Our winter 07-08 issue of the print journal includes an excerpt from Paul Mariani’s new biography of nineteenth-century British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. We recently sat down with Paul to ask him a few questions about his project.
Image: You began your career with a commentary on Hopkins’s poems. Yet despite having written a number of other literary biographies—of William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, and others—you have only now written a biography of Hopkins. Why the wait?
Paul Mariani: Cornell University Press published my commentary back in February 1970, the same month I turned thirty. In an earlier incarnation, that book had begun as a dissertation on all of Hopkins’ sonnets, under the capable direction of Allen Mandelbaum and the late Wendell Stacy Johnson. Allen put me in touch with Bernhard Kendler at Cornell, who said he’d be interested if I added The Wreck of the Deutschland and every other poem Hopkins had written in English. So I spent my first year as an Assistant Professor at U Mass—my own time, that is—up in the study of a former parsonage in North Hadley my wife and I had rented, with three little ones running or crawling about my feet. I would no more have considered writing a biography then than I would have thought of walking on the moon with those astronauts bouncing about on our little black and white TV.
Then I began teaching Modern American Poetry and fell under the spell of a poet from Paterson, New Jersey, near where my mother and her Swedish mother had grown up. I wrote a commentary on the critical reception of William Carlos Williams from the beginning up through 1975 and published that. It was my homework book, if you will. And then I thought about writing a book on how Williams’ Modernist epic poem came to be written. Sometime in 1977 I wrote an editor at Oxford U. Press—James Raimes—asking if he’d be interested in such a book. Indeed, he was not. But if I was willing to write a biography of Williams for something like $1,000, he was interested. He gave me a couple of days to decide. Before he’d hung up, I said I would. After all, I’d been reading and talking nothing but Williams by then for seven years. That bio came out in 1981 and made the front page of the New York Times Book Review, much to my astonishment. I was forty-one and for a moment thought I was cock of the walk. My fifteen minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol famously phrased it. Then on to Lowell, until Berryman chastised me in a dream and told Lowell to get in line. The Berryman came out on my fiftieth birthday to Carolyn Kizer’s long, negative review in the New York Times Book Review, and the cold corpse of those fifteen minutes of fame roiled past me. I published the Lowell five years later, and then The Broken Tower in 1999, the centennial of Crane’s birth.
But Hopkins was always there, like a luminous presence, a poet who had not only continued to shape my own work as a poet, but who had had a profound impact on my own life as well. Sometime in the 1980s, as I dug deeper into the lives of the poets I had chosen—two suicides and two troubled individuals (as who is not, I suppose?)—I kept returning to Fr. Hopkins. Two lives of the poet and a short, untrustworthy life had by then been published. There was much good stuff in the loner two books, but neither life chimed for me with the Hopkins I had come to know. There was a dimension—call it a spiritual or religious dimension—that these writers had either missed or dismissed, but which is at the heart of understanding Hopkins’ poetics and finally his poems. Allen Mandelbaum had taught me my Dante back in the mid-60s as he went about translating the Commedia, and I was fascinated—as a Catholic—with the ideas of self-damnation, of purgation and repentance, and finally with the idea of sailing home free somewhere in an ocean of light and gaiety.
But Hopkins, you say? This poor, exhausted English Jesuit who died of typhoid in Dublin at the age of 44, having published nothing, and unknown to everyone but God and his agnostic, Jesuit-baiting friend, Robert Bridges? This is your idea of a literary Paradiso? My answer is yes, a resounding yes, but in need of an explanation. We know he was a first-rate poet. Too many critics and poets, representing the full spectrum of beliefs and agnosticisms, have said so. Any list of the top ten lyric poems in the language is bound to include at least one of his poems, perhaps as many as three. People discover him every day and are amazed at what they find. And the more they read, the more they are amazed. I have come to use him as a yardstick of who knows poetry—knows it–and who doesn’t by one’s sense of this poet.
Image: Did you approach this biography differently than any of the others?
PM: You hear people you respect saying things like, yes, he was a good poet, though in spite of being a Jesuit. But you can’t separate Hopkins from the fact that he was profoundly shaped by the Jesuit experience and the luminous, searing imagination of Ignatius Loyola. Of course he was most profoundly shaped by his love for Christ, the only one who finally mattered, but that would take a book in itself. For years it was the literary critics I followed, listened and deferred to and argued with. Then, after publishing my biography of Hart Crane, and seeing how profoundly Hopkins had touched out great American orphic prophet as early as the late 1920s, how Crane had copied out as many of Hopkins’ poems by hand as he had time for, before returning his copy of the poems back to its owner, Yvor Winters, I came to see that I would have to undergo the same trial by fire that Hopkins had undergone, if I were ever to understand how he had come to write a wind-fiery masterpiece like The Wreck of the Deutschland. This would mean doing the full thirty-day Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, something every Jesuit undertakes at least twice in his life as a Jesuit. It’s not a matter of reading the text, any more than reading a book on physical exercise is going to make you fit. Rather, it’s a matter of subjecting yourself to the experience of the Exercises, meditating on the grandeur of God’s creation, the self-willed song that pulls you away from the song of creation—Lucifer’s “it’s all about me, anyway,” his countering with his Song of Myself and the glorious aroma of his own armpits rather than the sense of one’s sweating self. It’s a matter of the heart in hiding, dove-winged, beginning to fly back to its dove cote and home. It’s this, and much more. In any event, after making the long retreat in silence in the winter of 2000 on Cape Ann, where T.S. Eliot recalled the long fogs, the cries and whispers of the sea buoys, I came away with a new understanding of what had changed Hopkins from the bright, Anglican Oxford undergrad who had listened carefully to George Herbert and John Donne, into the Jesuit poet reinvented by his encounters with Ignatius, Aquinas, Dante, John of the Cross, Duns Scotus, Edmund Campion, and the cries of a gaunt six-foot German nun perishing in the frigid waters off the English coast.
Image: How would you account for the fact that Hopkins has been so influential on modern poetry, even though his own work is so eccentric and impossible to imitate?
PM: True, Hopkins can seem eccentric and inimitable—or worse—easily open to imitation of the worst kind, as when a poet dons Hopkins’ linguistic coat and hobbles about like some clown. It’s a sort of homage, but often more comic than otherwise. You must be careful with Hopkins. Overdo it just a fraction, and you wind up doing parody, to the detriment of your own work. But most readers and poets who come in contact with Hopkins are aware that they are in the presence of something new and different and bold. Hopkins himself acknowledged that his poems could strike someone as odd and eccentric, for most of us are used to the great middle range of poetry, as in the work of Whitman or Hardy or Yeats or Frost, to take four examples. Sometimes Hopkins is like that—as in his last poems, a development towards a quieter voice in the tradition, say, of John Dryden. But the opening round of his mature voice was The Deutschland, a celebratory ode, and he pulled all the stops on that one. It was like Pindar, say, making an announcement at the Olympic Games that he was not just singing another poem, but was in it for the competition itself, his athletic poem the equivalent of entering the javelin hurl or discus throw. So with Hopkins, who had studied and taught rhetoric to a group of Jesuit scholastics, looking not just at the development of the English language from Anglo-Saxon times onward, but the classics, and French, and Norse, and whatever else he could get his hands on, listening to the sonic and physical dimension of poetry: how alliteration and assonance and chiming and lettering all contribute to the overall meaning of the poem as an incarnational experience: the weaving together of the ineluctable cry of the soul with the physical aspects of the human voice.
Image: Image normally focuses on contemporary art only, but we published your biography excerpt because it’s discussion of Hopkins’s poetic is like a thought-piece—a Christian literary aesthetic. Could you summarize for readers what that aesthetic is and why it’s so important?
PM: This is a huge and significant question, and one with which I am increasingly concerned. I only wish now I had another thirty years to ponder this topic. My two years teaching in the SPU Program and my time at Boston College have certainly helped, by allowing me to focus on an extraordinary tradition out there which we have too easily shut ourselves off from in the interests of the contemporary. Taking for granted that which is our birthright, that which is there for the asking, is always a problem, I suppose. It seems, prodigal sons and daughters that we are, that we have to move away from something before we realize its real value. I could go on about this, but I won’t. But the chance to rediscover the poetic possibilities of the Psalms and Augustine and Dante and Milton and Dostoyevsky and Gregorian plainsong, or discover anew Hopkins and Eliot and David Jones and Flannery O’Connor and Denise Levertov and Annie Dillard and Andre Dubus and Franz Wright and the Jewish commentaries on Genesis, to learn from them, to plunder them in order to reinvent a poetry for our own time. To realize that a tradition of Christian poetics is out there, fresh and invigorating and new, that a Sacramental poetics which might illuminate our world is not a fantasy but a real possibility, and that Hopkins did this, showed us the way, that he reinvigorated the language and—more—might reinvigorate us and our world so that we could see it as if for the first time—that is something worth pursuing. Of course, other poets have caught something of this, or caught other aspects of the Verbum. But Hopkins speaks to my own sense of what it is possible for language to recover that can feed the restless soul.
Image: You were writing this biography at the same time as your friend Ron Hansen was writing a novel about Hopkins. Did you compare notes?
PM: Ron has been an inspiration for me on many fronts. It was he who showed by his own example what might be done in terms of recovering a Christian and even Catholic dimension in literature. I shall never forget his courage in reading a section of his then work-in-progress, Mariette in Ecstasy, one August afternoon at Bread Loaf twenty years ago, to a mixed response of admiration and befuddlement. A novel about a young woman who had experienced the stigmata? And this amid a long line of readings about murder and infidelity and war the meaningless of human existence? That day I resolved to go deeper, to write about what was most deeply on my mind as an American Catholic living in the late great Twentieth Century, no matter the cost. From then on it would be the Recording Angels of History whose gaze I would have to meet, rather than the polite applause of an audience in the Little Theater, though that would be welcome as well.
As for our mutual interest in Hopkins: that has been a subject of continued interest for us both. Not just Hopkins the poet, but Hopkins the priest, Hopkins the man doing good, Hopkins writing with an authority based on his own experience, which chimes so deeply with our own. I wanted to write a life that would read like a good novel, one that, say, Hansen would like, since he knows fiction and knows Hopkins so well. We did an eight-day retreat together at St. Beuno’s one July several years ago, and compared notes then and after. We have appeared at least three times together to talk about Hopkins in the last year or so: in Denver, Dublin, and Philadelphia. I read an early version of his Exiles—which focuses on the actual wreck of the Deutschland back in December 1875 and of its subsequent impact on Hopkins’ life and poetry. It’s a fascinating, gripping read which FSG will publish this spring.
Image: How would you tell a young poet why he or she should read Gerard Manley Hopkins?
PM: There are so many reasons for young (or old) poets to read Hopkins. There’s the history of influence: of Hopkins’ direct impact on poets as diverse as Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Seamus Heaney, as well as his indirect impact on hundreds of other poets. There’s the authority of his voice, whether he is celebrating the world around him—kingfishers and dragonflies and windhovers and doves, or snowflakes and the taste of plums or the smell of summer hay, or whether he is plumbing the depths of loss and existential isolation, the felt loss of his one friend, God, in “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day” or “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, not feast on thee.” But then too the magnificent Handel-like oratorio sweep of “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and in the comfort of the Resurrection,” answering Lyell and Darwin with another kind of time, God’s time, aeonic or instantaneous as the flash of the atomic bomb. Hopkins remains a standard by which those for whom God and the Christ or the maternal face of Mary are distinct counters in the summing up of what Reality has to offer us.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.