Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Nature and Wise Vision in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Nature and Wise Vision in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Article excerpt

   Be thou then, O thou dear
   Mother, my atmosphere;
   My happier world, wherein
   To wend and meet no sin;
   Above me, round me lie
   Fronting my froward eye ...

--"The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe"

IN critical studies of the celebrated "proto-modern" Victorian poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, attention is often focused on his response to the philosophical and spiritual struggles of the Victorian age. Hopkins's retention of a relation between the particular and universal and between the immanent and the transcendent through his uniquely conceptualized and expressed aesthetics remains one of the most intriguing aspects of his work. Nevertheless, some critics have concluded that his faith commitments doomed such a project to failure. One prominent example of such an appraisal is found in J. Hillis Miller's acclaimed work, The Disappearance of God. Miller argues that, despite Hopkins's signature portrayal of the "marriage of spirit and matter" in his nature poems (290), the acute sense of the "isolation of the self from nature and God" (353) depicted in his final sonnets is an inevitable result of "twenty-five hundred years of belief in the dualism of heaven and earth" and "a fading transcendentalism" that has purportedly dominated Christian thought through the ages. Following Miller's lead, Carol T. Christ asserts in The Finer Optic that Hopkins's religio-aesthetic theory involved a "leap of faith" and a "strained transcendentalism" (147).

Miller and Christ have each admirably explicated the crisis of belief for Victorians, for the notion of the universe as a harmonious order of "creation"--as it was philosophically and even theologically conceived and articulated in that moment in Western history--was indeed severely challenged under the corrosive influences of atomistic science, on the one hand, and subjectivist philosophy, on the other. Yet, it is not necessary to agree with these critics that the "strain" of God's experienced absence in Hopkins's later "sonnets of desolation," written while he was in the throes of depression "in Ireland now, now ... at a third / Remove" ("To seem the stranger" 11.9-10), (1) is evidence for the impossibility of belief in a God that transcends creation and yet is present in the world, or that Hopkins was "stretched on the rack" of a philosophical "transcendentalism" (Miller 359). Neither need we conclude from these sonnets that Hopkins's "vision of a world of particularity ... holds within it the danger of morbidity" and solipsism (Christ 149). Instead, we might grant, as Charles Taylor does in A Secular Age, more legitimacy to the vitality of Hopkins's incarnational theology as this informed his aesthetics. From this perspective, such a belief in the profound significance of the Incarnation can be seen to facilitate Hopkins's apprehension and poetic depiction, in living color--particularly in the "glass-blue" he associated with the Blessed Virgin that will be touched on later in this essay--of what Louis Dupre has called "the ontotheological synthesis," or "the idea of the real as an harmonious, all-inclusive whole" composed of a physical, an anthropic, and a divine component (Passage 3).

Taylor presents Hopkins as an exceptional case of a religious poet who "starts from a modern predicament" but "resists strongly the slide towards a religion of impersonal order" (derived from the Deist's mechanistic notion of God), on the one hand (764), and an immanentist subjectivism which denies any universal objective reality and divine interaction with the material universe, on the other (757). According to Taylor, Hopkins forged "a surprising new itinerary" for faith in an age of disenchantment, as a poet "graced with rare insight" to see the concrete "particular in all its specificity" participating in a universal "communion" of Divine love, wisdom, and beauty (764). In Hopkins's poetry, while deeply indexed to personal vision and grounded in sensuous matter, "something language-transcendent is manifested, set free" (758). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.