The Poets' Chantry/Gerard Hopkins
Je trouve un singulier plaisir à déterrer no beau vers dans un poète méconnu; il me semble que sa pauvre ombre doit être consolée, et se réjouir de voir sa pensée en fin comprise; c'est une réhabilitation que je fais, c'est une justice que je rends.
In the Jesuit church of St. Aloysius, Oxford, is a holy-water font of vari-coloured marble bearing this simple inscription:
In memory of
FATHER GERARD HOPKINS, S.J.,
who died June 8th, 1889, R. I. P.
Sometime Priest on this Mission.
Formerly of Balliol College.
It was erected by two devoted friends (the Baron and Baroness de Paravicini) and stands to-day as one of the very few objective memorials of a fine and glowing spirit—a poet who, when he shall come into his just inheritance of human praise, may well be known as the Crashaw of the Oxford Movement. Very early the imperious obedience of the religious life took him from a purely literary career; early, too, came the great Silencer.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was born at Stratford, near London, 28 July, 1844. It was a year of significance. The Oxford Tracts had done their work; the face of religion was changed; and art and literature were destined to take on the rainbow colouring. That tremendous re-discovery of the Christian past—that vision which included the mystic communion of all Saints, the Real and sacrificial Presence of the Living God, the brooding empire of the Holy Ghost over an undivided Church, and all the multitudinous sacramentalisms of a living Catholicity—must needs have stretched the horizon upon every side. Such ideas are fountain-heads of art as well as of faith, in the second harvesting. But meanwhile it was an interval of great spiritual struggle. A few months more and John Henry Newman was to break at last from that hopeless Via Media, lighting the pathway for so many other souls "ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem." All through Gerard's childhood and during his preliminary education at the Cholmondeley School, Highgate, this august exodus continued; Faber and the Oratorians were followed by Manning, Patmore, Aubrey and Stephen de Vere, Adelaide Procter and Mother Frances Raphael Drane—only the angels of God can number them all. And if, to-day, we bow down in spirit before that mighty crusade of half a century ago, what must have been the moral effect upon a highly-sensitive contemporary spirit? It was an effect which found expression less in words than in the complete fusing and fashioning of the spiritual energies; to those who could receive it, it provided both motive-power and motive for existence.
We own no surprise, then, in discovering that the wood of Gerard Hopkins' cross lay just beyond his door-sill. But in the wise and sweet economy of life, the cross for most of us is pilgrim-staff as well. This poet's pathway was not destined to lead beside the pleasant ways of garden or hearthstone; it was to know conflict from without and from within; but these consolations, more especially in youth, were notable. By nature—that is to say, God—he had been rarely dowered. His intellect was keen and scholarly, his imagination peculiarly quick, subtle and original; he was gifted musically and artistically, and possessed, in the words of his poet-friend Robert Bridges, "humour, great personal charm, and the most attractive virtues of a tender and sympathetic nature." Above and beyond all this, his was the awakened soul; and something of his absorption in spiritual things may be guessed from the opening stanzas of a little undated Hymn:
Thee, God, I come from, to thee go;
All day long I like fountain flow
From thy hand out, swayed about
Mote-like in thy mighty glow.
It was in October, 1866, his twenty-third year, that he was received by Newman himself into the fold of Catholicity, finding there the one unchanging haven of a life in which—to a degree mercifully unknown by mediocre souls—God willed to decree not peace but a sword.
One reckons among Gerard's lesser privileges his youthful intercourse with that rare and cultured spirit, Walter Pater. It was through this friend's preparation that he entered in 1867 upon his classical first course at Balliol College, Oxford. But to those fair, scholastic precincts the young undergraduate had brought a yet fairer vision—a burden of unrest, indeed, until that vision should be wrought into reality. Just how early the ascetic and sacerdotal ideal had taken possession of the convert's heart one perceives from a poem of great beauty, "The Habit of Perfection," written in the year of his reception. All through its stanzas rings the cry of that great renunciation which was soon to be:—
Elected Silence sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb!
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come,
Which only makes you eloquent.
Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light;
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps and teases simple sight.
O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street,
And you unhouse and house the Lord.
Those lines prepare us to find the fiery dawn of a religious vocation hastening the expectant soul upon her way. Gerard left Oxford. He spent some six months at the Birmingham Oratory, teaching in the school and enjoying the future Cardinal's advice and friendship. Then, in the spring of 1868—and apparently to the surprise of everyone—he offered his life to the Society of Jesus. Now, as he was an incorrigible individualist, the wisdom of this all-significant step may well have seemed an open question, even to those who knew him best. But Newman, at least, greeted the news approvingly. "Don't call 'the Jesuit discipline hard,'" he wrote: "it will bring you to Heaven." So the great and intricate sacrifice was begun. On the bare objective side, Father Hopkins' career is quickly told. One hears of him as "select preacher" in London, and again back in Oxford, at St. Aloysius' church. The one available portrait of the young priest pictures him during this latter mission: it shows a face of most delicate and chastened beauty, with noble forehead and chin of extraordinary determination—the face of a youthful Englishman, whose eyes might already have known Gethsemane.
For a while, and until the sensitive, harassed spirit almost broke beneath the strain, Father Gerard laboured in the slums of Liverpool. Thence he passed to a professorship in the philosophic precincts of Stonyhurst. Finally, in 1884, having been elected Fellow of the Royal University of Ireland, he was appointed to the post of classical-examiner at Dublin. And there, five years later, he succumbed to a contagious fever and died. It was a bloodless martyrdom—one knows that now—a story of tragic consecration to duty and of a heart predestined to suffering. And the poetic life was but the silent, passionate undercurrent to this all-absorbing ministry—a life too ruthlessly mortified at first, then cultivated sedulously, intricately, but more and more as a refuge from actual things.
Gerard Hopkins had written poetry as a boy; in fact (like Milton and Crashaw, and some others never destined to attain their eminence), his verses won him distinction at school. But in the first fervour of his novitiate, and doubtless as a costly exercise of detachment, he burned nearly all these youthful poems. One fragment survived, a "Vision of Mermaids," written back in 1862. Its lyric sweetness carries a momentary suggestion of Tennyson, but in its sensuous love of beauty there is an abiding affinity to the poet of Endymion. Here is a vignette of early summer, charming in its blithe and sunny abandonment:—
Soon—as when Summer of his sister Spring
Crushes and tears the rare enjewelling,
And boasting "I have fairer things than these,"
Plashes amid the billowy apple-trees
His lusty hands, in gusts of scented wind
Swirling out bloom till all the air is blind
With rosy foam and pelting blossom and mists
Of driving vermeil rain; and, as he lists
The dainty onyx-coronals deflowers,
A glorious wanton;—all the wrecks in showers
Crowd down upon a stream, and jostling thick
With bubbles bugle-eyed, struggle and stick
On tangled shoals that bar the brook—a crowd
Of filmy globes and rosy floating cloud.
The melodiousness, the simplicity of metre and the colour of this early poem are all notable; but still one feels that the poet, whose touch was most indubitably here, had yet to "find himself."
"The Habit of Perfection," quoted above rather as a page of character-revelation than as a piece of art, was written four years later. It is in all ways more significant. For, while retaining that delicate and exquisite sweetness, it bears distinct prophecy of those characteristics which were to mark the poet's maturer work; the subjectivity and intensity of feeling, the eccentricity of expression and preoccupation with spiritual ideas are all here foreshadowed. It is, indeed, one of the most interesting and revealing of his poems—the Abrenuntio of a pure and cloistral spirit. But it came perilously near being valedictory as well. For almost ten years after he entered the Jesuit novitiate, Gerard Hopkins' poetic labours ceased, and his lips seem literally to have "shaped nothing" but the mighty offices of his calling. When the young Levite turned once more to the world, her immemorial face had manifold and mysterious meanings for him. With the poet's sensuous appreciation of the outer life was to mingle henceforth a vein of ethical and divine interpretation. Omnia Creata—had he not weighed and sounded this world of shadow and symbol and enigma? But two realities abode steadfast: God, and the struggling soul of man.
We will admit that all this is emphatically Ignatian—but it is also emphatically Catholic; it is even the story of every illumined soul. Nature is first a pageant to us, and then a process; until at last we perceive it to be, in Goethe's words, the "garment of God"—and withal, the enveloping mantle of man. This deepening of vision is very noticeable throughout Father Hopkins' work. Yet always the world was fresh to him, as it is fresh to children and to the very mature. At every turn, and by sheer force of his own vivid individuality, he was finding that "something of the unexplored," that "grain of the unknown" which Flaubert so sagely counselled de Maupassant to seek in all things, but which none of us may ever hope to find until we cease looking upon life through the traditional lenses of other eyes. Therefore was Father Hopkins Ignatian in his own very personal way. Few men have loved Nature more rapturously than he; fewer still with such a youthful and perennial curiosity. There is a tender excitement in his attitude toward natural beauty (whether treated incidentally or as a parable) that is very contagious, and the exultation of that early and earthly "Vision" clung to the Churchman almost with life itself. Nature, indeed, was his one secular inspiration; and that even she was not wholly secular is evinced by the characteristic music of his spring song:
Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush:
Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and ring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy pear-tree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs, too, have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. Have, get before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ Lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and May day in girl and boy,
Most, O Maid's child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
Here, at last, in one of the most hackneyed of poetic subjects and after an opening line almost banal, we are come upon an original vein of poetry; a spiritual motivation, a vigour of word-painting, and a metrical proficiency of very real distinction. It was written in 1877, and its existence argues for Father Hopkins more than a mere dilettante use of the poetic faculty. Another poem of the same year, "The Starlight Night," is almost equally striking in music and in metaphor. But it must be acknowledged that both of these poems bear traces of that eccentricity, that curious and perverse construction, which point forward to Father Hopkins' eventual excesses. Lucidity was the chief grace he sacrificed as years wore on; and his fondness for uncommon words—at one moment academic and literate, at another provincial—did not help matters. "Inversnaid" (written in 1881) is an extreme instance of this later manner: there is about it a certain bounding and prancing charm, but in truth the stream's highroad is sadly obstructed by Anglo-Saxon and other archaic undergrowth. Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern and the groins of the braes that the brook treads through, send the reader's mind back with some ruefulness to that lovely random line from the "Vision of Mermaids":
To know the dusk depths of the ponderous sea!
We are not born original in these latter days of literature, it would seem; we must achieve originality—and often at the cost of so much complexity. Not a few of us, indeed, would appear to have been born complex, with a congenital impulse toward entangling an existence already difficult enough. But there is one ineradicable simplicity about religious men: they are always coming back upon God. To Him they reach out, and peradventure attain, through the mysteries of Nature, through the mazes of science and abstract speculation, even through the fundamental intricacies of their own temperament. His Spirit they perceive brooding above the patient earth, glorifying and illumining her travail. And so one finds Father Hopkins' ulti-mate message, clarion-clear, in this very direct and characteristic sonnet upon "God's Grandeur":
The world is charged with the grandeur of God,
It will flame out like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck His rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil,
And bears man's smudge, and shares man's smell; the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights from the black west went,
Oh, morning at the brown brink eastwards springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast, and with, ah, bright wings!
The vital and arresting quality of this little poem distinguishes all of Gerard Hopkins' religious poetry; and it is in his religious poetry, after all, that he attained most unequivocally. There is an invariable quickness and reality in his work—although at moments it may also be a bit fantastic—at the very point where the tendency of so many others is to become a little cold or a little sweet. One may search for many a long day among the treasures of English verse before one shall find such a powerful and poetic meditation upon the Holy Eucharist as he has left us. We quote but two stanzas of "Barnfloor and Winepress," although the entire poem ought to have the recognition due to a devotional classic:
Thou who on Sin's wages starvest,
Behold, we have the Joy of Harvest;
For us was gathered the First-fruits,
For us was lifted from the roots,
Sheaved in cruel bands, bruised sore,
Scourged upon the threshing-floor;
Where the upper millstone roofed His Head,
At morn we found the Heavenly Bread;
And on a thousand altars laid,
Christ our Sacrifice is made.
Thou, whose dry plot for moisture gapes,
We shout with them that tread the grapes;
For us the Vine was fenced with thorn,
Five ways the precious branches torn.
Terrible fruit was on the tree
In the acre of Gethsemane:
For us by Calvary's distress
The wine was racked from the press;
Now, in our altar-vessels stored,
Lo, the sweet vintage of the Lord!
In quite other vein, and of real lyric charm, is Rosa Mystica. Father Hopkins has contrived to throw a glamour of simplicity and ingenuousness over thoughts by no means simple; while the use of assonance and alliteration (frequent and nearly always felicitous throughout his work) and of the refrain, provide a very rhythmic vehicle. There was a rose-tree blooming once upon Nazareth Hill, he tells us—with the playful seriousness of some old ballad—but it passed from men's eyes into the secret place of God: and cannot the heart guess the name of this sweet mystery?
Is Mary that rose then? Mary the tree?
But the Blossom, the Blossom there, who can it be?
Who can her rose be? It could be but One;
Christ Jesus, our Lord—her God and her Son.
In the Gardens of God, in the daylight divine,
Show me thy Son, Mother, Mother of mine.
What was the colour of that Blossom bright?
White to begin with, immaculate white.
But what a wild flush on the flakes of it stood,
When the Rose ran in crimsonings down the Cross-wood.
In the Gardens of God, in the daylight divine
I shall worship the Wounds with thee, Mother of mine.
Though Francis Thompson was, in life and in death, hailed as the successor of Crashaw, the mantle of that mystic dreamer fell even more truly upon the shoulders of Gerard Hopkins. His was the same wistful pathos and resolute detachment from life's more passional aspects. In both men there was a similar tragic sensitiveness—an inevitable recoil from the inconsistency and ugliness and corruption which are a part of human existence. So it seems natural enough, despite the intervening centuries, that even the objective facts of their lives should bear a curious resemblance; and that both poets should pass, painfully but unreluctantly, into the larger life, wearied and forespent ere half their years.
But we have yet to consider an ode of sustained beauty and ecstasy, his longest and perhaps most
Fr. Gerard Hopkins, S.J.
By courtesy of Fr. Joseph Keating, S.J.
ambitious effort, which, lacking a better title, I have ventured to call "Our Lady of the Air." It is built round a unique and apt metaphor:
Wild air, world-mothering Air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-fixed
Snowflake; that's fairly mixed
With riddles, and is rife
In every least thing's life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This Air which, by life's law,
My lung must draw and draw,
Now but to breathe its praise—
Minds me in many ways
Of her, who not only
Gave God's Infinity
Dwindled to Infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk and all the rest,
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Merely a Woman, yet
Whose presence power is
Great as no goddess's
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God's glory through,
God's glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.
If I have understood
She holds high Motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good,
And plays in grace her part
About man's beating heart,
Laying, like air's fine flood,
The death-dance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh He took Flesh:
He does take, fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now;
And makes, oh, marvellous,
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and He born
There evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who born so comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one, and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God and Mary's Son.
In a passage beginning—
Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
Oh, how; nay, do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
the poet analyses the essential mission of the atmosphere, and the blinding, staggering possibilities of a universe unslaked by this "bath of blue." Then the simile is brought to a tender and beautiful conclusion:—
So God was God of old;
A Mother came to mould
These limbs like ours which are
What must make our Day-star
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind,
Or less would win man's mind.
Through her we may see Him
Made sweeter, not made dim;
And her hand leaves His light
Sifted, to suit our sight.
There exist but a few other poems bearing Father Hopkins' name. A short but characteristic piece, "Morning, Midday and Evening Sacrifice," should be included among the devotional lyrics; also that direct and manly "Hymn" referred to earlier. And there is one white rose of a fragment, so brief and so exquisite that we give it entire:—
(A NUN TAKES THE VEIL)
I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,
And a few lilies blow.
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.
Thinking about Heaven makes all of us wistful; but it is pondering on the tear-stains and blood-stains of earth that crushes out the joy of life. Father Gerard had, seemingly from boyhood, a dangerous realisation of this omnipresent sorrow of living; his own experience did not tend to lighten the burden, and throughout his later years the weight was well-nigh intolerable. Sanely enough he gauged the cause of so much bitterness; it was the "blight man was born for" if he happened to be an idealist—it was the conscious-ness of his own too-twisted nature. "It is Margaret you mourn for," he told one little Margaret as she grieved over the falling glory of autumn; but none the less, outer conditions will all along furnish the occasion of Margaret's grief. There cannot be any doubt that Father Hopkins' life in Dublin was a final crucifixion of spirit as well as body. It was not only the monotonous and consuming toil of his position as examiner in the University; it was not merely the political irregularity and unreason by which he was perforce surrounded; although we are told that these combined to plunge his final years into a state of utter dejection. One of the sonnets of this period (all of which are coloured by an ominous and leaden grey) reveals his sense of exile—"To seem the stranger lies my lot—my life among strangers"— and expresses his human and priestly sorrow that
Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near.
But there is another which would seem to indicate that the cause of Father Hopkins' darkness lay deeper down than loneliness (too familiar to the sons of St. Ignatius) or than any normal weariness of the day's work. Few lines of such haunting sadness have come to us from the hand of any Christian poet:
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With Thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just,
Why do sinners' ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my Friend,
How couldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? . . . . .
One must needs surmise a great part of this final struggle; but it would seem to illustrate that spiritual phenomenon of desolation which has immersed so many a chosen soul. For full thirty years was St. Teresa in this desert land, where frustration reigns in all visible things, and to lose the life without finding it again seems the guerdon of superhuman effort. Of course, it is impossible to write healthy poetry in the depths of this tragic experience; and Father Hopkins was too true a poet not to realise the fact. He submitted, the very year of his death, his noble and highly masterful apologia:
The fine delight that fathers thought; the strong
Spur, live and lancing like the blowpipe flame,
Breathes once, and, quenched faster than it came,
Leaves yet the mind a mother of immortal song,
Nine months she then, nay years, nine years she long
Within her wears, bears, cares and moulds the same:
The widow of an insight lost she lives, with aim
Not known, and hand at work now never wrong.
Sweet fire, the sire of muse, my soul needs this;
I want the one rapture of an inspiration.
O then if in my lagging lines you miss
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.
His winter world! It was destined sooner than he dreamed to give place to the unwaning spring. Robert Bridges (to whose words we turn once again, because the knowledge of a physician as well as the wisdom of a friend went into them) declares that he made no struggle for life when the fever of 1889 attacked him. He had fought his good fight and carried arms no longer; but the God of Battles knew. And on the 8th of June—the month he had loved so well—Gerard Hopkins' soul marched quietly over the borderland to victory.
But little remains to be said. The poems have been permitted to speak for themselves, and if their faults are conspicuous enough, so, too, is their unique and magnetic attraction. No doubt this is in the nature of an acquired taste. They were not written for the public (during their maker's lifetime scarcely one of them was permitted to steal into print); they were written for the consolation of the poet and of a few chosen friends. And to such readers no concessions need be made. Coventry Patmore, Robert Bridges, and Richard Watson Dixon were of this elect little company. All were convinced of Father Hopkins' rare poetic ability, of the even "terrible pathos" (the words are Dixon's) which tempered his work; although Patmore (himself an experimentalist) was never quite won over to the metrical ingenuities and idiosyncrasies of his "new prosody." "System and learned theory are manifest in all these experiments; but they seem to me to be too manifest" wrote the worshipper of the Unknown Eros: "I often find it as hard to follow you as I have found it to follow the darkest parts of Browning."
Gerard Hopkins' exceedingly delicate and intricate craftsmanship—and not less the singularity of his mental processes—must, indeed, produce in many minds an impression of artificiality. Yet nothing could be further from the fact, for in all the poems of his manhood there is a poignant, even a passionate sincerity. It is quite true that his elliptical and involved expression mars (for all but the very few who shared his theories of verse) more than one poem of rare and vital imagining. It is true also, and of the nature of the case, that our poet was to a certain degree self-centred in his dream of life. He was not an egoist; but it must be obvious that from first to last he was an individualist. And in our human reckoning the individualist pays, and then he pays again; and after that, in Wilde's phrase, he keeps on paying. Yet in the final count his chances of survival are excellent. Outside of the poets, Father Hopkins' work has had little recognition or understanding; but his somewhat exotic influence might easily be pointed out in one or two of the foremost Catholic singers of to-day and yesterday. And, for all its aloofness, the young priest's work struck root in the poetic past. Its subtle and complex fancifulness and its white heat of spirituality go back in direct line to that earlier Jesuit, Father Southwell; while one would wager that Hopkins knew and loved other seventeenth-century lyrists beside the very manifest Crashaw. It is by no means without significance, moreover, to note that Coventry Patmore's great Odes and Browning's masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, both appeared in that memorable 1868 when Gerard entered upon his novitiate. Those were the days when a young poet might, almost without public comment, fling out to the world his daring and beautiful gift.
Gerard Hopkins' poems are best known in a few precious anthologies. It is a truism to remark that merely great poetry is seldom popular; although the greatest of all poetry—that of Homer and Dante and Shakespeare—strikes a universal echo in the heart of man. It is inclusive, and it is written not as an escape from life but as the inevitable and impassioned expression of life itself. Now Gerard Hopkins' artistry was not of this supreme sort. He was essentially a minor poet; he wrote incredibly little and he interpreted but few phases of human experience. Yet, with the minor poet's distinctive merit, he worked his narrow field with completeness and intensity. And who can deny that the very quality which seemed, at worst, an eccentric and literate mannerism, proved itself in the finer passages a strikingly creative and authentic inspiration?
- Patmore's final verdict upon Father Hopkins, written barely two months after the latter's death, is worth remembering: "Gerard Hopkins was the only orthodox and, as far as I could see, saintly man in whom religion had absolutely no narrowing effect upon his general opinions and sympathies. A Catholic of the most scrupulous strictness, he could nevertheless see the Holy Spirit in all goodness, truth, and beauty: and there was something in all his words and manners which was at once a rebuke and an attraction to all who could only aspire to be like him."