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Victorian Poetry 39.1 (2001) 37-68



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"To prove him with hard questions":
answerability in Hopkins' writings

Lesley Higgins


And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to prove him with hard questions. And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart.

-- I Kings 10.1-3

[paideia]: teaching, education, formation, discipline, correction.

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within yourself the possibility of shaping and forming as a particularly happy and pure way of living; train yourself to it--but take whatever comes with great trust, and if only it comes out of your own will, out of some need of your inmost being, take upon yourself and hate nothing.

--Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet 1

What is at risk when a question is posed in a Hopkins text? They are presented in "God's Grandeur" and "Spring and Fall" to enact rituals of decisive, affective answering. Poems such as "The Candle Indoors," [End Page 37] however, culminate in questions rather than satisfy them. Interrogatives proliferate in the drama fragments to prompt dialogue--discursive engineers of exposition and explanation which prepare the stage for tortured soliloquies or choruses burnished with commitment to "beauty's self and beauty's giver." Yet in "The Wreck of the Deutschland," questions gather to a frantic cacophony in stanzas 18 and 28, where they (temporarily) destabilize the speaker and through him, with him, the ode itself. Gradually, the reader discovers a hierarchy of questions in the canon, ranging from the easily mastered "who" to the complexities of "what."

Throughout Hopkins' writings, questions work to summon speaker and auditor/reader alike to participate in epistemological, aesthetic, and religious dialogues; they variously trouble and intensify the discursive order. To contextualize this fundamental modus operandi and vivendi, I demonstrate how his schooling in questionable pursuits-from the Socratic stylizations of his undergraduate essays to the theological, Scholastic tradition of Sic et Non and the meditative practices of the Spiritual Exercises--constituted a multi-dimensional paideia which provided the intellectual groundwork for poetic rigors. The paper also identifies the fundamental biblical questions which frame the positive and negative poles of Hopkins' spiritual and poetic inquiries: from the promise of "Who then can be saved?" (Mark 10.26) to the anguish of "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27.46).

Each query represents a degree of textual risk-taking; the reader must consider what is hazarded in such an enterprise, and what is accomplished. In broader terms, I correlate Hopkins' quests for meaning with Mikhail Bakhtin's insistence that art, like the individual, "must become answerable through and through," that the "constituent moments" of each must "interpenetrate each other in the unity of guilt and answerability." 2 In Hopkins' prose and poetry, gestures of grammar, syntax, and rhetoric identify the degrees and limits of answerability-both for humans, and from the deity.

"Vertiginous possibilities"

Paul de Man's intriguing, schismatic essay on "Semiology and Rhetoric" alerts us to "a possible discrepancy," a "tension" between grammatical structures and rhetorical structures that disturbs the tradition of "letting grammar and rhetoric function in perfect continuity." 3 Specifically, he posits that the rhetorical question, "in which a figure is conveyed directly by means of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-7190
Print ISSN
0042-5206
Pages
pp. 37-68
Launched on MUSE
2001-03-01
Open Access
No
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