Monday, March 2, 2009

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Been reading the biography Gerard Manley Hopkins, by Paul Mariani. Gift from a good friend. We both admire Hopkins’s poetry, and for Christmas he gave himself and me a copy. Something we could share and talk about.

Funny. When I first started writing poetry with some seriousness. Oh, this was back when Pangaea, the super-continent, was still forming. This was about 300 million years ago or so.

At a time when rhyme and meter and alliteration and parallelism and syllabic construction—all the techniques we now know today are actually useful in constructing poems—had not been invented yet. Or at least I wasn’t aware of them. But it nevertheless turned out that I sounded—to every knowledgeable person I showed my work to—like Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Go figure. One of the most learned and gifted prosodists and classicists of the 19th century. One of the most innovative and insightful poets in the English tradition. And I had the misfortune to sound like him. And so early on I became aware of him backwards, so to say. Read him because I sounded like him and needed to understand him a bit before I could alter my style and approach so that I wouldn’t sound derivative any longer.

I don’t think I’ve fully recovered since. But I have enjoyed and do enjoy his poetry. I admire it greatly. Part of what is so exciting for me even now is his love of God. It comes through loud and strong in his work. I comes across fresh. Newly made. Every time. He really did experience God. Time after time after time. And he is extraordinarily faithful in bringing that experience to us. Bringing God to us.

And so I launched into Paul Mariani’s biography with some energy. Some enthusiasm. But here I am about two months later and still I’m not completely done. I’m close, but I’m not done.

Why? Well, first of all it’s long. And second, it really does do a remarkably thorough job of revealing Hopkins’s agony. It provides a lot of source material, quoting from his journals and letters and others’ letters, to ensure that we can see that his observations and insights and conclusions are valid. And I enjoy that, by the way.

I say agony. What I mean is that what Hopkins appears to have done is to take quite to heart the idea that he should be like Christ. That he should be Christlike. And he of course never measures up. He never stops trying. But he never is good enough.

Not clear exactly how this idea gets into his head, comes swimming into his head like some marauding lamprey worming its way up a brook trout stream to spawn. But it does. Maybe when he converts from Anglican to Roman Catholic, this happens. Maybe when he decides to become a Jesuit, this happens. Maybe the Ignatian exercises imported this non-native species. Maybe when he is routinely dismissed by his superiors as an eccentric, this happens. Mariani isn’t clear. He may not know, either.

But it does happen and it does so early in the poor man’s life. And it debilitates him. It fills him with despair. It sucks the joy and stamina and laughter right out of him. It makes him diligent to the point of being obsessive. It makes him so self-critical and anxious that he thinks about suicide often. He thinks about his many friends and acquaintances who have committed suicide. Often.

So here is a man of God. This Jesus follower. This God-lover. This mystic. This spiritual friend. This person I have been linguistically and poetically connected to through his writings for most of my adult life. And I’m reading his biography. And I want to weep. I want a time machine. I want to go back in time and find the poor guy and put my hand on his shoulder and say something like, “Peace, Brother.

“God’s own peace. Listen to Jesus. What does he say in this matter? Doesn’t he say to love God and love your brothers and sisters? Isn’t this enough for you? I know you are ambitious. I see that. But set that aside for love. Let love be your companion. Peace, Brother. Cut this idea away like you would cut a parasite away. Or let me do that. Here. I have the stomach for it, if you do.

“This will be painful. It has become so much of you now. Where this begins and you leave off are no longer distinct. But listen. Let’s talk about the Gospels. Let’s talk about what Jesus said in the Gospels. Let’s go to him in prayer together. Let’s ask him.

“Jesus is not a torturer. Jesus does not like torture. Particularly self-torture. Particularly torture that is not necessary. He brings love. And yes, this does entail pain and troubles. But the pain and the troubles are the necessary evil. Not the sought-after good. The sought-after God.”

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