The Magazine

Agony of Spirit

The revolutionary poet revealed in his letters.

Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By EDWARD SHORT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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 If he gradually reconciled himself to the fact that his poems would remain unpublished in his lifetime, he was deeply disappointed that The Month rejected his bravura Pindaric ode, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”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