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.

As a Jesuit, Hopkins had many postings—proof that the Society of Jesus did not altogether know what to do with their extraordinary convert. From Blackburn, he writes, “It seems likely that I shall be removed; where I have no notion .  .  .”—an uncertainty which led him to refer to himself as “Fortune’s football.” Nevertheless, Hopkins did his best to adjust: “It is our pride,” he says, “to be ready for instant dispatch.” Wales, the slums of Liverpool, Glasgow, Oxford, and finally, dear, dirty Dublin all figure in both his letters and poetry.  

“Museless” Liverpool produced his sullenest reflections: “The drunkards go on drinking, the filthy, as the scripture says, are filthy still: human nature is so inveterate. Would that I had seen the last of it.” Once posted to Farm Street in London, he wrote, “I am so far as I know permanently here, but permanence with us is gingerbread permanence, cobweb, soapsud, and frost-feather permanence.” 

No one—or perhaps only Sir Thomas Browne—ever expressed himself with such felicitous eccentricity.

Again and again, these letters demonstrate the appeal that human distress held for Hopkins. In a letter to Robert Bridges, who became his sounding board and confidant, he writes: 

A shocking thing .  .  . has happened to a young man well known to our community. He put his eyes out. He was a medical student and probably knew how to proceed, which was nevertheless barbarously done with a stick and wire. The eyes were found among nettles in a field. .  .  . He was taken to a hospital and lay in some danger—from shock, I suppose. .  . . It is not good to be a medical man in the making. It is a fire in which clay splits. 

This same fellow feeling would lead Hopkins to recommend the giving of alms to those, like Bridges, who were unsettled in their faith. 

The letters also show what a shrewd literary critic Hopkins was. When someone praises Charles Doughty’s Arabia Deserta (1888), he responds in allusive disbelief: “Is not Elizabethan English a corpse these centuries? No one admires, regrets, despairs over the death of the style, and the living masculine native rhetoric of that age more than I do; but ’tis gone, ’tis gone, ’tis gone.”

The letters exhibit the great store that the artist in Hopkins placed on character, which was not a popular principle in the decadent ethos that his Balliol coach Walter Pater did so much to promote. Apropos what he called “beautiful evil,” Hopkins insists that “it is our baseness to admire anything evil. It seems to me we should in everything side with virtue, even if we do not feel its charm, because good is good.” Indeed, for the poet, “without earnestness there is nothing sound or beautiful in character, and a cynical vein indulged coarsens everything in us.”  

Another characteristic highlighted by these letters is Hopkins’s respect for failure. For the priest in him, the greatest exemplar of the power of failure was Christ, who “would have wished to succeed by success—for it is insane to lay yourself out for failure. .  .  . [but] was doomed to succeed by failure; his plans were baffled, his hopes dashed, and his work was done by being broken off undone.” With such an appreciation for the dignity of failure, it is perhaps not surprising that Hopkins should have told another correspondent that “his muse takes in washing.” Such solicitude for human infirmity resulted in some unforgettably beautiful poetry: 

God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales, 

 Complete thy creature dear O where it fails

Being mighty a master, being a father and fond. 

The letters also help illuminate Hopkins’s highly experimental verse, especially in such poems as “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” and “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Moreover, in one letter, he defends his accustomed complexity by arguing that meaning in verse should be of two kinds: that which is immediately discernible and that which takes a while to emerge, but then “explodes.” It is only apt that the poets for whom he expresses most admiration should be John Milton and Walt Whitman, who may seem poles apart but whose poems do often explode in the way of which Hopkins approves.   

When it came to his own verse, Hopkins was human enough to miss fame. If he gradually reconciled himself to the fact that his poems would remain unpublished in his lifetime, he was deeply disappointed that The Month rejected his bravura Pindaric ode, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” It was a rejection that severely tested the self-denial at the root of his vocation. Still, he was devout enough to recognize, with Ronald Knox, that “waiting upon God alone and letting the world go its own way without you is an integral part of sanctity.”  

Much of his later poetry wrestles with something Ignatius Loyola says in his Spiritual Exercises: “Let him who is in desolation strive to remain in patience, which is the virtue contrary to the troubles which harass him; and let him think that he will shortly be consoled, making diligent efforts against this desolation.” Some—such as Norman White, who wrote a misleading critical biography of the poet—misrepresent Hopkins’s spiritual difficulties. These letters correct the view that Hopkins resented the religious order that forbade the publication of his verse: “When a man has given himself to God’s service,” he wrote to the poet Richard Watson Dixon in 1881, “when he has denied himself and followed Christ, he has fitted himself to receive and does receive from God a special guidance, a more particular providence.”

Now if you value what I write, if I do myself, much more does our Lord. And if he chooses to avail himself of what I leave at his disposal he can do so with a felicity and with a success which I could never command. And if he does not, then two things follow; one that the reward I shall nevertheless receive from him will be all the greater; the other that then I shall know how much a thing contrary to his will and even to my own best interests I should have done if I had taken things into my own hands and forced on publication.

Of course this is not a point of view that most literary biographers can be expected to appreciate; but as these letters show, it was the point of view to which the poet himself subscribed, with whatever anguish. When it came to Hopkins’s vocation, Newman provided the soundest gloss, telling the poet: “Don’t call the Jesuit discipline ‘hard.’ It will bring you to heaven.”

Edward Short is the author, most recently, of Newman and His Family