Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life
Viking Adult, 2008
496 pp., $34.95
Reviewed by Susan Bruxvoort Lipscomb
The Comfort of the Resurrection
Early in the 1990s, two major biographies of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jesuit priest and Victorian poet, were published in as many years. The first, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life, by Robert Bernard Martin, was driven by the thesis that Hopkins was a man in psychological anguish. Martin combs through Hopkins' letters, journal, and poems for evidence that he was tormented by unfulfilled sexual desires and oppressed by obedience to an exacting religious order. The second, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, by Norman White, took a gentler tack and focusing instead on literary influences and detailed explications of the major poems.
Both of these biographies are interesting reads and valuable (Martin's is, perhaps, more valuable for what it tells about the current state of literary criticism than for what it tells about Hopkins' life). Both, however, have a major deficiency. Neither of these biographies has a very telling or thorough account of Hopkins as a person of deep religious conviction, a man steadfast in his decision to serve Christ and the Church through devotion to a religious order. This deficiency is amply made up in a new biography by Paul Mariani, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life.
Mariani, himself a Catholic poet as well as a distinguished biographer who has taken on figures as various as William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, and Hart Crane, seems ideally situated to represent the complex fullness of Hopkins' faith and craft. From its dedication page, this biography displays Mariani's sympathies: it is dedicated to his son, a Jesuit priest. And the thematic center of his narrative is neither the personal nor the literary but the religious. Whereas Martin begins with Hopkins' parents and conjectures about the significance of his middle name, and White with the entrance of Hopkins' poems onto the public stage in 1918, Mariani's point of departure is Hopkins' decision to join the Catholic Church.
In his first chapter, Mariani writes: "[Hopkins] would come to hunger after nothing less than the Real Presence, God actually indwelling in things as simple as bread and wine, and see it as the logical extension of God's indwelling among us, pitching His tent in the desert of ourselves." That phrase, "God's indwelling among us," could be merely a summary of Hopkins' thought, even how he might have put it. The rhetorical effect of Mariani's lyrical, first-person characterization, though, is to exhort readers to understand Hopkins' theological conclusions as mattering to them. "God indwelling among us" as good as says, God indwelling among readers of this biography, in the desert of themselves.
Mariani offers more than a neutral account of Hopkins' religious convictions; he offers a fellow poet's celebration of them. It is not only this centering of the religious in Mariani's narrative, however, that makes the tone of his biography different from Martin's or White's. Mariani also makes two unusual choices as a biographer: he writes in the present tense, and he rejects explicit editorializing in favor of a highly original kind of paraphrase, a technique already in evidence in his earlier literary biographies.
Mariani's narration of Hopkins' arrival in Wales, the place where he was happiest and produced some of his best-known poems, is simple: "He is met at the small cathedral town of St. Asaph by Henry Kerr and Louis Bodoano, who escort him back through wooded, flower-laced lanes by trap to the imposing new-Gothic gray buildings that make up the Jesuit theologate at St. Beuno's. In his sparsely furnished room he finds a jar of scarlet geraniums placed there by Francis Bacon. The following day he writes his father. Everyone here, he notes with relief, has been 'very kind and hospitable.' " The present tense makes poetry out of a catalogue of events. A man is met. He is escorted. He finds a jar of geraniums. He writes a letter.
Martin and White tell the reader more. They tell us how to understand Hopkins' arrival. Martin supplies a comparison: "His sense of being at home had begun on his arrival at the station in St. Asaph, so markedly different from his tardy and awkward entry to the novitiate at Manresa." White gives more details about the two men who welcomed Hopkins and then launches into a paragraph of description of the countryside surrounding St. Beuno's. Mariani tells his readers less, but is able to illustrate more.
This is not to say that Mariani's biography is spare in every respect. When it comes to Hopkins' theology or his poetic theory, Mariani is more than thorough. Summarizing Hopkins' journal from a time when he was developing his distinctive poetic theory, Mariani writes: "But by approaching the inscape of a word and its definition in this impressionistic manner, the word becomes bifurcated and unwound, and this, Hopkins sees from experience, is the less useful way of approaching language. What he wants, rather, is to contemplate 'that which is expressed in the object.' It is the intellectual attraction 'for very sharp and pure dialectic or, in other matter, hard and telling art-forms.' Not the fuzzy or suggestive, then, the mere impression, but the sharp-edged brilliance of the thing itself."