Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Fools, angels, etc...

While poking around on the website of the GMH International Summer School, I discovered this lecture: Gerard Manley Hopkins's Misdirected Faith.

Now, it's only logical that a self-described non-believer is not going to get Hopkins' Jesuit vocation. How could it be otherwise? I can only cite Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard, who said this in Priests Among Men:
To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one's life would not make sense if God did not exist.

Hopkins certainly lived his life in this way, and he has been paying for it ever since, as can be seen from this lecture. But ignorance is one thing, and ignorance arrogantly flaunted to an audience is another. It would be fun to fisk the whole thing, but I don't have the time and I don't really want it taking up too much space on my blog. So I'll just go through some of the more offensive statements:

Viewed from the perspective of a non-believer, Gerard Manley Hopkins's unfortunate religious obsession seems responsible for the suppression of one of literary history's great poetic talents and as likely for his early death.

"If only GMH hadn't been Catholic!" No matter what you believe, that's still like saying, "If only Dylan Thomas hadn't been Welsh!"

His outscape, quite literally, would be the way he clothed himself as a priest, even as he wrote like a pantheist and a free spirit.

GMH was most emphatically not a pantheist. His emphasis on the singularity and "thisness" of each thing is diametrically opposed to a view that treats the entire created universe as one undifferentiated God-blancmange.

Compare his duty-ditties for God to his passionate observation of human nature and nature more broadly, and Hopkins becomes the poster-boy for a person in need of deprogramming.

So... which of Hopkins' poems does he consider uninspired "duty-ditties?" The Wreck of the Deutschland? The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo? That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection? I don't need to go on, do I? Then there's the bit about deprogramming, which strikes a rather Stalinist note. The Hopkins I know from poems, journals and letters would not have willingly undergone "deprogramming" - there is a verse of his on the subject which begins "Fawning fawning crocodiles" - and I am glad that Axelrod doesn't flesh out this idea.

Only those blinded by a similar religious indoctrination would say his sacrificing a position of wealth and position in society, for a post as a priest and teacher, was a good decision.... How much longer he might have lived and created if he had lived the privileged life he was born to, we can't know but as likely, he would have lived much longer as a comfortable and famous poet.

Because everyone knows that the essential ingredients of great art are money, privilege, celebrity, and a cushy upper-middle-class lifestyle! Seriously, though - the image of Hopkins as a "comfortable and famous poet" is an impossible fantasy. It was his cross to be perhaps the only English poet who was ever truly ahead of his time. People often say it of poets that they are avant-garde; but that term implies followers, comrades, partisans to join the poet in his charge against convention. Hopkins was not avant-garde. He had no reader, Catholic, Anglican or atheist, who really understood his work. He was unpublishable in his age. Bridges only dared to publish the poetry in 1918, and it only became popular in the 1930's, nearly half a century after Hopkins' death. It is possible, of course, that Hopkins would have become a famous poet in his lifetime if he had been less experimental and less of a papist - in short, if he had stopped hanging out with High Church types at Oxford, let his father find him a job, and kept writing in the Keatsian vein that won him prizes when he was a precocious schoolboy. But he wouldn't be the Hopkins we know.

He made lists of what to give up for lent, but he made poems of what he knew best—the teeming natural settings he frequently visited. A trip to a new location might require his visiting a church but his journals, letters, finest creations were the notes he took observing the landscape, the clouds in a valley, the predominance of oaks and birch.

This is sloppy. It completely ignores Hopkins' intense interest in Gothic architecture, the terms of which appear throughout his notes on trees and clouds and water as well as in his poetry.

His reiteration of religious canon is boring. His poetics are new, fresh, important.

Yawn. More unsupported personal opinions.

Equally.... the case can be made that, but for his indoctrination into an overbearing society, he was one of the English language's greatest practitioners—indeed innovators —of poetry.

Isn't this all pretty much canon by now? Except for the Know-Nothing bit?

I won't flog this any longer, but I think will give Hopkins the last word, since he already had a gentle answer to such patronizing criticism of his beliefs in one of his letters:
It is long since such things had any significance for you. But what is strange and unpleasant is that you sometimes speak as if they had in reality none for me and you were only waiting with a certain disgust till I too should be disgusted with myself enough to throw off the mask.


dylan said...

From Mr Axelrod's lecture:

Hopkins tells us “a perfect style must be of its age” (253) and so he rejects the archaic and overly-formal and sides with Whitman and the language of the people.

Oh, where to begin?

Language of the people? Oy.

Neither GMH nor Whitman wrote street-talk. They both made free use of what would be considered archaisms today (Whitman's locomotive poem begins "Thee for my recitative"! And "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking" begins with a 22-line sentence that is no one's casual vernacular). As for rejecting the overly formal: Hopkins was a student of Welsh prosody, which I am to understand makes English prosody look very loose and easy indeed. He didn't reject the formal; he mastered it (pushed against his constraints, to be sure ... but certainly didn't reject ...)

Oh, I give up. The evidence is there in the poetry. Axelrod is a chucklehead.

David said...

Who is this Axelrod? What is this Axelrod?

Meredith said...

Who is this Axelrod? What is this Axelrod?

The Poet Laureate of Long Island, apparently. I had never heard of him before I read this lecture.