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Text and Texture

ISSUE:  Summer 1937

The Note-Books and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Edited with Notes and a Preface by Humphry House. New York: The Oxford University Press. $8.50.

This volume contains a hundred pages of extracts from early notebooks, including forty-four poems and fragments of poems, fragmentary diaries, a dialogue on beauty, an essay on poetic diction, and notes on Parmenides; a hundred-odd pages of a journal kept from 1868 to 1875; thirty-odd pages of notes on rhetoric; nearly forty pages of extracts from a commentary on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola; and fourteen reproductions of drawings by Hopkins. To these Mr. House has added over a hundred pages of notes, appendixes, maps, and indexes, which represent an enormous amount of competent and loving labour—and perhaps helped raise the price of the book to its present extortionate level.

If it could be understood that those materials are as indubitably a significant part of Hopkins on their own various levels as the letters and the poems, that they complete the unity of Hopkins in his work by exhibiting the mutual interactions of the parts, nothing more need be said. There are differences of talent, of level, of direction, of suppression or emphasis—and certainly great differences in objective maturity—but all equally are the product or the sign of Hopkins’ singularly animated sensibility. He bore the creator’s mark, which once possessed cannot be blotted out. The insuppressible freshness, the twist, the stressed life of his perception, could no more help getting into his words— after he had found out how to use words—than, for him, anything in creation could help showing from within the glory of God in every earnest act. This is the mark, in Hopkins, of the poet, too. He makes poetry — in these notes, sermons, and journals — precisely as he causes the idiom of speech to incandesce with the idiom of things. Hopkins did not need to dedicate certain of his poems to the greater glory of God. The glory is in the incandescence of his language; and these notebooks show the mode and manner of making it shine, and show how much and how nearly everywhere—from the frost on the slate of the urinals to an Alpine sunset—he saw it himself. We have here the text Hopkins worked on, and all the riches of the texture of the work.

The incandescence is the glory. Let us look at a few examples, arranged with a purpose which will I hope be self-declarative. Saint John Chrysostom preached a great Homily on the fall of Eutropius; these sentences are taken from Hopkins’ translation of the opening section.

No, the truth is strive as we may we shall find words will not do to represent his condition as it must truly be, the life a man lives that every hour thinks he is going to be killed.

After all, what need is there of words of ours? Why he himself has drawn clearly enough the picture we are to look at. Yesterday when some came for him from the palace to arrest him and he fled to the sacred vessels for sanctuary, his face was yellow like a thing in boxwood, and even now it is no fresher than the face of a corpse; then there were the chattering of teeth and knocking knees and a trembling in the whole body, and a voice that broke off and could not finish the word and a tongue paralysed that would not do its office and the whole look of him such that if a man in stone could have a soul it might show such life as it showed then.

You will observe at once that something has been put into the English words. There is a pressure that shows itself as speed in the syllables, a stress that is felt as centripetal between all the words, a twist which is the lithe binding of life and word into a homogeneous thing. Whatever was put in, or found in the process of feeling the old words in English, it is idiom now that it is done. It is the thing seen fresh, arrested, caught, rooted in words.

It is not so much different, again, in this extract from the commentary on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius— not exactly where we should expect, in theology, to find the poet’s mark; or not expect until we remember that theology, like everything else, for the poet;, even though he be also a priest, has a right and even a duty to be felt—to be dramatized in the flesh upon its plot.

But I suppose that Christ, in his first stead of angelic being, led off the angel choir, . . . calling on all creatures to worship God as by a kind of Venite adoremus. They obeyed the call, which indeed was a call into being. . . . This song of Lucifer’s was a dwelling on his own beauty, an instressing of his own inscape, and like a performance on the organ and instrument of his own being; it was a sounding, as they say, of his own trumpet and a hymn in his own praise. Moreover it became an incantation: others were drawn in; it became a concert of voices, a concerting of self praise, an enchantment, a magic, by which they were dizzied, dazzled, and bewitched. They would not listen to the note which summoned each to his own place . . . and distributed them here and there in the liturgy of the sacrifice; they gathered rather closer and closer home under Lucifer’s lead and drowned it, raising a countermusic and countertemple and altar, a counterpoint of dissonance and not of harmony. I suppose they introduced a pathos as of the nobler nature put aside for the higher and even persuaded themselves that God was only trying them; that to disobey and substitute themselves, Lucifer above all, as the angelic victim of the world sacrifice was secretly pleasing to him, that self-devotion of it, the suicide, the semblance of sin was a loveliness of heroism which could only arise in the angelic mind; that it was divine and a meriting and at last a grasp of godhead.

Here is nothing if not feeling, a sober, terrible, necessitous feeling of the drama of Lucifer’s rebellion seen in terras Milton could not ever have thought of, they are so concrete, so near the actual, and so free from the falsely vindicating drive of the mere idea. But that is not what I wish to emphasize here, which is this: that the valuable qualities in this extract, as in that above on Eutropius, the synergy of all exciting qualities, are the product of a predominantly poetic sensibility maturely committed to the experience of created things through the medium of words. My point will show best of all, perhaps, if I ask the reader to unite, if only for the time of reading, what is alike in the matter quoted above with the paragraph here selected from the myriad notes on landscape in the Journal.

Across the valley too we saw the fall of the Gelmer—like milk chasing round blocks of coal; or a girdle or long purse of white weighted with irregular black rubies, carelessly thrown aside and lying in jutty bends, with a black clasp of the same stone at the top—for those were the biggest blocks, squared, and built up, as it happened, in lessening stories, and the cascade enclosed them on the right and left hand with its foam; or once more like the skin of a white snake square-pied with black.

The identity, we say, is not in the matter. No; but it is there, and there is no escape from it. In Saint John’s homily the quality we want was supplied in the translation, which we see easily; for it is the obvious quality in the passage about Lucifer from the Commentaries. Well, it is the same quality in the description of the water-fall: the feeling is as terrible, as sober, as necessitous, as brimming with the idiom of the actual, in all three pieces. There is as much translation in the second and third as in the first selection; it is the great translation, which amounts to creation, of experience into the idiom of poetic sensibility. The text is all in the texture.


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