December 31, 2008

TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE:

A poet's life, from the inside: a review of GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS: A Life By Paul Mariani (Floyd Skloot, December 31, 2008 , Boston Globe)

[Gerard Manley] Hopkins, born near London in 1844, lived just shy of 45 years before dying in Dublin, weakened by years of nervous illness, after contracting both typhus and typhoid. Though raised within the Church of England, Hopkins at 22, after a period of intense and anguished consideration, convinced of his calling, converted to Catholicism. This conversion, and the subsequent struggle to commit himself even more intensely to a Christ-like life, represent the central story of Hopkins's life. Along with that, his compulsion to write poetry of tremendous originality and immediacy, his guilt over homoerotic urges, his powerful need to express how fully he saw God in all of nature, and his effort to balance religious retreat with his callings as teacher and writer devastated Hopkins's soul as he tried to sustain the pure, simple life of a Jesuit priest and teacher of classics.

Most of Hopkins's story is essentially internal, an account of emotional, philosophical, and spiritual ordeal. This presents serious problems for a biographer, especially when his subject is long dead and restrained by Victorian and Church pressures against candid expression. [Paul Mariani] makes use of Hopkins's letters and notebooks, and devotes extensive space to analysis of Hopkins's poetry, where the inner man is most open. But what distinguishes this biography from previous ones is not Mariani's scholarship or uncovering of vital new material, but the fullness of his absorption into his fellow poet and fellow Catholic's experience and art.

Wisely, Mariani chooses a nontraditional approach. Rather than succumbing to a typical biographical arc, he begins with the conversion story, and with Hopkins's years as a student at Oxford, plunging us into the thematic heart of the story. He also emphasizes the intensity and immediacy of Hopkins's quest for religious consistency, his experience of thought and feeling, by using a present-tense narrative. He seeks to echo Hopkins's literary quirks in recounting the poet's manner of thinking, and finds places where Hopkins, even when young, expressed himself in ways that reveal the core of his dilemmas in a voice already uniquely his own: "the activities of the spirit are conveyed in those of the body as scent is conveyed in spirits of wine, remaining still inexplicably distinct."



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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 31, 2008 7:27 PM
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