Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Genius Loci: Placing Place in Gerard Manley Hopkins

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Genius Loci: Placing Place in Gerard Manley Hopkins

Article excerpt


Genius loci: Placing Place in Gerard Manley Hopkins by Malcolm Hardman Key to Hopkins is his precise sense of place--including landscape, speech patterns, and the origins of poetic vocabulary. He shares a sense of cosmic geography with Boethius and Abelard, wrestles with the Roman legacy of territorial absolutism, deploying possible antagonists in the Jesuit cause--Dante, Pascal, Tennyson--under the moderating influence of Augustine and Newman; draws on the Faust legend with the aid of Goethe (and Marlowe), also classical archetypes from (Chapman's) Homer, Vergil, Ovid, equally with contemporaries such as Ruskin and C. Rossetti; and his triune meditation of locality and history from Scotus, Heraclitus ('Scotinus'), and Scott is updated from contemporary newspapers.


All readers of Hopkins are likely to remain indebted to Norman White's biography and Norman H. Mackenzie's edition of The Poetical Works. (1) Yet a rare misjudgement in the former also typifies a difficulty in the latter. Misled, perhaps, by an unconsciously sentimental view of the Victorians, White (p. 204) assumes that, in describing some wychelm leaves in an Isle of Man churchyard as 'happy', during August 1872, Hopkins is indulging in the 'pathetic fallacy'. In fact (like Ruskin, who coined the phrase), Hopkins inherits the cooler, eighteenth-century school of judgement, alert to matters of placing and status: the leaves are 'happy' because by chance ('hap') arranged pleasingly: serendipitously in their right places.

Hopkins's almost fanatical concern with both the haecceitas (intensely individual 'thisness') and comparative status of particular places runs through his work: Mackenzie (concerned to do justice to the critical legacy) occasionally misses the chance to read a Hopkins poem whole from beginning to end through insufficient scrutiny of place: intensely specific, so that each seems branded into the memory (in Dido's words) as the 'spoor of an old fame' (veteris vestigia flammae), (2) yet also positioned in a hierarchy formed by universalizing codes of historical and spiritual endorsement--whether we consider the British Empire and its extent and history which Hopkins was taught to revere, the Graeco-Roman culture whose modes constituted his education, or the absolutist territorial claims of the Roman Church he embraced. Sprung from a father prominent in Britain's worldwide marine insurance business--serious enough in its details--and a mother whose childhood was spent thirty yards from the site of the scaffold on Tower Hill (White, pp. 4-5), Hopkins deploys a wider, deeper, grimmer, sense of time and space than has always been allowed. As a Jesuit in the 1870s, he was on the front line of European battles (in which men fought and died) raging around such issues as the territorial claims of the papacy. Not merely the 'Great War' of 1914 was already anticipated, but the splitting of the atom that would come (on the heels of Bridges's first edition of December 1918) (3) in the terrible year of Versailles. Many of Hopkins's most constructive allusions are acutely contemporary, including current newspaper themes; and like other Victorian intellectuals, he is prospective as well as retrospective. He certainly has humour and, like his father (White, p. 6), will worry a word almost to death in exploring its range of meaning. What is sometimes perceived as his sentimentality (the dialect moments in 'Felix Randal', for instance) is more a kind of honesty in objectifying his own capacity for male-directed tendresse: like a Greek chorus, the voicing (sometimes even the main burden of meaning) of a Hopkins piece requires clarification through the vividness, and distancing, of histrionic performance and mime. Cruelly honest about himself, as a Jesuit he was in more than one sense on a forward line, but rarely gushing or naive. For him, as for Arnold, poetry was a public act.

What follows is principally an attempt--relying on White and Mackenzie--to read all through 'Henry Purcell', 'Spring and Fall', and 'The Windhover', paying particular attention to Hopkins's inherited, adopted, and cultivated sense of place. …

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