Hopkins, the Self, and God

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jesuit priest and poet, lived from 1844 to 1889 and thus would seem to be situated in the middle of the Victorian period. Unfortunately, at least for those who like their literary and historical chronicles neat and orderly, Hopkins refuses to fit neatly anywhere. He certainly lived in the heart of the Victorian period, but his poems were almost all published after World War I. In anthologies, he is sometimes found among the Victorians and sometimes with the modern poets, with whom he is seen to have more in common. There is also a continuing debate about whether Hopkins is to be considered a major or a minor poet; on the grounds of influence and of studies about him, he would seem to qualify as major, but (say others) he must surely be minor, simply on the grounds of the relatively small number of poems that he produced. The easiest way to duck such questions is perhaps to state simply that whether major or minor, whether Victorian or modern, Hopkins is certainly an important poet.

Hopkins, the Self, and God, however, admits of no havering about these questions: Hopkins is definitely modern (though perhaps not for specifically literary reasons, as will be seen below) and just as definitely Victorian—and certainly major. In this work, Father Walter Ong, the noted Jesuit scholar, continues his concern for the evolution of consciousness and the understanding of human identity. Ong’s most recent work in this area is Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982). The present volume actually dates from 1980 to 1981, when the material was first presented at the University of Toronto in the prestigious Alexander Lectures, but it was not published in its present form until 1986. Other works by Ong that bear upon the same themes are Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reasoning (1958), The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (1967), Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture (1971), and Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (1977). In all these works, as well as in the present work, the overriding theme, under one guise or another, is the history of consciousness and the development of the modern awareness of consciousness.

Ong is insistent that in his awareness of the self, the “I,” the nameless which is immediately before each of us and is absolutely other than anything in the physical world or even God, Hopkins is very modern, not only ahead of his own time but also well ahead of the present time, and that in this Hopkins is unique. Ong then discusses in detail this one single characteristic and theme of Hopkins (preferring the term “awareness of self” to the more modern jargon of “self-awareness”), presenting in three chapters the backgrounds of and influences on Hopkins that led him to this awareness of self and, in a final chapter, estimating the effect of all of this on Hopkins and emphasizing the modernity of it. In each of the first three chapters, Ong pursues the related themes of Hopkins’ sensitivity to particularity in the external world (a quality immediately noticeable to even a cursory reading of Hopkins’ poetry and one of the first things that strikes a reader) and of Hopkins’ equal sensitivity to the particularity of the individual self. As Ong clearly demonstrates, the two go hand in hand, two sides of the same coin. If, upon occasion, the writing is pockmarked with abstractions and the technical jargon of the social sciences, the reader must remember that essentially Ong is trying to talk about something for which ultimately he has no words (as Hopkins also did not).

Chapter 1 demonstrates how the Victorian Age in which Hopkins was inevitably immersed was an age of growing awareness of self and an age of growing particularity in much literature, art, and, especially, science and technology. His detailed example of how Hopkins used the details of the shipwreck of the German steamer Deutschland from the London Times (obtained by telegraphy) in his major poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland” demonstrates in one small way how the age itself influenced the poet. In chapter 2, Ong presents the Catholic ascetic tradition, especially as found in the Spiritual Exercises (1548) of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, and its influence upon Hopkins. He ranges widely over this tradition, which was present to Hopkins as an element...

(The entire section is 1875 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Choice. XXIV, January, 1987, p. 764.