THE FIRE THAT BREAKS: GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS’S POETIC LEGACIES by Daniel Westover and Thomas Alan Holmes, eds., Reviewed by A. J. Nickerson
 


THE FIRE THAT BREAKS: GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS’S POETIC LEGACIES
Eds. Daniel Westover and Thomas Alan Holmes
(Clemson, 2020) viii + 344 pp.
Reviewed by A. J. Nickerson on 2020-06-15.

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"Echos," Hopkins complained, "are a disease of education, literature is full of them; but they remain a disease, an evil" (6 February 1885). And yet, young writers need some sort of literary formation: to be "unimpressionable [...] wd. be to refuse education" (22 April 1879). Subsequent generations of poets were certainly not unimpressed by Hopkins. The handful of his poems that were posthumously published in Robert Bridges's The Spirit of Man (1916) made such an impression on Ivor Gurney that he wrote to Ethel Voynich enthusing about "what's his name of the crazy precious diction" (qtd. 25), while the first edition of Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1918) garnered sufficient attention to establish "something of a Hopkins cult" (3). But it was Charles Williams's second edition of the poems in 1930 that made the biggest impact, exploding on the literary scene (as David Jones put it) like a "highly charged Mark 1 Hopkins grenade" (qtd. 4).

Charge, flame, fire, discharge, explosion, and wreckage are of course the terms that Hopkins himself used to express how the otherness of the world impresses itself upon us. Impressions come -- to borrow a phrase from "The Windhover" -- like "the fire that breaks." Impression is no quiet process of echo and influence but a Pentecostal crisis of rupture and revelation: a violent incursion that transforms understanding, an energetic exchange that becomes ecstatic communion. As Daniel Westover puts it, Hopkins is the 'consummate incendiary,' the fire-starter of much twentieth-century verse-writing (3).

As a companion to The World is Charged, ed. Daniel Westover and William Wright (2016), a collection of contemporary poetic responses to Hopkins, the essays in this new volume show how Hopkins's still-burning fires ignited the imaginations of early modernist writers (Ivor Gurney, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf), later twentieth-century poets (Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, Denise Levertov), contemporary American writing (Charles Wright, Ron Hansen, Pattiann Rogers, Martha Silano etc.), and modern Caribbean poetry (Derek Walcott, John Robert Lee, Kwame Dawes, Jane King etc.). Taken together, these essays contend for what Westover calls the "enduring newness" of Hopkins and demonstrate how the lessons of his verse (his linguistic innovations, his metaphysical insights) continually break forth in new contexts and with new -- and sometimes surprising -- meanings (1).

To be lit up by the "incendiary" Hopkins is a dangerous undertaking. Seamus Heaney recalls how as a schoolboy he was so impressed by the "reporting sounds and ricocheting consonants" of Hopkins's verse that for a while all he could write was "Hopkins-speak" (qtd. 95, 104). Likewise, Kwame Dawes recalls that a classroom encounter with the work of the "so-white-he-probably-did-not-know-he-was English poet" inspired him and his companions to start writing "weak" imitations (qtd. 173). As Dawes puts it in "The English Room," "Hopkins' sprung verse, uncaged passion | in praise of god and colour, was our appropriated | tutor" (qtd. 174). Indeed, for many years Hopkins was a fixture on the A-Level syllabus followed both in the UK and in the former British colonies, and one of the unexpected and remarkable revelations of Emily Taylor Merriman's essay is the extent to which these classroom encounters fostered a rich and distinctly Hopkinsian strand of Anglophone Caribbean verse-writing. While such indebtedness to Hopkins might sound "a tad quaint [...] a failure of post-colonial and reggae resistance" (173), Dawes goes on to explain how this English poet taught the young Caribbean poets to find the "freedom to write the hidden," finding a new poetic "tongue" with which to "fling out" a previously inarticulate sense of the drama and specificity of their own Caribbean world (175). As Dawes puts it (finding new appropriateness in the language of "As Kingfishers Catch Fire"), "Here we saw colour in words, | numb, clumsy tongues curling round new | language and finding silence where the words || were not yet made" (qtd. 175). To such poets, Hopkins's verse was a lesson in originality, and hearing new "tongues" making new "words" out of his "new language" is one of the chief pleasures of this collection.

A number of poets make Hopkins an avatar for their own poetic and spiritual ambitions. For the mature Heaney, conscious of the Anglo-Saxon rhythms of his own verse, Hopkins becomes a "chip off the Old English block" (qtd. 109). For Charles Wright, Hopkins is "Father Bird-of-Paradise," "Father Candescence," and "Father Fire," a symbol of those vividly apprehended spiritual certainties that elude the poet in an age of "spiritual eclecticism" (qtd. 210, 202). And for John Berryman in his poem "Jesuit Graves," Hopkins is "A milkman sane [...] the one one, I fear," the only poet who (unlike Berryman himself) could claim "ultimate sanity" in the face of his own suffering (qtd. 80). Reading this poem in his brilliantly subtle account of Berryman and Hopkins, Paul Mariani teases out its allusions to "The Loss of the Eurydice" as well as to Hopkins's sermon of 25 April 1880: "rooted for" by the Holy Ghost, as Berryman puts it -- cheered on by the Paraclete like the second batsman at a cricket match, as Hopkins puts it -- Berryman's Hopkins "hit the Milky Way," holding out to the very end and finally attaining that milk-white, star-lit highroad that is the pathway to Paradise (qtd. 80-81). Rather differently, Adrian Grafe shows how Ron Hansen weaves Hopkins's own words (from the diaries, journals, and poetry) into the prose of Exiles, a fictionalized account of the wreck of the steamship Deutschland in 1875 and the "wreck" of Hopkins's own difficult life. Hansen's Hopkins, like Hansen himself, is a deft repurposer of language:

Yesterday's long underwear would do, Hopkins thought, and then a jersey that the Jesuit Theologate's laundress had shrunk. Over them he buttoned a cuff-frayed and graying black cassock with its faint stink of him [...] he dipped a horsehair toothbrush in a yellow box of bicarbonate of soda and assaulted his grimace in the spotted mirror hanging over the washstand, amusing himself by rhyming: Gerardus M. Hopkins, S.J. / Auditor Theologiae. / Here at Saint Beuno's. / Far too long, my nose. (Exiles [2008] 4)

Finding the "echos" in Exiles is an amusing game for anyone well-versed in Hopkins.

But Hopkins also offers an education in rhythm. "Have you read the poems of a man who is dead, called Gerard Hopkins?" Virginia Woolf inquired of her former Greek tutor, Janet Case, adding that she liked them "partly because they're so difficult, but also because instead of writing mere rhythms and sense as most poets do, he makes a very strange jumble; so that what is apparently pure nonsense is at the same time very beautiful, and not nonsense at all" (qtd. 37, 38). As Lesley Higgins notes, Woolf had always been alert to what she called "the vast possibilities that lie within the power of rhythm" (qtd. 45), but Hopkins seemed to have anticipated that integration of rhythm and sense that Woolf would later commend as the "rhythmical sense" (qtd. 46). Reading Hopkins, for Woolf, was an education in rhythmic thinking, a lesson that she carried forward in her own innovations in prose, poetry, and the new hybrid mode of "prose poetry" (47). This willingness to "stand obstinately across the boundary lines" had a metaphysical -- or nearly metaphysical -- importance for both Hopkins and Woolf, revealing "the relation between things that seem incompatible yet have a mysterious affinity" (qtd. 47). Ben Howard's essay on Elizabeth Bishop suggests that she took a similar lesson from Hopkins, recognising in the "dynamic heterogeneity" of his rhythms a depiction of what she called "a mind thinking" (qtd. 59).

The last twenty years or so have seen a steady growth in the number of important studies dedicated to Hopkins, the most recent of which is Martin Dubois' brilliant Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Poetry of Religious Experience (2017), reviewed elsewhere on this site. But a perennial problem in Hopkins scholarship is that the seemingly unending process of explicating his highly idiosyncratic oeuvre has prevented a serious consideration of the formal and thematic continuities between his writings and those of his contemporaries and successors. There are a couple of exceptions. In Meter Matters (2011), Meredith Martin seeks to situate Hopkins's experimental poetics within the "verse cultures" of the long nineteenth-century, and Michael D. Hurley's Faith in Poetry (2017) traces some suggestive parallels between Hopkins's use of verse-form as a mode of religious belief and the poetic practices of William Blake, Alfred Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, and T. S. Eliot. Very few previous studies, however, have traced Hopkins's influence on twentieth and twenty-first century literature; even the impact of the "Mark I Hopkins grenade" on the modernist literary scene remains understudied. Consequently, this collection makes a very welcome contribution to the scholarly conversation, even if the desire to present the extraordinary range of Hopkins's influence has led to the curious omission of some important early modernist British poets (most notably David Jones) in favor of a number of contemporary writers whose merit is much less certain.

There is also a danger in mistaking Hopkins's "enduring newness" for a narrowly-conceived "relevance." Hopkins's writings were certainly energized by a love for the natural world and a desire to be "Earth's [...] tongue" ("Ribblesdale"), but is anything gained by describing his "distinct poetic voice" as a "renewable resource," as Westover does (14)? The metaphor is glib and unconvincing. More importantly, such casual use of the secular language of modern environmentalism risks falling into the trap described by Geoffrey Hill as the "error of regarding him as a wild nature poet ... who unfortunately fell among Jesuits and whose gift was consequently repressed." On the contrary, Hill writes, "the Spiritual Exercises ... gave to his poetry those distinguishing features which set the seal of greatness upon it" (126). As Catherine Phillips puts it, the "poise" of Hopkins's poetry comes not from his so-called ecological commitments but from "his security in his priestly position and the monumentality of the religious beliefs he has to teach" (126).

Though this secular, environmentalist "error" is an ever-present possibility in this collection, it is largely mitigated by a widespread awareness of the complex entanglement between Hopkins's theological commitments and his awareness of the natural world. This is the subject of Lynn Domina's essay on the relationship between creator and creation in the work of Hopkins, Levertov, Rogers, and Silano. But Domina, too, turns Hopkins's commitment to eternal realities into a modish "relevance." "Given Hopkins's [...] consistent reliance on nature and Christianity for his content," she writes, "any failure to read him as an ecotheological poet would do him a serious injustice" (189). But nature and God are surely the great themes -- perhaps the only ultimate themes -- of art and literature. To my mind, the real and serious injustice is to insist on understanding Hopkins through the lens of a niche literary-critical movement that borrows its terms and assumptions from eocriticism and ecotheology/ecospirituality: terms and assumptions that are often deeply antithetical to Hopkins's own Christian commitments. Likewise, Devon Abts tries to demonstrate Hopkins's theological relevance by placing him within "a lineage extending back to Augustine and forward to Barth [...] grounded in traditional Christian doctrine and, at the same time, oriented toward future developments in theology" (139). While she rightly finds Hopkins both "orthodox and original" (139), her argument against the critical narrative that presents him as a "backwards-glancing religious thinker" (146) risks making his theological originality a matter of constant innovation.

The irruptions of Hopkins's perennial "newness" cannot be foreseen, nor can they fit into any too-easy critical narrative. They come rather as a check or counter-check, a movement towards release or a forestalling of ambition. A recurrent theme in this collection is the extent to which "Father Hopkins" (and these poets notably persist in using his honorific) stands as a moral authority for writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Even when Bishop was in her seventies, she turned to Hopkins as a "locus of ethical integrity," a reminder of a higher, gentlemanly standard, as she sought to rebuke Robert Lowell for his "questionable actions" (58). For Hill, Hopkins offered a severe lesson in poetic accountability, a warning against the "rebelliousness of words as the rebelliousness of will" (qtd. 130). And for Berryman, exhausted by his pursuit of fame and his consciousness of his failings, Hopkins stood as a reminder of the sanity to be found in submission to a standard of "insight" and "beauty" that transcends the faddishness of the educated public (qtd. 86): "Father Hopkins said the only true literary critic is Christ. | Let me lie down exhausted, content with that" (qtd. 87).

A. J. Nickerson is Katherine Jex-Blake Research Fellow and College Lecturer at Girton College, University of Cambridge


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