“Almost unmade”: Hopkins and the Body Apocalyptic
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“Almost unmade”:
Hopkins and the Body Apocalyptic

Twenty-first-century criticism has located in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins a concern with universal dissolution. According to Jude Nixon, for example, Hopkins’ poetry expresses a response to Victorian fears induced by the formulation of the second law of thermodynamics, which suggested the tendency of all systems to become increasingly disorganized as they approach a state of “entropic death.”1 Nixon claims that Hopkins attempts to alleviate this “apocalyptic angst” “by asserting that the energy . . . sustaining the universe is indestructible because its origin is divine” (pp. 149, 146).2 Analogously, though focusing on animal behavior rather than thermodynamic tendencies, Michael Lackey finds in Hopkins a response to a speculative atheistic position that used nature’s amorality to undermine the notion of divine presence as guide to the events of the natural world. For Lackey, Hopkins affirms the possibility of redemption by claiming that the apparent lack of divinity in world events (and here, one could include political events with natural ones) is necessary in order for “charged moments” of divine manifestation to emerge.3 Evidence of barrenness or amorality that his contemporaries use to argue against the presence of God becomes a sign in a dialectic of perception that renders revelation possible by revealing absence first. Both Nixon and Lackey thus understand Hopkins to resist the dissolution that science tells him threatens the world. For Nixon, Hopkins’ faith in a divine energy that circumvents the laws explaining natural phenomena nullifies the threat of thermodynamic dissipation. For Lackey, Hopkins’ belief in moments of divine manifestation salvages fears of absence, dissolution, and death by making privation necessary for divine encounter. For both critics, whose focus on Hopkins’ awareness of his scientific context is certainly illustrative, dissolution and dissipation become external, worldly problems for the subject to circumvent through internal, individual faith. In the following essay, however, I show that for Hopkins the threat of dissolution, disruption, and disorganization is requisite to subjectivity. In fact, as I will argue, Hopkins works to produce an apocalyptic (and thus fundamentally disruptive) experience that will transmit a revelatory encounter with the world; such an encounter is necessary to reveal not only [End Page 83] divinity but also the self. Rather than a problem to be solved through a turn to faith, apocalyptic disruption constitutes the possibility of the self and thus also of faith. For Hopkins, that is, apocalypse is not an event to be evaded but an experience to be survived. Only in the act of survival does the self become a possibility. Survival of apocalyptic disruption comes to depend on the persistence of the body in even the most apparently mental or spiritual experience. Hopkins wishes his poems to pass along an experience that interrupts the self’s continuity. However, he also seeks to ground those poems in bodily performance, offering corporeal experience as the sign and guarantor of what remains in the wake of the self’s interruption.

This essay has two main claims. The first is that Hopkins’ poetry seeks to bring about an experience that is potentially apocalyptic both in its ability to reveal divinity and in the necessity that it interrupt the self. Understanding apocalypse etymologically as a revelation as well as in its more commonly held meaning as a catastrophe or cataclysm, I contend that Hopkins wishes his poetry to pass along an excessive experience that reveals the divinity inherent both in the world and in the reader. That experience, however, threatens to disrupt and displace the subject who could make sense of it. The coming into awareness of the world’s divinity, as I show in a reading of “As kingfishers catch fire,” dissolves the self in an excessive mode of apprehension that breaches sensory and semantic boundaries; it is this excess that Hopkins’ poetry aims to express as it re-produces in the reader the disruptive experience of inscape’s revelatory force. It is, after all, the burning of “nature’s bonfire” that yields in “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire” to a recognition, “In a flash, at a trumpet crash,” of “the comfort of the Resurrection” that is promised in the poem’s...