Book Review: The Poems Of Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Poems Of Gerard Manley Hopkins:  Now First Published, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by Robert Bridges

This book was an exceedingly difficult one to find, seeing as that while there are some books that purport to interpret the poetry of Hopkins, few publishers are in any hurry to inflict this poetry upon the general population.  And having read this book of poetry, it is easy to understand why.  These poems are not good.  In fact, they are quite bad, but at least they are an interesting kind of bad, a revealing kind of bad for the way that they show a learned person struggling mightily with novel forms of “sprung” meter and attempts to put his addled and somewhat deranged mind into rhymed form.  Some of these poems are efforts at comedy that do not succeed, and many of the poems are obscure and unpleasant and fairly ridiculous.  Almost as interesting as reading these poems is reading the posthumous attempts by the editor of the book, a British poet laureate, to explain away the failures of style and approach by the poet and to put the poems of Hopkins, who had already been dead for about 20 years by the time his works were published, in a more favorable light.

The poetry itself takes up a bit more than 100 pages if one includes the endnotes, and in the case of this book, the endnotes are absolutely essential to read because without it one does not get a sense of what Hopkins is trying and failing at, or appreciating the textual complexity of the Hopkins oeuvre, in which there are several possible sources that the editor names, documentary hypothesis-like, into the A (editor’s own MS copy), B (MS corrected MS from the author copied by the editor later), D (collection of the author’s poetry to Canon Dixon, the only other soul who apparently read them during the author’s life), and H (posthumous papers).  Such a complex textual history deserves better material to work with than these stilted and sometimes nonsensical poems, and the inclusion of fragments and incomplete poems that simply fail to end and also the fragments of a play that the author had failed to finish.  The poetry involves questions of psychology, at least two shipwrecks where the poet’s knowledge of seamanship fails him, and poetry about weddings, death, Henry Percell, and his Roman Catholic faith, none of which are particularly good with one possible exception [1].

What is one to make of this collection?  After all, it was chosen by some people who presumably read this dreck to be one of the 25 essential books of Christian reading [2], when there are far better works of Christian poetry included among that list [3].  Yet the gulf between this poem’s reputation for fans of unappreciated underground Catholic poets of the late 19th century and the actual poetic achievements of those poems is wide.  To be sure, the author is a subject of pity, someone whose works were read only by a couple of close friends and who died early in life afraid that his writing and his faith were failing.  And of the two we can agree with the late poetry that his writing did fail, and though we may have compassion on him as a person, and realize that his high degree of criticism towards his own work was perhaps the most sane aspect of his writing, it is less easy to forgive those who want to force everyone else to read these terrible poems because they happen to appreciate the Catholic worldview expressed within them.

[1] See below, with commentary:

“The child is father to the man.’
How can he be?  The words are wild.
Suck any sense from those who can:
“The child is father to the man.’
No; what the poet did write ran,
“The man is father to the child.’
The child is father to the man!’
How can he be?  The words are wild.”

Now, this particular poem is far less obscure than most of the poet’s work, and finds the poet struggling to understand the truth that inside of every adult is child that he or she once was.  Hopkins appears not to understand this statement and in order to refute it, he resorts to repeating it in order to make it sound ridiculous, in the process demonstrating that just as he tries to suck any sense from this particular psychological cliche, his poetry is often sufficiently obscure and opaque that his reader must suck any sense they can from his lines.  The vast majority of verses in this book of poetry are far less easy to understand than this one is.

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/03/25/book-review-25-books-every-christian-should-read/

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/12/14/book-review-the-poems-of-st-john-of-the-cross/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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