The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins presents enormous challenges to the reader; its complex rhythms and odd linguistic constructions often defy easy interpretation. Similarly, the curious, even perverse, life of Hopkins can shock and confuse, even as it compels. Norman White has accumulated an impressive array of factual materials and provides revealing selections from diaries and letters in order to make sense of a peculiar, tragic life story. Although he admits in his preface that Hopkins’ was a life without a coherent pattern, he does illuminate many of its mysteries. White’s great care in exhaustively documenting every step in Hopkins’ career and extreme reticence to speculate beyond the boundaries of the strictly provable make this an eminently trustworthy, if never inspired, reference work on the late Victorian poet.
White is first and foremost a literary critic whose interest in Hopkins’ biography stems from the ways it can help in understanding Hopkins’ poetry. Thus in his opening chapters, White pays close attention to the literary output and aspirations of Hopkins’ father, Manley, in order to trace their influence on Gerard, the son. Manley published both prose and poetry that, when placed side by side with the work of Hopkins himself, demonstrates some clear similarities in rhythm and tone. Of equal importance during these early years was the dynamic artistic community present in Hopkins’ childhood home of Hampstead, where William Makepeace Thackeray, John Everett Millais, Anthony Trollope, Robert Browning, and George Meredith visited often. In this intellectually rich and stimulating environment, Hopkins grew up as an intelligent, creative child whose aesthetic sense was highly developed from an early age.
White nearly overwhelms his reader with data concerning Hopkins’ years at school in Hampstead, Highgate, and later Oxford. He describes carefully the atmospheres and physical environments of the institutions and draws on numerous contemporary accounts of school life in order to give a sense of the day-to-day routine of Hopkins, the student. White’s extraordinary care in documenting and supporting every statement that he makes leads to an unfortunate reticence to speculate beyond the wholly provable. He admits that Hopkins was a difficult child and lonely young man; he carefully reports Hopkins’ passionate friendships with other boys and awareness of his sexual desires for them but never places the development of Hopkins’ unstable self-image and ascetic life-style into the obvious context of a socially pervasive and finally internalized homophobia. White tells us the precise layout of Hopkins’ rooms at school and describes carefully the view from his Balliol college window, but we find little insight into the inner struggles of Hopkins the confused young man, tortured by sexual yearnings that both church and state severely condemned.
Certainly White is at his best in tracing the development of Hopkins’ aesthetic sense. From letters written during Hopkins’ years at Oxford, White draws numerous quotes that demonstrate the poet’s sensitivity to the natural world and love of beauty. White lingers over the language of the letters, drawing attention to its rhythm and variety. In one of his finest chapters, “Vital Truths of Nature: Hopkins and Ruskin,” White places Hopkins’ early observations of nature into a Ruskinian context, finding in Hopkins’ attention to diversity in plant life and texture in scenery a translation of Ruskin’s aesthetic theories into practice. Even before Hopkins began writing poetry (he was considering a career as a painter during these early years), his close observation and thorough appreciation of both words and natural beauty anticipated later expressions of sensual delight in poems such as “Pied Beauty” and “The Windhover.”
The difficulty of poems such as the latter stems partially from Hopkins’ eccentric use of language; he jammed words together without respect for grammar or syntactical clarity. Hopkins was fascinated throughout his life by words with similar sounds and possibilities for assonance and alliteration. White quotes from the many lists of favorite words that Hopkins accumulated during his Oxford years, compelling readers to hear their echoes in later poems. He quotes from Hopkins’ letters, in which prose descriptions gradually gave way to poetic meters and rhythms, tracing the difficult birth of Hopkins the self-aware poet. White gives numerous examples of the immature but fascinating poems and scraps of poems that Hopkins slowly began to produce during his years at Oxford, pieces that capture the despair, loneliness, and tremendous talent of the quiet, introspective student.
Hopkins’ process of coming to awareness as a poet is paralleled by his religious struggles but ends temporarily with his final conversion to Catholicism. This transition is one of the most difficult to explain or understand, for as White notes, Hopkins’ family was not particularly religious and certainly his society was still profoundly suspicious of, even paranoid concerning, the Catholic faith. In his tenth, eleventh, and twelfth chapters, White attempts to account for Hopkins’ decision in late 1866 to embrace Catholicism. He reports, but again barely analyzes, Hopkins’ admissions concerning his sexual attraction to other males in his diaries, his profound guilt over his...
(The entire section is 2197 words.)