The riches of Hopkins

December 16, 2021 in Featured News, News

Even two words of a Hopkins poem can yield a treasure trove of insights, as was evident from Brendan Staunton SJ’s talk at the 33rd Gerard Manley Hopkins Festival this year. The annual festival held in October celebrates the Jesuit poet’s writing, and his mentor, St John Henry Newman. It also celebrates Hopkin’s interests including conservation, painting, music, and philosophy.

Brendan’s paper ‘On Being Indoors’, focused on Hopkin’s much-loved sonnet As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Brendan focused in particular on two words, ‘being indoors’. He tried to unpack the meaning of what he called this ‘loaded’ fragment.

He began by suggesting possible explanations of what Hopkins had in mind. “Was it the journey inwards? Or the deepening of interiority, which is the goal of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, which the poet would have made at least twice in his life?” Brendan posed these questions before drawing on the poet Wordsworth and the philosopher Kant as other possible sources.

“Kant famously said there are only two topics worth studying, ‘The starry heavens above and the moral law within’. Had Hopkins this in mind when he chose the words ‘being indoors’? Or was it more Wordsworth’s ‘inner eye’… ’emotion recollected in tranquility’?”

‘Being’ for Hopkins may indeed include elements of these concepts, according to Brendan, but they do not go far enough or deep enough.

“I think he means more,” Brendan remarked, “and Hopkins tells us that in the poem, sic, ‘I say more’. And part of that ‘more’ lies in the fact that ‘being indoors’ is an active verb and our ‘being indoors’ is an action. We see, judge and act. We ‘selve’ through action. This is the Ignatian way of ‘contemplatives in action’  that Hopkins would have known.”

Brendan also drew on the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s famous work Being and Time, as a central hermeneutical key in breaking open what ‘being indoors’ could also mean for Hopkins, even though the treatise was published sometime after Hopkin’s death.

In his ground-breaking book, Brendan noted, “Heidegger dissolved what he saw as the false, static dualisms of the scholastic philosophers”. Hopkins dissolved the false dualism, ‘being’ and ‘doing’. “Hopkins was a visionary, ahead of his time, according to Brendan. And quoting Hopkin’s line ‘The just man justices’, he says, “That line means ‘being is doing’. What I do is me.”

Brendan concluded his talk by quoting the opening sentence of Being and Time: “You have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression ‘being’. We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.” And he added a wish for all present, “that the perplexity regarding ‘being’ might evolve in our minds too, that we may wonder at the wonder of our being, as did the psalmist – another possible remote source of influence for Hopkin’s poetic imagination.”