The Magazine

Agony of Spirit

The revolutionary poet revealed in his letters.

Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By EDWARD SHORT
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England produced some superb letter-writers in the 19th century: Lord Byron, Emily Eden, John Keats, Charlotte Brontë, and Sydney Smith gave an altogether new charm and expressiveness to the epistolary art. Smith’s letter to his young friend Miss Lucie Austin in 1835 is a good example:

You are going to Boulogne, the city of debts, peopled by men who never understood arithmetic; by the time you return, I shall probably have received my first paralytic stroke, and shall have lost all recollection of you; therefore, I now give you my parting advice. Don’t marry anybody who has not a tolerable understanding and a thousand a year, and God bless you, dear child.

Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, and Horace Walpole all wrote splendid letters in the previous century, but they never achieved the sort of brilliant badinage that Smith did. Another figure who brought an inimitable gusto to his correspondence was the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), and in this magnificent edition of his letters, we can see the full range and exuberance of one of Victorian England’s best letter-writers.  

The central act of Hopkins’s life was his conversion to Roman Catholicism when he was 22. Shortly thereafter, he joined the Society of Jesus. Before converting, he wrote to his father how “the Catholic system .  .  . only wants to be known in order to be loved—its consolations, its marvellous ideal of holiness, the faith and devotion of its children, its multiplicity, its array of saints and martyrs, its consistency and unity, its glowing prayers, the daring majesty of its claims.”

This rhapsodic catalogue left his devoutly Anglican father aghast. His Oxford tutors were equally stunned. Henry Parry Liddon, biographer of the Anglo-Catholic theologian Edward Pusey, barraged him with letters, urging him to reconsider; Benjamin Jowett, Balliol’s famous professor of Greek, likened the appeal of Roman Catholicism that swept up Hopkins and so many others of his generation to a “commercial panic.” In a letter to Florence Nightingale, Jowett wrote how “very miserable” it was that “at Oxford .  .  . there should be so little moral strength and so little regard for truth.”  

Hopkins took the anti-Catholic bias in stride. “Not to love my University,” he said, “would be to undo the very buttons of my being.” If John Henry Newman could say it was Oxford that had made him a Catholic, it was even truer of Hopkins. Studying classics at Balliol steeled him in both his faith and his art.  

Considering how revolutionary so much of Hopkins’s poetry was, he had need of the confidence that only a place like Balliol could bestow. His bold, innovative syntax and his celebration of “the roll, the rise, the carol” of creation are like nothing in English poetry:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

Hopkins’s delight in words is everywhere in his letters. He lived in the great age of philology and shared its fascination for what Matthew Prior called the “idiom of words.” In fact, he was taught by the same headmaster who had taught the etymologist Walter Skeat, who, with James Murray, launched the Oxford English Dictionary in 1879. “I am going to write to Skeat about scope,” Hopkins says in one letter. “I have doubts about Skeat’s treatment of scope, cope, scoop, scape, cap.” 

Hopkins was also fond of music, as his many observations on composers prove. “Do you like Weber?” he asks one correspondent. “For personal preference and fellow feeling I like him of all musicians after Purcell. I feel as if I could have composed his music in another sphere.” This casts an intriguing sidelight on his own elaborately musical verse. Then again, he knew the limits of his own decided taste: 

The only good and truly beautiful recitative is that of plain chant. .  .  . It is a natural development of the speaking, reading, or declaiming voice, and has the richness of nature; the other is confinement of the voice to certain prominent intervals and has the poverty of an artifice. But Handel is Handel.