Gerard Manley Hopkins
In this Sunday’s Washington Post, Michael Dirda praises the new biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins by Paul Mariani.
There have been several previous biographies of Hopkins, including a fine one by Robert Bernard Martin, an eminent scholar of Victorian poetry. But Mariani’s possesses three great strengths: 1) Mariani has lived with Hopkins’s poetry his entire life, ever since writing a commentary on the poems as his first book; 2) over the past 40 years, he has produced biographies of American poets who might be loosely viewed as the “sons of Gerard”: Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, John Berryman and Robert Lowell; and 3) Mariani is a believing Catholic, with consequent sympathy and insight into Hopkins’s religious convictions and experiences. In several ways, then, this is a spiritual biography, intensely focused on the poet’s inner life, coupled with close analyses of his major poems.
Dirda devotes a good deal of the review to introducing the reader to Hopkins and to poems that broke with contemporary habits and pointed toward the future of poetry. Poems “meant to be recited, not read”–something easier said than done, however, given the “sprung rhythm” in which he often wrote. The best teacher, qua teacher, I had in 20+ years of education, Fr. David Rea, was a master at it. I can still see and hear him walking up and down the aisles at Cathedral College, reading with passion one or another of Hopkins’ poems.
Hopkins once wrote, “I am soft sift/In an hourglass — at the wall/Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,/And it crowds and it combs to the fall.” This is, of course, the human condition, prey to the tyranny of time. But Hopkins also knew that he had been saved from oblivion or worse by God’s gift of His only begotten son. While one may or may not believe this, there can be no doubt that Hopkins himself will be read and loved as long as poetry matters.