Academic journal article Victorian Poetry


Academic journal article Victorian Poetry


Article excerpt

The year 2010 seemed to be a transition year in Hopkins criticism: something of the old, something of the new, something poised between the two. The three published books focusing entirely or largely on Hopkins prove illustrative.

John Parham's Green Man Hopkins: Poetry and the Victorian Ecological Imagination (New York: Rodopi) proposes an entirely new approach. He argues that the field he calls "green studies" is becoming more theory-driven, and that Hopkins' ideas, both in the poetry and in the prose, anticipate the latest developments in this new field. He distinguishes ecology, which he sees as a radical, even revolutionary philosophy, from more traditional and thus "shallow[er]" positions represented by terms like conservation, preservation, and environmentalism. Hopkins, so the argument runs, developed an "ecological imagination" which-and here Parham quotes political theorist Andrew Dobson approvingly-"seeks radically to call into question a whole series of political, economic, and social practices" (p. 16). The idea that so deeply a conservative man as Hopkins, conservative in his politics as much as in his religion, can be rescued from the dustbin of literary history by making him into a prototype of contemporary left-wing academics seems, well, a challenge to the imagination.

Of the six substantive chapters in the book, the first positions this study as an example of "humanist ecocriticism" by locating it amid various competing trends in modern literary theory and practice. The second then goes back to Victorian attitudes toward what we call ecology, with excursions into familiar and often-explored territory: the inheritance of Romanticism and the influence of Ruskin and Morris. Both chapters serve as prolegomena to the analysis of Hopkins, which occupies chapters 3-6.

Parham delineates the ways in which his journal entries reveal a young Hopkins melding art, architecture, and science into a distinctive philosophy which proposes "an organic unity, not of balance but of complexity" (p. 141). The early poetry also represents a fusion, this time of Ruskin, Wordsworth, and philology, into an "ecological philosophy of nature" (p. 148). Hopkins' best work can be found in his incipient "ecological social philosophy," a position from which Parham admits the poet retreated in his later years, a retreat which Parham contrasts unfavorably with William Morris' unswerving

dedication to a future socialist commonwealth.

For this reviewer the greatest strength of Parham's monograph lies in its careful explanations of the ways in which Hopkins, while using a different vocabulary, did indeed anticipate many of the ideas in modern environmentalism. For example, Parham shows how a poem like "Pied Beauty" foreshadows what we now call biodiversity, or how "The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe" depends on a concept which Gary Snyder was later to call "wildness," or how the poems collectively provide an ontological dimension to what Jonathan Bates now calls an "ecopoetic." What we see is what Hopkins saw; we just have a new terminology for it. Parham deserves our thanks for his careful analysis of the many interesting adumbrations to be found in Hopkins' work.

On the other hand for this reviewer the most important limitation of Parham's book is the way it often seems to take what Pope called "the high priori road." The assumption that Hopkins formulated an "ecological social philosophy" often over-determines a conclusion. Sprung rhythm, for example: it becomes not a feature of the poet's prosody but rather "a device by which Hopkins would hold society to account for any alterations to nature" (p. 161). Or the little poem "On a Piece of Music"-Parham argues that it "could be said to anticipate anxieties about the perceived hole in the ozone layer" (p. 184). An assumption once made also leads to a dismissive attitude toward undeniable features of Hopkins' work that do not fit conveniently. …

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