Review: The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins

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.

Review: Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief

Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief
Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief by Roger Lundin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The very fact that I am writing these words and you are reading them suggests some kind of belief about the function of language. Exactly what that function is has been called into question by recent literary theory. At one time if I said I was writing about a book by Roger Lundin titled Beginning with the Word, you would think that my words had reference to the actual (or virtual) book. Recent literary theory has separated word and thing such that any use of words is simply representing what they signify in my mind, my own subjective experience, and not the actual book.

Certainly there is warrant for this idea. One of the daunting tasks of reviewing is to attempt to do justice to an author’s ideas, whatever one’s critique of them may be. Actually, this is something I felt I struggled with more than usual in reading this book, reading it twice, and even then, not being sure I am doing the author’s ideas justice.

What Lundin seems to be doing in engaging 19th and 20th century writers like Emily Dickinson and William Faulkner as well as theologians like Karl Barth, as well as literary theorists like Ricoeur and Gadamer is to explore the skepticism of belief in both modern literature and literary theory that arises from this separation of word and thing. In so doing he explores the desire to believe in the midst of such skepticism, the desire for a storied existence in a literary culture suspicious of any metanarrative. He considers the power of words to awaken awareness using Frederick Douglass’s autobiography of how reading gave him an awareness of his personhood and the desirability of freedom.

Lundin would propose that there is even yet ground for belief because of the Word who became Flesh, the One who incarnated a union (reunion?) between word and object. This is a central tenet of Barth’s theology and provides a basis for a belief in the transcendent, in the possibility of grace, and for being part of a story that makes sense and gives meaning to life.

The author positions himself not as one proposing an “absolute” argument as a modernist writer might, but rather speaks as a “witness” weaving together a theology of the Word, his own experience, and themes in literature (story, making sense of time, a longing for home, and dreams of justice and deliverance) to affirm that it is possible to make statements of belief that aren’t simply polite fictions, personal sentiments, or statements about what we know isn’t so, but rather affirmations of ultimate, life-giving realities rooted in the One who brings Word and Thing together.

I confess that I struggled to follow the train of the author’s thought at points, particularly where he delves into literary theory. The thematic approach reflects less a linear argument than coming at an idea from several perspectives. Yet I suspect that for some these elements along with the humble yet forthright “witness” that affirms while leaving room for others might in the end prove winsome and more persuasive than any absolute, linear argument. Certainly for any student in literary studies who wrestles with critical theory and questions of belief, this is an important resource.

[This review is based on a complimentary e-galley version of this book provided by the publisher through Netgalley. I have not been in any other way compensated for the review of this book.]

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Review: Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman

Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman
Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman by George Steiner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading George Steiner, I discovered that discussions about the future of the humanities, and their decline or demise are not limited to the present. This collection of essays, written between 1959 to 1967 give us a window into the conversation in Steiner’s generation, particularly concerning the place of literature, as well as the other arts, in our society.

Steiner contends that the thread that holds this collection together is the attempt to articulate a philosophy of language after the Holocaust and the totalitarian regime of Stalin. What is evident in reading these essays is the trauma of this period on literature, as words were twisted in ways that represented black as white, and where people could read Goethe and listen to Schubert and preside over the extermination of the Jewish people and consider it all in a day’s work.

The first group of essays in this book particularly explore this theme and whether in fact “Humane Literacy” can have a transformative effect for good. The essay on “To Civilize our Gentlemen” particularly explores this idea and the possibility of reading that fails, in the words of Kafka, “to wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull”. In this same collection, we see the despair of some artists and the lapse into wordless silence where words seem inadequate to the human condition. Equally, in “Night Words” Steiner explores the real problem with “high pornography” which is the utter banality of the writing.

In subsequent sections, he gathers essays under the titles of “Language out of Darkness”, “Classics” (which includes a fascinating essay on Homer and the differences between The Iliad and The Odyssey), “Masters”, “Fiction and the Present”, and “Marxism and Literature”. I found much of this heavier going not only because I don’t live in the world of literary criticism, and even less, am I aware of the critics, and many of the works that were being discussed in the early 60s.

Nevertheless, Steiner draws very fine portraits of critics like F.R. Leavis, and Georg Lukacs, and particularly the literature emerging out of Central Europe in the post-World War II, Stalinist purge era. We have his fresh take on the advent of the media age heralded by Marshall McLuhan and the shifting consciousness of moving from an age of print to an age of the image. Steiner seems dubious of McLuhan’s prophecies, yet it cannot be argued, I think, that in the years since Steiner wrote, we have indeed witnessed and are continuing to witness a media revolution that is continuing to shape and change our relationship to the word and verbal discourse.

Equally, Steiner draws fine portraits of other writers and their work. I think particularly of the essay on Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in her early 30s (“The Art of Dying”) and his essay on the life of Leon Trotsky, a tragic figure in Marxism. The puzzle for me was how all these fit his proposed theme, and yet the exploration of these figures was worthwhile.

Recommendations? I’m not sure I would recommend starting here in reading Steiner (even though I did!). Bettter places to start are his early works, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky and The Death of Tragedy or the works for which he is most known, In Bluebeard’s Castle (in which he explores anti-Semitism) and After Babel, where he devlves more deeply into language. This might be best for those acquainted with Steiner’s other work, and the literature of this period.

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