Hopkins Lectures 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dream and Vision in Newman and Hopkins

Michael Woods

Michael Woods sees that Dream and Vision link Hopkins and Newman. They both accepted the authority of Roman Church and shared a common vison for the education of Catholics. Here,it is the link between the religious poetry of Newman and Hopkins as they shared a common spiritual journey that is being considered.

Michael Woods United Kingdom

It is clear that Dream and Vision link Hopkins and Newman. In the first place, they both saw clearly that the Church of England was not the true Church and accepted the authority of Rome. They shared a common vision, in the intellectual and theological senses of the word concerning what they wanted for Britain. Hopkins became very much part of Newman's vision for the education of Catholics, first for a brief spell in Edgbaston at the Birmingham Oratory and then in Ireland as Professor of Greek at the Catholic University. However, it is the link between the religious poetry of Newman and that of Hopkins that I wish to consider here; two souls on a common spiritual journey.

Newman and Hopkins's Lives compared

As a prelude to sketching this link, I begin with a brief comparison of some facets of Newman and Hopkins's lives (forgive me if I rehearse what many of you know).

John Henry Newman was born on 21 February 1801 and died on 11 August 1890 at the age of 89. He converted to Catholicism in 1845, taking the Confirmation name Mary. Gerard Manley Hopkins was born, as we all know on today's date 28 July 1844 and died in Dublin, of typhoid fever on 8 June 1889. Newman received Hopkins into the Church on 21 October 1866 at the Birmingham Oratory. Hopkins taught there for six months in 1868.

Several of Hopkins's early poems are clearly influenced by Newman's theology, most obviously 'The Half Way House'. In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman stated :

".there are but two alternatives, the way to Rome and the way to Atheism: Anglicanism is the halfway house on the one side, and Liberalism is the halfway house on the other."

I need not, I am sure, dwell on the significance of Newman's influence at Oxford on Hopkins and his contemporaries beyond this. I turn now to the clear influence of Newman's poetry on that Hopkins.

On 2 November 1865, All Souls Day, Newman published The Dream of Gerontius . The poem had in fact been included in none other than a magazine called The Month . I have used the word "included" advisedly. The editor was not about to reject this religious poem about an old man preparing for death, written by Britain's leading Catholic. Actually, Newman was acting charitably in supplying his poem for publication by Fanny Margaret Taylor (1832-1900) who had by now founded an order called The Poor Servants of the Mother of God. It appeared in the May and June editions. Its previous incarnation was as The Lamp , also edited by Fanny Margaret Taylor, a literary protégé of Newman's. She had nursed alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimea.

As we all know, The Wreck of the Deutschland was first accepted and then rejected by The Month in 1875. Not only, then, did Newman get to the Catholic Church first but he was also successful in being published ten years later "out of Order", as it were being an Oratorian where Hopkins, the Jesuit did not get a look in despite the fact that The Month was the organ of The Society of Jesus. The Dream of Gerontius was a tremendous success and spoke to Christians in a way that tended to transcend denominational divides. Its message of an afterlife and the redemptive death of Christ located it firmly within the boundaries of general belief at the time of its writing. It is, though, a poem focusing upon the death of an old Catholic man facing death but presents its subject in such a way as to allow any Christian some comfort, notwithstanding the reality of its Catholic orthodoxy in respect of purgatory, and its being imbued with imagery from the Roman rite of prayers for the dying. Also, its Marian emphasis would repel non-Catholics, were it not for the fact that all could identify with the idea of a soul on a journey. The Wreck of the Deutschland could not possibly have had the same universal appeal.

Speculation is not productive, so I will not dwell on the likely public impact of the publication of The Wreck of the Deutschland some time in 1876 but prefer to emphasise the psychological effect its repression must have had on Hopkins, despite the brave face he put on things, telling Bridges in a letter of "You are my public and I hope to convert you". This was a forlorn hope, as we know. Bridges had strong objections to Catholicism, and its Marianism was one particular target of his displeasure. Although converted to Hopkins's poetic genius, he was clearly impervious to religious conversion by The Wreck.

Hopkins's poem was, though, in large measure a manifesto for the conversion of England, wanting:

"Our King back, Oh, upon English souls" (st 35). His vision of a "crimson-cresseted east" (st.35).

This presents an image of a celebratory beacon for a monarch, not just of this world but of this and of the kingdom to come. The cresset or little cross on the beacon fire is magnified in Hopkins's imagination to a proportion far beyond its physical dimension, symbolising for him the sacrificial cross and the fire of the spirit needed to convert English souls. He wanted everyone to know God, to love him and to serve in this world and forever in the Next. Catechesis allowed him to imaginatively synthesise antithetical tensions in his country. He asks the tall nun to intercede for all his compatriots in order that they might secure the "heaven-haven of the reward" (st.35)

This vision of the conversion of England is borne out of simultaneous patriotic and religious impulses. Here is Hopkins the Victorian, in love with a "rare-dear Britain" whose true monarch should be Christ. This is a daring political statement as well as a bold theological one and is striking in its head-on confrontation of the established English Church in a way that invites comparison with Newman:

I T is sometimes said, that the Clergy should abstain from politics; and that, if a Minister of C HRIST is political, he is not a follower of him who said, "My kingdom is not of this world." Now there is a sense in which this is true, but, as it is commonly taken, it is very false.
Tract 1 The Catholic Church

Having spoken a little about Hopkins's rejected poem, I would like to consider the following passage from the first section of The Dream of Gerontius . It is worth quoting in full, for reasons that will be immediately obvious:

(Here is played a recording of the musical setting of this section of Newman's Poem, followed by Richard Austin reading of 'Carrion Comfort')

I can no more; for now it comes again,
That sense of ruin, which is worse than pain,
That masterful negation and collapse
Of all that makes me man; as though I bent
Over the dizzy brink
Of some sheer infinite descent;
Or worse, as though
Down, down for ever I was falling through
The solid framework of created things,
And needs must sink and sink
Into the vast abyss. And, crueller still,
A fierce and restless fright begins to fill
The mansion of my soul. And, worse and worse,
Some bodily form of ill
Floats on the wind, with many a loathsome curse
Tainting the hallow'd air, and laughs, and flaps
Its hideous wings,
And makes me wild with horror and dismay.
O Jesu, help! pray for me, Mary, pray!
Some Angel, Jesu! such as came to Thee
In Thine own agony .
Mary, pray for me. Joseph, pray for me.
Mary, pray for me.

Please compare what you have just heard with that which you are about to hear (Richard now reads 'Carrion Comfort')

Here is the opening quatrain of Carrion Comfort (final draft 1887):

Not, I'll not carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist - slack they may be - these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose no to be.

We hear in line 3 exactly the same words as those in the opening of this section of Newman's poem. Their italicisation obviously intensifies the effect from a purely typographical point of view but the context in which Hopkins places them - before an allusion to Hamlet - gives an agonising presentation of a man only just shrinking from the brink of suicide.

Hopkins, though refusing in the first quatrain of this sonnet to give in to despair, signals the difficulty he experiences in this by capitalising the abstract noun in a way that draws attention to the very concrete way in which this emotion had been affecting him for a year of what is admittedly "done darkness" but a depression that was clearly powerful enough to lead to a consideration of suicide. This is clearly highlighted an another terrible formulation we all know as he tells himself that the most positive thing he is able to do is recall that he chose not to kill himself. "not choose not to be" Here, in a phrase that clearly echoes Hamlet's famous question to himself, Hopkins narrowly escapes himself.

Hopkins goes on to liken himself to Job in his sense of affliction and we are left in no doubt about the abject aspect of his experience. Gerontius called on Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a way that reminds me of the prayer I was taught as a child:

Jesus, Mary and Joseph I give you my heart and my soul.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph assist me now and in my last agony.
Jesus Mary and Joseph may I breathe forth my soul in peace with you.
Amen.

The address to God only at the end of Carrion Comfort is a retrospective vision of horror at contention, not communion with God. The final (my God!) my God. signal both appalled realisation and a sense of abandonment. In one sense Christ's words are Hopkins's but in another, Hopkins's are not Christ's.

I believe that there is a further source of pain and that it is the pain of love, known in the courtly love tradition as "Not". Feeling distant from Christ, his "chevalier" only intensifies the poet's despair.

There are fainter echoes of the first half dozen lines of this section of The Dream of Gerontius (bit echoes none the less, I think) in the first two stanzas of The Wreck of the Deutschland that deal with Hopkins's own dark night of the soul:

Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World's strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing; and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
(The Wreck of the Deutschland stanza 1)

May I remind us to compare the thrust of this stanza with Newman's formulation in the passage we have just considered from The Dream of Gerontius : "That masterful negation and collapse of all that makes me man"

Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:
The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of theee trod
Hard down with a horror of height:
And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.
(The Wreck of the Deutschland Stanza 2)

In this great ode, is the presentation of the much-discussed experience of the tall nun who, some argue is presented by Hopkins, as actually having a vision of Christ. As Hopkins dedication makes clear, her convent was suppressed by the anti-Catholic Falck laws. His poetic celebration of her shared triumph over death with Christ was suppressed by the very organisation that had accepted him to be "a vein of the gospel proffer". This cannot be considered a heinous act, but the personal impact on Hopkins should not be underestimated. And surely this poem dramatises pre-eminently both the personal and the universal in a way that Newman can only really gesture towards in The Dream of Gerontius because, although it does have something of the air of lived life about it in places, its persona is an imaginary old man who has come to that point in life when death is truly welcome, so long as it is met in a state of grace. Also, the language Newman employs (with the exception, I would say of the striking passage quoted) is suited to that state of mind that craves escape from the cumbrance of the flesh. It is significant that it is the section dealing with the anguished predicament of Gerontius before his beatific vision that seems to have impressed itself upon Hopkins. His own experience transforms dream into reality in the sonnets written in Ireland.

Gerontius feels as if he is on the edge of a "dizzy brink / Of some sheer infinite descent" while Hopkins says "O the mind, the mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer no-man-fathomed". Again, Hamlet also comes to mind, as well as the cliffs of Moher that Hopkins had visited (some dispute this idea) but the link with Newman is also sustainable, I think. The passage also has echoes in "No Worst". The contrast between Newman's persona and Hopkins's actual experience, as articulated in his retreat notes on New Year's Day 1888, is horribly instructive at this juncture:

But how is it with me? I was a Christian from birth or baptism, later I was converted to the Catholic faith, and am enlisted 20 years in the Society of Jesus. I am now 44. I do not waver in my allegiance, I never have since my conversion to the Church. The question is how I advance the side I serve on.Outwardly I often think I am employed to do what is of little or no use.

.I began to enter on that course of loathing and hopelessness which I have so often felt before, which made me fear madness and led me to give up the practice of mediation except, as now, in retreat and here it is again. I could therefore do no more than repeat Justus es, Domine, et rectum judicium tuum and the like, and then being tired I nodded and woke with a start. What is my wretched life? Five wasted years almost have passed in Ireland. I am ashamed of the little I have done, of my waste of time, although my helplessness and weakness is such that I could scarcely do otherwise. And yet the Wise Man warns us against excusing ourselves in that fashion. I cannot then be excused; but what is this life without aim, without spur, without help? All my undertakings miscarry: I am like a straining eunuch. I wish then for death: yet if I died now I should die imperfect, no matter or master of myself, and that is the worst failure of all. O my God, look down on me. (Sermons and Devotional Writings, p.262)

The word "enlisted" is a telling one here that sees the poet/priest being dragooned.

Hopkins would die in a state of grace according to his assessment of himself. It is striking that Newman's dream is that of an old man who is facing death with hope. Hopkins's despair is indeed terrible and written by a man who in our terms is relatively young. His tortured self is agonisingly spilt between male and female identities in strikingly sexual terms. First he is like a mother who cannot carry a child to term and then as a castrated man. It is ironic that Hopkins should have been attracted to Origen, who reputedly castrated himself in order that he might not be distracted from God.

Just as some of the passages we all know very well in Hopkins's Journal provide us with clear source material for the great celebratory poems that exult in nature and its creator, so does this passage from his retreat notes provide graphic raw material for the raw and terrible sonnets.

I hope that I have been able to convince you that there is a clear connection between Newman and Hopkins in more than the obvious religious sense; it is a crucial poetic link wherein the former clearly influences the latter. Newman's vision is in some Empyrean realm already divorced from the body where the spirit is purged. With Hopkins, the focus is so often on the body . This is hardly surprising, given his age. For an old man, the body is no longer important but for Hopkins it is vital.

Whilst acknowledging Desmond Egan's point that we should not make art into life, it is nonetheless important at times to ackmowledge the real life in art. Hopkins is certainly able to control himself through his artifice and his adoption of a persona but I am not convinced that he always manages to "flee his mask" successfully.

Links to Hopkins Literary Festival 2005

Monastic Ireland and Saint Patrick || Influence of Hopkins on American Poets || John Henry Newman Influence on Hopkins || Ursula Bethell and Gerard Manley Hopkins ||


Ursula Bethall and GM Hopkins
Hopkisn and Flannery O'Connor