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Hopkins Lectures 2015


GM Hopkins Sermons - Priest, Preacher and Poet

Bruno Gaurier, Hopkins scholar and translator.

“Take, Lord, receive and do accept all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
Thou hast granted all to me.
To Thee, Lord, I give the whole in return.
All things are yours; do with it according to thy will.
Give me only thy love and thy grace.
That is my heart’s full content.”

This is the “Ignatian” prayer one could imagine the priest Hopkins addressing his Lord with, in so many occasions encountered by him, particularly each time when having a new appointment (even if not previously informed). It seems that Hopkins’s “Sermons” were not really published translated into another language up to now. He was essentially recognized as a poet and writer, thus his priesthood seems to have been in a way left aside to some no man’s land by a good number of scholars. After having published his poems in French as well as his youth correspondence, journals and drawings, I considered as a kind of a duty of mine to give access to his Sermons in my language too, where his spirituality as well as his education and skills in philosophy, theology—and sometimes his true poetical “ecstasy” — are to be fully recognized in the best of what they are in reality. When reading his “Sermons” and Spiritual writings, one discovers that Hopkins is one single person, connected to — and involved in — his time as a young man who is altogether a true artist, a high level scholar, one of our best European poets, a truly good art-critic…, a priest at his daily task and duty as a Jesuit parish priest, a catechist, a preacher, a teacher. What a “multi-faceted” personality! Stepping into the beginning of my Sermons’ four year translation task, I immediately had to face — and cope with — a fundamental question: translating is one thing, but does it mean that, even clear, the text will be accessible to everybody and anybody? Therefore, I decided not only to translate all the footnotes accompanying the original text in the 1957 Oxford Edition (my source), but also to write down and produce notes of mine, some of them playing as explanations or justifications of choices in words, some others, let say most of them, being contextual, historical, theological, exegetical points, explanations or assessments . One says that you should be a poet or at least a great lover of poetry when deciding to translate poetry: no doubt. Same it is for sure with the Sermons: you cannot proceed if you don’t have a minimum of theological, philosophical, exegetical, Scripture-hermeneutical background. To such an extent, the problem is the one of translatability: it is not enough to transfer a text from one language to another, but it is necessary to consider the text’s translatability, in other words its ability to be received, read and understood in its genuine context and reality, also in its capacity to say something significant, to make sense towards another time, context and culture, I mean towards our time, today (e.g. this very period of the new environmental perspective introduced by Pope Francis in his Encyclical Letter Laudato si... The work does not restrict to the transfer of words but extends to an actual work of hermeneutics, what means, according to the hermeneutical Schleiermacher’s proposal for example , an actual work of comprehensive linkage to the socio-historical context, then to the biography of the author, to the local environment, to the general History, to the mood of the period of time where it takes place, etc. If a text is not consciously, intentionally placed or reset in the time of its appearance, its translatability keeps highly problematic. The main general reason of this is clearly defined by the philosopher Walter Benjamin, writing: “… a translation comes later than the original, and since the important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin, their translation marks their stage of continued life .” I’m personally convinced that such a perspective is most important and should motivate the translator’s modesty when working on any text, all the more when it is the matter of poetry or spiritual life. This is what I am about to try and show in one coming example.  We have 28 written (more or less written) Sermons by Hopkins, given in Parish churches at Sunday mass for most of them or at certain celebrated occasions, all of those given on a short time frame, starting July 1879, finishing June 1881, exactly two year time: (1) 7 in St. Clement/St. Aloysius Oxford, (2) 8 in Bedford Leigh (quite near to Liverpool), (3) 13 in St. Francis-Xavier Liverpool. He does not choose his subjects, most of the time following the liturgical calendar as it is published by the Roman Catholic “Ordo”. He has no choice and tries to turn the texts planned to the best account. On this he achieves quite a job. Sometimes his interpretations are considered a bit risky; he might meet the criticism of his superiors or his vicars in charge, as he is obliged to submit his predications before giving them. A good example in one of his sermons, when giving long explanations about the Original Sin in the Eden Garden: he develops about the temptation by the serpent and questions (in my own words): where was Adam when Eve was submitted to temptation? Was he far away? Nobody knows, but not on the spot. Then he is the one responsible for his wife and has to share the full responsibility or even more. Not sure the vicar would have appreciated such a statement in such words for simple people in his church. Then Hopkins always feels something like a humiliation from such a vexatious regulation: a kind of harassment in a way. He sometimes happens to add some observations at the beginning of some of his sermon-papers after having given them publicly. This leads us to think that the appointments as a teacher or as a parish priest could have not perfectly suited to the high level of his knowledge and intelligence as a true genuine intellectual, poet and artist. But basically he nevertheless accepted, all the way and in all circumstances. He never refused his appointments, following such a way a real discipline and dedication. His leaving Oxford for Lancashire eventually seems, through the reading of his letter to Baillie (22 May-18 June 1880), to have been caused by a bad relation with those he calls “Oxonians”. Could it be some punitive decision? Such question is not totally irrelevant. His priesthood and his appointments as a preacher are his official occupation: probably a good life-frame and backbone, a good structure for his status. Poetry and literature is his private but more “beloved” part. Without poetry he could have died. As a true believer in the love of God’s Kingdom, as he would himself say, his poetry is his permanent chant, his best way with some poems to share his faith. During these two years, he did produce a good number of poems and letters: altogether, between 15 and 20 of his best ones, often complaining in his letters: “I have no time for poetry, I am at work in my box” (so did he call his confessional) was a bit his leitmotiv. Among the poems, let’s remind some very well-known ones: The bugler’s first communion (27 July 1879), Andromeda (12 August 1879), Peace (2nd October 1879), The candle indoors, Felix Randal (28 April 1880), Brothers (August 1880), Spring and fall (7 September 1880), Inversnaid (28 September 1881, just before leaving Liverpool for Glasgow and Roehampton). The one letters directly included in his two year preacher task only, as entered into the remarkable two volume new Oxford Press 2013 edition (in the framework of the complete review and updated publication of the whole Hopkins’ opus ), reach an amount of 31. During that precise period of time, we find: (1) 8 letters from August to December 1879, (2) 12 letters during the year 1880, (3) 11 letters from January to September 1881. A good part of them are sent to Robert Bridges and Canon Richard Watson Dixon, almost all dedicated straight to literature, arts, versification, the way how to read poetry, sometimes translation from the ancient Greek, etc. He even exchanges some poems especially with Bridges, and to Dixon he sends some of his lines, asking for evaluation and criticism. This means he does not so much speak about his parish work, his duty in the Church. My personal interpretation would risk say that he doesn’t need to speak about it. It is his clear choice, it is his official status, he is on duty, he does his best to fulfill his charge as efficiently as possible, his spiritual life is really anchored to his deep faith, this is not left for discussion, because there is nothing to be discussed in that sense. Among these 31 letters although, we find less than a dozen of them containing some words about his appointments, changes of addresses, how he feels. None of them, not one, develops about the details of his commitments in Church as such (or about the contents of his predications). It more or less seems that he keeps all this in his heart of hearts and builds a kind of a wall between his official duty and his personal developments in poetry and literature he wants and needs to share about.  Let’s now get into and illustrate this with the following: (1) St. Joseph’s Bedford Leigh, 8-16 October 1879, to Bridges: “Dearest Bridges, I have left Oxford. I am appointed to Liverpool, I do not know for what work, but I am in the meantime supplying at the above address. Leigh is a town smaller and with less dignity than Rochdale and in a flat; the houses red, mean, and two stored; there are a dozen mills or so, and coal pits also; the air is charged with smoke as well as damp; but the people are hearty. Now at Oxford every prospect pleases and only man is vile, I mean unsatisfactory to a Catholic missioner. I was yesterday at St. Helen’s, probably the most repulsive place in Lancashire or out the Black Country. The stench of sulphuretted hydrogen rolls in the air and films of the same gas form on railing and pavement.” At the same time, exactly on 5 October, he gives in Bedford Leigh a most targeted and admirable predication on the healing of the Paralytic according to the 3 Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Luke, Mark). What is the point? The poorest of the poor have no means of approaching Christ and urging him to heal them. Hopkins clearlysets the scene — to make sure everybody understands what happens: (1) the big hole cut through the roof of the house, (2) Christ’s challenge with those powerful men who criticize and threaten him, Jesus more or less stating: for this one poor lonely disabled man, God has more power than you. This very one is already “justified”, his sins are forgiven.

On the 2nd of October, he writes his poem Peace. (2) Then comes one of his most positive, significant and engaged letters to Baillie where he speaks about the people of Lancashire (May 22 - June 18, 1880):

“You say it is something of an affection for me to run up the Lancashire people and run down ‘Oxonians’ – unpleasant word, but let us say the Oxford ones… I could not but feel how alien it was, how chilling, and deeply to be distrusted… With the Lancastrians it is the reverse; I felt as if I had been born to deal with them… Now these people of low degree or not of high degree are those who most have seemed to welcome me and make much of me…”

He continues with this significant statement on himself and the Lancastrians he loves: “I am brought face to face with the deepest poverty and misery in my district. On this I could write much, but it would do no good.”

This might illustrate or at least indicate the position (maybe some ignorance) of today’s part of the religious hierarchies on the poor. This very period comes as a real relevation of the way his intention sometimes suits his subject for a Sermon : one example: on May 30, 1880, he preached a long commentary on St. Luke’s Gospel (chapter14) about rich people’s denial of the invitation made by the local master, who finally decides to invite all the poor from the whole locality, instead of his most impolite so-called friends. You probably remember the rich people coming back and looking through the window at the room filled for the feast.

Hopkins’s mood and background, at this very moment, are fully working in the most positive way, when meeting such an inspiring text.

It was at this time that one of Hopkins's most moving poems, “Felix Randal”, is created. This period of his life shows the intensity of Hopkins’s sensitivity to the poor. Six months before, (January 11 and 18, 1880), he gave two significant sermons on the verse “Thy Kingdom come”. This is of great interest as both of these sermons might be described as lectures (rather than sermons). Hopkins considered the organization of society as such, according to the Aristotelian concept (this is my personal opinion) of the Sovereign Good and Common Welfare. Hopkins then introduces his brethren into the “idealistic” framework of God’s creation, showing how to look for — and positively work towards — the construction of the Holy Kingdom through the building of a society of justice and equality.

Listen to Hopkins in the 2 Sermons on “Thy Kingdom come”:

( a) On January 11th, 1880:

“Remark these two words, wellbeing or advantage and duty, for on them the commonwealth turns. The aim of every commonwealth is the wellbeing, the welfare of all and this welfare of all is secured by a duty binding all…”

“Now what follows from this? — Something very beautiful and noble and honorable. A covenant, a contract, an agreement, I mean of course a lawful one […] Therefore two that make and carry out a contract are both just, both in the right…, both equally just, equally in their right. For this is the wonderful property of justice to equalize those who share it…”

(b) On January 18th, 1880, he develops this theme, with a genuine vision of what and how God’s Kingdom could be and appear:

“This, I say, is what commonwealth means and God’s first kingdom upon earth was such: God had a place in it and man, God was to gain by it and man, God bound himself by duty in it and man, God was justified in it and man… What was the joint and common good in that kingdom? — It was that God should be glorified in man and man glorified in God… The common good is to be realized, it is to be brought about, by all the citizens or members and estates of the commonwealth doing their duty: so we said.

Here , a true maturity clearly appears. We see the “practical” faith of the young priest, conscious about how common justice between individuals, the right distribution of power and proper treatment of property ought to be organized in order to develop and protect a true equality between citizens who are all sons and daughters of God, all promised access toGod’s Kingdom.

Now listen to these two short quotations from Pope Francis in his worldwide letter “Laudato si:

“Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach, it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (49)

“Without repeating the entire theology of Creation, we can ask what the great biblical narrative say about the relationship of human beings with the world. In the first Creation account in The Book of Genesis, God’s plan includes creating humanity. After the creation of man and woman, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). The Bible teaches that every man and woman is created out of love and made God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26). This shows us the immense dignity of each person, “who is not just something, but someone.” (65)

“So we said”, Hopkins states: don’t you remember these lines of the poem “As kingfishers catch fire”? “… Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwell; Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, Crying What I do is me: for that I came. … I say more: the just man justices; Keeps grace…” For that, Hopkins came.


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