Essay

All Things Original and Strange

On the centenary of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Poems.
Gerard Manley Hopkins Black & White Portrait

A hundred years ago, the British poet laureate Robert Bridges published the first collection of poems by his friend, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who died almost 30 years before, in 1889. Hopkins published only a few poems in his lifetime, certainly not his best ones, and there had been no great clamor for more. He had doubts about what remained unpublished. So did Bridges, who, hedging his bets, wrote to the poet A.E. Housman on May 25, 1918: “The book will be one of the queerest in the world, but it is full of genius and poetic beauty and will find its place.” Bridges wasn’t fully convinced by the work’s queerness—by which he seems to have meant its technical experimentation—but the genius and beauty did indeed shine through.

The rise of Hopkins’s posthumous reputation somewhat parallels that of his American contemporary Emily Dickinson. After her death in 1886, her work appeared in successive editions between 1890 and 1936, upgraded to modernity by late publication. Dickinson had corresponded with the minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whose traditionalist eye wasn’t calibrated to see the value of her work. He thought it “remarkable, though odd … not strong enough to publish,” in much the same way that Bridges had reservations about Hopkins’s idiosyncrasies. Both poets suffered from supposedly clarificatory editing of their punctuation. When she was eventually published in full, Dickinson seemed both modern and old, awkwardly wedged between literary periods.

The 1918 edition of Hopkins’s work, similarly plucked out of the poet’s own time, evinced something newer than a mid-century Victorian, arguably more complex, and much queerer. Perhaps in Bridges’s estimation, a world newly ravaged by the Great War might be ready for such a writer at last. Here was a poet whose suppressed anguish intensified his appreciation of the ephemeral beauty he found in both nature and human activity, and who affirmed a faith that claimed to transcend the pains of mortality, in verse that was unsettlingly, if beguilingly, tentative.

When Hopkins was a student at Oxford in the mid-1860s, an atmosphere of sentimental friendship, underpinned by the classics, pervaded the university and its various Christian trends. While making friends, Hopkins developed a sense of Christ’s love that resembled an idealized friendship of this sort: intimate and intense, not sexual necessarily, but often physically informed. (The ideal friend was beautiful.)

He fell in love with Digby Mackworth Dolben, a fellow student and a poet to whom he had been introduced by Bridges. He wrote a trio of poems to Dolben, including “The Beginning of the End,” which Bridges said should never be printed, although he relented by the time of the posthumous collection. Dolben drowned in 1867, at age 19, but he left a lasting mark on Hopkins’s way of thinking about both physical and spiritual beauty. As expressed in his verse, Dolben’s own faith took shape as a mawkish homoeroticism: “Jesu, my Belovèd, / Come to me alone; / In Thy sweet embraces / Make me all Thine own.” Dolben’s poem “Brevi Tempore Magnum Perfecit Opus” is about a youth who dies at 17 and is taken up to heaven arm in arm with Jesus, the Bridegroom, to be wed to Him: “We think the Bridegroom sometimes stood beside him as he slept, / And set upon those virgin lips the signet of His love.”

A similar confluence of spiritual and homoerotic themes occurs in Hopkins’s poetry, in which Christ appears as an ardent friend. In “The Lantern Out of Doors,” the speaker notes the beauty of men passing him but admits that once they are out of sight they tend to be out of mind too (“distance soon consumes them”). Yet, they aren’t beyond care:

Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
   There, éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd,
Their ránsom, théir rescue, ánd first, fást, last, friénd.

In “The Soldier,” Christ routinely protects and comforts soldiers with kisses (“For love he leans forth, needs his neck must fall on, kiss ... ”). Hopkins is erotically awake here yet aware of the need to control himself. The body of Christ disturbed him; he knew the beauty of a good representation of the crucifixion. One of his notebook entries reads: “Having an evil thought in looking on a beautiful crucifix of Aunt Kate’s.” In an 1879 sermon he said, “I make no secret I look forward with eager desire to seeing the matchless beauty of Christ’s body in the heavenly light.” His faith encouraged this anticipatory infatuation and stoked the fires of guilt over having such feelings at all. When the English poet and critic Coventry Patmore showed Hopkins his book Sponsa Dei (1888), which argues a connection between erotic and divine love, Hopkins said primly, “That’s telling secrets.”

John Henry Newman received Hopkins into the Roman Catholic Church on October 21, 1866. By 1868, Hopkins felt a vocation to join the priesthood (he wasn’t ordained until 1877). It’s reasonable to infer a connection between his early decision to go against his parents’ wishes by converting to Catholicism—a decision that virtually exiled him from the family—and his knowledge of himself as a potential sodomite. (“To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life / Among strangers.”) During that same period he came close to the scandalous world of Bohemian aesthetes: he was tutored by the essayist and critic Walter Pater, he frequently met with the poet Algernon Swinburne, and he visited the studio of the painter Simeon Solomon, who was imprisoned for homosexual offenses in 1873. Had Hopkins watched himself less closely, he might have wandered into other company than the Jesuits, wittingly or not.

In addition to Hopkins’s biographer Robert Bernard Martin, scholars including Joseph Bristow, David Alderson, Richard Dellamora, and others within gay literary studies have done good work on the subject of the poet’s repressed homosexuality. Any of us who dare this sacrilege, though, are liable to be criticized for lacking tact. In an essay titled “Fact and Tact” (2001), and again in his book Reading After Theory (2002), the critic Valentine Cunningham deplored the “rough-and-ready critical tactlessness” in my own History of Gay Literature (1998), and he attacked my “curious dwelling on the disturbingly attractive ‘sweat’ of Felix Randal.” (I wrote 24 words on the matter in a book of 240,000 words.) He took particular exception to my arguing about Felix Randal and Harry the ploughman, from Hopkins’s eponymous poems: “Their sweat, though disturbingly material, is also evidence of their virtue. It is both filthy and clean. It signals simplicity, which Hopkins finds trustworthy.” Cunningham accused me of inventing Felix’s sweat, which isn’t explicitly mentioned in the poem, perhaps unaware that sweat is metonymic for labor in scripture (“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”). Cunningham alleged that the sweat had “been imported gratuitously on the back of Theory’s trundling lorry-load of stock notions.” Of course, the problem isn’t theory or sweat, but the mere possibility of a gay Hopkins.

For many men in Hopkins’s era, and after, celibacy was a way to formalize the unspeakable fact of their attraction to other men, and a strategy to avoid the shame of discovery. Relationships were confined to the safety of “friendship,” and women—although they might have appeared the crux of the matter—were excluded from the picture altogether. Hopkins wasn’t at ease in his physicality. Anyone who had, as he did, a haemorrhoidectomy at age 28 (plus diarrhea for the rest of his life), and who was circumcised at 33, must have had an ambivalent sense of what it meant to inhabit a potentially pleasurable body. In his notebooks and letters he repeatedly refers to himself as a eunuch.

Soon after Dolben’s drowning, Hopkins decided to give up writing poetry and destroy what he had already written. It wasn’t eventual readers whom he wanted to deny the pleasures of his poems (he knew that copies remained in the possession of friends), but himself. Aesthetics and erotics carried similar risks: they betrayed how easily the beguilement of creation could distract one from God. Since Hopkins thought of verse as bodied with language—referring to John Dryden, he spoke of “the naked thew and sinew of the English language”—reading and writing might themselves become dangerously physical activities.

On the other hand, just as pre-game abstinence is said to stiffen the sinews of a sportsman, so perhaps might celibacy sharpen the perceptions of a poet. It might, at least, concentrate the mind on alternatives to the most obvious pleasures of the flesh. Hopkins had an essentially visual appreciation of beauty: the plumage of a bird, the scales of a fish, a boy’s wet skin. He loved with his eyes. His sensitivity to natural forms can be startling. I think of his exhortation to “Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!” at the start of “The Starlit Night,” and the way in which loving God and looking are treated as the same thing in “Hurrahing in Harvest.” It’s as if he has been given those eyedrops that dilate the pupils and make one see with sudden, literally eye-opening clarity, all edges sharpened, all colors enhanced to virtually Fauvist flamboyance.

However, Hopkins also felt that his appreciation of nature, or of friendship, ran the risk of distracting him from his loving duty to God. In 1869, for instance, he indulged in “custody of the eyes,” a form of penitential self-abnegation involving the avoidance of beauty. His eyes would be downcast, perhaps in both senses, avoiding people and things. (One thinks of the customs of modesty imposed on young women worldwide.) Yet, while it seems certain that he held to his vow of celibacy, he soon went back to looking, just as he also returned to verse: it was the most manifest way that he worshipped God.

The beauty of the world—also its ugliness—interested Hopkins more than what he regarded as the relatively unimportant matter of ritual. Writing to his father, who had accused him of converting for trivial aesthetic reasons, he said, “I am surprised you shd. say fancy and aesthetic tastes have led me to my present state of mind: these wd. be better satisfied in the Church of England, for bad taste is always meeting one in the accessories of Catholicism.” From an initial conviction that aesthetics were inferior to theology, and a shallower system of values, Hopkins eventually reconciled the two. A sensory appreciation of form and function in the physical world—despite its pains, filth, and disappointments—was a way to come to terms with, and submit to, the authority of God. The implied commandment was to make the effort to find rewards in trials. You might call this pressure under grace.

Hopkins’s poems are full of beautiful boys, some of them named—Felix Randal, Harry Ploughman, Tom—but most of them generically beautiful-boyish. “Epithalamion” includes an episode of voyeuristic pastoral, in which a man watches boys bathing, and the poem’s readers watch both man and boys:

By there comes a listless stranger: beckoned by the noise
He drops towards the river: unseen
Sees the bevy of them, how the boys
With dare and with downdolphinry and bellbright bodies huddling out,
Are earthworld, airworld, waterworld thorough hurled, all by turn and turn about.

Seduced into enjoyment, the stranger discreetly finds himself an adjacent pool and, stripping off, bathes there alone. In truth, it’s a relief to get away from that awkward “downdolphinry” into the woods. (Had the poet ever seen a dolphin?) Oddly enough, Hopkins’s detours into homoerotic reverie are among the most conventional passages in his work. The Victorian literary scene was awash with sentimental verse about boyhood, most of it pederastic by convention—that is, modeled on classical poetry about love between man and boy even when celebrating adult relationships. If Frederick William Faber, one of Newman’s stable of Catholic priests and the author of some of the best-known hymns in English Catholicism, could get away with verse like this, there was no reason why Hopkins shouldn’t. The Oscar Wilde scandal, which cast a spotlight on the potentially sexual meaning of such sentiments, was still far in the future. Although anxious about what he might reveal of himself, Hopkins was often disarmingly indiscreet. The ecstatic tone of “The Bugler’s First Communion” is derived from his own pleasure at having delivered the Host to the bugler’s outstretched tongue: “Christ’s darling, dauntless; / Tongue true, vaunt- and tauntless; / Breathing bloom of a chastity in mansex fine.” There isn’t much held back in Hopkins’s description of the young man’s “limber liquid youth” that “Yields tender as a pushed peach.”

In a letter to Bridges, Hopkins acknowledges that his poetry “errs on the side of oddness,” adding, “Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive and it is the vice of distinctiveness to have become queer. This vice I cannot have escaped.” The word queer wasn’t meant in a sexual sense, but by then it did connote various failures of conformity. The key poem in this context is “Pied Beauty,” in which Hopkins’s extolling of “All things counter, original, spare, strange” is quite daring, if we take seriously the inclusion of all such things. The examples laid out in the poem are mainly natural and visible: the variegated coloration of cattle, trout scales, finches’ wings, and agricultural landscapes. But Hopkins adds a human detail, or, rather, a whole world of human details: “áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.” Without gratuitously trying to sex up this line, the metonymy seems fetishistic in its substitutions. Somewhere in the line’s absences are the tradesmen themselves. (I take trade as having been a predominantly masculine concept in Hopkins’s day; it certainly is in his poems.) He is thinking of the practical, physical movements of working-class men within the defining ambit of their accoutrements.

Elsewhere, though, trade is clearly seen as tainted. In “God’s Grandeur,” the drudgery of manhood is imagined as both dirtied by and dirtying the world:           

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell [.]

These are the labors to which man was condemned at the Fall. The work of this world is spondaic drudgery—"shéer plód,” as Hopkins puts it in “The Windhover”—whether ploughing a field or working as a junior priest among poverty-stricken Irish immigrants in the slums of Liverpool, as Hopkins did.

What does it mean to be “dappled?” The examples the poet provides may be remarkable, but they aren’t abnormal. Each is true to its own nature, but all of them stand out. They draw attention to themselves, not for their strangeness within the parameters of the physical world—for nature and culture are full of such things—but for the astonishment (“O!”) they provoke as evidence of God’s creativity, and for the contrast readers might note between the evanescence of their mortal beauty and the changelessness of His immortal beauty. To which, the only apt response the poet can provide is, “Praise him.”

Himself more than merely “dappled,” Hopkins has a sacerdotal exceptionality: for better or worse, readers tend to grant his poems the impunitive status of prayer. Indeed, some readers are happy to go further. In 1949, for instance, the Jesuit priest Norman Weyand spoke of “the long Holy Saturday which the poems underwent after their creator’s death” and “the rapid spread of knowledge concerning them after their resurrection in 1918,” suggesting they were as far beyond reproach as Christ himself. (Holy Saturday, when the tabernacle stands empty and the crucifix is shrouded in purple, comes between Good Friday, the day of the Crucifixion, and Easter Sunday, that of the Resurrection.) Still, there’s no way Hopkins’s peculiar eye can represent Everyman’s. He had read the great egalitarian Walt Whitman but, for all his recognition of the needs and aspirations of the common man, on whose behalf he worked in Liverpool and Dublin, Hopkins wasn’t with Whitman politically. Hopkins’s celebrations of working-class men’s bodies demand a degree of virtue signaled by evidence of hard work. In “Tom’s Garland” (subtitled “upon the Unemployed”), he distinguishes between the eager and the feckless, although in different terms. In a letter to Bridges dated February 11, 1888, he speaks of “Loafers, Tramps, Cornerboys, Roughs, Socialists and other pests of society” and notes that he’s “indignant with the fools of Radical Levellers.” (Whitman himself was a great loafer.) On October 18, 1882, he wrote to Bridges: “I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any other man’s living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession. And this makes me the more desirous to read him and the more determined that I will not.” Whitman’s celebrations of comradeship were rather near the knuckle, their embraces far more demonstrative than Hopkins’s yearning look at a bathing boy.

For all its emphasis on beauty, the stress and strain of Hopkins’s verse is never restful. A Hopkins lullaby would keep most readers awake. His lines are taut with effort:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible...

I’m surprised when I read in Sylvia Plath’s journals (February 27, 1956): “Meanwhile, read Hopkins for solace.” And again (March 6, 1956): “... all the despair, coming at me when I am most weak. I will read Hopkins: and, when our lives crack, and the loveliest mirror cracks, is it not right to rest, to step aside and heal.” Plath places Hopkins in the exalted company of Eliot, Yeats, Dunbar, Ransom, Shakespeare, Blake, and Dylan Thomas, as one of those who “made of the moment, of the hustle and jostle of grey, anonymous and sliding words a vocabulary to staunch wounds, to bind up broken limbs” (March 1, 1958). But Hopkins the healer doesn’t indulge complacencies: he draws attention to the wound and the fracture in his own body, in Christ’s, and therefore in the reader’s. His healing hurts.

The apparently apple-cheeked “lovely lads, once, wet-fresh ‘ windfalls of war’s storm” who appear fleetingly in the sonnet “To What Serves Mortal Beauty?” seem blown in from Wilfred Owen or Robert Nichols, but more fundamentally innovative things happen in Hopkins’s work. Released into the disinhibiting era of Modernism, Hopkins sometimes sounds as if he’s echoing Eliot’s Prufrock (“Do I dare to eat a peach?”). But just as often, his poems feel unrestrained in their exuberant manipulations of language. Read for the first time in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, these poems must have echoed some of the disruptions of equilibrium that afflicted culture as a whole.

Imagine the crucial example of “The Windhover” as it must have been read in 1918. Despite its false medieval atmosphere of heraldry and falconry, it’s very modern. No one has come up with a definitive map of its indeterminate syntax. It’s hard even to parse some of the key words.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
   Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

(Surely not a noun, is “buckle” a verb, and if so, is it indicative or imperative?) “The Windhover” is like something by Mallarmé, arcane and miraculous. The poem’s speaker, rapt and rapturous, seems to forget for a moment that the falcon is a raptor, rapine its intent. The wordplay isn’t gratuitous; it generates itself out of the strangeness (“dapple-dawn-drawn”) of the poet’s ornithology. The speaker is enchanted, like a child, by the idea of flight, but also knows that the “shéer plód” of worthy, mortal labor enhances the face of the earth, “the sillion,” to which the body will return. This doesn’t sound like the mud of Ypres or Passchendaele, battlefields where nothing has been beautified, but the neurasthenic blur of the poem’s thread sounds all too current.

Hopkins’s syntax is awkward as it progresses through a line, piecemeal, advancing word by word and pausing often for punctuation. Even single words are open to question, no mot so juste as to be beyond doubt. Consider these lines from “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”:

[…] Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind
Off hér once skéined stained véined varíety ' upon, áll on twó spools; párt, pen, pack
Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds—black, white;’  right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But thése two;

Hopkins’s speakers have a habit of interjecting a rather campy “O” into their train of thought, as if appealing in the accusative to a second person, a listener, for sympathy or help. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether that “O” represents a gasp of wonderment or a wince of pain. In either case, it’s an immediate response to a physical stimulus, a reflexive twitch or twinge when confronted by the world of creation.

Other times, Hopkins dares himself toward the brink of inarticulacy. (On Oxford: “Towery city and branchy between towers.”) He’s often reduced to a gasp or a sigh, a syllable stressed by astonishment, when gazing wide-eyed at the world around him. His moments of apparent inarticulacy are themselves telling: they say more than you might think they could. It may be, though, that the reader mistakes for this stammering and circuitous discourse something Pentecostally articulate, barely recognizable as speaking in tongues, let alone comprehensible. Hopkins’s most broken lines are the essence of pressure under grace. They make me think of Yeats, writing in 1932: “nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.”

The strangeness of Hopkins’s formal innovations, slipping off the bonds of iambic convention, and of his fragile and febrile sensibility, came not piecemeal but all at once, fully developed, in the posthumous 1918 edition of the poems. This gave their modernity a take-it-or-leave-it immanence in the postwar literary scene. Although many of the poems were, or seemed to be, tentative, there was no poet with whom to argue the toss. The work had to speak for itself, and it did. Hopkins’s inner conflicts may have remained unresolved, but in the shattered conditions of the 20th century, his indeterminacy didn’t have to coalesce for him to be recognized as having touched a raw nerve. In some respects, the world changed to accommodate him.

Originally Published: December 26th, 2018

Gregory Woods is the author of Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry (1987), A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (1998), and Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World (2016), all from Yale University Press. His five main poetry collections, of which An Ordinary Dog (2012) was the most recent, are published by Carcanet Press....