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Fail, Fall, Far Flounder Down

Norman White

The Secret Dublin Diary of Gerard Manley Hopkins, by Robert Waldron, Brandon, 140 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-0863224096

Question One. Correct the following:

In 1884 Hopkins is interviewed by Father Darlington, who had appointed him to Dublin University, of which Darlington was “Head”.

Answer: In 1884 Darlington was a scholastic student, six years younger than Hopkins, and only three years into his vowed life. He was not ordained until after Hopkins’s death, and was not appointed as a teacher at University College until 1885. “Dublin University” is a title of the Protestant Trinity College Dublin, not University College, a Roman Catholic institution. Darlington was never “Head” of any university, Catholic or Protestant.

Bonus mark if candidate states that it was Fr William Delany, president of University College, not Br Darlington, who had appointed Hopkins.

The cover of The Secret Dublin Diary of Gerard Manley Hopkins reproduces an idyllic bathing-scene by Hopkins’s favourite painter, Frederick Walker, of mainly naked adolescent boy-bathers, a painting he would certainly have known and liked. This predicts a disclosure of the homosexual impulses behind a midlife crisis of Hopkins’s, which, as Jung described, frequently occurs in males from the ages of forty to forty-four. (Hopkins was almost forty when he arrived in Dublin in 1884, and died there, aged forty-four, in 1889.) So at first sight this looks a promising foundation for a novella based on Hopkins’s secret homosexual longings. Several successful novels have been written as plausible though fictional extensions of real people’s lives; I recall a very enjoyable recent one, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell.

Question Two. Correct the following:

In 1884 Hopkins enjoys “more my English lectures ... than my Greek. We are traversing the world of King Lear.”

Answer: Hopkins never taught English at University College. In fact, in 1884 he gave no lectures in any subject.

Bonus mark if candidate adds that Hopkins would never have said “traverse” the world of King Lear.

Like his Oxford tutor Jowett’s, the real Hopkins’s sexual impulses were almost exclusively concerned with his own sex. His mid-1860s adolescent list of sins, recorded for confessional purposes to Canon Liddon and Dr Pusey, his High Church Oxford mentors, with fastidious self-disgust in that puritanical era, nowadays often looks comic (“folly about a sugar-plum”). He looks at “tempting pictures” in Once a Week, sections of the wrong kind of novel, suggestive words in a dictionary and medical diagrams. He cannot control his frequent desire to masturbate, which he tries to mask by latinising (scelus onanis) or abbreviation (“O.H.” – old habits). “Indulgence is fatal. The pale complexion, the emaciated form, the slouching gait, the clammy palm, the glassy eye and averted gaze indicate the lunatic victim to this vice”, preached the headmaster of Uppingham School to his boys. In these adolescent diaries the real Hopkins records physical attractions which he considered immoral: to his six-year-old niece, Magdalen, to a horse, to his dog, Rover, to the wife of a parson friend, even to the figure of Christ on a crucifix. But the majority of his recorded sexual transgressions show him being repeatedly attracted to boys (often choristers), fellow students (Mowbray Baillie, WGF Phillimore, and especially CA Fyffe), and manual workers (navvies in Swiss Cottage fields).

Question Three. Correct the following lines of verse:

a) Mary, mother of us, where is your grief?

b) Yea, wish that thought, will all. God’s better beauty, grace.

c) Bathing: it is summer’s sovereign.

d) To seem a stranger lies my lot.

e) The hero whose heave-handling flung me.

Answers:

a) ... where is your relief?

b) Yea, wish that though, wish all, God’s better beauty, grace.

c) Bathing: it is summer’s sovereign good.

d) ... the stranger ...

e) ... heaven-handling ...

Bonus mark: In the appendix called “The Dublin Sonnets”, only one of the six sonnets printed is correctly transcribed. Which?

Some passages from his poems and his prose show that the real-life Hopkins at times revealed his attraction towards men without realising it, certainly without feeling a need to confess or apologise for it. Undergraduate letters to his friend Bridges, for instance, sometimes describe the process of trying to capture in a sketch the looks of a good-looking male, never of a female: “I saw another Oxford man ... with a delightful face (not handsome) ... His face was fascinating me last term; I generally have one fascination or another on”. Four days later in 1866: “he has plenty of thick rather curly dark auburn hair parted in the middle and [shapely] whiskers of the same; his eyes are deep set and I think rather near together; the fault of his face is that the features are too broad and depressed . . . he looks happy”.

Question Four. Correct the dates of the following poems/lines, all written, according to Waldron, in 1884:

a) “Spring and Fall: to a Young Child”

b) “Thou art indeed just, Lord”

c) “My own heart let me more have pity on”

d) “birds build—but I build not; no, but strain, being time’s eunuch”

Answers:

a) September 1880. On October 18th, 1884, Waldron’s “Hopkins” calls it “my newest poem”.

b) March 17th, 1889.

c) 1885.

d) March 17th, 1889.

Bonus mark: If candidate corrects d) to: “birds build – but not I build: no, but strain, / Time’s eunuch.”

Once Hopkins has joined the Jesuits the plainest sign of his sexual preference is his choice of pious virgin martyrs for nearly all the women he writes about in poems: Saints Winefred, Dorothea, Margaret Clitheroe and Thecla. And of course frequent praise of the Virgin Mary, largely in uninspired verse. On the rare occasions he mentions women in letters apart from close relatives, it is usually when he disapproves of their unvirginal behaviour:

It seems to me that nothing in good women is more beautiful than just the absence of vanity and an earnestness of look and character which is better than beauty ... It is the same in literature as in life: the vain women of Shakspere are the impure minded too, like Beatrice (I do not know that I may not call her a hideous character).

I don’t know of similar revulsion by any other critic against the heroine of Much Ado About Nothing.

Hopkins also praised his two sisters, Grace and Kate, for their lack of vanity – they both remained unmarried, and their younger sister, Milicent, became a nun. His puritanism about female behaviour shows in its most extreme form in his written responses to Coventry Patmore’s long poem The Angel in the House. Patmore had asked his opinion of a poem describing the physical and emotional responses of a sexually enraptured man, and trying to reconcile erotic experience with religion. Hopkins was not the right person to ask, and responded astringently and uncompromisingly:

[In The Angel in the House] it is said that a wife calls her husband lord by courtesy, meaning, as I understand, only by courtesy and ‘not with her least consent of will’ to his being so. But he is her lord. If it is courtesy only and no consent then a wife’s lowliness is hypocrisy and Christian marriage a comedy, a piece of pretence ... And now pernicious doctrines and practice are abroad and the other day the papers said a wretched being refused in church to say the words ‘and obey’: if it had been a Catholic wedding and I the priest I would have let the sacrilege go no further.

In August 1885, during a visit to Patmore’s house at Hastings, Patmore had shown Hopkins the manuscript of Sponsa Dei, a collection of notes written over ten years. Hopkins found the parts dealing with the place of heterosexuality in religion so objectionable that, on Christmas Day 1887, Patmore had burnt the whole manuscript, an action which Patmore’s friends and family strongly condemned.

Question Five. Put the following into language Hopkins might have used:

a) Near my height of five and two.

b) I finally dove into the frigid water.

c) Students feel not a smidgen of pity for Lear.

d) I gifted friends with many of my books.

e) My brothers remained friendly toward me, including one of my sisters.

f) You must write me, Gerard.

g) He bounds the stairs.

h) [Bridges] gulps from his wine-goblet.

Many commentators have shown obvious instances in the real-life Hopkins’s mature poems and prose of his attraction towards males, such as in “The Bugler’s First Communion”, the “Epithalamion”, “Tom’s Garland”, and the description of Christ in the Bedford Leigh sermon of November 23rd, 1879:

There met in Jesus Christ all things that can make man lovely and loveable. In his body he was most beautiful ... ‘Thou art beautiful in mould above the sons of men’. We have even accounts of him written in early times. They tell us that he was moderately tall, well built and tender in frame, his features straight and beautiful, his hair inclining to auburn, parted in the midst, curling and clustering about the ears and neck as the leaves of the filbert, so they speak, upon the nut ... I leave it to you, brethren, then to picture him, in whom the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily, in his bearing how majestic, how strong and yet how lovely and lissom in his limbs, in his look how earnest, grave but kind ... for myself I make no secret I look forward with eager desire to seeing the matchless beauty of Christ’s body in the heavenly light.

Question Six. What is wrong with the following?

a) Before joining the Jesuits, Hopkins had “leaned towards the Franciscans”.

b) Digby Dolben joined the Franciscans.

c) Walker’s painting “The Plow”.

d) “In Ireland I am three times removed from all that I hold dear – my family, Oxford and my friends.”

e) “my Mt Mary student Hubert Berkeley”

f) “the wreck of the Deutchland”.

g) “Miss Cassidy, a friend of Father Russell ... The Cassidy family are well known Catholics: their father had established a distillery ... [Monasterevan is] named after a monastery built ... by St Emhim”.

h) “Gerard, you know your theology”.

i) “Sent portions of ‘St Winefrede’s Well’ to Bridges”.

j) “the coachman heads toward St Patrick House”.

k) “How I loved Binsey, and the nearby village of Seacourt”.

l) “When I [Hopkins] visited Italy, I was charmed by the Italian joy in all things physical”.

Answers:

a) No, the Benedictines.

b) No, the Benedictines.

c) “The Plough”.

d) No: his family, Christ, and England, as stated in the poem “To seem the stranger”.

e) Mount St Mary’s student.

f) the Deutschland.

g) Miss Cassidy was a friend not of Fr Russell but of Fr Delany, whose brother had been a curate at Monasterevan. The Cassidys’ grandfather, not father, had founded the distillery. The monastery was established by St Emhin.

h) Gerard had failed his theology exam at St Beuno’s, in Wales, and so had to forego his fourth year there.

i) “St Winefred’s Well”.

j) !!!

k) Seacourt is not a village, but a stream flowing into the Thames.

l) Hopkins never visited Italy.

I have mentioned “Epithalamion” as a poem which shows Hopkins’s attraction towards male beauty. The scene is “some branchy bunchy bushybowered wood”. A “listless stranger” is “beckoned by the noise” of boys bathing in a natural woodland pool of “a gluegold brown / Marbled river, boisterously beautiful”, based on the Stonyhurst College boys’ pool in the Hodder River, in Lancashire. He sees the boys bathing “With dare and with downdolfinry and bellbright bodies huddling out”. And seized with “a sudden zest / Of summertime joys” he “hies to a pool neighbouring; sees it is the best / There; sweetest, freshest, shadowiest; / Fairyland; silk-beech, scrolled ash, packed sycamore, wild wychelm, hornbeam fretty overstood”. He takes his clothes off, and “here he will the fleet / Flinty kindcold element let break across his limbs/ Long. Where we leave him, froliclavish, while he looks about him, laughs, swims.”

This idyllic scene inspired an American, Philip Dacey, to write a little known dialogue “Gerard Manley Hopkins meets Walt Whitman in Heaven” (in Gerard Manley Hopkins Meets Walt Whitman in Heaven and Other Poems, 1982). The two poets are spending eternity in their heaven, a “swimming hole”, among naked young men, a scene similar to that in Hopkins’s “Epithalamion”. Dacey perceptively recognises their probable joint exultation in this idealised male bathing scene. This is imaginative, funny, and charming, Dacey suggesting a hidden reason for the poem’s unfinished state: the inability of Hopkins’s nature to empathise with a conventionally heterosexual marriage. Dacey’s dialogue is a successful fictional creation.

Waldron also suggests a homosexual connection between Hopkins and Whitman. How successful is this?

Question Seven. What is wrong with the following?

a) In Waldron’s novella, “Hopkins” carries Whitman’s poems around with him; they had been “sent to me by an Oxford friend in America”. There are several mentions of and readings from Whitman: “Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore”.

b) “A day at Oxford in a branchy, bushy-bowered wood”.

c) “Flooded with memories of Oxford ... silk beech, scrolled ash, packed sycamore, wild wych elm, olden oak”.

Answers:

a) Hopkins told Bridges: “I cannot have read more than half a dozen pieces [of Whitman] at most.” Those were in reviews in English journals.

b) and c) See the quotations from “Epithalamion” above, describing the setting of the boys’ bathing-pool not in the Isis at Oxford, but in the River Hodder, near Stonyhurst College, Lancashire.

Even before one starts reading this novella there are some disturbing signs. On the back cover, James Alison, an openly gay Catholic priest and theologian, praises the book for “the joy which the poetry reveals”. “Joy”? Has he read those bleak, anguished, desolate sonnets, prized by Robert Lowell and John Berryman for their unique portrayal of mental suffering? Another inauspicious sign is that one of the two books the author acknowledges, and the only one containing the poetry, is the fourth edition of The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by WH Gardner and NH MacKenzie (1967). This was an interesting interim edition, but was badly organised so that several poems were included only in the notes, as afterthoughts, while others were omitted; it also contained numerous mistranscriptions from the manuscripts (I counted over one hundred when I reviewed the edition). Three editions of the complete poems have been published since then. It looks an unpardonably casual slackness on Waldron’s part not to have used a better, up-to-date edition.

Question Eight. What is wrong with the following?

According to Waldron, Hopkins’s decision in 1866 to become a Roman Catholic “infuriated Father”; “Father’s heart shattered, never again to be whole ... I now [October 1884] do not exist for him ... Father and I have become estranged” (26).

Answer:

Hopkins was much distressed about the distancing of his parents immediately after his conversion. But soon afterwards he wrote to Newman – who, on the understanding that he was estranged from his parents, had invited him to spend Christmas at the Birmingham Oratory ‑ that he was on easier terms with his parents than he had expected, and in fact had been invited home to Hampstead for his first Christmas as a Roman Catholic.

And in 1887 a book, The Cardinal Numbers by Manley Hopkins, Gerard’s father, was published, in which Manley acknowledges contributions by Gerard on Welsh methods of reckoning and “spectral numbers”. But he also credits the “valuable aid and useful criticism” of “the Rev Sherrard B. Burnaby”, a mask for his son. Many sections of The Cardinal Numbers demonstrate mental similarities of father and son, who cooperated to such an extent that it is often difficult to see who wrote what. It is plain that the estrangement over the conversion was short-lived.

Certain qualities are essential for a fiction based on the life of a real person, primarily solid research into background facts, an empathy with the subject’s mentality, and, in the case of a writer, a thorough knowledge of the works and their style. The Secret Dublin Diary of Gerard Manley Hopkins lacks all these qualities. And Waldron doesn’t seem to be bothered so long as he can cobble together what he thinks is a plausible story.

There are numerous misquotations of texts, in both verse and prose – and when Waldron doesn’t misquote he invents implausibilities. The novella is written in the first person: it purports to be the thoughts and words of Hopkins. But Waldron’s “Hopkins” makes elementary factual mistakes – misspellings of a favourite painting, of the name of the ship in which the nuns were drowned, of his superior, even the title of the play he was writing in Dublin. 86 Stephen’s Green becomes “Patrick House” (“its Georgian design is its one grace”, says “Hopkins”, whereas, in real life, Hopkins, like his real-life colleagues, often compared its gracelessness to that of a barracks).

Although he hasn’t read Hopkins’s writings with any “smidgen” (to use one of his favourite Americanisms) of sensitive appreciation, Waldron invents hundreds (literally) of specious poeticisms purporting to issue from his mouth:

My mortal self usurped my angel infancy, and my male self became so body-entrenched that no prayer ... could uproot my man-root

I am flooded with a sudden impulse to flee

St Beuno College was thronged with friends

my ambling through the wanness of Phoenix Park

Hopkins doesn’t “recite” Wordsworth’s poetry, but, when he comes across “a meadow prodigiously populated with daffodils”, he “orates” it.

I would be departing teaching, rather than “leaving off”

Dublin is “ubiquitously” dirty

the “prior” night, rather than “previous”

not “I kept quiet”, but “I chose to abide in silent uncertainty”

storm with pelting rain outside, but inside I am drenched in peace

not “nineteen years ago”, but “nineteen years agone”

pretending to flounce a fly

Hopkins’s mother “donning me in my blue nightgown”

Oh, my propensity for walking everywhere!

not “letters” but “epistles”

“Hopkins” doesn’t “set fire” to an epistle, but “torches it”

people “converse with” rather than “talk to”

Father Joyce isn’t “old” but “great in age”

the day sky ... draws my attention upwards to its blue chalkboard of hieroglyphics”

“Hopkins” fondly remembers the “edifice” of St Beuno’s College. (Waldron usually confuses the saint with the community buildings – “St Beuno dominates a steep hillside”.

My Irish students are life-sparked, clever and wit-full.

An annoying common characteristic of Waldron’s meretricious poeticisms is that they are the antithesis of the real-life Hopkins’s diction and preferences. In the Porter’s Journal he had written at Manresa House, Roehampton, in the 1870s, for instance, Hopkins had corrected “attend” to “wait on”, and “entered” to “went into”.

Question Nine: What is wrong with the following?

The next day Robert [Bridges] and I arrive to his room [sic] only to find him hanging. We cut him down: Robert examines him and pronounces him dead ...

Robert speeds me back to St Patrick House.

Answer:

Any casual reading of Hopkins’s letters to Bridges would show that he never called him by his Christian name, in fact says that he will not call him by his first name “as your surname is the prettier”.

Many of the literary opinions of Waldron’s “Hopkins” could be entered in competitions for banality:

I find [Tennyson] to be rather musical

I love Emily’s heath-scented prose-style. Her moor descriptions are poetry itself

My life would be bleaker than E. Brontë’s moors

Newman is one of my country’s greatest orators

Did Milton not write a poem about his blindness? Yes, it’s one of the finest sonnets ever written.

“Hopkins” judges In Memoriam to be “a long poem, but a fine, deep one”

Waldron’s “Hopkins” says that drowning is the theme of “The Wreck of the Deutschland”. (Real-life Hopkins said otherwise.)

Regarding poetry, [Bridges] is unflinchingly traditional. He is a good poet [“Hopkins” concedes], but he refuses to experiment”. untrue, and could be said only by someone who had not read Bridges’s poems.)

Like the guards in Hamlet, I must ever be on guard.”

Shakespeare “is perhaps our greatest writer, as well as our wisest”.

The real-life Hopkins’s memory occasionally failed him when quoting, but Waldron’s “Hopkins” makes ten mistakes in reciting five lines from King Lear. The opinion that in his paintings Turner “performs something quite special with light” is hardly original. Every reader of Hopkins knows that the literary opinions of the real-life Hopkins are original, well-expressed and worth reading, even when one disagrees with them.

Question Ten: What is wrong with the following?

On October 18th, 1884 “Hopkins”, in the Phoenix Park, stumbles upon “a vision of a young girl standing alone beside a leaf-golden mound, gazing at a nearly naked tree. No more than twelve years old, she has long red hair cascading over her shoulders. Her wistful look moves me ... I see that there are tears streaming down her cheeks, and I wonder why. It suddenly occurs to me that she has for the first time realised the unleaving of life, that someday soon she too must leave ... I realise that before me is a young girl losing her innocence ... I then hear her being summoned, ‘Margaret, come along, it’s getting late.’ ... She inspires my newest poem: ‘Margaret, are you grieving/ Over Goldengrove unleaving?’ . . . A brief lyric but its smallness is appropriate for the person and for the brevity of my observation.”

Answer:

Not only is the date wrong by four years, but also the motivating incident – Waldron turns it into a literal event, pedantically explicated, whereas Hopkins wrote to Bridges that the poem was “not founded on any real incident”. Waldron cannot let the wonderful poetry speak for itself – he has to interpose himself between the reader and the poem, provide an explanatory substitute. The last sentence of the above passage (“A brief lyric . . . the brevity of my observation”) exemplifies the inadequacy of his engagement with the poem. (The scene he describes is, in fact, that of Millais’s famous painting Autumn Leaves.)

Waldron keeps on getting obvious basic facts wrong, and apparently doesn’t mind. He is an American writer on popular theology who doesn’t seem to have made any effort to become closely acquainted with the foreign country of Ireland, its unique forms of English, its brand of Catholicism, or its capital city, about all of which he writes. Sometimes he writes like a drunken sentimental tourist: “Green is the colour of Ireland, always and forever green. Greener than England”. On another occasion he seems to copy facts, unedited, from a guidebook: “The spectacular Cliffs of Moher in Ireland are located near the Burren area. The highest point of the cliffs is 710 feet from the sea, and the cliffs themselves stretch five miles down the coast.” To him, though, I imagine, not to many other people, “Dublin is a pale imitation of London”, and “Dreary, smoke-laden, coal-grimy, the city is ubiquitously smeared by man’s smudge”. Some of those words had been used by Hopkins to describe northern England’s industrial cities, but Waldron hasn’t realised that Dublin was not industrialised. When Hopkins said that Dublin was as smoky as London, he prefaced it with “I think in my heart”, a subtlety beyond Waldron.

In Waldron’s Dublin “Hopkins” travels not in a cab or a carriage, but in a “coach”, driven by a “coachman”. An Irishman says to “Hopkins”: “You must’ve noticed that drunkenness afflicts too many of us.”

As I have exemplified, Waldron knows and understands little about Hopkins and his history. It doesn’t matter to him that he frequently copies, often altering or making mistakes, poems and passages of Hopkins’s prose, always (I think, though I haven’t checked the whole book) dated differently and stemming from different occasions and circumstances than the original context. In February 1885, for instance, “Hopkins” has retired to his room for the night and writes a retreat note of despair which the real Hopkins wrote four years later, under different circumstances: “I began to enter upon that course of loathing and hopelessness which I have so often felt before, which made me fear madness ... All my undertakings miscarry: I am like a straining eunuch. I wish then for death.”. But then “As I lay my pen down, I think of John, [to whom he is attracted,] and what I have written this day is nullified.” Good, that’s all right then – no need to have been so gloomy.

I forgot to mention an original piece of skulduggery: “After night prayers I pull down my blanket to find a greasy dead rat lying on my white sheets”. “Hopkins” also receives anonymous epistles accusing him of corrupting his pupils, shoved under his bedroom door. One night he lies awake, hoping to catch the guilty person in flagrante delicto, and to while away his vigil composes the sonnet “I wake and feel the fell of dark”. I bet not many readers knew that that was the origin of that sonnet.

Waldron’s own, original writing, is less than Hopkinsian. His banal dialogue, for instance:

“How do you find our students here in Dublin?”

“Some are prepared well, some not.”

“How do you find our students’ manners?”

“Good, but they could be better.”

Waldron’s “Hopkins” is ill-informed, dull-witted, unaware, unpoetic, full of conventionally pious behaviour (apart from his homosexual leanings), a travesty of the real man. The meaning of his poetry is, he says, “simplicity itself: to praise my Lord”. Really? Is that what the desolate Dublin sonnets are about?

“Hopkins” frequently mentions to other people (including WB Yeats, who “purses his lips and says nothing”) that he is a poet, and recites his poems to all and sundry. This is not just untrue to life, but shows crashing ignorance of Hopkins’s sensitivity to the question of his own poetic fame. “[My poems] are ... one may say, unknown ... I have long been at a standstill, and so the things lie”, the real Hopkins wrote in August 1884. When Matthew Russell asked him to contribute poems to the Irish Monthly, Hopkins offered him only two translations, none of his many unpublished English poems.

Is this book a bad dream? Is it a joke? Not just the writing but also the type-setting is appalling! Most lines of verse covering more than one line of print become unrecognisable. Although the quality of the book should have been apparent to any competent editor, it appears under the imprint of a respectable publishing house. Let us hope that Brandon recognise it as a mistake not to be repeated.


Norman White wrote Hopkins in Ireland (UCD Press), Hopkins in Wales (Poetry Wales Press) and Hopkins: A Literary Biography (Oxford UP), which won prizes in the USA and UK.  Recently he exhibited a collection of his photographs, and artwork at the Venice Biennale;  and completed a novel and novellae on Hopkins.

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