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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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.