The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins, Margaret R. Ellsberg ed., Foreword by Dana Gioia. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2017.
Summary: An exploration of the life and faith of Gerard Manley Hopkins through commentary and a selection of his poetry, letters, journal entries, and sermons.
The life of Gerard Manley Hopkins seems to me a life of startling contrasts. He writes wonderfully vibrant poetry using innovative rhythms–poems that often are celebration of the glory of God evident in the creation. At the same time, he is a devout Jesuit, whose submission to the order meant largely a life as priest and academic examiner in slums of Liverpool, Glasgow, London and Dublin. He died of typhoid contracted from antiquated plumbing. We follow the man who burnt his early poems when he converted to Catholicism and entered the Jesuits, whose life was shaped by the Exercises of St. Ignatius, whose passion was God’s glory, and the incarnation of Christ, revealed afresh in every Eucharist. We also see a man deeply torn between his artistic sensibilities and the physically and psychically crushing routines of most of his life as a Jesuit, to which he seemed ill-suited, that comes through in the anguished “Terrible Sonnets.”
Margaret Ellsberg weaves the narrative of Hopkins life and faith through a combination of commentary, and selections of poetry, letters, sermons, and journals throughout the course of his short life. Because there are only 49 of his poems extant, many of these are included in this selection, set in the context of his life. It is fascinating that Robert Bridges, who subsequently published his works, struggled to make sense of them and found at least one sufficiently difficult that (in Hopkins words) “you wd. not for any money read my poem again (“The Wreck of the Deutschland”). Ellsberg’s work gives us clues, sometimes from Hopkins himself, to the understanding of his poetry, and that is what makes this work most attractive, along with the selections of his poetry.
As much as I love Hopkins poetry (my favorite is “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”), the title of this work (part of a series sharing “The Gospel In…”) mystifies me in some ways because the gospel may have evoked praise and wonder with regard to God’s work in the world but mostly despair with regard to his own life. Wonder and devotion there is in great measure, but a sense of peace, of wholeness seems lacking. There is the dutiful fulfillment of assignments that seem poorly fitted to who he is, which makes one wonder why he chose the Jesuits and the priesthood. Compounding his struggle was physical weakness, and perhaps a melancholy character. But gospel also implies “good news”, hope for us in our fragile humanity. Only on his deathbed does he find some peace, as he whispers over and over, “I’m so happy, I’m so happy.”
Perhaps there is something of temperament in all of this, an artist not fully at home in his world, torn by the tension between “God’s Grandeur” and the ugliness of much of what he endured around him. One wonders if different choices or different assignments might have made a difference. Or was it something “unreconciled” in his “gospel” that seemed to result in a life of great devotion but little contentment or peace?
Yet we have this great poetry, much of it an effervescing abundance captured in the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Hopkins life remains an enigma to me, but I can thank his Maker and mine for the gift of his writing. I leave you with “God’s Grandeur”
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
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: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.