Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Morning's Minion

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Morning's Minion

Article excerpt

Morning's Minion Gerard Manley Hopkins A Life by Paul Mariani Viking, 496 pages, $34.95

Reviewed by Amanda Shaw

Too often, Gerard Manley Hopkins is lost in the halo-glow of hagiography- Glory be to God for dappled things!- or the searchUght of psychoanalysis- To seem a stranger lies my ht, my life. That, or the man is reduced to his metrics: the protomodernist sprung rhythm that freed us from Victorian singsong.

Yet the real Hopkins refuses to be reduced to any one thing. He was a priest and a poet, a man of England and a man in exile, a herald of modernism and a champion of tradition. Revealing how these many identities merge to shape his person and poetry, Paul Mariani, his latest biographer, shows the truth of Hopkins' words: "Surely one vocation cannot cancel out another."

As flailing poets like to remind themselves, Hopkins' verse lay aU but forgotten during his Ufe and for nearly thirty years after his death. Only in 1918 did his friend Robert Bridges publish a coUected edition, prefaced by an apology for the "exaggerated Marianism" and "perversion of feeling." Nevertheless, with his surprisingly modern metrics and arresting tropes- what Robert LoweU praised as his "inebriating exuberance"Hopkins broke into the canon of English poetry. In barely a decade, dilettantes of CathoUc Uterature had canonized him, while critics were calling him one of the greatest poets (a slap at the Victorians, who, twentiethcentury critics insisted, dafdy ignored their best man).

Time is supposed to give perspective, but in Hopkins studies, Bridges' original complaints have cycled back in new glory. After generations of laudatory studies, die early 1990s saw the pubUcation of critical biographies exposing the poet as bodi oppressed and repressed: a man constrained by the CadioUc Church and its Jesuit militants, an effeminate who hated the name Manley. The problem with such studies, Mariani noted at the time, is that they dissect Hopkins' Ufe with scholarly precision, only to examine it through the wrong lens. These scholars understand "die imagination of Freud far better than the imagination of St Ignatius of Loyola," and thus they miss "die essential drama that shaped Hopkins." We still need, he wrote, "a biography that wiU give us a portrait of Hopkins shaped by his intense indwelling on the Spiritual Exercises. A biography that might show us Hopkins' preoccupation with die example of his real lover . . . Christ"

In Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, Mariani depicts Hopkins as neither an isolated id nor an angeUc spirit He was a whole man, body and soul, who was awed by the natural world's majesty and intensely aware that it "is charged with the grandeur of God," die giver of aU breath and beauty: Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) / With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; I He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change. This is a joyful catalogue of the created world, lovingly formed and held by the Lord, yet Hopkins was far from an Edenic mystic. Winter comes, night falls, he knew too well, and the world is blind to the "brute beauty and valour" of its Redeemer.

Lapsing into hedonism or transcendentalism is easy, but Hopkins continuously struggled to balance his love for both Creator and creation, eternity and change. Mariani does not mask these complexities but presents them with a vivid patchwork of journal entries, letters, sermon excerpts, and verse. He provides, of course, enough commentary and chronology so diat the reader can f oUow Hopkins through his Oxford days, his conversion and admission to die Jesuits, his marathon reUgious formation and shuffling between schools and parishes, and finally his bleak years in Dublin and early death. But throughout it is primarily Hopkins' voice that carries the story, and, while the book might have spared us some detail, die figure that emerges is not a glowing icon but a real and rambling man.

Mariani perceptively pulls Hopkins' Oxford conversion to die forefront of the story, as the decision diat set die course of his Ufe. …

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