Selected Letters Analysis

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Letters is drawn from the three-volume set edited by C. C. Abbott. Catherine Phillips orchestrated this selection, and, Cambridge professor that she is, her format is designed for academic readers. A “Biographical Register of Correspondents and Persons Frequently Cited” precedes the letters, and forty-two pages of notes follow them.

Despite the trappings of official British scholarliness, the letters offer an illuminating look at Hopkins’ mind and personality for the general reader. The conventional and fairly superficial sense of Hopkins which readers take from anthologies is of a quintessentially quirky figure, a poet who burned his poems or refused to publish them, a writer of strange-sounding sonnets praising God. The letters reveal a man trapped in his own convictions, longing for a readership while denying the possibility of same. He seems either an artist trapped in a religion or a believer held hostage by art, but whatever emphasis most accurately describes Hopkins, he was a man whose brain penetrated the objects of its apprehension like a root system in fertile soil.

The general terrain included Catholic dogma, art, literature, music, the English countryside, and the English language. The Hopkins growing above the various root systems included a simultaneity of guises: poet, critic, teacher, priest, composer, and logician. Such was Hopkins’ professional profile. His affective profile included a similar diversity: self-denier, patriot, advocate of manliness (“Manley”), beauty-finder (he studied with Walter Pater at Oxford), and melancholic. The letters, with the exception of those to his mother and a few to his sister, are to fellow poets and other men. Though prepared in the fastnesses of Jesuit life, they preserve the feeling of the ruling Englishman brought up in privilege and accustomed to the highest social ranking. Seeing the poor in Liverpool, presenting them with the sacraments in his priestly duties, Hopkins never fully surrenders to a vision of their life. The letters mention the pain but seldom propose an identification.

The codewords which anthologies preserve regarding Hopkins—“inscape,” “sprung rhythm”—are metaphors for his life as lived through the letters. They show Hopkins indefatigably lurching into things. A critique of his best friend’s poems is unsparing: “In general I do not think you have reached finality in point of execution, words might be chosen with more point and propriety, images might be more brilliant etc. I will give you some instances.” “Instances” he does provide, whether to Robert Bridges, the friend above;to his brother Everard, a painter (“The composition will not come right of itself it must be calculated, I see no signs of such calculation.…1 am glad you got the commission but not satisfied with your discharge of it”); or to the poet Coventry Patmore: “Your news was that you had burnt the book Sponsa Dei, and that on reflexion upon remarks of mine.” So highly did Hopkins regard his own literary judgments that he regrets John Keats did not live to read them: “If I could have said this to Keats I feel he would have seen it.”

Such remarks suggest a coldness, an extreme of artistic rigorousness, as well as a comic overestimation. For Hopkins, there was a right way for things to be done, and the artist pursued it. Failing to find it, his feelings should not be considered. There was the possibility, however, that a man might have it right and others, through being insufficientlyinto the matter, fail, by perception or intention, to catch on. When Robert Bridges complained of not understanding Hopkins’ poem on the composer Henry Purcell, Hopkins wrote back: “It is somewhat dismaying to find I am so unintelligible though, especially in one of my best pieces.” A crib was included but “best” was not seemingly up for negotiation. Master craftsmen know best, whether when considering their work or their neighbors.

And if other poets’ and artists’ work needed cleaning up, so did the material they used to make their forms. “Potato” was the “most laughable” word in the language and should never appear in a poem. “Earth apple” should replace...

(The entire section is 1725 words.)