Saturday 8 April 2006

Gerard Manley Hopkins

[From my review, awaiting publication, of Fr Ian Ker's 'The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961.]

Regarding Hopkins, three effects of his conversion are explored. First, his introduction to the public but extraliturgical vernacular devotions that were the staple of corporate lay piety between the beginnings of the Catholic Revival and the Second Vatican Council.
It was the public recitation of the Rosary, of various Litanies, of the Station of the Cross, and so forth, that was the more ‘typical’ Catholic service from the ordinary lay Catholic’s point of view, even though obligatory only in a social or cultural sense. But this socially and culturally definitive form of piety would have been new to Hopkins when he crossed the Tiber.
Furthermore, in the Society of Jesus that Hopkins entered, daily attendance at these Litanies was made compulsory in 1556, and constituted the only communal act of daily worship in a Jesuit community.
This form of prayer was "simple, brief, strikingly monosyllabic", while ejaculatory prayer was "even terser", and would again have been "unfamiliar to a convert" while, like the Rosary and Litanies, constituting "the common possession of all Catholics."
Fr Ker presents this as the key to the monosyllabic rhythm of Hopkins’s verse, rather than those proposed by the Anglo-Catholic Geoffrey Hill. "The significance of Corpus Christi processions is not made clear", and the revival of plainsong was yet to come. Any Jesuit church in a position to have Sung Mass and Sung Vespers on Sundays would have used little or no Gregorian music.
And Hopkins’s spirituality would have been fundamentally, if not exclusively, Ignatian, with no revival of contemplative prayer among Catholics until the twentieth century. But Fr Ker describes "the actual religious forms and language in which Hopkins was immersed as a convert and a Jesuit."
Second, "although Hopkins is not the first English religious poet to be in holy orders, he is the first such poet actually to write about what a clergyman in fact does." The roots of this "wholly new dimension that Hopkins brought to English religious poetry" are in one of this book’s recurring themes: the extent to which Catholics see religion as everyday life, so as to be quite unaffected when speaking of religious matters.
For example, in Felix Randall, Hopkins gives priests the same matter-of-fact attitude to death and the dead as nurses or undertakers might have, without any hint that this is unfeeling. In referring to his own visit to the deathbed, Hopkins writes without any irreverence of "anointing and all", and not necessarily of having said anything to the dying man, but rather of having "tendered" him Communion.
This expresses "the priest’s solidarity with the working man, as what he has to offer him does not come from his (inevitably superior) knowledge of the Bible and spiritual books." Rather, it "consists of simple things such as (blessed) oil and (consecrated) bread which he brings and ministers with his own bare hands. In other words, the priest too is a kind of workman."
And third, Hopkins’s conversion influenced his verse by changing his attitude to death. Michael Wheeler distinguishes between the dogmatism, in the truest and best sense of that word, of Newman (The Dream of Gerontius) and Hopkins (The Wreck of The Deutschland), and the Broad Church sympathies of Tennyson (In Memoriam) and Dickens (Our Mutual Friend).
But Fr Ker sees the true distinction as between the Catholic belief in Purgatory and the invocation of the Saints, and the (official) Protestant insistence that "the dead person is no longer in any contact or relationship with the living, apart from a continuing existence in the memory." For this reviewer, both distinctions are necessary.
Given the debt of the Modern English poets to Hopkins, what are the implications for the criticism of their work of his own debt to Ignatian spirituality, Scholastic thought, devotion to his fellow Jesuit poets (the martyrs Saints Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion), and the devotions described above? And in the light of all this, how might Hopkins’s concept of the priest as craftsman serve as a critique of Donne and, especially, Herbert?
Furthermore, once Hopkins’s true debts have been identified, how, in the light of his work, might they and it be related after all to Corpus Christi processions, to plainsong, and to contemplative prayer? These are all as neglected today as are Ignatian spirituality, Scholasticism (although this is changing), devotion to the English Martyrs, and extraliturgical devotions.

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