Transformation

Gerard Manley Hopkins: a shepherd poet

Religious poetry speaks of beauty, healing and homecoming - of humanity being led back to lost origins.

Michael Kirwan
24 September 2019
‘Shepherd and Sheep’ by Anton Mauve, 1880.
|
Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

For all its prizing of diversity, our current political culture is not coping well with rival identities and claims to political or social recognition. Specific issues or debates turn out to have lots of different dimensions - social, cultural, and even religious. As a glaring example, should a population continue its membership of a certain political or economic union? People have multiple and tenacious identities and allegiances, and managing and negotiating them can be an excruciating challenge.

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-99) shows us ways of handling diversity and unity together. In his poem 'Pied Beauty,' he declares: “Glory be to God for dappled things!” The poet's delight in the sheer, apparently haphazard variety of natural phenomena is sustained by a unifying religious awareness.

His way of holding these things together can be succinctly illustrated by two of his best known sonnets, ‘God's Grandeur’ and 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire.' The opening line of the first of these poems, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” straightaway offers a delightful ambiguity. On the one hand, creation is 'electrified' as it were, crackling and sparking with the divine presence. At the same time that creation is 'charged' - as in entrusted - with the task of giving God glory.

Both readings are echoed by the Ignatian ‘everyday’ spirituality which Hopkins lived and breathed - a pathway to deeper prayer, good decisions guided by keen discernment, and an active life of service to others. At the very beginning of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, we are told that human beings are created “to praise, reverence and serve God.” At the end, the “Contemplation to Attain Love” celebrates the effervescent excess of God's loving activity. Hopkins' artistic achievement finds itself in this space between purposive responsibility and the ecstatic mutual self-abandonment of lover and beloved.

A more complex version of this tensile relationship between responsibility and play can be found in 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire,' in which the crucial differences between Hopkins and his Romantic forebears in poetry are made clear:

“I say móre: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is -

Chríst - for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men's faces.”

The whole poem shares in the romantic's joyful scrutiny of nature's “minute particulars” (William Blake’s phase from ‘Jerusalem’), while insisting on its incompleteness without Christ.

What, therefore, is the “móre” that Hopkins is pointing to when he says “I say móre?” Hopkins' pleasure in nature, and in the splendid autonomy of every creature to 'selve,' evokes a religious response. He shares with the Romantics a strong sense of nature's beauty; he departs from them in his explicit grounding of this individualised beauty in the gracious activity of God in Christ.

This is the same thing he could only find by committing himself to religious life: an immensely painful decision for his non-Catholic family and friends, and also difficult for Hopkins, for whom Jesuit life, especially when it brought him to Ireland, entailed a severe cultural and geographical alienation. The suspicion of many readers and critics of Hopkins is that a deep-rooted tension exists between the 'priest' and the 'poet,' an uneasy incompatibility between his religious calling and his creative genius.

On one level, this is nothing more than an extreme expression of poetry's dual function, which is to instruct and delight. Nevertheless, because of the peculiarly austere nature of Hopkins' Jesuit religious commitment, it is easy to fall into a judgement that his priestly vocation mitigated or constricted his literary talent. There is, indeed, alienation in his work, but it goes far deeper than the frustration of a poet whose genius is being starved.

Hopkins' sojourn in Ireland is generally regarded as an unhappy one. While Dublin was certainly an uneasy place for an Englishman at the height of the Home Rule controversy (a country where it was only necessary to belong to the Roman Catholic 'tribe' to feel religiously justified), Hopkins was equally distant from his native England – a country where the cult of philosophical 'reasonableness' was deemed sufficient for salvation. Neither provided a home for the yearning which drew Hopkins into the priesthood.

His comments on the respective spiritual states of the two countries occur in his retreat notes on the Spiritual Exercises written in 1888, where Hopkins reflects, childlike, on the wondrousness of his being:

“Nothing in nature comes near this unspeakable stress of pitch, distinctiveness and selving, this selfbeing of my own. Nothing explains it or resembles it, except so far as this, that other men to themselves have the same feeling.…But to me there is no resemblance: searching nature I taste self but at one tankard, that of my own being. The development, refinement, condensation of nothing shews any sign of being able to match this to me or give me another taste of it, a taste even resembling it.”

Whatever constraints Hopkins may have felt as a result of his vocation, there is no sense here of an imagination cowed into religious self-deprecation or submissiveness. Rather, it is helpful to recall the dialectical dynamic of the Spiritual Exercises in order to discern a distinctive patterning in Hopkins' verse, which offer a repeated drama of God's offer of grace eliciting human resistance.

With very little effort, much of Hopkins' verse can be mapped onto this framework, above all the opening and closing meditations of the Exercises. The Ignatian dynamic of alternating light and dark, of grace offered and refused, only to be offered again, is an interpretive key for many of the major poems. It becomes all the clearer why Hopkins' poems are never simply a 'romantic' rejoicing in the natural world.

Nature is indeed celebrated, but only as the theatre of God's ceaseless, gracious activity. Hopkins feels the fissure which runs through modern human existence as strongly as any other poet of his century - our rupture from the transcendent - but there is no question of nature (or indeed, poetry) substituting for religion.

There are, to be sure, interesting parallels here with the German Romantic conception of the poet/priest as a 'shepherd of Being,' of healing and homecoming, and of humanity being led back to lost origins. But in the case of Hopkins, is the attempt to combine the two callings successful?

In an essay entitled 'Priest and Poet', the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner praises the poet as the utterer of primordial words which “always remain like the brightly lit house which one must leave behind, ‘even when it is night.’” These words are “filled with the soft music of infinity....They are the children of God, who possess something of the luminous darkness of their Father.”

According to Rahner, the words of the true poet cross borders endlessly. Spoken in powerful concentration, these words bring all reality into the light, redeeming it from the imprisonment of separation and into a world 'charged with the grandeur of God.' The poet is the minister of this sacrament of words, “in which realities come out of their dark hiding place into the protective light of man to his own blessing and fulfilment.”

The priest’s vocation is similar, as one who is entrusted “with the efficacious word of God himself.” These two modes of existence appeal to and mutually condition each other: “The priesthood releases poetic existence and sets it free to attain its ultimate purpose. At the same time it discovers in the grace of poetic power a charism [or ‘gift’] for its own perfection.” The poet's word calls up another word, which is a response to their own. The poet and priest are connected: one utters the poetic question, the other the divine answer.

Rahner's essay was written in honour of a priest colleague who was also a poet. I am not aware that he was familiar with the verse of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and I’m not sure that Hopkins is an easy example of the mutual conditioning that Rahner envisages between poet and priest. Their convergence, he suggests, may be thought of 'eschatologically' - we can imagine a point of future convergence where the priest proclaims poetically, and the poet, satisfied by the answer he receives, tells what he hears. It is possible for us to see the priest becoming a poet and the poet a priest, even if, as in the case of Hopkins, their coexistence is not at all straightforward.

In any case, says Rahner, such a fortunate coincidence is rare. “If it happened often,” he writes, “there would be too much radiant beauty for our hearts.”

Get emails from Transformation A weekly roundup of stories from the people combining personal and social change in order to re-imagine their societies. Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram