Hopkins Archive 1987 - 95

First published in Studies. An Irish Quarterly Review, 2 (1995)

John Berryman and Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerry Murray Poet - Critic, Chicago,USA

Any link between Hopkins and Berryman seems strange. Hopkins - Jesuit priest, Classics scholar, largely unknown and Berryman the sodden, sexually obsessed poet who committed suicide. Yet, both Hopkins and Berryman were converts to Roman Catholicism, and both strove mightily to fulfil their religious convictions - Hopkins as priest-teacher, Berryman as the willing but out-of-control alcoholic pilgrim.

first published in Studies. An Irish Quarterly Review, 2 (1995): 173-80

Its stateliness in rhetoric and diction can underlie the sort of work that Berryman seemed to want at the time; but the real point was the need for stylistic dissonance, a going beyond the decorum and ceremony of earlier traditions. Berryman's stanza graphs his abrupt shifts in thought: ranging accentually 5-5-3-4-5-5-3-6. There is plenty of play in the stanza, with rhyme varying frequently. Berryman takes a stanzaic form and spreads it metrically wider, but with balance as much in mind as tension.

Even when the narrative runs over into a new stanza, the aural memory of the eighth line rhyming with the first keeps the reader in mind of the stanza's integrity. A similar technical device is used to give a sense of wholeness to the 57 sections, whereby the word still is the rhyming word in both the first and last stanzas. The last stanza is as follows:According to critic Carol Frost, `"The Wreck of the Deutschland" in its disruption of syntax and fluctuating accents mimes the vehemence and near chaos that Berryman is also writing about, miming them, one might say, and holding them at bay. To express adequately the complexity of the poet's and Mistress Bradstreet's situation and their character, at once anguished, violent, stoic, rebellious, and tender, Berryman takes his favourite eight-line stanza and buffets it with rhythmic and syntactic variations similar to Hopkins's. The basis for the meters in both the Hopkins and Berryman stanza is accentual. In Hopkins it is quite strict, according to his own lights; in Berryman, loose - but still present .' Both stanzas have a six-foot last line - a near giveaway that the basis for the stanzaic form in `Homage' is the `Deutschland' stanza:

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.

In many ways, Berryman's `Homage' was largely prologue to the work for which he is best known, `The Dream Songs'. He began `The Dream Songs' cycle in 1955, eventually resulting in 385 segments, each composed of three six-line stanzas, somewhat randomly rhymed and inevitably herky-jerky and unpredictable in rhythm and line length. Originally comprised of two collections - 77 Dream Songs, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1965 and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, which won the US National Book Award for Poetry in 1969 - `The Dream Songs' can now be viewed as one huge, continuous poem, Berryman's own special way of tackling the issue of a modern epic poem. He resolved the problem of the long-poem not T.S. Eliot's way in `Four Quartets', not W.C. Williams's way in `Paterson', not Ezra Pound's way in `The Cantos' nor Hart Crane's way in `The Bridge'.

Berryman's answer was to conceive a diary - a dream diary. And in this extensive `dream diary', readers come to meet - not necessarily know - the characters `Henry' and `Mr Bones'. Here's how Berryman attempts to distance himself from the dominating voice(s) of the poem:

`The poem then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age, sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof' .

On the surface, any linkage between Hopkins and Berryman seems strange. On the one hand, there is Hopkins - Jesuit priest, Classics scholar, largely unknown by readers and critics during his lifetime, dutiful, frail, an outsider, possibly homosexual, dead of consumption at age 44. Conversely, Berryman was the sodden, sexually obsessed poet who became as famous as America allows its poets to be and who in 1972 committed suicide by leaping from a bridge into the faculty parking lot at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis (he apparently planned to kill himself by symbolically jumping into the Mississippi River, which divides the United States east and west, but alas badly misjudged his last leap of faith or faithlessness).

Yet there is connection here. For one thing, both Hopkins and Berryman were converts to Roman Catholicism, and both strove mightily to fulfil their religious convictions - Hopkins as priest-teacher, Berryman as the willing but out-of-control alcoholic pilgrim. Both also spent some of the last years of their lives in Ireland. Hopkins, of course, living and dying at University College in Dublin. While in Ireland, Hopkins wrote most of the group of poems that came to be known as `the Terrible Sonnets', which give a breath-taking portrait of the poet in spiritual doubt and despair - some of his finest but most painful poetry, a selection of which follows :

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
* * * * * *
I am in Ireland now; now I am at a third
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven's baffling ban
Bars or hell's spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.
* * * * * *
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night!

In several of `The Dream Songs' , Berryman thematically echoes some of the emotional baggage that Hopkins struggled with in `the Terrible Sonnets':

I will stay
in my monastery until my death
& the fate my actions have so hardly earned.
The horizon is all cloud.
Leaves on leaves on leaves of books I've turned
and I know nothing, Henry said aloud,
with his ultimate breath.
Sluggish, depressed, & with no mail to cheer,
he lies in Ireland's rain's bogged down, aware
of definite mental pain.
He hasn't a friend for a thousand miles to the west
and only two in London, he counted and guessed:
ladies he might see again

Unlike Hopkins, Berryman at times seems to complain for the sake of complaint. Over all, Berryman's time in Ireland was hardly dreadful compared to the depths Hopkins seemed to reach, but Ireland did prove productive for both. Hopkins's `Terrible Sonnets' and at least a dozen segments of `The Dream Songs' occur in Ireland, as evidenced by this sampling of lines indicative of Berryman's witty, off-handed, gritty later style:

The Irish sky is raining, the Irish winds are high,
the Irish sun comes back & forth, and I
in my Irish pub
past puberty and into pub-erty
have sent my Irish wife and child downtown,
I lapse like an Irish clown.
O land of Connolly & Pearse, what have
ever you done to deserve these tragic masters?
You come & go
free: nothing happens. Nelson's Pillar blows
but the busses still go there: nothing is changed,
for all these disasters O
We fought our freedom out a long while ago
I can't see that it matters, we can't help you
land of ruined abbeys,
discredited Saints and brainless senators,
roofless castles, enemies of Joyce & Swift,
enemies of Synge,
enemies of Yeats & O'Casey, hold your foul ground
your filthy cousins will come around to you,
barely able to read,
friends of Patrick Kavanagh's & Austin Clarke's
those masters who can both read & write,
in the high Irish style

It's clear that Berryman never loses his American perspective, however much he immerses himself in things Irish.

Why is Ireland the wettest place on earth
year-round, beating Calcutta in the moonsoon
& the tropical rain-forest.
Clearly the sun has made an exception for Ireland,
the sun growled & shone elsewhere: Iowa,
detestable State.
`An Instructions to Critics'
The women of Kilkenny weep when the team loses,
they don't see the match but they cry. Mad bettors everywhere,
the sign `Turf Accountant',
men slipping in & out. People are all the same,
the seaman argued: Henry feels the Spanish & Irish
and Bengalis are thoroughly odd.
Americans, whom I prefer, are hopelessly normal.
The Japanese are barely comprehensible & formal,
formal Henry found

And so on. Berryman is largely tongue-in-cheek with the observations above, or his fondness for noting that `Your first day in Dublin is always your worst' or that `The Irish have the thickest ankles in the world/ & the best complexions'. But underlying this cynical playfulness is the serious debt Berryman owes the model of Hopkins. Indeed, Berryman pays his own kind of homage in #337 of `The Dream Songs', a segment that has come to be known as `Father Hopkins':

Father Hopkins, teaching elementary Greek
whilst his mind climbed the clouds, also died here.
O faith in all he lost.
Swift wandered mad through his rooms & could not speak.
A milkman sane died, the one one, I fear.
His name was gone almost.
Hopkins's credits, while the Holy Ghost
rooted for Hopkins, hit the Milky Way.
This is a ghost town.
It's Xmas. Henry, can you reach the post?
Yeats did not die here - died in France, they say,
brought back by a warship & put down.
Joyce died overseas also but Hopkins died here:
where did they plant him, after the last exam?
To his own lovely land
did they rush him back, out of this hole unclear,
barbaric and green, or did they growl `God's damn'
the lousy Jesuit, canned.

The empathetic consideration of Hopkins (and unkind view of the treatment Hopkins presumably received in Ireland) is typical of Berryman's contention that the greater the poet the less the understanding and appreciation. Poor us, poor them. So be it.

In the end, the apparently divergent but similar cases of Hopkins and Berryman rest not only on issues of poetic themes, theory or practice, but how each poet ultimately embraced his own spirit of originality. The hard kick of `what's new' is what finally distinguishes both Hopkins and Berryman.

In both large and small ways, Hopkins unerringly and alone pursued his visionary paths towards God, along the way creating new ways to articulate the journey. And in many ways, Berryman - one of America's greatest poetic originals - was deeply and seriously informed by the serious, sensitive Hopkins.

Berryman largely acknowledged the Hopkins influence. One can only have fun speculating how Hopkins might have viewed what he partly wrought in the unconventional, uncanny Berryman.


Bloom, Harold, The Western Canon, Harcourt Brace, 1994, p. 281.

Boyd White, James, This Book of Starres, University of Michigan Press, 1994, p. 101.

Deane, Paul, review of This Book of Starres, in The New Criterion, May 1995, p. 55.

Simpson, Eileen, Poets in Their Youth, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982, p. 77.

Donoghue, Denis, Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls, Knopf, 1995, p. 65.

Kumin, Maxine `Almost Spring, Driving Home, Reciting Hopkins', Poetry, May 1995.

Frost, Carol, `Berryman at Thirty-Eight: An Aesthetic Biography', New England Review, December 1994, pp. 40 — 41.
ibid. pp. 44 — 45.

Berryman, John, `Introduction', The Dream Songs, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974, p.vi.

All Hopkins poems quoted here are from The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 4th edition, ed. W.H. Gardner and N.H. MacKenzie, Oxford, 1967.

All Berryman poems quoted here are from The Dream Songs by John Berryman, The Noonday Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.

Gerard Manley Hopkins and Creativity
Gerard Manley Hopkins and Nationalism
Theory of Aesthetics and the Poetry of Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Ruskin
Hopkins,Charles Darwin and Transcendence
A Feminist View of Gerard Manley Hopkins Poetry

Gerard Manley Hopkins Archive 1987 - 2000