William Logan's complaint about the "badly kept secret that Hopkins is often nearly unreadable" ("Antagonisms," October, 2004) is akin to complaining that God is nearly unknowable. I said akin, not analogousbecause, though Hopkins's poems are not God, they are linguistic enactments of a mind floundering towards God in the modern world. By his time that world had grown hostile to authentic faith channeled into religious terms, a hostility that is still with us.
"Donne is religiose," Logan protests in advance to this response, "yet I'd happily convert if apostasy meant I could no longer read the Holy Sonnets." However, Donne's world accommodated his religiosity; Hopkins's did not. If Donne had breezily announced an intention to "convert" to the wrong faith or engage in "apostasy" from the right one, he could easily have lost his head, and not metaphorically. However much we deplore such religious intolerance, its existence stemmed from his age's immersion in what Hopkins's contemporary Matthew Arnold called "the sea of faith," which Arnold declared at an ebb. Arnold and the early T. S. Eliot could pacify themselves with lamenting this sea's departure, but Hopkins has the lone distinction of trying to sing the high tide back both for himself and for a public that didn't especially want it. In doing so, he became, like many poets modern and contemporary, an incorrigibly idiosyncratic voice.
All poetry is prayer, however much it diffuses itself horizontally into the world. Hopkins's oddity stemmed from his refusal to shed the vertical reach of poetry toward an unseen heavena refusal carried forth with unshakable conviction and true belief. He had the genius to realize, however, that he could not with integrity carry this refusal out in forms that had habitually suited poets such as Herbert, Donne, and Milton. The latter lived when men of faith could render interior discoveries in publicly intelligible forms because of publicly held assumptionsthe Incarnation, judgment, eternity, heaven, hell. Hopkins's oddity, which sometimes seems like "cornball theatrics" or "barnstorm oratory," became necessary because the Western imagination misplaced the blueprint for the wheel. This doesn't make Hopkins a major poet, but it does make him an indispensable one.