Arts Arts & Books

The inspired scribblings of England’s finest Catholic poet

The Bodleian Library, Oxford (Getty)

Gerard Manley Hopkins' wonderful manuscripts have been acquired by the Bodleian Library. They offer a glimpse of a genius at work

On visiting the Wren Library in Cambridge Charles Lamb had an unwelcome shock. Inspecting the manuscript for Milton’s Lycidas, he was “staggered” to discover that the drafts were “interlined, corrected as if their words were mortal, alterable, displaceable at pleasure!” Before that “evil hour” when he confronted the artist in his workshop, he had regarded Milton’s great elegy as “a fullgrown beauty – as sprung up with all its parts absolute”. Lamb rued the day of his disillusionment.

Readers of a similarly romantic turn of mind may also wish to keep clear of the Bodleian in Oxford. That library has made headlines recently for taking possession of some 74 poems by the Victorian Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. It has actually had these poems on long-term deposit for several decades; but still, it really is news – and wonderful news – that their future has now been made permanent.

Hopkins’s manuscripts come to the Bodleian through the estate of Robert Bridges’s grandson, which means there is another reason to invoke the name of Bridges with gratitude this year. It was Robert Bridges who in 1918, 30 years after Hopkins’s death, first brought the priest’s radically innovative poems into print.

Last weekend Stonyhurst College organised a rich festival of speakers and readings to honour this anniversary. Hopkins had trained as a Jesuit novice at Stonyhurst, later returning as a teacher of Classics, so the event had a particular charge and appropriateness. Similar celebrations have however been held at different places across the country this year, and indeed across different parts of the world, suggesting the reach and depth of Hopkins’s appeal. It is dizzying to think how easily the writings of the finest English Catholic poet, and one of the finest of all English poets, might have been lost.

Of the readers who thrill to Hopkins’s poems, whether on the glories of nature “charged with the grandeur of God”, or when expressing his intense personal and religious experiences (from ecstasy to despair), few will have the chance to spend time with his manuscripts. Yet it is essential that they are preserved. Manuscripts are not like other kinds of memorabilia. They are not of merely historical interest; their importance is more than sentimental. Unlike the lock of a writer’s hair, say, or even the immediate paraphernalia required for writing (such as desks and pens), manuscripts can tell us something about the poetic process itself. Handwriting, through its pressure and sweep, suggests the mood and pace of composition; and more sharply, the pattern of drafting – re-writings, insertions, deletions – intimates something about the very act of creation.

Like Lamb, Hopkins was deeply committed to the idea of inspiration. He saw it is as the necessary condition for “poetry proper”; without it, even the greatest poets lapsed, he believed, into a kind of self-plagiarism that ultimately “palls”. Unlike Lamb, though, Hopkins was also keenly aware of the burden of verse craft that falls to every poet, even when aspiring to “immortal song” (“To RB”).

Yet Hopkins did not wait idly for a fully formed poetic vision, and then seek to translate it wholesale into verse – inspiration first, followed by execution. Instead, his drafts show how he thinks with and through the activity of writing, by a kind of inspired execution that is also a kind of exploration. Discovery in this sense is, for Hopkins, intimately bound up with his definition of creativity. “In a fine piece of inspiration every beauty takes you as it were by surprise,” he insists, “not of course that you did not think the writer could be so great,” but rather that “every fresh beauty could not in any way be predicted or accounted for by what one has already read.”

Hopkins’s own poems are characteristically surprising in this way – even (or especially) if one peeks behind the curtain of composition. He took six attempts to settle on the last line of “Carrion Comfort”, for instance, but even by the fifth draft it is still not clear how he will bring the poem to its climax in the flinty, risky and unforgettable way that he eventually does. Though his earlier versions of the last line use similar words, it is only in the very final tweak that the speaker is thrust onto the razor’s edge between blasphemy and redemption (“Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”).

Perhaps the micro-study of manuscripts in the end seems too much like a scholar’s hobby. It is in any case a general boon that so many of Hopkins’s papers will be preserved together. There is surely something fitting, too, that a poet who drew such richness from this island’s language and literary traditions, as well as from its natural beauties (he called Wales his “mother of Muses”, and “England … wife / To my creating thought”), will maintain a special place within these shores.

Dr Michael D Hurley teaches English Literature at the University of Cambridge. His latest book, Faith in Poetry: Verse Style as a Mode of Religious Belief, was published by Bloomsbury last year