'The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins: Volume VIII: Diaries, Journals and Notebooks', by Lesley Higgins - Review

By Hawtree, Christopher | The Spectator, January 9, 2016 | Go to article overview

'The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins: Volume VIII: Diaries, Journals and Notebooks', by Lesley Higgins - Review


Hawtree, Christopher, The Spectator


'I am 12 miles from a lemon,' lamented that bon vivant clergyman Sydney Smith on reaching one country posting. He was related to Gerard Manley Hopkins, a priest who, in the popular imagination, would quite possibly balk at the offer of a lemon. After all, 30 years before Prufrock, Hopkins did not dare to eat a peach, fearful of its delicious savour when offered one by Robert Bridges in a Roehampton garden.

Hopkins was a complex man who delighted in simple things. Our sense of his view of the world has been complicated by the circumstances of his publication. Forbidden to publish his great 'The Wreck of the Deutschland', he largely squirrelled away, or burnt, his work. At his funeral in 1889, there was no body in the coffin, lest it spread typhoid; and, three decades on, when Bridges published a collection of his poems, it was almost as if a Harry Lime had sprung forth to find a ready place in a changing, Prufrock-driven literary landscape. It took a decade to sell 750 copies at 12/6, but Hopkins was amongst us.

One of the first to relish him was Virginia Woolf who, in a letter, wrote:

I liked them better than any poetry for ever so long; partly because they're so difficult, but also because instead of writing mere rhythms and sense as most poets do, he makes a very strange jumble; so that what is apparently pure nonsense is at the same time very beautiful, and not nonsense at all.

Hopkins would be carried forth on the tide of Modernism (Mrs Woolf herself typeset key poems: Hope Mirrlees's 'Paris' and Eliot's The Waste Land ). Muriel Spark's 1963 novel of postwar life, The Girls of Slender Means , was suffused with 'The Wreck of the Deutschland', from elocution lessons to its very ending. Perhaps the apotheosis of this came with Anthony Burgess who, steeped in Hopkins, shared his Catholic background with a relish of music and etymology (Hopkins notes that green wheat has 'a chrysoprase bloom'). Come 1973, Burgess put Hopkins at the centre of his novel The Clockwork Testament , about the splenetic poet Enderby, whose script for a film of the 'Deutschland' is waylaid by the studio so that it features naked, ravished nuns -- and lands Enderby on an astonishing New York chat show. Owing something to Burgess's own dealings with Stanley Kubrick, it is a bravura performance -- and a perfectly serious engagement with such notions as original sin which preoccupied Hopkins.

Meanwhile, publication of Hopkins's surviving papers had shown him very much a man buffeted, and stimulated, by the cross-currents of his times -- even when in apparent retreat from them (less than charitable comments about Gladstone are dwarfed by an account of the French face). And now, a century after that first slim volume, everything is being reconfigured into eight stately volumes of the Oxford English Texts. If this one looks expensive, it is cheaper than some secondhand copies of the earlier edition -- and, indeed, the parallel volumes of his often debonair letters (his shoe-makers are 'murderers by inches') have quickly gone into a third printing.

The journal follows a similar trajectory to the letters: from a comfortable, cultured Essex upbringing -- bolstered, ironically enough, by his father's profiting from the insurance of potential shipwrecks -- to a traversal of Balliol, which led to his giving up any hopes of living as an artist in favour of conversion to Rome, and dispatch, as a Jesuit, to many locales, some less congenial than others. …

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