- The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Over the nine decades since the first collected publication of Gerard Manley Hopkins's poems in 1918, innumerable scholars and critics have commented on the poet's playfulness, love of fun, and sense of humor. While poststructuralists such as Michael Sprinker have focused on the undecidability of his linguistic play and the consequent allegorical richness of his poetic effects, gender-studies critics like Alison Sulloway have given just scrutiny to the ethical implications of the poet's jocularity at the expense of women—most notably George Eliot and Irish Catholic poet Katharine Tynan. Despite this ongoing interest, no book-length study has ever been devoted to this topic. The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins addresses an important need in Hopkins studies; at the same time, it represents the culmination of decades of work by the respected scholar and archivist Joseph J. Feeney, SJ.
Best known among Hopkins scholars for research that has brought numerous [End Page 559] new documents to public attention since the late 1950s, Feeney approaches Hopkins's playfulness through a methodological framework drawn loosely from the Dutch historian and cultural anthropologist Johan Huizinga. In choosing Homo Ludens (1938), Feeney aims "to change the way Hopkins is read as a poet and known as a person" (xv). Ultimately taxonomic in purpose, his study amasses innumerable instances of play in Hopkins's writing, arranging them into four sections, each of which studies a quality derived from Huizinga: "fun," "creativity," "contest," and "style."
The pleasure—perhaps I might say fun—to be derived from reading this material lies primarily in experiencing the new emphasis given to a poet who is most commonly defined in terms of his moral scrupulosity, ruthless self-critique, and poetic rigor. Feeney's work invites us to recognize Hopkins simultaneously as a practical joker, a childlike game player, and a biting wit. This we must surely do as we encounter the many assembled examples, some already well known, but many freshly mined by Feeney from obscure or unpublished documents. For instance, the first chapter, a brief "Ludic Biography," includes such gems as Hopkins's amusement at "a parrot who, when wasps fly near, says 'Get along,' ruffling her feathers with excitement" or, when the poet pulls out a handkerchief, "'makes a noise of blowing the nose'" (14). There are refreshing examples of his " jokes about fellow tertians" and "irreverence about saints and Jesuits" (25), as well as detailed accounts of the poet's comical experiments in practical physics. Perhaps most rewarding is the attention Feeney draws to the verbal play apparent in relatively overlooked poems and fragments such as "Moonrise June 19" or most delightfully, "The Woodlark."
Feeney's methodology allows him to record and categorize lovingly "these congeries of evidence" as he promises to do in his preface (xx), and in this he fulfills his goal of insisting on a different and under-recognized Hopkins. Certainly the taxonomy is painstakingly thorough, though this strength might have been supplemented in two respects: first, some judicious editing could have remedied the problem of humor worn out by repetition. For instance, Hopkins's single reference in stanza 26 of "The Wreck of the Deutschland" to storm clouds as the "down-dugged ground-hugged grey" is, to Feeney, evidence of the poet's "playful curiosity" about cows' downy udders, a debatable interpretation which the author nonetheless repeats insistently (24, 78, 86, 174, 176, 185, 188).
Second, the project would have been greatly enriched by some serious critical evaluation of Hopkins's play, the absence of which is perhaps attributable to Feeney's turn to cultural anthropology for his methodology. In the second chapter, "Literary Play: A Theory and a Definition," Feeney makes clear that he understands Huizinga's definition of play as "a free activity standing quite consciously outside 'ordinary' life as being 'not serious'" (45). Indeed, in Feeney's account, Huizinga's play stands beyond "the valuations of vice and virtue" and "outside the antitheses of wisdom and folly . . . truth and falsehood, good...