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Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life
Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life
Paul Mariani
Viking, 2008
512 pp., $34.95

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Reviewed by Susan Bruxvoort Lipscomb


The Comfort of the Resurrection

Paul Mariani's biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins provides extraordinary insight into the craft and faith of a great poet.

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As this passage suggests, Mariani's biography is slow-going. He will paraphrase a journal entry, a sermon, or a long letter, incorporating short quotations from Hopkins and sewing them together with his own prose. Since Hopkins' prose is beautiful and difficult and his ideas complex and odd, Mariani's decision to paraphrase rather than explain will alienate some readers. This biography is not an ideal introduction to Hopkins—for that, one might pick up Ron Hansen's novel, Exiles, reviewed in the online version of Books & Culture in May.  But for those willing to savor Hopkins striking phrases and ideas, Mariani's approach is rewarding.

The decision to paraphrase rather than summarize and explain has a couple of other advantages. First, it allows Mariani to speak as a poet. Borrowing Hopkins' words and blending them with his own, he creates a prose poem in the guise of a biography. Describing Hopkins' visit to a limestone chapel on a hill near St. Beuno's, he writes: "This is the Rock, 'a great resort of hawks and owls,' and one fine May day three years from now he will inscape a small hawk called a windhover circling the fields, capturing the mastery of the thing striding high there above him in stressed lines of rare and exquisite delicacy." Mariani lifts several phrases from Hopkins' poem, "The Windhover," thus creating a moment of pleasurable recognition for readers familiar with Hopkins' poetry, who will find such moments on nearly every page of this book.

A second advantage of poetic paraphrase is that it allows readers to come to their own conclusions about some controversial aspects of Hopkins' life. For the past twenty years, there has been a debate in Hopkins scholarship over the extent to which unfulfilled homoerotic desire was a shaping influence in his poetry and a contributing factor to the misery he felt in the last five years of his life. Martin's biography contributed to this debate.

There is clear evidence in Hopkins' confession journals that, as a young man at Oxford, he felt sexual attraction to other men. What is less clear is the extent to which this attraction influenced his poetic craft. Mariani doesn't evade references to the homoerotic when they appear in Hopkins' journal: "He draws a crucified arm, which oddly rouses him. He has an erotic dream and wonders if he has sinned in doing so. He feels an erotic charge in drawing a male figure, or in looking at the handsome Fyfe, or in sketching Baillie." But Mariani doesn't dwell on these brief notes or comment on them. They are present, but only in the measure in which they are present in Hopkins' surviving papers—that is to say, very little.

If the surviving record of Hopkins' sexual inclinations is slight, the record of the deep despair he felt in the last five years of his life is not. Explicating Hopkins' poetry from this period, Mariani explores both the possible depths of psychological anguish and the consolations of the faith. He riffs on one of Hopkins' unfinished sonnets from this period: "How measure our own descent into the dizzying depths of the self? What metaphor shall we use against those interior yawing sublimities? The pain of separation from God, like an incessant throbbing in the brain, and nothing for it."

Hopkins' life was tragic. He died too soon, before poetic fashions changed enough for anyone to appreciate his brilliance—nearly thirty years before any characteristic poem was published. He died of typhoid fever, at age 44, completely unknown and misunderstood even by his friends, never fully recovered from the depression that plagued his worst years in a pestilent Dublin.

Given this tragic arc, it is Mariani's gift to Hopkins' readers that he sees and articulates the theological convictions Hopkins never abandoned.  Near the end of the volume, Mariani explicates and reflects on the poem, "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection," drawing out Hopkins' comfort in the incarnation and the consequent gift of immortality: man as "immortal diamond." Mariani concludes, "heaven must still be applauding that day Hopkins penned this poem with its extraordinary linguistic insight into the adamantine inscape of mankind's immortal spirit."

So too we should applaud the day on which Paul Mariani completed this biography, with its extraordinary insight into the craft and faith of a great poet.

Susan Bruxvoort Lipscomb is assistant professor of English at Houghton College.


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