Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"[A] Virginal Tongue Hold": Hopkins's the Wreck of the Deutschland and Muriel Spark's the Girls of Slender Means

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"[A] Virginal Tongue Hold": Hopkins's the Wreck of the Deutschland and Muriel Spark's the Girls of Slender Means

Article excerpt

WILLIAM Butler Yeats's introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) sees Hopkins virtually "unknown to those who "began to think and read in the late eighties of the last century" (v). (1) Yeats read Hopkins "with great difficulty," and was bothered especially by his diction, the "faint sound that strains the ear." Yet, the release of Hopkins's poems in 1918 "made 'sprung verse' the fashion, and now his influence has replaced that of Hardy and Bridges" (xxxix). Yeats's disparaging view of Hopkins was meant to clear poetic space and to distance himself from a dominant precursor, so influential that Yeats passed himself off four years younger than he actually was when he first met Hopkins (MacKenzie 94). (2) Still, Yeats recognized the aesthete Hopkins had become: his "whole life was a form of 'poetic diction'" (qtd. in White 207).

Hopkins had become a cult figure to writers of the 1930s, the so-called Auden generation--Christopher Isherwood, C. Day Lewis, Geoffrey Grigson, Herbert Read, Stephen Spender, William Empson, ER. Leavis, I.A. Richards, Robert Graves, and Michael Roberts. Auden recommended Hopkins to Spender:

   He then told me who was good. These included Wilfred Owen,
   Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edward Thomas, A.E. Housman, and, of
   course, T.S. Eliot.... Auden derided most contemporary poets and
   admired few beyond those I have mentioned. He thought that the
   literary scene in general offered an empty stage. (Spender 50-51)

The attraction to Hopkins began in large measure with the November 1930 release of the second edition of his poetry with an introduction by Charles Williams. (3) That attraction continued through Muriel Spark, who also saw herself as an aesthete: "I think as an artist, I live as one" ("Desegregation" 33). Connected as they were through Newman--the via media to Roman Catholicism for both Hopkins and Spark--it remains enigmatic why Spark's relationship to Hopkins has escaped serious critical

attention, especially as pervasive as it is in Spark's The Girls of Slender Means (1963), "in some ways her best" novel and "one of her most distinguished books" (Kermode, "Girls" 174; Parrinder 25).

Critics such as Giorgio Melchiori and F.O. Matthiessen, in Geoffrey Hartman's Hopkins: A Collection of Critical Essays, connect Hopkins to Henry James and Walt Whitman, respectively. And in a monograph, Richard Giles pursues the Hopkins trace among modern writers such as Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, Pound, and Plath. Yet the case for Muriel Spark has been entirely overlooked. The Hopkins absence, at least in Giles's Hopkins among the Poets, is understandable, since the volume wanted to pursue Hopkins's "impact on twentieth-century poetry, and the speed and latitude with which his reputation spread" (Giles iv). Still, Spark's exclusion is problematic, not only because she is "one of the most important novelists of the twentieth century" (McQuillan 1), but also because she emerged in precisely the post-war "generation of poets" who "matured in the 1930s," influenced in one way or another by Hopkins.

Although she considers the "question of inspiration" a "strange" one, Spark acknowledges Newman as "a tremendous influence" who "helped me to find a definite location" ("My Conversion" 59). (4) The Newman influence is evident in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) and Curriculum Vitae (1993), the latter her fictional Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Spark's search for her own voice became inextricably tied to her conversion to Roman Catholicism: to speak "far more in my own voice as a Catholic" ("My Conversion" 61). In effect, her Catholicism authorized her, as it had Newman, who wanted his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) to be a text in which the real man (the Catholic Newman) becomes liberated from his apparition (the Anglican Newman), a personal and religio-political split that had to be acknowledged, treated, and finally put to rest. (5) However, Spark made no claim to Hopkins, admitting only that she "read an awful lot of poetry," and that "It is impossible to know how much one gets from one's early environment" ("My Conversion" 62; "Edinburgh-born" 22). …

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