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Victorian Poetry 40.2 (2002) 157-187

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"Beautiful dripping fragments":
A Whitmanesque Reading of Hopkins' "Epithalamion"

Michael M. Kaylor

A celibate whose Ruskinian interest in natural beauty focussed upon the landscape and the innocent child or youth, Hopkins has not often been written of in sexual language or been critically analyzed for sexual themes and attitudes. Perhaps we should be glad.

(Johnson, "Sexuality and Inscape") 1

IN CONSIDERATIONS PRIOR TO—BUT LEFT UNCHANGED IN—HIS LITERARY biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Norman White dismisses the poet's elusive "Epithalamion" as "second-hand impressions pasted together," as "landscape descriptions [which] have no force of plot behind them." 2 I wish to argue in the pages to follow that such an assessment overlooks the "Epithalamion" as a display of Hopkins' mastery of the painterly, the priestly, and the prurient—overlooks a masterpiece which John Ferns has argued not only reveals Hopkins in "his freest and happiest poetical vein," but also "shows his genius." 3 Even as recently as 1990, scholars such as James Earl have suggested indelicately that the proper lesson learned from Hopkins' "Epithalamion" is that "we would do well to destroy the poems we write while administering exams," merely labeling the poem "a beautifully embarrassing sexual fantasy." 4

Traditionally, most scholars have dismissed Hopkins' poem as a spurious improvisation, ignoring the existence of earlier drafts, drafts indicative of a thoughtful process of revision. Scholars seem to request a fair copy to legitimize the "Epithalamion," even though its writer admitted only a year after its composition, in that fatal year which saw both his death and the purging of his uncollected manuscripts: "We greatly differ in feeling about copying one's verses out: I find it repulsive, and let them lie months and years in rough copy untransferred to my book" (Last letter to Bridges, April 29, 1889). 5 [End Page 157]

Hopkins himself contributed to this dismissal of the poem as a fragment, and certainly for good reasons. As if to thwart societal disapproval, Hopkins attached a nuptial title and two extraneous fragments, obvious fragments which Norman H. MacKenzie describes as "perhaps the weakest lines GMH ever wrote" (Facsimile II, p. 383, note). Always keen on exploiting a poetic opportunity, Hopkins seems to have converted the occasion of his brother Everard's wedding into "an audible fig leaf intended to cover the sentiments expressed earlier [in the poem]," 6 sentiments both suggestive and erotic. If we look behind the fig leaf—the nuptial title and the appended fragments—we discover a poet inflamed with pederastic desire, a poet who guides us into a woodland abounding with bathing boys; then directs our gaze towards an advancing stranger who, inspired by the sight of these naked striplings, undresses and bathes alone, caressed by a vacillating stream. Not a typical, Catholic wedding-scene, to be certain—or, in the words of Simon Humphries, "This looks not like a nuptial." 7

Regarding the spiritual and psychological nakedness of Hopkins' Terrible Sonnets, most critics would agree with Robert Bernard Martin that "in this great series of poems Hopkins seems stripped before us, so that no conventions of nationality, period or religion come between poet and reader to obscure the sense of profound emotion they share." 8 But, White's classification of the later "Epithalamion" as a pitiable fragment and Earl's suggestion that it should have seen the flames together reveal a deliberate avoidance, in the critical sphere, of the homoerotic and pederastic qualities which infuse it, an avoidance of the sexual and psychological nakedness that it presents and represents, an avoidance of what Michael Lynch has labeled "the gayness of [Hopkins'] whole aesthetic." 9 "Take away the 'title,'" suggests Humphries, "and those forty-two lines might begin to look like the kind of poem that is uncongenial to some critics" (p. 344).

This scholarly preference for the congenial is partly a decorous and cautious attempt not to marginalize Hopkins' deeply felt religious convictions, his devotion to celibacy, and his authentic sense of vocation. When John Robinson described Hopkins as "a man drawn to...


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