January 27th 2018

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COVER STORY Loy Yang just latest critical asset to go offshore

EDITORIAL Behind the power shift in the Middle East

CANBERRA OBSERVED Freedom of religion just an afterthought?

GENDER POLITICS Family Court washes hands of gender-dysphoric kids

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Western sanctions have forced Russia to upskill

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS China exerts soft power on our southern neighbour

ENVIRONMENT Senate committee puts marine life before people

SEXUAL ABUSE Royal commission report ignores cause of abuse

HIGHER EDUCATION Critical thinking and the culture of skepticism

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS U.S. urges Taiwan rearmament to counter China threat

PHILOSOPHY A reflection on thoughts of Richard Dawkins

MUSIC Group theory: A good band is greater than its parts

CINEMA Darkest Hour: A long time till dawn

BOOK REVIEW 'Populism' and the new social divide

BOOK REVIEW Poems outshine dross of inept introduction



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Poems outshine dross of inept introduction

News Weekly, January 27, 2018

THE GOSPEL IN GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS: Selections from His Poems, Letters, Journals and Spiritual Writings

Edited by Margaret Ellsberg

Plough Publishing House, Elsmere
Paperback: 255 pages
Price: AUD$18

Reviewed by Hal G.P. Colebatch

I was introduced to Gerard Manley Hopkins far too early. His work was set as a text at my school, and I, who had just discovered Kipling and become, to use his own expression, “royally drunk” on his verse, spouting it to my bewildered shipmates at the Naval Reserve Cadets, found Hopkins’ radically different techniques of inscape, instress and sprung rhythm bewildering and silly.

Mark you, I still do to some extent. His poem about a shipwreck that rhymes “portholes” with “messes of mortals” I consider indefensible.

On the other hand, his poem about a wild stream – “This darksome burn/horseback brown,/his rollrock highroad roaring down …” is one which, among others, now strikes me as a fine piece of descriptive writing, transcending prose as poetry is licensed to do (perhaps not unlike Kipling’s “We’ve ratched beyond the Crozets/That tusk the Southern Pole …”). I now recognise the power and passion of his best work.

However, the introduction by one Dana Gioia is, frankly, a shocker.

Only an American academic, well paid to teach English, titled “Poet Laureate of California,” – no less! – could inflict such barbarous tortures on that language when writing about an important religious poet: “Into the cream of this quirky age, Gerard Hopkins was born … while the Lutheran Reformation simmered in the background.” It sounds more than a little unhygienic and messy.

But this is almost acceptable English compared with what is to come: “Transubstantiation also, for Hopkins, reorganised molecular disorder: instead of losing heat as the laws of thermodynamics indicate, Creation rebooted every time Divine power zapped the altar with the sacred words, hoc est corpus meum.” Ugh!

There was “a great explosion of his literary power as he approached ordination. His Anglican contemporaries suffered from crepuscular nostalgia”; which makes no sense at all.

Among English poets he is here ranked seventh after Wordsworth, which is like assigning respective ranks to apples and oranges. Major poets approach poetic creation differently and there is no point in trying to rank them.

Another course in the feast of verbal ineptitude by this academic goes: “He unleashed the power of nuclear fission in The Wreck of the Deutschland.”

The poem Heaven-Haven is described as “hysterical”. Actually, it is a delicate poem of just eight lines celebrating the peace and tranquility of a nun’s vocation.

After this unfortunate introduction, one is left contemplating Hopkins’ work itself. Hopkins had a melancholy life, and it seems unfair that he gets so clumsy and stylistically worthless a treatment now. The quality of his best poems, like Hurrahing in Harvest, The Wreck of the Deutschland, Glory Be to God for Dappled Things, and God’s Grandeur comes shining through.

At least the book seems comprehensive. This is an easier matter with Hopkins than with many other poets and writers because he wrote relatively little poetry.

As is well known, Hopkins on becoming a Jesuit destroyed all the poetry he had written until then, but after a long silence his superior directed him to write a poem commemorating five German nuns, exiled under the Falk Laws, the anti-Catholic German laws of the day, who were drowned when the ship taking them to America, the Deutschland, struck the Kentish Knock, a sandbank in the Thames estuary, and broke up. The poem is of considerable length and sustained power, with great ingenuity of image, meter and association, and remains Hopkins’s best-known work.

The story of Gerard Manley Hopkins emphasises the mystery of the way the poetic impulse can descend on anyone. Dylan Thomas was a roistering drunk, Goethe a German administrator, Walt Whitman an American loafer, T.S. Eliot a bank manager – and Hopkins a Jesuit priest.

Hopkins, a brilliant scholar at University, joined the Catholic priesthood against his parents’ wishes, and though his vocation never apparently, wavered, lived a lonely, tortured life, dying at the age of 44. Most of his poems were published only after his death by his friend Robert Bridges.

In the 19th century the Catholic Church in the British Isles had lost its architectural treasures. The Catholic cathedrals, abbeys and parish churches, whose glories and beauties might have given ease and delight to the soul, and lifted men’s eyes and minds towards heaven, were taken from the Church at the Reformation.

The conditions in which many of its priests lived and worked in the 19th century could only have been described by an outside observer as squalid. It was a terrible situation for a man with so great a love of, and yearning for, beauty.

Our editor, with an unfailing taste for the crass, mentions that Hopkins once told a group of students that he had never seen a naked woman (I am certainly sorry for anyone who has never seen the sheer beauty of the naked statue of the Venus of Cyrene).

This man, with so extraordinary an appetite for natural beauty, lived, following his vocation, for a time in Ireland in “a neglected old barracks, full of dry rot … sanitary arrangements were outdated and unhygienic”. The bishops would not vote money to improve it.

If his work was not, as the jacket claims, “some of the best poetry of all time”, it was at its best extraordinarily powerful, moving and technically innovative. The best of it fulfils its purpose of directing the reader’s thoughts towards “God’s Grandeur” and the awesome beauty of Creation.

There are many anthologies of Hopkins’ small body of poetry. In this case, and despite the editorial shortcomings, I would recommend this book for its less widely available collection from Hopkins’ prose – diaries, sermons and letters.

On cannot read of Hopkins’ life, and the despairing “terrible sonnets” without asking, “Was it worth it?”

But better, at the end, to be a lonely, tortured but sincere, faithful and truthful man like Hopkins than a hypocritical, perverted pseudo-religious voluptuary like Eric Gill, praised for his religious works until the truth about his private life came out. Hopkins, like his art, was sincere from beginning to end and its real beauty remains.

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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