Hopeful Hopkins, essays
by Desmond Egan (The Goldsmith Press, €20.00)
Noel Barber SJ
In these essays, Desmond Egan sets himself a clear goal: to correct the image of Fr Gerard Manley Hopkins as a “sick and self-lacerating person” and to present “the energetic, witty and hope filled” person that existed alongside the “physically frail, hypersensitive, nervous and thought-haunted” man.
In presenting this “hopeful Hopkins”, he takes aim at those who argue that his Dublin years were particularly sad. Egan accepts that there were melancholic moments in Dublin but rightly insists that there was more to his Dublin life than these.
He veers towards denying that the dark Dublin sonnets were descriptions of Hopkins’s own desolation, and strongly suggests that it would be wrong to identify the feelings of desolation in these sonnets with the feelings of the poet. He then presents the happy Hopkins that comes out in the diaries, journals and letters and emphasises the support Hopkins’s firm Faith must have given him.
These essays are not exclusively about Hopkins’s personality. There is an essay on the modernists’ reception of Hopkins, which produces a vigorous defence of Hopkins against their less than enthusiastic assessment.
In the essay on Joyce and Hopkins Egan establishes against heavy weight opposition, that Joyce was well aware of Hopkins. An essay on Hopkins and Hiberno-English begins with the amusing, if rather condescending, letter of Hopkins to his sister in which he mocks the everyday use of English in Ireland. It serves as a starting point for a discussion of the Irish language’s influence on the English we speak in Ireland.
There is an interesting essay on Hopkins and the late James McKenna. The essay ‘Hopkins, Neurosis and Art’ takes up some of the themes of the first essay ‘Hopeful Hopkins’, but contains some puzzling and needless repetition from that chapter.
The essay ‘Varieties of Exile’ explores the impact that physical, artistic and intellectual exile had on Hopkins and on a number of other writers. Hopkins gave poetic expression to the experience of exile in ‘To be a Stranger’.
The value of this book and Egan’s strength is his treatment of the poems.
The essay on ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ is the best study of that poem I have seen. Egan with the eye and feeling of a poet illuminates Hopkins’s metrical complexity, the developing significance of the metaphors, and the influence of Greek. All this and much more in the interest of grasping the inscape of the poem so that one will forever read it with new feeling and understanding.
Similarly, his analysis of the Dublin sonnets of desolation reveals the strength and movement of these poems. Egan illuminates, as only a mastery literary critic can, the brilliance of Hopkins’s technique. As in the case of ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’, one’s reading of the Dublin sonnets will be deeper and richer.
Egan makes the case cogently that not to see the joyful side of Hopkins is to miss an essential quality of the man and his life, but it is a pity that he did not give greater attention to Hopkins’ spiritual writings and particularly to his retreat notes of 1883 and 1889. The retreat notes force one to ask if the hope of Hopkins was a cloak masking what he called his “self-loathing” and to seek the source of such self-loathing.
Perhaps on this theme Egan will produce another book of fine essays.