Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"The Wreck of the Deutschland" and the Birth of the Poet: Literary Form, Performative Utterance, and Hopkins's "Gift of Tears"

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"The Wreck of the Deutschland" and the Birth of the Poet: Literary Form, Performative Utterance, and Hopkins's "Gift of Tears"

Article excerpt

dost thou touch me afresh? Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1)

The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.

Blaise Pascal (2)

I must tell you," writes Hopkins to Robert Bridges in 1878, "I am sorry you never read the Deutschland again." (3) Bridges's resistance to his friend's dense and difficult poem had been immediate, intense, and enduring: following his first encounter with it in 1877, he assures Hopkins that he would "not for any money read [the] poem again" (CW, 1: 282). Even when he eventually brings it into print more than forty years later, Bridges characterizes the ode as "a great dragon folded in the gate" of Hopkins's work--a phrase that has since become something of a critical commonplace. (4) And not without reason: Hopkins admits to his frustrated friend that his poem "needs study and is obscure" and allows, with telling litotes, that he was "not over-desirous that the meaning of all should be quite clear" (CW, 1: 295). Nearly a century of divergent commentary on the poem has confirmed Hopkins's understatement while validating Bridges's experience--described in his notes to the ode--of being "shamefully worsted" by the dragon "in a brave frontal assault" (p. 106n).

Some scholars have taken Bridges's advice (which is modeled on Hopkins's own advice to him) "to circumvent [the poem] and attack [it] later in the rear" in both literal and figurative senses. That is, some readings of "The Wreck" approach it not only from oblique points of entry, but from unconventional critical perspectives. (5) In the 1960s, for example, Elisabeth Schneider suggested that a miracle is represented in the ode, arguing that its obscure twenty-eighth stanza contains the involuted account of a divine vision granted to the five drowned nuns that the poem commemorates. (6) Revisiting the issue some twenty years later in his Martin D'Arcy Lectures, Norman H. MacKenzie gave voice to the current critical consensus that the poem contains no such vision--nor a miracle of any kind. (7) Yet, as Lesley Higgins put it in a recent reappraisal, Schneider still "persuaded two generations of Hopkins critics to read [Stanza 28] miraculously." (8)

Bridges's advice (and Schneider's example) notwithstanding, most critics have preferred to engage with the more obvious themes of the ode, exploring its theodicean theology, its biographical resonances, and its peculiar literary form. This last topic is one of the most frequently addressed issues in Hopkins scholarship, and many commentaries have considered the relation of the poem's two uneven parts in great detail. To take a recent example, Imogen Forbes-Macphail has explored the mathematical ratios of the unevenly divided ode, drawing on calculus to clarify its bifurcated form: "the two halves of the poem," she argues, "are held in an integral/differential relationship with each other," with "Part the First" displaying "God's nature in the abstract" and "Part the Second" "describing] God's presence manifested or 'integrated' into the real world." (9) Dennis Sobolov, for his part, takes a rather different critical approach, reading Hopkins's oeuvre through the lens of "semiotic phenomenology," yet his conclusion is not dissimilar: the strategic division between abstraction and integration that Forbes-Macphail finds in the form of the poem, Sobolov sees within the poet himself. His engagement with "The Wreck" thus forms the final chapter of The Split World of Gerard Manley Hopkins because, on Sobolov's reading, it showcases a symptomatic gap that runs throughout all of Hopkins's work between the faith he professed and his own lived experience. (10)

Like the suggestion that Bridges offers in his note to the "The Wreck," these antinomies--between theory and practice, between faith and experience--have their origin in Hopkins, too. His letters and journals are replete with worries about wasting time on poetry, and his early concerns about the incompatibility of verse writing with his religious life led to the period of "elected silence" during which he abandoned poetic composition altogether. …

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