Hopkins, the Self, and God

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1875

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.

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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 of his membership of the Jesuit order, of his seminary training, and of his priestly life. There is here a lengthy discussion, interesting in its own right, of the nature of Ignatian discipline and life, and Ong makes clear how the Spiritual Exercises, though presented in manual and outline form, are more than simply a list of topics about which to think and practices to perform. Chapter 3 follows the same basic pattern, tracing the influence on Hopkins of the Thomistic academic theology which he studied in the seminary, especially moral and systematic theology. Perhaps of equal importance to Hopkins’ background, however, was his interest in and knowledge of the work of John Duns Scotus, whose philosophy tended to emphasize the individual rather than the universal; Duns Scotus was perhaps not quite in the main line of official Catholic theology and philosophy, but his particularism undoubtedly reinforced other strains of thought in Hopkins and his background.

It is in the final chapter that Ong brings together his three key concepts; to summarize them is not simple, for Ong’s argument and demonstration are not simple and straightforward. The concepts are awareness of the self, decision making, and freedom; Ong argues that awareness of the self and of particularity leads to the ability to make decisions, and that it is in decision making that man is in fact most free and most human. It is impossible to reproduce here the subtlety of the argument.

Ong is a true scholar who has at his fingertips many strands of modern intellectual life—science, psychology, literature, art, theology, philosophy, history, and more. What is most impressive about this book is not what is specifically said about Hopkins but the demonstration it gives of the unity and interrelatedness of knowledge. In the space of a few brief pages in the course of chapter 1, for example, Ong connects Samuel Taylor Coleridge, depth psychology and phenomenology, Plotinus and Saint Augustine, the insights of Jacques Derrida, the “self concept” of current literary criticism, semiotic structuralism, and proto-Indo-European linguistics to illuminate his discussion of Hopkins and his Victorian milieu. Such connections are certainly not made to show off learning, but because they illuminate the specific figure he has under examination. Ong does not criticize or evaluate in a vacuum; he can take knowledge of the distant past or of the present and use it in a fresh way to say something new about Hopkins.

At the same time, it must be said that this wide-ranging play of intellect can create problems for the reader. A general reader may well not be aware of or sufficiently up on the various sorts of knowledge and disciplines that Ong brings to bear. Frequently his references are too compact, too brief, too elliptical for full understanding except by a specialist. This aspect of the book is probably a result of the original presentation of the work as a series of lectures, when time and space did not permit the full development of material which perhaps requires a more discursive treatment. Thus it is that the book is probably most appealing to Hopkins scholars and to those familiar with modern psychological currents of thought; the work has its insights about Hopkins, but it is definitely not the first book on Hopkins that the student or general reader should attempt. While the overall pattern and thesis of the book is clear, it is, though brief, formidable.

In specific terms of Hopkins criticism, this work may be said to be more a commentary than an analysis. It takes its rather narrow topic and asserts and presents it from several angles. It deals not at all with much else about Hopkins than awareness of the self and its implications. It proves its point with much evidence and intricate argument. The book will not at all change the basic or standard view of Hopkins as a poet, though it will certainly emphasize the importance of self as a major theme and concern, as well as the importance to the poetry of Hopkins’ Jesuit background and his priesthood, an importance occasionally denied and even lamented.

At times the book seems to treat Hopkins as an example of the movement of mind in modern thought rather than as the subject under discussion. At times, the reader even receives the impression that Ong would like to claim for Hopkins a stature as a modern thinker or philosopher, but Ong manages to resist the temptation. What Ong has done is demonstrate that Hopkins is not a freak, that he is the product of his background, upbringing, training, and education. Yet, there is more than this that accounts for an individual and a poet—and that is the “self” which Hopkins and Ong, each in his own way, wish to father forth. It is a noble concept and one that penetrates to the most secret sources of what it is to be truly human.

Two items might have been given a bit more treatment. Walter Pater and the Pre-Raphaelites are mentioned only in passing, yet one would have thought that such notable particularist artists would have had more connection with Hopkins’ Victorian milieu, especially since Pater was one of his tutors at Oxford. At the end of the book, Ong raises the subject of Hopkins’ “suffering.” This is an aspect, especially of Hopkins’ later years, that has attracted the attention of a number of commentators. Ong argues that the suffering, the agonizing that can be found in many of Hopkins’ poems and in his notebooks and papers, was well within the mainstream of Christian teaching, according to which “any suffering, accepted with love, has positive value.” Some critics have explained Hopkins’ intense suffering as the result of ill health and overwork, some as reflecting a sense of frustration, and a few as a sign that Hopkins was chafing at the bit of his Catholicism or his priesthood. Whatever the reasons (and Ong persuasively contends that Hopkins was not wavering in his commitment to the Church), Ong either cannot or does not supply reasons for this specific man at this time and place to feel as he did. Perhaps again the reasons are too interior for anyone to know at this remove. Perhaps we shall never know, as much as we would like to know.

Hopkins, the Self, and God is, then, a brief but packed work. It is well organized and aided by the brief subheadings under each chapter. There is a brief index and a lengthy and useful, if rather specialized, bibliography. The book also includes a complete list of all the Alexander lecturers since 1928, with their respective topics. It is sad to relate, but, for a book produced by a university press, there are a distressing number of typographical errors.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4

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

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