Recovering the real Hopkins
Hopeful Hopkins, a book on the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ, was launched by Brendan Staunton SJ, on Tuesday 31 October, in the Ignatian Chapel, in Gardiner St Church, Dublin. The author is Desmond Egan, himself a poet. His family, friends and colleagues gathered on Halloween night to celebrate his work. Among them was the papal nuncio, Archbishop Jude Okolo, Czech ambassador, Hanna Mottlová, Irish Jesuit Provincial Leonard Moloney, and a number of Jesuits. Words, wine and music flowed whilst Conor Mahon, on classical guitar, punctuated inputs from various speakers with renditions of well known pieces.
It was also the feast of St. Alphonus Rodriguez, a Jesuit brother who had suffered greatly during his life before joining the Jesuits. He worked as a humble door keeper for over forty years and Hopkins wrote a poem about him. It was referenced a few times during the night, firstly by Fergus O’Donoghue SJ, superior of the Jesuit community in Gardiner St. He welcomed everyone by giving them a whirlwind introduction to the art work (good and not so good) in the Ignatian chapel.
Noel Barber SJ, co-editor of Vol 5 of The Collected Works of Gerard Manly Hopkins, to be published next year, gave a few important words by way of introduction to Desmond’s book. He said that Des Egan was a poet who always has something to say that will elude the most eminent academic scholar. “His contribution to Hopkins’ studies has been immense,” he said, “in particular through his organisation of the annual Hopkins Festival at one time in Monasterevin and now in Newbridge.” (The Hopkins festival has attracted many renowned scholars, poets and musicians to honour the Jesuit poet.)
Noel said that there were certain key matters concerning Hopkins the man, that gave rise to important questions. Questions such as whether the Jesuits were good or bad for Hopkins? How to explain that Hopkins is a prose poet in his Journals but prosaic in his spiritual writings? Or how does the self-loathing to which Hopkins admits in his retreat notes of 1883 and 1889 and in the Dublin sonnets fit in with a vision of Hopkins as a man of hope? And why, in giving a retreat in Mayport, Cumberland, does the poet not exhort his congregation to go out to contemplate God in nature? He concluded that, “these were questions that Des was singularly capable of tackling.”
Brendan Staunton SJ, formally launched the book by referencing the unique contribution Desmond Egan brings to the study of Hopkins. “For a start, chapter one opens with a quote from Karl Rahner, that prodigious Jesuit theologian. That’s a rare enough thing for a poet writing about another poet to do,” according to Brendan. The actual quote from Rahner goes, ‘Darkness can only be perceived by an eye which was created for light.’ A line which gives a clue to the theme of the book, that there has been too much emphasis by commentators on the dark side of Hopkins.
Brendan went on to give his another quote from Rahner saying, “Every time Rahner sat down to write, he contemplated three words, ‘Nothing before Kant’, written in large letters above his desk . Rahner was reminding himself to take subjectivity seriously as he theologised, and that issue of subjectivity in writing was something which certainly applied to Hopkins. Brendan went on to say that a unifying thread running through the essays in Desmond’s book is that poetry, and Hopkins’ poetry in particular, “centres on the concrete, the individual, the specifics of subjectivity, the ‘sensuous and the precise’, without denying the objective inspiring topics, like the humanity of Christ.”
Desmond has some dialectical digs at contemporaries, Brendan noted, but added that his warmth and enthusiasm comes across in the book, “and it’s conveyed in a clear and concise style of writing that is a educational pleasure.”
Reciting Hopkins’ poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Brendan noted that the clarity of calling in Hopkins echoed that of Egan’s own calling. Desmond’s call was to redress the balance between the dark sonnets and the vitality and imaginative energy of Hopkins. “The perception of the depressed, repressed prophet of doom and gloom is one sided,”said Brendan, “So Egan’s focus is on the ‘hopeful’ Hopkins. His argument is persuasive and well backed up with biographical and poetic evidence. It takes a poet to know a poet, as Robert Smart puts it in his heart-warming introduction to Des’ book.”
To end his remarks Brendan produced a replica of painting by Rembrandt in which Aristotle is paying homage to Homer. “An identification”, according to Brendan, “that is visually captured through the metonymic hands.” He went on to explain that a metonym is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with that thing or concept, and he added, “Christ is the metonym of ‘being’ for Hopkins, who could pray in anguish that ‘birds build but not I,’ ‘send my roots rain’, and still, like the psalmists, make praise his predominant tone.” Brendan concluded that Hopeful Hopkins brings the psalms to mind, where lament, life, love and imaginative energy abound. ” Just as Virgil was a guide for Dante, Des is that for us,” he concluded.
Desmond Egan took to the floor and entertained those present by outlining some of the issues he addresses in his book. He was adamant that the suffering, melancholic Hopkins has been expounded to the detriment of our understanding of the real Hopkins: the man whose faith was so important to him; who had a sense of humour; a love of music and the company of friends, and “who travelled around Ireland and saw more of it that Beckett ever did!”
The Athlone-born poet assured the Jesuits in the gathering that it was truly for the best that Hopkins had been in the care of the Jesuits, even though others had suggested that the Franciscans would have suited him better. But he challenged them to reflect on whether they appreciated him enough? Did they realise just how significant a writer he was? “A writer who may in the course of time come to be regarded as one of the supreme writers of English, along with William Shakespeare,” he declared. He also reminded the audience that Hopkins’ faith was central to his life and his poetry, and he decried the many academics and scholars who choose to play down this fact.
The night ended as it began, with a reference to Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez, this time by Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications, who had chaired the launch.Quoting the last lines of Hopkins’ poem about his fellow Jesuit, “…in Majorca Alfonso watched the door”, she said no-one was watching the door tonight and invited people to stay and have a chat and a drink, ‘after buying Desmond’s book of course’.
Hopeful Hopkins, by Desmond Egan is published by Goldsmith Press.