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Victorian Poetry 38.2 (2000) 299-318

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The Negotiation of Power Relations in Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The Wreck of the Deutschland" and Sonnets about Working-Class Men

Jenny Holt

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all." 1

Perhaps, in Hopkins' case, "the question" should really be "who is to be master?" I will here argue that, rather than merely dealing, as Humpty does, with bad-tempered adjectives and sulking verbs, Hopkins engages in a far wider contest for mastery of both language and textuality. In this, he embarks on a modified version of Hegel's Master-Slave dialectic, constantly testing power boundaries with both human and divine beings. The clinch of this struggle is the prerogative of Hopkins to inscribe himself as an authoritative figure within various social and spiritual power structures. The importance of this primarily linguistic negotiation includes Hopkins' ability to determine the nature of his own selfhood. E. Warwick Slinn noted that in recent structuralist and post-structuralist theory "consciousness is not some entity separate from language, but is inscribed in language [and is] itself 'written' in and through language." 2 If we, like Jacques Derrida, acknowledge the instability of language systems, we must subsequently face the fragility of consciousness. If we are not "the master" of our language, we are not in control of our own being. This essay proposes that Hopkins anticipates the proposition that language and consciousness are interwoven, and that he enters into a dialogue where his poetic and ecclesiastical authority are jeopardized. I will demonstrate how a linguistic interpretation of the Master-Slave dialectic can be used to examine the power struggles [End Page 299] which Hopkins undergoes, in relationships with people whom he knew and with whom he worked, in the sonnets about working class men, and with the more remote subjects, both mortal and divine, of "The Wreck of the Deutschland."

An initial example is Hopkins' handling of the power relation between himself, as sophisticated, educated priest, and his working-class parishioners. This negotiation is more problematic than Joseph Bristow suggests (in what we might call a "conventional" reading of "Felix Randal"), when he says that these poems

attempt to negotiate a language and a form that lend dignity and weight to differing kinds of laborers . . . reveal[ing] the limits within which Hopkins could legitimise his admiration for such male beauty. 3

According to Bristow, Felix's physical prowess dominates the poet's own subjective position. His "'boisterous years' are the nostalgic 'forethought' that would seem to have brought this poem into being" (p. 701), while the image of him at the forge is privileged by its finality, suggesting that "the farrier, not the priest, stands out here as an emblem of power" (p. 702). However, I argue that a close reading reveals Hopkins waging a kind of linguistic guerrilla-warfare against Felix, which disenfranchises him, and challenges his subjectivity, through verbal manipulation.

Hopkins reduces our initial impression of Felix to the merely physical. Although calling him the "mould of man" suggests he is something of a generic archetype (l. 2), 4 or the model from which all subsequent forms should be derived, it also suggests an empty shell. The "he" of the poem rapidly becomes a depersonalized "it" (l. 3). Through illness, Felix's empty carcass becomes aphasic: "reason rambled in it." This enables Hopkins to undertake a strange linguistic domination of his subject. When the ailing farrier begins to use abusive "curse[s]" (l. 5), Hopkins intervenes against the offensive words using his own priestly language: "My tongue had taught thee comfort" (l. 10). But the priestly idiom is not the only linguistic way in which Hopkins communicates with Felix in the poem. He also "appropriates" Felix's own dialect...


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