Today is the birthday of Gerard Manley Hopkins. In many ways, he reminds me of Emily Dickinson. They're both poets who seem to prefigure a future world of poetry (Dickinson, our modern poetic world, Hopkins, the Modernists). They're both poets who seem to be living more intensely (and sometimes more miserably) than their fellow humans. They're both poets of intense importance, but as a teacher, I have trouble helping students see why so many people are so enthusiastic about their work.
I never read much Hopkins when I was in school. He was still a mostly forgotten poet when I was in undergraduate school, and my graduate training left a hole where the Late Victorians should be (and he's an early Late Victorian; there's really no excuse). I turned to Hopkins in a sort of desperation when I taught a Late Victorian Literature class a few years ago and realized how few poets I could draw on. My students, for the most part, hated him. Why would they hate him and not someone like Wordsworth? I have no idea. Probably for the same reason that Hopkins' contemporaries didn't like his work. They found it weird.
Or maybe they found his personal life offputting. Here's a guy who kept going to further and further extremes. He leaves the Anglican church to become Catholic, and then he decides to become a priest, and then he embraces the hard-core Jesuits. The Writer's Almanac website puts it this way in today's post: "Even among a campus full of Jesuit seminarians in rural Wales, he earned a reputation for being particularly odd and eccentric." He was never really happy, with his work or his life or his setting; he spent much of his life miserable as he tried to teach inner city youth around Britain. Like Wordsworth, he never recovered from an early life immersed in nature--unlike Wordsworth, he never really found a physical environment that suited him as a grown up.
Last summer, I read Exiles by Ron Hansen, a book about Hopkins and his obsession with the sinking of the Deustschland, a ship with five young nuns aboard. It's a small book, only 212 pages, a haunting book. It gives a fascinating look into the lives of poets and the lives of people living in religious orders. It makes me glad to be alive in our current age of central heating. It makes me look at my life and wonder if all the passion has drained out of it.
Of course, Hopkins' life serves as a cautionary tale against adopting the idea that poets should lead emotionally tempestuous lives. Hopkins died of typhus at age 44, which leaves many of us to wonder what would have happened had he lived longer, or how his work might have evolved had he found more satisfactory living conditions. A boring, stable outer life gives us space and time to write. A tempestuous life might give us more to write about, but less circumstances in which to do it.
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