Gerard Manley Hopkins
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Gerard Manley Hopkins

The vicissitudes of nineteenth-century British Christianity, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, naturally feature regularly in discussions of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Few scholarly eras, however, include so much, as does the current one, of specific material (Jill Muller's full-length book, Ian Ker's book chapter, and four authors' journal essays) focused on Hopkins' particular situation within the Victorian religious climate. Besides these publications focused specifically on religious sociology, a new Daniel Brown book, with its own steady viewpoints upon Hopkins' religious life, has appeared. Like Brown's earlier tome, that book principally treats Hopkins' unique philosophical thought. Yet it also considers the poems' structure and, as a corollary theme, examines the Jesuit scribe's response to canonical literary predecessors. Several further critical articles also consider the "anxiety of influence" issue. Ultimately, whatever their centering concerns are, we do truly find, within the scholarly studies discussed here, much well-maneuvered exploratory journeying into the various realms of a great poet's literary imagination.

As thorough in her research on Victorian intellectual history as Jude Nixon and Sjaak Zonneveld, Jill Muller, in Gerard Manley Hopkins and Victorian Catholicism: A Heart in Hiding (Routledge, 2003), carefully probes complex nineteenth-century intertextualities. She demonstrates, for instance, how many patterns Hopkins borrowed from Newman's writings—even though Hopkins himself was, as a young Oxonian, probably far more of a Tractarian aesthete than Newman ever would have favored. Later, too, Muller notes, Hopkins rejected Newman's "old Anglican, patristic, literary influence" for the "more floridly emotional Ultramontanist" stance shared by such church leaders as Cardinal Manning and the London Oratorian Frederick Faber.

Muller postulates that Hopkins enjoyed only at the time of The Wreck of the Deutschland a "public" confidence about his key goal of ardently summoning, through poetry, the revival of English Catholicism. She thinks [End Page 381] that, by contrast, after The Wreck was not accepted for publication, Hopkins became basically a writer of "private epiphanies," "'a heart in hiding,'" and someone who perhaps distrusted his own persona in the Deutschland ode as overly assertive, even Luciferian. While disinclined to believe that Hopkins ever truly judged his art devilish, I will allow that Muller provides much valuable information about both Hopkins' ardencies and his frustrations.

Muller sees even Hopkins' nature sonnets, written like The Wreck at St. Beuno's in Wales, as very unlikely to have attracted avid readers had he published them during his lifetime. Although the Wales nature sonnets appear fairly "accessible" to modern students, says Muller, they were nonetheless, like The Wreck, ill-designed for attracting their original target audience. Not only their eccentric style, but also their Scotist philosophical underpinnings would have offended most Victorian British Catholics, Muller declares. She emphasizes, as David Downes often has done in the past, that, unfortunately for him (at least in some senses), Hopkins the committed Scotist studied theology during an era when theological Thomism (and a particularly self-defensive brand of Thomism) ruled theological schools and, by extension, cathechism classes.

Muller indeed believes that Hopkins' "'privatized' approach to religion," the approach "of the mystic," was "a tradition with little support" among any British Roman Catholics of Hopkins' time (pp. 79-80). Additionally, she cites the blustering that Hopkins' contemporary Jesuit colleague John Rickaby directed against the "obscure mysticism" of Romantic poetry, a species of writing which Hopkins generally admired (p. 93).

Muller also comments on Hopkins' responses to post-Darwinian science, noting that he "goes further in his acceptance of Darwinism" than others of his peers, because his "Scotism allowed him to acccept many of the mechanistic theories of nineteenth-century science without compromising his conviction of God's immanence in creation" (p. 96). Yet Muller traces to the murky urban locations of Hopkins' actual years as a parish priest the cause for what she deems to have been a loss of his Scotist affirmations, and thus the impetus behind his "turn . . . from an immanent to a transcendent God" (p. 100). Quite radically, she claims that the Hopkins poems of his last years (the decade of the 1880s) are "no longer compatible with his priestly vocation" (p. 106), so filled as they are...