What might an obscure Jesuit priest, dead more than thirty years, have to offer Ursula Bethell, a middle-aged woman writing 12,000 miles away? Connections emerge.An intelligent and sensitive young woman, Ursula Bethell, like Hopkins, was educated at Oxford.
If one returns to read some of the general literary criticism of the 1930's, one is struck, not just by the degree of enthusiastic attention that is given to Gerard Manley Hopkins, but paradoxically by the slight air of bewilderment that accompanies some of that enthusiasm. I am not thinking here of the bewilderment that was the response of many of the earliest reviewers and critics to Hopkins's perceived obscurity; rather, some critics seemed equally bemused by the very fact and scale of Hopkins's influence on poets writing after the First World War. F. R. Leavis, in his New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) was more than confident of the lasting importance and influence of Hopkins, but then Leavis was rarely troubled by any uncertainty about his own judgement. (1) In what was probably the most significant favourable comment of the time, Leavis estimated that Hopkins was 'the greatest' of the Victorian poets, and predicted that he would 'prove, for our time and the future, the only influential poet of the Victorian age.' Such indeed was Hopkins's widespread influence, that within four years David Daiches, in his New Literary Values , (1936) found it necessary to wonder what in a nineteenth-century Jesuit might have had any appeal for a young Communist in the thirties. (2) However Daiches or other critics of the time explained it, the popularity and the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins in what were to be the years 'entre deux guerres' is undeniable. The influence of Hopkins on my subject, Ursula Bethell, might at first sight seem equally puzzling.(3) Here, too, we are inclined to ask: what might an obscure Jesuit priest, dead more than thirty years, have to offer a middle-aged woman writing some 12,000 miles away. But on closer inspection, some curious connections emerge - serendipitous connections, for the most part, but interesting nonetheless. An intelligent and sensitive young woman, Ursula Bethell was also educated at Oxford (although in her case at a High School rather than the University), and she too formed a deep and permanent affection for the city. (4) She was alert to the air of philological speculation that abounded in Oxford in the late eighteen nineties, but was even more struck by the religious and devotional movements that flourished in the city. Her own spirituality developed in such a way that, like Hopkins, she moved away from that branch of Christianity in which she had been raised in order to embrace the doctrinally and philosophically more convincing Anglo-Catholicism. And on a personal level, she (again like Hopkins) was strongly affected by the charism of a prominent preacher - Charles Gore, rather than John Henry Newman. (5)
In her early twenties she felt obliged to make a choice between a life devoted to the arts and one devoted to religion; initially her choice favoured religion, and she engaged in social work in London with the Anglican women's group known as the Grey Ladies, although later she was to leave this quasi-religious community. Like Hopkins, she enjoyed painting and drawing, and she too used her painting on one memorable occasion as a kind of diaristic record of a Swiss vacation. Thereafter there are fewer such connections, although both were great letter writers, and they shared a love for dramatic landscape, and a readiness to see the hand of the Creator at work in that landscape, however much it might be blighted by human endeavour.
Significantly, too, each went through a spiritual crisis late in life which prompted some of their most intense poetry. However, in the case of Ursula Bethell it is not the fact of Hopkins's influence that is puzzling, so much as her repeated denial of it. Before discussing that curious phenomenon, however, it may be appropriate to provide some further biographical context, and to demonstrate that such influence exists. After her years of schooling in Oxford, Bethell divided her time between New Zealand and the culturally richer and more appealing world of Europe, in England (especially London and Oxford), in Switzerland, in Germany or in France; with lengthy stays in India and in America as well.
In 1919, however, she finally returned dutifully if somewhat reluctantly to New Zealand to care for her ageing mother, and in 1924 she established a home of her own on the slopes of the Cashmere Hills, with fine views across the Canterbury plains to the majestic Southern Alps. And there, in her leisure moments, she began to write poetry. As she worked in her garden, by her own account, poems kept 'bubbling up' and she enclosed them within letters she sent back to friends in London. Indeed, the poems themselves, according to Allen Curnow, read like 'a published correspondence.' (5)
Closer familiarity with her genuine correspondence makes me inclined to disagree with Curnow, but his remark does remind us that many of her poems share the intimate tone and the direct address to a known reader that are characteristic of a letter. Something of that can be seen in the poem that opens her first volume, 'Foreword,' which addresses her friend Ruth Mayhew (then, Lady Ruth Head): Foreword
I have told you, Ruth, in plain words
The pleasures of my occupation
In the rhythms of the stout spade
The lawn-mower and the constant hoe.
But when I listen sometimes to these persistent winds
Moaning remotely among the resonant bluegums,
Tossing their dark boughs towards this sheer sky -
I would that it had been given me
To be the maker of a small melody
Fit to be chanted by one of Eve's daughters
Throwing her first seed into a rough furrow
Or resting in the shadow of a sycamore
Playing upon an uncouth instrument.
It is typical of the work in her first volume; and though it has no obvious connection with Hopkins, it does imply a shared sense of poetry as employing, to borrow Hopkins's well-known phrase, the 'current language heightened.' By and large, that notion informs her poetry throughout her brief career, although she is always prepared to admit words that can scarcely be called current (and was occasionally rebuked for that in the local press). At first, she had no thought of publication, but eventually, through the intervention of another of her long-time Oxford friends, Arthur Mayhew, From a Garden in the Antipodes was published, under the pseudonym of Evelyn Hayes, by Sidgwick and Jackson in 1929.
Bethell shared her home at Cashmere with a very dear friend of some years standing, a slightly younger woman named Effie Pollen, who died, with tragic suddenness, in 1934. Bethell was shattered. She described herself to another poet, Eileen Duggan, as 'a tree struck by lightning - dead. I can thing things,' she wrote, 'but not feel them . All joy is lost.' It was a relationship that she described on a number of occasions as 'prevailingly maternal'; indeed, to another prominent writer, Charles Brasch, she described Effie Pollen as 'all the children I might have had,' alluding as she did so to the disappointment she suffered when an expected marriage was called off. (6) Among the many repercussions of that unlooked-for private tragedy, Bethell found herself unable to write, except for some minor pieces, and six very moving memorial poems, written annually around the anniversary of Effie's death.
The most recent editor of her poetry, Vincent O'Sullivan, very justly writes of them that 'there are few poems that so forcefully and directly face the wreckage, the enduringly inconsolable fact of the sudden death of a person deeply loved.' (7) Eventually, however, two further volumes were published, in New Zealand, rather than in London, as Bethell lent her support to a fledgling New Zealand publisher. (8) Time and Place came out in 1936, to be followed in due course by Day and Night in 1939 - both published without Bethell's name, for she preferred to avoid any public attention, not through false timidity, but through a sense that verse-making might be a little beneath the dignity of the Bethell family name.
And it is these two later volumes that prompted local reviewers to make comparisons with Gerard Manley Hopkins. Although there were relatively few avenues for serious reviewing in New Zealand in the 1930s, those who did review her work consistently mentioned Hopkins as one of its principal influences. At this point, it might be worth quoting some examples of what I take to be composition that seems suggestive of Hopkins's manner. Here is the first stanza from a poem entitled "Waiting for Dawn ": Waiting for
DawnOn a grey morning before the stars have gone out,
hoarse-voiced east-wind assaulting sleep-silences,
I wake and remember the cruel embraces of death.
The pitiless clutch, the fearful down-hold,
the fierce, the final assertion of physical mastery,
sobbing and stifled endeavour of fugitive breath.
Here, a number of qualities are all too reminiscent of Hopkins: there is the piling up of compounded adjectives and more especially of nouns in the second line, (9) the inventive neologism 'down-hold,' the complex alliteration throughout the stanza, especially running across the last three lines in 'fearful,' 'fierce,' 'final,' 'physical' (would not Hopkins have enjoyed the alliterating of 'f' and 'ph'), and 'fugitive,' and the driving rhythms of the final lines. Or take these lines, from "Spring on the Plain":
Blade-sprung paddocks and spaces of pregnant plough
The man-disposed prospect; and, rounds of misty green,
Soft-spun as seed-ball's adrift on level fields
Again, I think we can hear characteristic Hopkins rhythms in these lines; again, we see alliterative patterns such as he favoured, and rich compounding to achieve some intensity of expression, and even the imagery here recalls moments from some of his exuberant descriptions of landscape.
For surely these lines contain echoes of 'Hurrahing in Harvest' or of 'That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire.' Of course, we cannot simply imagine that complex aural effects of assonance and alliteration show a dependence on Hopkins: her description of the texture of tussocked hills as 'a venerable mere smoothed / And soft-surfaced by immemorial friction,' for example, seems much more suggestive of Tennyson. (10)
On the other hand, the preparedness to rhyme four syllables (other than in comic verse), as Bethell does when she describes 'the joys . of life's afternoon' as being 'so much the dearer to us / Declaring the ineffable vision to be nearer to us', is something that might well be learned from Hopkins. One more quotation will suffice for the moment. This time, it is a complete poem, 'Morning Walk.'
On a bright morning of winter I walked up the bitumined highway
to forget the fret of the fetters of down-tending detail,
of diurnal subsistence escape delight-dimming screen.
The morning air was full of the cries of humanity active,
red sparks rising up to the whiter light of silence;
the eternal mountains, aloof, maintained their endless procession;
like tender bloom on curve of immature peach-skin
clung fugitive frost to the foot of winter-green gullies;
shone, sun-glossed gold and silver, the satiny tussock . . .
I kissed the chains that bind the body to bounty of earthly scene.
Here, too, strong echoes can be seen and heard: seen in the exquisite and striking detail that likens the 'fugitive frost' to 'tender bloom on curve of immature peach-skin'; heard in the internal rhymes and metrical pattern of the second line; in the compound pre-modifiers; and in the subtle vocalic progression in the alliterating words of the final line; and that final line even seems to pick up some of the ideas with which Hopkins is struggling in The Wreck of the Deutschland, although turning them to very different effect. Reading such lines, local reviewers invoked Hopkins as a guiding spirit, but Bethell's response to such a suggestion was to consistently, and at times vehemently deny any such influence.
Time and again in her letters she declares that her work is not influenced by Hopkins, protesting that she did not know his poetry, except bits seen in anthologies, when her own poems were written, for in spite of the dates of their publication (1936 and 1939), she maintained that almost all her pieces had been written some years earlier, at much the same time as the poems of her first volume. How is all this to be explained? In the first place, I think it is important not to overstate Hopkins's influence. Bethell wrote about 150 poems in her career - not prolific by any means - and I think one could only confidently point to Hopkinsian influence in about twenty poems. Some other poets of the thirties, younger poets, perhaps, were much more inclined to wear their heart on their sleeve, poetically speaking, and reveal a very strong affiliation to their master.
Their attraction, I suggest, was to Hopkins's conspicuous novelty, and they were only too ready to embrace that novelty, and exhibit it in their own work. It may also be true that reviewers and critics of the 30's were caught up themselves in the excitement that his poetry generated. Just as poets were taught new ways of saying, reviewers were taught new ways of reading; as influenced, in their own ways, as the poets were they were very ready - perhaps too ready - to see Hopkins's hand behind contemporary poetic endeavours. It is also important to record that Bethell's denial is not based on any dislike for Hopkins; he is the poet whose name occurs most frequently in her letters - almost twice as often as any other poet, and always in terms of approval.
In 1931 she wrote to a friend: 'the new edition of G. M. Hopkins has arrived, long waited for - very exciting indeed. That's the way to talk - in a torrent.' (11) Elsewhere she describes him as rare, his lines as noble, and she alludes to 'Carrion Comfort' as a great confort in her own desolation. It's interesting to compare her enthusiasm for Hopkins with her response to Eliot: 'I ought I suppose to tackle more of T. S. Eliot - who has had such an influence. But when I read 'Ash Wednesday' I kept on asking myself " Is this really good?" Good enough to tussle with? I never ask myself this about Hopkins.' (12)
Having said that, I think it is possible to suggest some reasons for her refusal to acknowledge what most readers can hear. Remember, she claims that she did not know his poetry, except bits seen in anthologies, when most of her work was written. In part, I believe, she simply misremembers the chronology of her own composition. It is striking that there is almost no influence in the poems published in 1929; where the influence is to be found is in a small cluster of poems that appeared in a local paper in around 1932-1934 - in other words, soon after she had received and absorbed with delight the second edition of Hopkins' verse. More significantly, I believe that she misunderstands the implication of the attribution of influence. Where the reviewers find influence, she fears mimicry. Again, we can quote from one of her letters: 'it always bothers me when my critics say influence of Hopkins having always wished particularly not to copy him. So many have aped him & its such a mistake.' (13)It seems clear that her concern was to avoid any suggestion of slavish copying - a legitimate one, perhaps, given the derivativeness of some of what was written in the 30's.
She has left no record of having read much of the contemporary literary criticism, but she certainly regularly saw journals such as the Times Literary Supplement , and in one letter she bemoans that the 'book makers' have got Hopkins into focus, explaining and annotating his work. Neither of these suggestions can wholly account, however, for the connections that one finds between Bethell's verse and that of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Vincent O'Sullivan has suggested that he was simply a more potent influence that she realised; and I think that goes some of the way to an explanation. But we can elaborate on that, and suggest further that her own attitudes to art and religion; to the language of the poet, and to the aural importance of poetry; her close attention to landscape as news of God; the way in which she allowed a painter's eye to look at shape and pattern and so to inform her writing - all these, I believe, made her remarkably open to imbibing the lessons that Hopkins had to teach. She readily, and almost unawares took on some of his essential characteristics because she was already looking in the same direction. Hopkins is distinguished as much by his unique way of seeing (that is, his fascination with inscape) as he is by his unique ways of rendering what he sees. Bethell, I think, although the word inscape would have been foreign to her, shared some essential features of Hopkins's way of seeing, and so responded intuitively to his influential way of saying.
These lines from one of her poems suggest that she has an attitude toward poetic composition that is itself not too different from Hopkins's attitude: Poetry is a music made of images / Worded one in the similitude of another,' which may be compared with Hopkins's sense that 'Poetry is speech which afters and oftens its own inscape.' (14) May I finish with one last poem. It attempts to capture something of the extraordinary clarity of the New Zealand light - a feature that is often remarked upon by poets and painters alike. It has some muted echoes of Hopkins, in the aural patterns I have already outlined, but in addition it suggests something of his intense, almost scientific analysis of a scene, his effort to capture and record, in a language that is inadequate to the task, and his joyful aknowledgement of the true source of the world's pied beauties.
Out on a Spring Morning
Oh let me not forget, under grey skies repatriated,
Returned to grey, time-patinated towns,
Not forget, then, this scintillant early sunshine
Playing upon polished new-sprung leaves,
Playing on subtle-shadowed tussock bosses
And stippled spring-grassed slopes of gorse-trimmed hills,
Giving to plain-spread dwellings definition,
Lighting to emerald willow-bordered fields,
Painting lapis-lazuli the wandering mountains,
Shining to diamonds the far mountain-snows.
I may forget the bees' insistent bourdon
In the willow-flower by the river, the earthy smell,
Alien lark's carol, little native's sweet da-capo,
Joyous scents of clover, wattle, furze;
But let me not forget, but lifelong be recorded
Upon my registering eyes' memorial screen
This brilliancy of green, blue, white, and again blue,
The Spring-purged sky's dazzle,
The first sun's brightness, the golden lightness,
This glitter, this glory, this morning jubilee.
The last line, it seems to me, not only sounds like Hopkins in its lovely aural effects, but it recalls something of his Welsh period, in its celebration of the grandeur of creation. The poem, in ways that I think Hopkins would have much admired, responds with enthusiasm and gratitude to the beauty of a particular morning, reads beyond that to the beauty of the first morning of creation, and celebrates the sense, that both Ursula Bethell and Gerard Manley Hopkins treasured, of being surprised anew by the pied beauties of the created world.
1. Leavis, F. R. New Bearings in English Poetry . London: Chatto & Windus, 1932, pp. 159-93. References to other critics of the period who wrote about Hopkins are conveniently gathered in Tom Dunne, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Comprehensive Bibliography , Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.
2. Daiches, David. New Literary Values . Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1936, pp. 23-51.
3. No full-length biography of Ursula Bethell has been published. However, biographical information can be found in the introductions to her Collected Poems (ed. Vincent O'Sullivan, Auckland University Press, 1985, Victoria University Press, 1997); in the introduction to her letters, Vibrant with Words (ed. Peter Whiteford, Victoria University Press, 2005), or in the author entries in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography and The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature .
4. She attended Oxford Girls' High School between 1889 and 1891. While there she boarded with the Mayhew family in Bradmore Rd., becoming firm friends with several of the Mayhew children, and delighting in the academic air bestowed in particular by Mayhew pater , philologist and co-author with Walter Skeat of, among other things, a Middle English dictionary.
5. In a number of her letters, she recalls having heard Gore preach on the Beatitudes in the church of St. Mary the Virgin at Oxford, and may well have enjoyed some brief mystical experience as a result.
6. The remark is contained in the introduction to the first of his highly influential anthologies. Curnow, Allen. A Book of New Zealand Verse . Christchurch: Caxton Press, 2 nd . edn., 1951, p. 43.
7. The letters from which these remarks are taken may be seen in Vibrant with Words , cited above. The one to Eileen Duggan was written June 23, 1937; that to Charles Brasch was written the following year, around July 27. 8. O'Sullivan, Vincent. Introduction. In Ursula Bethell . Collected Poems . Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1997, pp. xx-xxi.
9. Both poems were published by Denis Glover at the Caxton Press in Christchurch.
10. In the lecture that preceded this one, Fr. Joe Feeney referred to Hopkins's creation of 'hyphenates' for such compundings. I was grateful to be able to make use of his term during my talk.
11. The lines occur in a poem called 'Levavi Oculos.' The word 'mere' is a Maori term referring to a small highly-polished war club, usually of greenstone.
12. The remark was made in a letter to her English publisher, Frank Sidgwick, August 21, 1931.
13. This occurs in a letter to a local friend, the art critic Rodney Kennedy, February 3, 1937.
14. Also from a letter to Kennedy, October 16, 1936.
15. Bethell's lines come from a poem entitled 'Weathered Rocks'; Hopkins's definition is the well-known expression found in his 'Notes on Poetry and Verse.'