Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life 
by Robert Bernard Martin.
HarperCollins, 448 pp., £18, April 1991, 0 00 217662 9
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On a walking tour in 1866, just before his conversion, Hopkins visited Tintern Abbey, and paid it the highest compliment he could think of by saying it reminded him of the architecture of Butterfield, designer of Keble College. When we say X has no sense of humour it means he has one different from our own, but Hopkins’s idea of fun is very Victorian, very religious, very remote indeed. It certainly did not include Butterfield, or belief. But when rediscovered in the 1920s and 30s, he seemed so amazingly of our time, and his poetry almost a necessary part of Modernism, that its obvious roots in Victorian Gothic looked hardly relevant. Since then, its popularity has been canonised and its complexities have found a firm niche in the Eng Lit curricula. To read the poems in youth is still an intoxicating experience, for he is very much a young person’s poet: but comparatively few of the poems mature and increase in our understanding with age. Like the work of Butterfield or Ninian Comper, their bright apparatus feels fixed in the museum of the past.

So many Victorian things do; it seems a feature of that epoch. R.B. Martin’s skills as a biographer, already manifest in his detailed and persuasive studies of Tennyson, FitzGerald and Charles Kingsley, are at their best in that rich Victorian ambience where religion, art and sex mingled in an unself-conscious totality. He several times takes for granted in criticism or exposition that Hopkins is one of the ‘great’ Victorian poets, but though a few poets are classifiable by this cliché Hopkins is surely not among them. His early poems are almost as unsatisfactory as those of his would-be young friend Digby Dolben, and for the same reason: they are directly inspired by the yearning and frustration of having a crush on someone, and have developed no true verbal equivalent for such feelings. On the other hand, his precocious school prize poems, ‘The Mermaids’ and ‘The Escorial’, are accomplished but without any of that foolish but original fervour that marks the verse of a youthful prodigy like Keats.

Indeed, it seems quite possible that if Hopkins had not joined the Roman Catholic Church and the Jesuit order he might never have developed his voice and idiom as a poet. He was an excellent scholar and fastidious critic; he would certainly not have been satisfied with the verse he was writing at 20 and 21, which Martin quotes for the first time from surviving private papers. The sonnets he wrote under the influence, apparently, of his sudden love for Dolben have a certain amount of Butterfieldian decoration about flagellation and penance – ‘the ever-fretting shirt of punishment / Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease’ – but the love sentiments show no more than good dull Elizabethan cleverness.

You see that I have come to passion’s end;
This means you need not fear the storms, the cries,
That gave you vantage when you would despise:
My bankrupt heart has no more tears to spend.

Robert Bridges, who, as Martin says, ‘understood perfectly well both Dolben’s role and Hopkins’s emotions in writing’ these sonnets, noted on the autograph copy that they ‘must never be printed’. Had he become a fellow of Balliol and a Classics don, Hopkins would neither have printed them nor probably have continued to write verse, but would have devoted himself to Aeschylus and Greek negatives and the possible derivation of Attic culture through the Phoenicians from Egypt – activities which he rather touchingly took up again during his last years as a Classics professor in Dublin. All his life Hopkins was haunted by the sense of personal bankruptcy and impotence, the straining of ‘time’s eunuch’ with no more to ‘spend’, and this sense of inadequacy, graphically expressed in the last sonnets, turns out to be equally marked in the early ones.

Only the discipline and reassurance of being a Jesuit and writing under permission brought Hopkins’s unique talent to its late incubation. Even so, and despite its wonderful rhythmic originality, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ is not on continued acquaintance a very interesting poem, and has very little inside to it. Tennyson, Browning and Hardy have all far more there, in terms of life and expression; insofar as ‘great poet’ means anything, Hopkins’s friend Robert Bridges has arguably a higher claim; while Christina Rossetti, whose verse Hopkins was fond of, wears better than he does, has more subtleties to offer as the reader grows older. Hopkins’s haunting sense of inadequacy is in a way all the more upsetting because true: the block had nothing much behind it. The sensuous connoisseurship in natural and verbal effects, recorded in the diaries and poems, has more wistfulness than passion, and goes with the diary references to desire for a boy seen on Port Meadow or a young man mowing. A Kilvert or a Denton Welch are able to make the most of their kind of sexual vitality in their writing, but Hopkins seems haunted less by guilt than by inadequacy as a kind of substitute for guilt. The simple-minded notion that he would have done much better as a poet if he had realised his sexual nature will hardly do, and is contradicted by everything in Martin’s study.

The rhythm of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, of which he wrote to Bridges that it had been running in his head for some time, has a clear though paradoxical relation to colloquial speech: indeed it could be said that Hopkins is the first English poet since Shakespeare to find a wholly new way of conveying think-speak in metre (T.S. Eliot was probably the second). This is clearest in ‘Felix Randal’, but is thoroughly evident too in such an oddly memorable poem as ‘The Loss of the Eurydice’ (‘The Eurydice, it concerned thee O Lord’). The trouble is that this colloquialism can collide head-on with decorative ‘decadence’, producing some of Hopkins’s worst efforts, like ‘Harry Ploughman’ or the ‘Echo’ poem. Charles Lock, who wrote a thoughtful study of Hopkins as a decadent poet in Essays in Criticism, quotes in another context Dennis Taylor’s judgment that Hopkins’s mode of poetry reveals the creative vitality latent in speech, where Hardy formalises its banality and obsolescence. Speech patterns are more important than Hopkins’s theories of inscape, instress and so on, which did not help much. They seem a product of the often comically, obsessional side to his nature which appeared in his sermons; and one would fancy they owe more to the Eigentumlicheit of the German romantic philosophers, which Hopkins would have absorbed via Jowett and Balliol, than to his later devotion to Duns Scotus.

The first biographer to have full access to all the materials, Martin is particularly interesting on Hopkins’s background, and his life as a young man. His extremely able and in some degree self-made father built up a flourishing business as an average adjuster and marine insurance broker; the firm is still going. Eldest of a large brood, Hopkins seems to have mildly disliked his family and got on badly with his father. But he was privileged, had an excellent education at Highgate and no trouble getting into Oxford. There he got on particularly well with the aristocratic set and indeed seems to have been a bit of a snob. His family in ‘trade’ was touchingly proud of his rise in status and correspondingly dashed by his conversion to Catholicism, not then a very upper-class thing to do, although many of Hopkins’s well-connected young friends, notably Dolben, were always on the brink. Newman’s example had helped too, and Hopkins met and revered Newman, who had, as Martin reminds us, intenser emotions about other men, Ambrose St John in particular, ‘than are usually considered normal’. Martin also gives an enchanting quote from Newman’s novel Loss and Gain, which somehow encapsulates the whole curious and colourful world of Victorian Oxford’s High Church friendships and beliefs, power instincts and perplexities. As Martin observes, behind the description of the hero’s meeting with a newly-married young Anglican parson and his bride lies a glimmer concealed by humour of the truth about Newman’s own reactions to the heterosexual world, whether secular or clerical. The hero ‘felt a faintish feeling come over him: somewhat such as might beset a man on hearing a call for pork chops when he was sea-sick’.

Hopkins was far from calling for pork chops. A Marxist psychologist would probably conclude that his conversion was in some fundamental sense the recognition of necessity, a necessity imposed on him by the conditions of the time as well as of his selfhood. The part played in all this by the young charmer Digby Dolben remains obscure, although Martin is inclined to think it decisive, and the evidence he produces is fairly overwhelming. Dolben was younger than Hopkins, still at Eton in the early Sixties, and already a byword for his comic-intense obsession with High Church and Catholic ritual. He loved to get things right in terms of vestments and would wander about the countryside barefooted and wearing a monk’s habit. He wrote passionate little poems to Christ, and to his friend Gosselin, a rather cool young man, in later life a diplomat, who does not seem to have been particularly responsive to Dolben’s worship. But clearly the source of Dolben’s charm – Martin reproduces a studio portrait that is extraordinarily expressive – was that he did not take himself entirely seriously. The sweetness and humour of his nature was unaffected by his eccentric behaviour, and although his friends often found him exhausting and exasperating they remained devoted none the less. Not academically very bright, he had difficulty getting into Balliol, on which he had set his heart, and was reading for the Christchurch entrance when he drowned in the River Nene near his family’s stately home in Northamptonshire. He had always been passionately fond of swimming.

Hopkins had only met him once or twice but that seems to have been enough. The sonnets which Bridges – a cousin of Dolben’s and a kindly man who always kept his head – wrote should never be published appear to show Hopkins’s jealousy of the unresponsive Gosselin, and despair at his own inability to be as it were up to the warmth and tenderness of Dolben’s nature. Cool, reserved, highly intelligent and fastidiously aesthetic, Hopkins’s personality was the opposite of Dolben’s frank and impulsive ardour. An ironic situation, with Dolben worshipping one cold fish and worshipped from afar by another. Odd too that Dolben’s extremely ‘county’ father, who was appalled by the thought that his heir might become a Catholic, nonetheless received with pride and joy his son’s poems, which were remarkably frank about passions for Gosselin, and read them out at the breakfast table to an admiring family. As Martin comments, the Victorians had the gift of instinctive compartmentalisation: they were not continually knowing, as we are, about the relation of one side of life, or set of feelings, to another. Poetry to them was poetry, art art, religion religion. So was friendship, and sex did not enter any of these things in a form they were prepared to recognise.

Clearly Hopkins was devastated by Dolben’s death; at the same time it probably did not greatly affect his subsequent conversion. He never turned for emotional support to his family, but the understanding Bridges was a help, although he never understood his friend’s wish to become a Jesuit; and so possibly was Walter Pater, the brilliant Brasenose fellow, only five years older than his pupil, who had been giving Hopkins tutorials at about this time. Pater’s doctrine that beauty needed no justification but the intensity with which it was experienced struck, as Martin says, at the roots of Christian belief. But its detachment must have appealed to Hopkins, a naturally very detached young man yearning to commit himself, and he and Pater went for long walks together, noting ‘the movement of light in grass and among leaves’, and seeking to identify ‘the law of the oak leaves’, the clue to the tree’s ‘organisation’. Martin makes the interesting point, à propos Hopkins on faces, that his painterly interest in technique seems sometimes ‘to have dehumanised the world, so that persons are less important than perceptions’. It was perhaps to overcome this that he longed to put God into nature.

Nonetheless, the years of his novitiate and service were not only mostly barren but exceedingly lowering to his spirits, helpful and co-operative as most of his superiors were. His health grew worse; he suffered from chronic dysentery and piles (they were operated on during one of his leaves at the family home in Hampstead by two surgeons named Mr Gay and Mr Prance) and the strain of parish work in Glasgow and Liverpool wore him out as much as it discouraged him with a sense of his own inadequacy. Jesuits then were not long livers. Forty-five was the average span – Hopkins’s own age when he died in Dublin of what seems to have been typhoid. Psychosomatic symptoms must also have been exacerbated by his appetite for penance – his seniors had at times to forbid him to fast – and for somewhat exotic devices like a spiked chain worn round the thigh, agonising when you sat down. Poems came very rarely, and were hesitated over for long periods: it was a strange paradox in them and in his nature that ‘purity’ was also in another sense the sterility of the eunuch. After he had written a sonnet on the bugler boy’s first communion he noted: ‘I am half inclined to hope that the Hero of it may be killed in Afghanistan.’ It would save him from sexual corruption. But how to be pure without being ‘time’s eunuch’? Hopkins had himself circumcised, a symbolic castration, and in his poetry – the Eurydice, the Deutschland, the charming unfinished piece on boys bathing – drowning and immersion are equally symbols of purification. Martin comments at length on the influence of Frederick Walker’s paintings – The Plough and Boys Bathing – but the Victorian appetite for death by water as a sex substitute, still going in Rupert Brooke’s poems, is a long way from joining up with Lawrentian matrimonies and life-givings. Hopkins’s bathing poem comes to an abrupt end when he tries to make water symbolise ‘spousal love’. We are back with the pork chops again.

Despite all his troubles, and all their tragic oddities, there is a great and touching sense of redemption in Hopkins’s life and work, and the reader does not have to be a Catholic or a believer to feel this. One of the most striking and impressive features of Martin’s detailed chronicle is the feeling of a rather coolly aloof, conceited, even slightly disagreeable young man becoming more and more human, understanding and attractive as his pilgrimage went on. ‘Felix Randal’ shows that, and without any sense of strain or aiming for a ‘caring’ effect. So does his sad conscientiousness about the ‘discipline of the eyes’, schooling himself not to look up at the things he longed minutely to examine; tales like that of the bluebell wood where he and another priest ‘fell in bluehanded with a gamekeeper, which is a humbling thing to do’; most of all the tiny simple six-line poem he wrote towards the end of his life, and which begins ‘To him who ever thought with love of me ...’

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