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Essay

The following is an excerpt from The Havoc & the Glory, a new biography of the Jesuit priest and British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889), to be published by Viking Press in fall of 2008.

 

APRIL, 1888. DUBLIN: STILL WINTRY. He sits at his desk in the classroom, administering an examination to his second-year Latin

students. The subject is Virgil’s Georgics. He thrums his fingers on the desk, then—after a while—picks up one of the unused exam booklets lying on the desk, opens it, and begins a wedding poem—an epithalamion—for his youngest brother, Everard, and his fiancée, Amy. He is thinking of Virgil’s pastoral world, and perhaps of Edmund Spenser and of the flowing Thames and then of the swimming places he used to frequent on the Hodder near Stonyhurst, or the rivers along the Devonshire in the long vacation, and then of Fred Walker’s painting of boys shouting and swimming in summer. He thinks he will make of the image an allegory of that welcoming new element in which a man and a woman move and have their being when they marry. “Make believe / We are leafwhelmed somewhere with the hood / Of some branchy bunchy bushybowered wood,” he begins daydreaming:

Southern dene or Lancashire clough or Devon cleave,
That leans along the loins of hills, where a candycolored, where a gluegold-
__brown
Marbled river, boisterously beautiful, between
Roots and rocks is danced and dandled, all in froth and waterblowballs,
__down.

And then he is there, rather than here in this musty classroom on Saint Stephen’s Green, and suddenly there is a shout “That the hanging honeysuck, the dogeared hazels in the cover / Makes dither, makes hover,” yes, as he remembers a world of “riot of a rout”: “boys from the town / Bathing: it is summer’s sovereign good.” It is another kind of composition of place altogether, this one closer to Whitman, perhaps, for now “there comes a listless stranger: beckoned by the noise”—it is Everard, perhaps, or himself, or anyone exhausted with the plodding workaday world, who wants to loosen his necktie or collar:

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.

He listens and watches them gamboling, and wants this world, this new freedom. But modestly, apart, at a remove, at a remove, yes, like and unlike, where he can join in, the all-world mothering of it, the male and the female of it…. And so:

__he hies to a pool neighboring; sees it is the best
There; sweetest, freshest, shadowiest;
Fairyland; silk-beech, scrolled ash, packed sycamore, wild wychelm,
__hornbeam fretty overstood
By rafts and rafts of flake-leaves light, dealt so, painted on the air,
Hang as still as hawk or hawkmoth, as the stars or as the angels there,
Like the thing that never knew the earth….

He looks up at the heads bent down over their books, forelocks falling forward, and he thinks, thinks about his sacred matter floating on this “only gamboling and echoing-of-earth note,” and begins now to explicate his own wedding allegory: What is the delightful dene? Wedlock. What the water? Spousal love. And those trees he has catalogued—“silk-beech, scrolled ash, packed sycamore, wild wychelm, hornbeam fretty”? They are “Father, mother, brothers, sisters, friends,” the wedding well-wishers, morphed for the moment “Into fairy trees, wild flowers, wood ferns / Rankèd round the bower….” And then the bell, and class is over, and the trees turn into sophomores again, and there is a bustle, and like Coleridge with his “Kubla Khan,” the spell is broken and the poem put aside and all but forgotten.

§

Once, one of his students would remember long after Hopkins was gone, while lecturing on Homer perhaps, and Helen, Father Hopkins suddenly looked up from his text and said something like, “You know, I have never seen a naked woman.” A pause, and then he added. “I wish I had.” It is Hopkins’ world: strict Victorian decorum and modesty at home, then an all-boys’ school, followed by Oxford, with its all-male faculty and students, followed by his entry into the Jesuits. Is it any wonder, then, that—evoking a sense of sensual freedom in his daydreaming prologue to his epithalamion—he should have focused on a group of boys gamboling at a Lancashire waterhole, though he sees himself as modestly remaining apart from the others? Or that, focusing on mortal beauty, he should have pictured those blond, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon youths on the slave block in Gregory’s Rome, and seen the chance to save a nation, his rare, dear own? What he could not stomach was the besmirching of innocence, or the philandering of a priest who had committed himself to a life of chastity. As for the rest—adulteries, rapes, incest, self-abuse, seductions of all kinds—of these he had had his fill and more in the confessional boxes in London, Oxford, Liverpool, and Dublin.

§

May gives way to June, June to July. On July 5 he writes to tell his mother that he is again deluged with exams, which “began last month and will outlast this one. It is great, very great drudgery. I can not of course say it is wholly useless, but I believe that most of it is and that I bear a burden which crushes me and does little to help any good end. It is impossible to say what a mess Ireland is and how everything enters into that mess. The Royal University is in the main, like the London University, an examining board. It does the work of examining well; but the work is not worth much. This is the first end I labor for and see little good in. Next my salary helps to support this college. The college is very moderately successful, rather a failure than a success, and there is less prospect of success now than before. Here too, unless things are to change, I labor for what is worth little. And in doing this almost fruitless work I use up all opportunity of doing any other.” As for his holiday plans: he has none. Worse, the community here no longer takes the Times, “so whenever you like to post a number it will be welcome. The weather has been wet and cold, so that yesterday, after leaving off winter clothing for less than a week, I returned to it again.”

§

“What a preposterous summer!” he writes his friend Canon Richard Watson Dixon on the twenty-ninth. “It is raining now: when is it not? However there was one windy bright day between floods last week: fearing for my eyes, with my other rain of papers, I put work aside and went out for the day, and conceived a sonnet. Otherwise my muse has long put down her carriage and now for years ‘takes in washing.’ The laundry is driving a great trade now.” All that miserable laundry he has had to take in like Lady Jane Nightwork: those endless piles of student writing to grade—hundreds on hundreds on hundreds of translations by young Irish and Anglo-Irish lads clamoring for a place in the higher educational system, papers with their bad Latin and worse Greek, while he turns over his four hundred pounds each year to help keep afloat a university that may well go under at any moment now in the great deluge of Anglo-Irish politics and land rents and Home Rule and the sodden bitterness of three hundred years of mismanagement by a government to which most Irish felt no allegiance. Has he hemorrhaged his eyes with overwork, he wonders? Worse, he fears at times he will go mad with the strain of it all, as he counts up the casualties among his classmates who have left the church and the priesthood for greener pastures or—despairing—leapt off the stern of ferries in the straits between Dover and Calais, down, down and down….

The sonnet he mentions is “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.” Begin at the beginning with Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic philosopher who flourished half a millennium before Christ and who flourishes even now under a different name. Nature: springing from fire and returning to fire, in which everything and everyone will dissolve and disappear. A world, then, calculated in millions on millions of years, a world in constant metamorphosis, evolving and devolving, a marvelous brouhaha of chance, and no one at the helm. Enter Lyell, enter Darwin, enter Huxley and the Victorian scientific mind. Enter the whole shebang in the form of a drunken bevy of clouds high over Dublin in the interstices between one summer squall and another, 26 July 1888. Clouds drunk and weaving across the heavens, because they have imbibed so deeply of the deluge they themselves—whatever selves they can be said to have—have poured out on the earth in one of their millions of earlier manifestations. “Cloud-puffball,” he begins, his bleeding eyes following the cloud formations above him, this perennial star-gazer and sunset-painter and cloud-watcher, who years before had studied the heavens as he had studied bluebells, looking for any least sign of God’s presence and beauty and order to be found there. And now, just two days shy of his forty-fourth birthday—his last—he realizes with a terrible start that the intense hard looking he had given to gleaning the heavens for signs of God’s presence no longer yields what it had so abundantly twenty or even ten years before. Cloud gleaning is a young man’s game, he knows now, and now the very eyes with which he watched are burned out with grading thousands of bad translations of his beloved Greek masterpieces.

“Showers, but mostly bright and hot,” he had written one Sunday night twenty-two years before. “Clouds growing in beauty at [the] end of the day. In the afternoon a white rack of two parallel spines, vertebrated as so often. At sunset, when the sky had charm and beauty, very level clouds, long pelleted sticks of shade-softened gray in the west, with gold-color splashed sunset-spot, then more to the south gray rows rather thicker and their oblique flake or thread better marked…. A drift of spotty tufts or drops, a ‘dirty’ looking kind of clouds, scud-like, rising.” And the meadows about him, “yellow with buttercups…containing white of oxeyes and puff-balls.” Or again: “Soft round curdled clouds bathed with fleshy rose-color in wedges…. Then thunder and lightning and then hard rain.” And, on the very day he clearly saw “the impossi­bility of staying in the Church of England,” he had begun by noting the shapes of clouds. “Dull,” he had reported that day. “Curds-and-whey clouds faintly at times.” But here, now, on this late July day, he has walked out from Saint Stephen’s Green to look up at the skies again, only to find the clouds flaunting themselves and showing off, chevying down the heavens like hounds at harriers after their prey. Heaven-roisterers, he calls them, swaggering drunkards thronging overhead, the apparent masters of the skies. And between them: shivelights—shards of glassy light deepening the shadows along the roughcast facades of the cottages, brightening and dimming as sunlight cuts through the clouds, defining the damask-sharp shadows of elm branches along the walls, marking them, then disappearing. It is all a speeding up, a fast forwarding, a kind of time-lapse photography: here, here, and then gone.

And the wind—noisy and boisterous and rude like the clouds themselves—scattering the standing pools of water in the unpaved roads before him, beating earth bare, then baking the mud and clay created by the recent heavy rains and winds in this Heraclitean first day of creation, as the soft doughy imprint of thousands of hoof marks and wheel tracks and boot prints turn to ooze, then crust, then dust, as if they themselves were the fuel feeding the clouds overhead, and which he sees were never really clouds at all but rather smoke from the things of this world burning, burning, as Augustine said of the streets of Carthage. It is all nature’s bonfire—bonefire—we are witnessing, the holocaust of the world, fire returning to fire, and we mortals willy-nilly feeding those same flames. Clouds in their crazed Ovidian metamorphoses “flaunting,” “chevying,” “thronging,” “glittering,” “lace, lance and pairing.” And the wind—that other bully-boy—roping, wrestling, beating earth bare. And—as if that were not enough, “squandering, stanching, starching” the very earth. It is all a plethora of verbs denoting ongoing, ceaseless action, even violent action in a grand, unending, tumbling cycle—over and over and over, world without end. Amen.

But he is not yet finished, which is why he has employed his codas. Deeper then into this meditation on death and loss, even as the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises of the third week have encouraged him to do. Yes, and what else? What more? In a cruel twist, he notes how the idiot winds likewise snuff and quench the observer observing all of this, and we—who stood apart as nature’s “clearest-selvèd spark,” we, with our abrupt, distinctive, not-to-be-reduplicated selves, we, the so-called pinnacle of all creation, we, nature’s “bonniest, dearest to her”—we too go up in smoke in the great bonfire of creation as it burns drunkenly, merrily on. All is unselved, untuned, and—just as violin or catgut strings go slack, all clear voweling lost—so do we, like our words, until “all is an enormous dark / Drowned.” How his sibilants capture that distinctiveness, piling up in the inscaping of that sheer-off shivelight: “Manshape, that shone / Sheer off, disseveral, a star”: inevitably beat level just like the drying mudmarks here on Dublin’s streets on this July day towards the close of the nineteenth century.

But something else, too, he sees: that fame must go the same way, and all—all—the names in the portraits be lost. Ten thousand more years—a blink in chthonic time—and most likely even the names of Michelangelo and Mozart and Dante and Milton and Shakespeare will join Callimachus and the lost works of the ancients. An older Yeats of course will find some bitter consolation in the great return, the consolation of the gyres, the sense of things falling apart and beginning again. And thus far Hopkins would agree, cold consolation that such a vision of nihilistic gaiety is to each of us individually. But in the longer apocalyptic perspective of vasty time even that consolation pales:

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they
__glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rutpeel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig  |  nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
Is ány of him at áll so stárk
But vastness blurs and time | beats level….

But there is another answer, and it comes mid-line in the sixteenth of the sonnet’s twenty-four lines. And when it comes, it comes unexpectedly, with the clarion cry of abrupt exclamation. It is God’s time cutting instantaneously across the vastness of Darwinian and Lyellian time, which is but a wink in God’s eternal eye. In a letter to Coventry Patmore written four years earlier, he had remonstrated with the poet about the nature of the second coming. It was an event, he said, as far as he understood the matter, that would be “sudden, surprising, and unforeseen,” and when it came it would be “utterly unmistakeable; in that differing from [Christ’s] first coming and all other tokens of himself.” Like the sudden shock of the resurrection itself on that first Easter morning, when the women had gone out early to dress their beloved master’s corpse and had witnessed a turning of everything on its head, an event which can still shake to the core.

No mistaking it, then, the sheer temporal hyperbaton of it. It is the lesson of the nun on the doomed Deutschland, seeing something in an insane storm, as she perished on a smother of sand in the winter of ’75, herself become the heart’s-clarion calling out after her master and his. Well, no matter now, he still has this that he can hold on to: Christ’s promise, His consolation, the very thing that had driven a wedge between him and his own family, and that had once pushed him to the extreme of telling his brother Lionel, who in his eighty-plus years would never understand why his brother had had to become a Catholic and—worse—go over to those despised Jesuits—to please stop writing him, though they had managed to call a truce on that one and agree to disagree. Well, he had turned his hand to the plow and he would not look back. Something out there kept beckoning, most days only faintly, like the light from a winter star or a distant beacon. Still, it was something as certain to him as anything he cared for, and for which he had paid the price. “How to keep,” he had written years earlier, crisping the voices of Winifred’s maidens:

is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow
or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty…from vanishing away?

Then too he had come close to despair, until—in an instant—the solution had come home to him. No human answer, but Christ’s, God’s, manifested in the miracle of His rising. “O why are we so haggard at the heart,” he’d asked:

_______________________________Why so
care-coiled, care-killed, so fagged, so fashed, so cogged, so cumbered,
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it….

And so here again, in the great Mosaic/Pauline/Johannine Deus-ex-machina resolution of this last hurrah. Who are you, the shepherd fronting forked lightning had asked the figure in the burning bush, and the answer had come back. “I am I am.” And again: who are you, they had demanded of Christ, and he had answered “I am.” And Paul, addressing the community at Corinth, having seen once into the core of a great mystery, one that had flattened him on the road to Damascus, naked lightning instantaneously, unequivocally striking, as Hopkins had been struck by a similar conversion experience twenty years earlier, on a reading holiday with two Oxford companions, the realization of what he had to do coming home to him—as he remembered—“all in a minute.”

“Now I am going to tell you a mystery,” Saint Paul had told his little congregation at Corinth with the certitude of the mystic who had come up against nothing less than the brilliance of the resurrected Christ. “We are not all going to fall asleep,” meaning not everyone would die as they might have expected. “But we are all going to be changed. Instantly. In the wink of an eye, when the last trumpet sounds. The trumpet is going to sound,” he assured them, “and then the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed, because this perishable nature of ours must put on imperishability. This mortal nature must put on immortality.” “In a flash, at a trumpet crash,” Hopkins has it, all those scurrying verbs giving way to the central verb to be, as now—in a nanosecond—we take on God’s own life. No evolution or devolution, no waiting in groaning expectation. Suddenly, finally, unmistakably, the self of self, what we mean when we say “I am,” will see that it is suddenly at one with the great I am: “I am all at once what Christ is.” And why? Because of the incredible gift of the incarnation we have been offered: of God’s breaking in upon the world—betweenpied mountains—to share his life with us, in the incredible condescension of his becoming “what I am”: a human being. And so, yes, “this Jack, joke, poor potsherd,” this eccentric, this failure by the world’s standards, this clown, this make-do, this patch sent to mend this or that or the other in one parish or school or university as best he could, this throwaway, this matchwood flaring up for a moment before going out, careful to match in his own life the life of his ever-downwardly-mobile Master, this, yes, this immortal diamond is immortal diamond:

___________________Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Awáy grief’s gásping, | joyless days, dejection.
_________________ Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fáll to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
_________________ In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
|I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor pótsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
 _________Is immortal diamond

Friday night, September 7: Back in Dublin, he writes his closest friend, the poet Robert Bridges, again. After Fort William, he went down to Whitby to spend a few days with his brothers before returning here to begin setting “a discursive MA examination paper, in a distress of mind difficult both to understand and to explain. It seems to me I can not always last like this: in mind or body or both I shall give way—and all I really need is a certain degree of relief and change.” Still, he does not think that what he needs he will get in time to save him. Which reminds him “of a shocking thing that has just happened to a young man well known to some of our community. He put his eyes out. He was a medical student and probably understood how to proceed, which was nevertheless barbarously done with a stick and some wire. The eyes were found among nettles in a field. After the deed he made his way to a cottage and said ‘I am blind: please let me rest for an hour.’ He was taken to hospital and lay in some danger—from shock, I suppose, or inflammation—but is recovering. He will not say what was the reason, and this and other circumstances wear the look of sanity; but it is said he was lately subject to delusions. I mention the case because it is extraordinary: suicide is common. It is not good to be a medical man in the making. It is a fire in which clay splits. There was a young man in this house in my first year, an Englishman, manly and winning too, the sweetest mannered boy. After he left us he went astray. I tried to call on him, but after many trials, finding he shunned me, I gave up trying. I hear he has made a mess of it and is going to make a new beginning in Australia. There are as many doctors as patients at Dublin, a’most.”

“It is now twenty years to a day since I began my noviceship,” he writes the following day. He has the words now for “the first verse of a patriotic song for soldiers, the words I mean: heaven knows it is needed. I hope to make some five verses, but three would do for singing.” The tune—“very flowing and spirited”—came while he was walking in Phoenix Park yesterday. Perhaps Bridges will contribute a verse? The difficulty, he realizes, is that such songs “shall breathe true feeling without spoon or brag. How I hate both! and yet feel myself half blundering or sinking into them in several of my pieces, a thought that makes me not greatly regret their likelihood of perishing…. Can there be gout or rheumatism in the eyes? If there can I have it. I am a gouty piece now.” But even now he manages a jest. “Gouty,” he sees, “rhymes to Doughty,” as in Charles Doughty, author of the just-published Travels in Arabia Deserta, which Bridges has been raving about. He will try to dip into it, he promises, though “to read twelve hundred pages I do not promise.” However, he has read several reviews of it, and there—in several extracts—are those archaisms he so detests: “You say it is free from the taint of Victorian English. H’m. Is it free from the taint of Elizabethan English? Does it not stink of that? For the sweetest flesh turns to corruption. Is not Elizabethan English a corpse these centuries? No one admires, regrets, despairs over the death of the style, the living masculine native rhetoric of that age, more than I do; but ’tis gone, ’tis gone, ’tis gone.’” Doughty finds the style manly. But affectation is not manly, “and to write in an obsolete style is affectation.”

§

Another letter to Bridges, and an explication of a passage in Galatians, about which Bridges has had some difficulty understanding. “The epistle is written,” Hopkins explains, “to reproach the Galatians for listening to those who wd. have them be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses and recalls them to their allegiance to the Gospel, which Saint Paul had preached to them. Saint Paul has occasion often to employ the following familiar images—of life or conduct as a journey made or race run, of sin as a fall, and of law and hard duty as burdens borne.” And then begins a long exegesis. Not satisfied, he resumes the following day. “However men may deceive themselves, of themselves they are nothing and nothing they do has any moral goodness from their doing it. It is then useless for a man to compare himself, who keeps the Mosaic law, with another, who does not, or himself, who set the example of keeping it, with another, who followed his example, to his own advantage: there is no such advantage.” Now “if they once did a little of these good works and now do a great deal, then there is a positive gain, an advantage of themselves over themselves, and of this they may be proud…within the world of their own beings…. But in another way…commerce of good with good is quite right…. Let them by all means do as much good work this way as they can. And to these…let us apply ourselves, never minding how things look now.” The passage shows Hopkins at his best as a teacher—tutoring, Oxford style, one on one, with clarity and force and persuasiveness.

Kate Tynan sends Hopkins a photograph of herself, and Hopkins writes to thank her, though he thinks John Yeats’s portrait of her, which he saw exhibited the year before at the Royal Hibernian Academy, captures her far better. And though he does not care for Yeats’s impressionistic approach there or elsewhere, Impressionism as a style being too “slight,” his portraits are nevertheless “works of genius.” As for her book of poems, Shamrocks, the first (and longest) poem—“The Pursuit of Diamuid and Grainne”—is the best. Of course it is natural for her to work with Irish mythology, as it was with Willie Yeats (though he does not tell her this). Such legends “have their features of interest and beauty, but they have one great drawback: it is the intermixture of monstrosities (as of a man throwing a stone one hundred others could not lift or a man with a leaping pole over-vaulting an army),” for such things “destroy all seriousness and verisimilitude.”

Oh, to go unshod. On September 17, a mock-scholarly letter to the editor of Stonyhurst Magazine, his friend and colleague from his Stonyhurst days, Father John Gerard, SJ, on the subject of playing football barefoot, a letter which will appear in the November issue. “Sir,” he begins in his mock-serious manner, “Football is sometimes played barefoot in Ireland. A friend tells me that the club he belongs to challenged some village clubs in his neighborhood; when the game came to be played their opponents stripped their feet and took the field barefoot. He and his company were surprised, and thought the bare feet would need to be tenderly dealt with, both by their wearers and by those who, like him, had reared three storeys of wool, leather, and iron between themselves and the county Tipperary; but the countrymen told them they could not play with any ease, unless unshod. And the event proved they had no need for apprehension. The barefooted men played as boldly as they did. The ball did not seem to be kicked with the end of the toe, but it was kicked strongly. In point of strength no loss could be seen, and in point of activity the lightness of the foot may have made a good deal of difference. It is likely that those who are accustomed often to go barefoot feel this difference in nimbleness and fleetness keenly.” Then a mock exegesis of the ballad of the “Death of Percy Reed” where the peasant, finding “the hero dying…casts off his clouted, that is heavily-nailed, shoon” to fetch water. So it is “implied that the gain in time would be notable. I should add that Hurley ought in strictness to be played with the feet bare, and that in the games played in the Phoenix Park many of the players may be seen barefoot. Indeed, since this game is in some sort a revival, perhaps as antiquaries discover more and more, advanced players will wear less and less. If at Stonyhurst you would try playing football and other games barefoot you would find it an advantage on many grounds. Gravel however is not one of these grounds; you must play on grass. And now, Sir, though I am pleading for barefootedness, barefacedness I cannot approve of. Iron on my heels I may wear, but brass upon my brow I will not…. Yours, Gymnosophist.” The One knowledgeable in Sports. Tom’s Garland Redivivus.

In the meantime, another Jesuit friend, Father Francis Goldie, who has been in Spain for the summer collecting information for a life of the newly canonized Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez, the Jesuit lay brother who served as porter at the Jesuit house of studies in Majorca two centuries before, writes Hopkins asking for a poem in honor of the saint’s first feast day, to be celebrated on October 30. “My dear Father Goldie,” Hopkins writes on the nineteenth that, though a new batch of examinations are coming up, and his annual retreat must be made before that, he will try to compose something. In fact, he is going that very evening to Howth to spend a day or two with a friend—Judge John O’Hagan—“who, as it happens, has visited the Balearic Isles and has the greatest interest in them, has made a hobby of them; so that I may get something of local color or point from him. I am sorry to say that the writers of saints’ lives are not always or often desirous of giving local color to their subject, rather they suppress it and clothe all their heroes in drab uniform. There is another extreme, more modern, of making the saint the vanishing point in a vast gallery of previous and contemporary history.” Then—still smarting from the criticisms of Bridges and Dixon over his last three attempts at the sonnet, he adds: “You say nothing of the language: I suppose any that I possess.”

§

“I am sorry to hear of our differing so much in taste,” he writes Bridges on September 25. “I was hardly aware of it. (It is not nearly so sad as differing in religion). I feel how great the loss is of not reading, as you say; but if I did read I do not much think the effect of it would be what you seem to expect, on either my compositions or my judgments. I must read something of Greek and Latin letters and lately I sent you a sonnet, on the Heraclitean Fire, in which a great deal of early Greek philosophical thought was distilled; but the liquor of the distillation did not taste very Greek, did it? The effect of studying masterpieces is to make me admire and do otherwise.” Eight days later, while walking through Phoenix Park, he conceives the first part of his sonnet, “In honor of Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez,” then sends a draft to Bridges for his opinion. He was a Jesuit lay brother, Hopkins explains, “who for forty years acted as hall-porter to the College of Palma in Majorca: he was, it is believed, much favored by God with heavenly lights and much persecuted by evil spirits. The sonnet (I say it snorting) aims at being intelligible…. Do not put it aside ‘for further neglect’ but answer smart. It has to go to Majorca. Call in the canon [Dixon], have a consultation, sit, and send result by return—or soon.”

“Honor is flashed off exploit, so we say,” the poem begins:

And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day.
On Christ they do and on the martyr may;
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.
Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

The outward fray: Christ’s example, and Saint Ignatius’ and Saint Xavier’s and Saint Isaac Jogues among the Hurons, say? But what of those for whom the titanic struggle is all within, as with this lowly porter on the island of Majorca? What of those who are bedridden, crippled, house- or prison-bound, who suffer with silent courage from depression or migraines, or who have been given the task of reading thousands on thousands of examination papers and whose salary they never see? Does not the God who over millennia and with infinite patience has hewn the very continents, melting mountains along with glaciers, or each spring for untold ages past has veined violets cell by cell and watches over the slow growth of cedars and oaks and maples, can not this God “crowd career with conquest” when nothing seemed to happen, as a man, who merely did his duty day in day out in a world without event, was molded cell by cell into a saint?


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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