   R, Ellmann, Yeats - The Man and the Masks (London 1965); id., Jame Joyce (oOxford 1983); id., Oscar Wilde (London 1987)'; L. Gordon, Eliot's Early Years (Oxford 1998); id., Eliot's New Life (Oxford, 1989); H. Carpenter, A Serious Character - The Life of Ezra Pound (London 1988); J. Knowlson, Doomed to Fame - The Life of Samuel Beckett (New York 1997); A. Saddlemeyer, Becoming George - The Life of Mrs. W. B. Yeats (Oxford 2002).

3a. C.N. Parke, Biography (London, p. xvii.

4. N. White, Hopkins - A Literary Biography (Oxford 1992), p. 42; p. 132.

5.   D Murphy, quoted in Studies 87 (1998), p. 203.

6.   N. White, Hopkins in Ireland (Dublin 2002), p. xi.

7. J. Feeney, S. J. Studies 84 (1995), p. 122

.   J.A. Kedzierska, On the Wings of Faith - A Study of the Man-God Relationship in the Poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins (Lublin 2001), with Bibliography at pp. 225 - 244.

9. White (note 4), p. 406.

10.   R.B. Caro, S.J., Studies 84 (1995), p. 157.

11.   The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. D. V. Erdman (New York 1965), p. 655

11a.   N. White (note 4), p. 196.

12. Cardinal Bellarmine, quoted in N. MacKenzie, A Reader's Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins (London 1981), pp. 84 - 85. 13. N. White (note 4), p. 285. 14. N. White (note 6), p. 175. 15. ibid., pp. 182 - 183. 16. P.R. Backscheider, Reflections on Biography (Oxford 2001), p 235.

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