Hopkins Lectures 2008

Hopeful Hopkins - Hopkins in Ireland, was he manic?

Desmond Egan, Poet and Artistic Director, The Hopkins Festival

Poet Desmond Egan discusses Gerard Manley Hopkins in Ireland. Was he manci as White suggests. Egan questions the undue emphasis on his melancholia, to the exclusion of another side of his complex personality.

One review (1) of Norman White's Hopkins in Ireland concludes that White shows Hopkins to be 'a sick and self-lacerating human being'. Such a stark image of the poet in Dublin has become more-or-less received opinion. That Hopkins was at times depressed and unhappy in Ireland is well enough documented - nor do I wish to dispute it; but I do wish to question the undue emphasis on his melancholia, to the exclusion of another side of his complex personality. I would also hope to offer some corrective to what has become, perhaps, a simplistic and misleading view of the man and his work, especially during the Dublin years (Feb. 1884 to his death in June 1889).

'Unhappy in Dublin': after his school years, was Hopkins wholly happy anywhere; for long? Is any of us - much less someone as hyper-sensitive, misunderstood and thought-haunted as Hopkins? Pascal has famously said that the average person lives ' a life of quiet desperation'.( 2) Fischer-Dieskau writes of Schubert that he

... once said that for him there was no real happy music ( notes by Karl Schumann)

My question could probably be extended to cover many - if not most - important writersWas Dante 'happy'; or Keats? Was Blake, Byron, Wordsworth? Was Beckett? Yeats? Dostoievski? Machado? Raifterí? Pound? Eliot? Fernando Pessoa? Was Kavanagh, who said that, 'Consciousness is despair'(Self-Portrait)

Then there is the other factor, the unreachable melancholy of the artist (3) - since all art is an affirmation of life against the overwhelming fact of death.

(Behind the suggestion that Hopkins was 'unhappy' does there lie some kind of presumption that continuous happiness is the common lot in this 'vale of tears'? Someone with Hopkins's temperament would never feel too securely at home anywhere. In a Journal note of 1873, when he was 30, he says,

The ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. ..and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more. (4)

Someone so highly strung that he is ready to die over seeing a tree cut down is not going to have an easy time of it in life).

Despite what some commentators imply, Hopkins did not fall into a fairly continuous depression in Ireland. He wrote some 28 poems here, arguably his finest body of work; he also engaged in musical composition, did some sketching and worked on a couple of scholarly projects. He was always frail and intense - that deadly combination (5) - nevertheless, the view that he was a despairing melancholiac is often offered by commentators who have little sympathy-for or understanding-of Hopkins's faith or of the way in which it sustained him. A feeling of being uneasy in the world, even a tendency towards depression, is not incompatible with an inner peace. In his recent biography of Kafka, Nicholas Murray, confirms the once-improbable view that Franz Kafka was a 'a Fun Guy': a sportsman, a dandy, a flirt and a very good insurance man. 'Kafka was always cheerful' his last girlfriend, (Dora Diamant) assures us. What! the author of The Trial and of The Castle cheerful? But - and this is important in the Hopkins context - a happy disposition is not at all incompatible with an artistic willingness to explore the darker side of the human condition. ( Think of Samuel Beckett, laureate of existential angst, whose plays are shot through with a wild humour) . A tragic sense of life is not incompatible with a happy disposition. All art is an affirmation; it stems from a belief in art and in its subject-matter, life.

What, then, about Hopkins's 'sonnets of desolation' as W.H. Gardner labelled them; all written in Dublin? As a writer, I can tell you how Hopkins felt after the outpouring of doubt and near-despair that each contains: he felt great! These 'dark sonnets' should be called 'sonnets of hope': not one of them declines into hopelessness, and nearly every one exhibits the flowering of his genius, despite the extremes of depression that Hopkins explores and catches. Take, at random, a few of the 'darkest', most anguished lines from one of these 'dark sonnets':

O the mind, mind has mountains. Cliffs of fall
Frightful. Sheer. No man fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who never felt their steep or deep.

Even these harrowing words are energised by hope: by a a belief in language itself and in the sacred function of poetry, which is to catch life on the wing. Briefly examine the lines. Technically, they are exciting: one is struck by the expressiveness of that repeated word 'mind'; by the compound adjective, 'no-man-fathomed' - a neologism and wonderfully evocative; by the assonantal play on 'steep' and 'deep' ... and so on. This is a hope sonnet, not one of despair. Hope not least in poetry itself and in all its resources, including those of rhythm, musicality, metaphorical reach. Hope, finally and fundamentally, in the Word, the Lord of language and of creativity. Mastery of the resources of language (which the sonnet exemplifies) is what helps to make possible its unflinching look at the human tragedy - and it also charges it with belief, with a refusal to give up in the face of extreme anguish. We need such poetry because it manages to catch in a few words the experience of struggling along in dark times, and somehow not caving-in.

Hopkins, who affirms in a letter to Dixon (6) that 'I have never wavered in my vocation' saw his own sufferings - mental and physical - as the will of a good God and therefore as conducive to holiness. Humphry House, notes - in his edition of The Note-books and Papers ( 7) - that, No single sentence better explains the motives and direction of Hopkins's life than this 'Man was created to praise'. He believed it as wholly as a man can believe anything; and when regret or sorrow over anything in his (Hopkins's) life comes to a critic's mind this must be remembered. To remember it is not to share or advocate the belief; but it is essential to an intelligent reading of his work.

At a time when he was most despondent, when the drudgery of routine work, marking examination papers, was threatening his eyes; and his body was weak; and plans for his own work all inter rupted and deferred, he summarised in a note-book; 'Man was created to praise etc...And the other things on earth - take it that weakness, ill health, every cross is a help. Calix quem Pater dedit mihi non bibam illud? (Christ's words, Will I not drink the chalice which the Father has given me?).

This view of suffering as affording the possibility to advance in love is life-affirming. Paul, in Romans puts it,

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revewaled to us. (8;18)

Hopkins fully believed this; to understand as much is crucial to arriving at a balanced view of him.

The proper word for his sadness in the face of sickness, disappointment, loneliness, non-recognition, wordly failure ... may be 'dysthymia' (as a Galway academic maintains); certainly it was never 'despair'. Time and and again, even in his darkest poems, Hopkins's protagonist discovers some reason for hoping against hope. In the face of suffering and tormenting self-doubt there remains a hard-won optimism,

Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee...
... Here! creep
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind ...
Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart's clarion! Away grief's gasping, joyless days, dejection ...

Even his harrowing and personalised, version of Jeremiah's lament, Thou art indeed just. Lord, ends with a prayer, with confidence in the order of things,

Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

- there is a lord of life, then, and he can hear our prayer. Hopkins could find consolation in the belief that Alphonsus Rodriguez, a lowly hall-porter.

Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event ...

- 'conquest' is a big word. Hopkins's leaden echo always has a golden echo, They were not incompatible: in a letter of 1888 to Bridges, having expressed dismay at his own sense of failure (reminiscent of Beckett's ' No matter. Fail again. Fail better.') Hopkins says,

I am a eunuch - but it is for the kingdom of heaven's sake.
and goes on (two paragraphs later) to say,
I have been a little ill and am still a little pulled down; however I am in good spirits.

The lives of the Saints offer examples of such a combination of self-doubt - the dark night of the soul - with some deeper calm, the 'good spirits' of someone fundamentally touched by the love of God.

This is central to the Catholic view of things. (St. Theresa remarked, 'I know that behind the dark cloud my sun is still shining').

I have suggested at various Hopkins conferneces that if we are to come closer to the man and develop a sense of his character, we must avoid a too close identification of the artist with his work. Words go their own strange ways - a true writer is as much led as leading. There is an element of compulsion, of uncovering, in poetry that deserves the name (after all, 'in-spired' means breathed-into from somewhere else). A line, image, feeling, theme... catches hold and forces the writer to follow, to discover, be surprised. A poem is a journey elsewhere. Simplistic identification of artist and art is equivalent to identifying the actor with his Hamlet; it just does not work that way.

Nor should we forget that even if a writer tries to put himself/ herself into the poem, the minute the 'I' is written, things begin to slither off, to go their own way. In Literature there is no 'I' puro; it is little more than a way of speaking. To take an example: John Berryman's Dream Songs would seem as autobiographical as one could get - the essence of 'confessional' poetry (as it has been called). But Berryman's Collection is preceded by a caveat from him that the protagonist, Henry, is 'not the writer, not me' - not Berryman. An alter ego no doubt - but here I wish to draw attention to the alter - the other - part of that description. The minute one writes the word 'I' on a sheet of paper, that 'I' becomes 'not-quite-I' no matter how close the biographical links. Words are metaphorical of reality, not the reality. (Which of us can say who we are, anyhow?) There is another, related, consideration: that of of the standing-back needed to master an experience i.e. to create a work of art rather than skate-on-the-surface journalism. ( Joyce's image of the artist, 'indifferent, paring his fingerrnails').

It is incorrect, then, to label Hopkins's so-called 'dark sonnets' - and the poet himself - as pessimistic. Moving from the poetry to his notebooks, papers and journals we can readily see that Hopkins the man was an optimist. Happy Hopkins? Well yes. Read through his letters: there - more than anywhere else - one arrives at the impression of a rounded, witty, un-gloomy personality. The tone of voice is generally animated, often cheerful and sometimes even jaunty. His experience of suffering did not prevent his having a quirky sense of humour: perhaps - an Irish argument, I know - it even helped to ensure the detached look and sense of proportion on which humour depends. Even Norman White, who lays so much emphasis on Hopkins's depression admits that, his letters are seldom without lighter moments (8)

Here's Hopkins, writing to his sister Kate from Dublin (Dec.1884), in a fake Irish accent :

Me dear Miss Hopkins

Im intoirely ashamed o meself. Sure its a wonder I could lave your iligant corspondance so long onanswered. But now Im just afther conthroiving a jewl of a convaniance be way of a standhen desk and tis a moighty incurgement towards the writin of letters intoirelee. Tis whoy ye hear from me this evenin.

It bates me where to comince, the way Id say anything yed be interistud to hear of. More be token yell be plased tintimate to me mother Im intirely obleeged to her for her genteel offers. But as titchin warm clothen tis undher a misapprehinsion shes labourin. Sure twas not the inclimunsee of the saysons I was complainin of at all at all. Twas the povertee of books and such like educational convaniences. (etc.) (9)

The letters afford many examples of such high spirits, of a sense of humour lurking behind the Victorian po-face, The organ is new; the organist said to be a genius: he cries ...over his own playing.. (10) and there is that 'grunting harmonium that lived in the sacristy' (11)

His sharp sense of the comic is never too far away; you can hardly read his Journals and Letters without developing an awareness of it and of the whole man: intelligent, critical. totally sincere, respectful - and ready enough for a laugh, We meet more than our fair share of puns (e.g Rev. Sir Frederick A. Gore Ouseley becomes Sir Oozy Gore) and plenty of quips and witticisms, some not without an element of self-parody, of seemingly making fun of himself: 'my go is all gone' ' I get on better here, though bad is the best of my getting on' (1881) (13). His parodies are generally hilarious e.g. his send-up of sentimental pulp fiction of the day:

... surely, Sir Josiah Bickerstaff, there is some hope! O say not all is over. It cannot be.

His sense of fun enables him to view the spectacle of a drunk organist (in Liverpool church) as distressing, alarming, agitating but above all delicately comic; it brings together the bestial and the angelic elements in such a quaint entanglement as nothing else can' (letter from Dublin to Bridges in 1887). (14)

Now there we have Hopkins: cool, ironic, not at all prissy, laughing inwardly. Reading through his Letters, one becomes aware of a delightfully knowing eye - as in his wittily opinionated summary of Robert Browning and later of Charles Kingsley (letter to Dixon, 1881) as having, .. . a way of talking (and making his people talk) with the air and spirit of a man bouncing up from the table with his mouth full of bread and cheese and saying that he meant to stand no blasted nonsense. There is a whole volume of Kingsley's essays which is all a kind of munch and a not standing of any blasted nonsense from cover to cover. (15)

Some of Hopkins's similes are just as pointed and funny e.g. that of Aeschylus (no less!) who goes at it again and again like a canary trying to learn The Bluebells of Scotland. ( D. 1888) (16)

And what about his comment that Excitable as the Irish are, they are far less so than from some things you would think and ever so much froths off in words (17)

Ouch. Kierkegaard says that a sense of the comical is related to belief in God, since the believer knows there is an infinite difference between an omnipotent God and his limited creatures - with a corresponding lack of total seriousness in any comparison with pygmy man. Henri Bergson suggests (in an essay on Laughter) (12) that, the more thoroughly and substantially a human being exists, the more he will discover the comical

In that same essay, he points out the elements of self-consciousness, contradiction, ambivalence and even a certain assumption of superiority - all implicit in the laugh.

Nor should we be surprised that a fundamentally serious person should have a lighter, more frivolous, side. (I have never experienced anything else - from Kavanagh to Brian Bourke of the gloomy paintings and James McKenna, most serious of artists and one of the funniest people). Hopkins himself was surprised to discover that Newman could be almost 'flippant' on occasion. The real enemy of seriousness is not laughter but solemnity.

(Remember Kavanagh's poem on God and the Devil, where God is
Amusing ... Experimental ... Irresponsible - ... About frivolous things...

while The Devil is,

Solemn ... Boring ... Conservative...

He would look like an artist...

He was serious about unserious things ...

(The prevalent image of Hopkins as a depressive puro goes hand in hand with that of lonely introvert - but surely his isolation, especially in Dublin, has been over-emphasised? His circle of acquaintances included Fr. Robert Curtis, ' my comfort beyond what I can say and a kind of godsend I never expected to have'; Judge and Mrs. O'Hagan of Howth; the McCabes of Donnybrook; the Blakes of Galway; the Cassidys of Monasterevin, whom he often visited - quite apart from his literary friends Robert Bridges, Canon Dixon, Coventry Patmore; and his family, with all of whom he kept in contact. Are any of us much better? He saw around some of Ireland in those 5 plus years: Dublin City, Howth, Donnybrook; Clongowes; Monasterevin; Emo; Rahan; Galway; Clare; Dromore... as well as taking a couple of holidays in England).

Did lack of recognition as a poet cause Hopkins to write less, as has been suggested? No artist (I say artist) depends on the approbation of any audience more knowing than that of himself. Here we have precisely the difference between a creative person and a dilettante. (Any sportsman who loses concentration by thinking of the audience, will lose the match too). The history of Literature is littered with the stories of those who died unknown, under-appreciated, rejected by the outside world and often poverty-stricken (like Kavanagh and indeed McKenna) - but who persistied in their work, sustained by their own belief in its worth. Artistic achievement is emphatically not defined by contemporary acceptance; au contraire -what fires the artist is,

The fine delight that fathers thought
and the corresponding power of shaping, however briefly,
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation

Though Hopkins was a modest man, avoiding the limelight, unwilling to promote his own cause, generous in promoting that of Dixon, Bridges, Patmore, he was not a holy fool. Hopkins knew he was a great writer; of course he did. That is why he kept on writing, continuing his daring technical experimentation - themselves an attempt to express the almost-inexpressible, in an almost wholly original way; his own raids on the inarticulate - right up to the end. His confidence in his own insight is well in evidence in his Letters and surely derives from an awareness of his own special gift. His technical expertise, gained through writing, is almost unequalled by any other writer I know. At times his viewpoint can come across as almost arrogant, so cleanly is it based on an assumption of his own artistic judgment - and, indirectly, on his confidence asa poet. His criticism is blunt, as if it came from beyond himself, even where his writer-friends are involved: it assumes the highest standards. This is why he easily sees through what he called, 'the hollowness of this century's civilisation' (p,166) and is not taken-in by the contemporary vogue. Coventry Patmore - and after him Edmund Gosse and Patmore's son Derek - blamed the severity of Hopkins's dismissal of Patmore's Sponsa Dei (outcome of ten years' work) for driving Patmore to destroy it. I have no doubt that Hopkins was right in his judgment: there is always enough bad poetry around, and never enough good criticism. (One good critic is better than a hundred bad poets), Hopkins's modesty was not incompatible with a sense of what should be done and of what he had done. Well he knew that recognition should accompany great works; and that it had not happened in his own case, though it should have had:

What I do regret is the loss of recognition belonging to the work itself... (p.102,3)

Fame may not have been the spur but it should have been the consequence. His passing critiques of those who had become famous, including Swinburne, Browning, Tennyson, George Eliot, Arnold; and of Patmore and of Bridges himself, later Poet Laureate of England - reveal a fine critical intelligence, firmly based on standards confidently defined through his own creative work. (In the case of Browning he also shows the opinionatedness - sometimes wilful and wrongheaded - of the creative writer).

Hopkins knew - we all do - that one can entertain two apparently contradictory emotions at the same time. ( Catullus' Odi et amo inCarmina 85 - of which there may even be an echo in 'O I admire and sorrow' in On the Portrait of Two Beautiful Young People.). He writes, in a letter (of 1866) to his father,

' It is possible even to be very sad and very happy at once and the time that I was with Bridges, when my anxiety came to its height, was I believe the happiest fortnight of my life. (L. 51)

How does this fit in with the simpliste view of a depressive writing correspondingly depressed poetry? In his final letter home, he tells his mother he is the placidest soul in the world (292)

This side of his personality has not been sufficiently adverted-to by those who have no belief-in or understanding of Hopkins's sustaining spirituality? Remember that the poet had chosen to become a priest and never regretted his decision. Without overlooking his 'fits of sadness', it is crucial not to forget this other side of the man. A few months before he died, he could engage in a practical joke on one of his companions who had duped him, writing a hilarious and knowing letter from the fictional son of a stable-man in Parteen (Parteen!), Co. Clare, looking for a job. Closer to his death, Hopkins gently chides Bridges for taking his, Hopkins's, jokes, seriously, and wittily accommodates Hamlet, I have it now down in my tablets that a man may joke and joke and be offensive... (p.289)

- this in a letter which begins,

I am ill today, but no matter for that as my spirits are goodHopkins's inner calm, his sense of fun in trying times and in a life that seemed never timely-happy - offers proof of his basic optimism. It derived from a hope in Christ which never wavered. That alone can account for the last words of this troubled but fundamentally hopeful man,

I am so happy. I am so happy.


(in U.C.D.'s Connections (2002

Rilke (1875 - 1926) suggests. 'That we don't feel too securely at home / In this interpreted world (first of Duino Elegies) Brecht (1898 - 1956) goes even further, .. The one who laughs / Just hasn't yet heard / The bad news. (To Our Successors)

Hopkins in Monasterevin; Desmond Egan

House p.174

He would confide to his Journal - in 1874 when he was aged just 30 - I was very tired and seemed deeply cast down... perhaps my heart has never so burdened and cast down as this year. The tax on my strength has been greater than I have felt before: at least now at Teignmouth I feel myself weak and can do little.

Letter to Dixon, 1881

Oxford c. 1936; p.416

Hopkins in Ireland Dublin 2002; p.144

p .203

Sir Gore (ghastly as this is, what else can you say? - his name in a book of Mallock's (popular satirist) would become Sir Bloodclot Reekswell) - wanted us to agree with him that such and such an example was in a better style than such and such another, livelier, one but we were naughty and would not; the more griggish the piece, the more we clapped it. (Oxford 1879) Phillips p.116

from Henri Bergson: Laughter Doubleday USA 1956)

L p.79; St Beuno's 1874).

L. p.153

Letter from Dublin to Bridges in 1887

L p.157

L p. 269

Links to 2008 Hopkins Festival Lectures

|| Editing Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins || Fancy in Hopkins Poetics || Hopeful Hopkins || Dolben and Hopkins || Dancer Isadora Duncan and Hopkins Poetry || Hopkins and Water Imagery || The Dark Sonnets || Hopkins Interpretation || A Scottish Reading of Hopkins Poetry || John Henry Newman and Translation ||