The Parallel Universe of Verse

Article excerpt

CRITICS dissect verse in a variety of way s, but rarely do they ask why poets choose to express themselves in their particular form instead of prose, or why some readers prefer poems to other modes of literary expression. Two new thought-provoking books of fiction wrestle with these very questions. Exiles, by Ron Hansen (Farrar Straus Giroux, 227 pp., $23.00), is a Bildungsroman about the poetic maturation of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Baron Wormser's The Poetry Life: TenStories (CavanKerry Press, 196 pp., paper, $18.00) portrays fictional characters who, by reading real poets, are better able to make sense of their own lives. Both works are testaments to the power that language can exercise on our imaginations and to the capacity of clear perceptions to transform us from members of the herd into individuals with a distinct awareness of self.

Hansen's novel gets under the skin of a much misunderstood writer. Hopkins jettisoned a potentially distinguished academic career when, as a student at Oxford, he called on John Henry Newman (the future Cardinal) and asked to be received into the Catholic Church - a shocking move for a young Englishman in the mid- 19th century. His conversion alienated him from his professors (mostly Church of England clerics) and wounded his family. His further decision to join the Jesuits was equally radical, since the English Establishment regarded the Society of Jesus as a malign international conspiracy dedicated to the overthrow of both Enlightenment values and Protestant virtues.

Hopkins continued to find himself a misfit in his new Church. His mature poems, considered weird by Catholic magazines, were rejected. What friends he retained from his Oxford days criticized his "sprung rhythm" because it did not scan according to the conventional rules of meter. He coined words, and his verse was too emotional for buttoned-up Victorian tastes. His closest friend, Robert Bridges - later an undistinguished poet laureate - thought his work minor at best and only helped arrange for its publication after Hopkins' premature death from typhoid one month short of his 45 th birthday. Had Bridges not kept copies of the poems Hopkins sent him, they might have been lost altogether.

Biographers of Hopkins have hitherto turned up the unsensational facts of his brief life; they have been less successful in explaining what that life meant. It has become fashionable to speculate that Hopkins' religious conversion was motivated by anxiety about his attraction to men. Hansen, a practicing Catholic himself, justifiably proceeds on the assumption that young people ofthat era did not think about sexual orientation in today's manner. Rather, many college youths were preoccupied with a vague notion of sin in the same way their contemporary counterparts suffer identity crises. Much of his portrait of a "gregarious loner" could apply to sensitive young men of any time, torn between the desire to hold themselves aloof from others and the longing to be accepted.

Hopkins' struggles were intensified by his alternating bouts of manic energy and debilitating psychic lassitude. Exiles suggests that he suffered from what we now refer to as bipolar disorder. This hypothesis is amply supported by poems that alternately record ecstasy and crippling despair. In the 1 860s, young British converts to Rome were motivated by impulses similar to those that attracted college students of the 1920s and '30s to the Communist Party: They were drawn to the idealism inherent in a movement that promised to transform the world, one that made an international appeal when their own culture was provincial and nationalistic.

As a student at Oxford, Hopkins composed essentially pallid lyrics of no great originality. Upon his conversion, he renounced poetry. But in 1 875 a newspaper account of a terrible shipwreck off the Kentish coast that took the lives of five German nuns expelled from Germany by the anti-Catholic Falk laws, who died trying to help their fellow passengers, resulted in his composing a poetic tribute. …