Dark views and terrible news

Brendan O’Regan takes a ‘sonic journey’

I’ve always liked the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, though I’ll admit to being challenged by the quirky use of rhythm and language that has made his work so distinctive.

RTÉ 1’s Drama on One series featured an unusual drama based on Hopkin’s poetry, Sunday of last week. No Worst There is None was described as “a sonic journey into the mind of Gerard Manley Hopkins as he approaches death”, presented by the Stomach Box theatre group. It was an effective combination of readings from Hopkins’ poems and letters, finishing suitably with the poem that gave the programme its title.

The drama concentrated on the latter end of Hopkins’ life and he was far from content. He spoke of the “wicked thoughts” that assailed him, the “old habits” he couldn’t shake, some “dangerous subject” he dwelt too much on; the laziness that led to “wasted time”. If he tried to make excuses for himself he felt guilty about the rationalising. Though he was at times “pitched past pitch of grief” he had some happy moments, times when he felt he was the “most placidist soul in the world”. The drama ended with him declaring “I’m happy” at the end of his life, though after all the angst that preceded it, this felt a bit arbitrary, and I though the drama could have created more of a basis for this to make it seem less random.

It was indeed a ‘sonic journey’, with poetry reading interspersed with sound effects, echoes and songs from the singers of Dublin Choral Foundation and St Patrick’s Cathedral Choir. The solo singing was effective, but the children singing gave it somehow an eerie and unsettling feeling, which may well have been the intention. Anyone not familiar with Hopkins may well have found the whole experiences somewhere between intriguing and freaky!

It was helpful that this production was followed immediately by a short programme, Hopkins and the Sonnet, in which Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman of Glenstal Abbey reflected on Hopkins’ pain filled “terrible sonnets”, which he described as “therapeutic” and not originally intended for publication. He provided some interesting historical background – how Hopkins was alienated in England because he had become Catholic and in Ireland because he was English! He ended up mainly correcting the copies of students in Newman’s new university in Dublin. No wonder he had dark thoughts!

Abbot Hederman gave a more rounded view of Hopkins from his giving up on poetry on becoming a Jesuit, through his return to the art with Wreck of the Deutchland a tribute to a group of nuns who had died in a shipping accident, to his dark moments later in life. Though describing the poet as a “psychosexual mess” at one stage, he stressed that one needed to consider Hopkins, not primarily from a psychological angle, but by considering his life and work in terms of his ‘great relationship with God’, the relationship that led him to a final happiness at the end.

A media consumer might be forgiven for getting as depressed as Hopkins considering the constant stream of violent news stories since the start of the New Year – more murders in two weeks than in the first two months of last year. I’m sure many wonderful things have happened in January, but so few of the uplifting stories attract headlines.

Most gruesome of all was the death of Tom O’Gorman. I had met Tom a few times at various events, but having read all the glowing tributes I’m sorry now I didn’t know him better. Media commentators have been pointing out that these murders were rather random and unconnected, not the familiar gangland killing scenario. But shouldn’t we, as a society, be examining the apparent upsurge in aggressive behaviour, with rows too often escalating into fatalities.

January is usually a bleak enough time of year and I think the media need to develop more balance in their news priorities and coverage. In the case of Tom’s murder at least TV and Radio were much more restrained than the print media – on Monday morning of last week both RTÉ Radio 1 and Newstalk refused to give us the lurid headlines from some of that day’s newspapers.

This January it has seemed harder than ever to respond to Pope Francis’ call to embrace the joy of the Gospel, but that joy was never more urgently needed. 






Pick of the Week



EWTN Mon Jan 27, 10.30am and 9pm

Looking at the moral culpability of euthanasia and the difference between helping someone die and helping someone who is dying.



RTÉ 1 Sun Jan 26, 11:00am

The Most Rev. Eamon Martin, Coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh celebrates a special Mass to mark the start of Catholic Schools Week.



EWTN Fri Jan 31, 5.30pm

Maggie Gallagher discusses the gay marriage debate.