"Strokes of Havoc": Tree-Felling and the Poetic Tradition of Ecocriticism in Manley Hopkins and Gerard Manley Hopkins

By Costantini, Mariaconcetta | Victorian Poetry, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

"Strokes of Havoc": Tree-Felling and the Poetic Tradition of Ecocriticism in Manley Hopkins and Gerard Manley Hopkins


Costantini, Mariaconcetta, Victorian Poetry


Manley Hopkins formative influence on his son Gerard has long bee recognized by critics. A successful businessman and amateur writer, whose eclectic interests ranged from science to literature, Manley "possessed certain qualities which it is possible also to see in Gerard, the most obvious being voracity of mind." (1) Hopkins biographers have suggested that the young poet derived from his father a strong intellectual curiosity, which accounts for the variety of his pursuits. It is most likely that his inquiring attitude was fostered by the learned environment in which he grew up. But the full extent of Manley's influence is yet to be explored. One aspect of neglect is the relevance of the model of poetic creativity provided by the father, who was endowed with a talent for poetry.

During his long life, Manley acquired public reputation as an intellectual figure with many interests. Known to the Victorian readership for his works on maritime insurance and other non-literary topics, he also wrote poetry and published three collections of verse. As a child, Gerard must have read and listened to his poems (some were musical pieces and nursery ballads) and certainly knew the poem written to celebrate his birth: "To my child, Gerard Manley" (White, pp. 10-11). His interest in his father's verse did not abate with adulthood. On January 23, 1879, when he was a curate at St. Aloysius' Church, Gerard wrote to his friend Robert Bridges and sent him a new poem by Manley: "I enclose some lines by my father, called forth by the proposal to fell the trees in Well Walk (where Keats and other interesting people lived) and printed in some local paper. See what you think of them. And return them, please.' (2) The closing sentence, in which he asks to receive the poem back, is a testimony to the appeal that Manley's poetry still held for him.

Although he would prove to be a more gifted poet, Gerard drew constant inspiration from his father's verse, which contributed to shaping his artistic imagination. But how pervasive was this influence? And how far did he depart from the model offered by Manley? Critics generally agree on the presence of the father's "fanciful vein" in his early poems, (3) but some maintain that "it is difficult to be precise about the nature of the influence" since Gerard "did not emulate him directly.' (4) More scrupulous is the comparative analysis conducted by Joseph Feeney. (5) After giving an outline of their personal relationship, Feeney shows that both Manley and Gerard had a lively sense of humor, were fond of puns, used similar images, and enjoyed combining ideas and words in eccentric ways. His arguments, which are copiously supported by quotations from the father's and the son's works, invite a critical reflection. If it is true that the Hopkinses shared some tastes and linguistic habits, why were they so unequal in their poetic skill and vision? Feeney himself suggests that Manley's poetry lacks the visual appeal, the shaping force, and the musical intensity of his son's. This gap in style and thought, which is unanimously acknowledged by critics, (6) is not only ascribable to the poetic genius of Gerard. It is also the result of important differences in their aesthetic choices, their approaches to reality, and their sense of continuity with the poetic past. By pondering on the formative role played by Manley, which merits recognition, we can discover new hermeneutic paths to explore some aspects of the poetic experimentation carried out by Gerard.

A new impulse to compare their poetry has come from a recent essay published by Jude Nixon, which uncovers the text of the Manley poem on the Well Walk trees that for years had remained speculative. The poem, entitled "The Old Trees," first appeared anonymously in the weekly Hampstead & Highgate Express (December 28, 1878) as a response to a public controversy over the decision of the Trustees of the Wells Charity "to cut down the trees on one side of the avenue in Well Walk. …

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