Victorian Poetry 40.3 (2002) 320-328
[Access article in PDF]
Guide to the Year's Work
Jeffrey B. Loomis
"To perceive many realities and reveal them to one another is fundamental to human community," writes Bernadette Waterman Ward (p. 268), near the conclusion of her extraordinarily fine, and indeed often deeply inspiring book World as Word: Philosophical Theology in Gerard Manley Hopkins (The Catholic University of America Press, 2002). Her statement could summarize the community involvement I always feel part of when reading the wide range of any current critical season's Hopkinsian criticism (even though I recognize that many of Ward's contemporaries do not share her or my views, including even the sense of "realities" as somewhat [within limits] "perceiv[able]"). However, most saliently, I believe, Ward's quotation testifies to her own humane commitment to such [End Page 320] communal richness as she found while teaching a "clase de ingles," among Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants in East Palo Alto, California. That experience taught her, she says, what acquaintance with Hopkins apparently also has suggested to her: "that language need not be a tool for domination but might be an attempt to share knowledge about the world," while guided by "love" (p. 266).
Ward's articles on Hopkins have been appearing in journals for over a dozen years, so that some Hopkinsian scholars will already know her considerable work examining the Jesuit poet's intellectual lineage. She vitally supplements and enhances the previous contributions of Patricia Ball, W. S. Johnson, Alison Sulloway, Jude Nixon, Jerome Bump, and Christopher Devlin, S.J.: scholars who also have assessed Hopkins' influences from Ruskin, the Tractarians, Newman, and especially Duns Scotus. Certainly the central contribution of Ward's consummate scholarship is her association of Hopkins' term "inscape"—which she defines as "multiple real aspects of a single thing" (p. 113)—with Scotus' term formalitas—which she translates as "formalitates," or "scapes," and calls "aspects of a thing perceived that are separable realities and yet do not violate the [thing's] unity" (p. 162). These definitions help illumine for us the unification within multiplicity that was ever sensed by Hopkins in natural phenomena, in creatures, and in coherent artifacts like his poems.
Ward, besides, may provide still another valuable gift through her analysis of Hopkins' Scotism. Her Scotist philosophical analyses truly make it seem possible, even in a postmodern era, still to believe in literature as interpretively multivalent (possessing multiple semantic inscapes), yet not thus lacking integritied wholeness. Indeed, Ward does quietly polemicize against what are somewhat contrasting, poststructuralist viewpoints (although she does so with general tact). She regularly contends that "to claim that truth cannot be known is dangerous, mystifying, . . . exclusive"; with mild fury, she adds that such a claim can become "cruel" (p. 267).
As for Ward's poetic explications, they adhere to very high exegetical standards. She provides dextrous and detailed readings of a number of Hopkins' poems, and her discussions wonderfully integrate clarification of idea with analysis of how stylistic features (like alliteration and sprung rhythm) contribute to the power of the lyrics' communication. She understands, better than many others, Hopkins' true dedication to his poetry-writing (p. 2), besides recognizing his intellectual openness to such positions as "theistic evolutionism" (p. 44), and his sternly chaste (but psychologically honest) dealing with admitted personal homoerotic feelings (pp. 251-257).
Concerning that controversial topic, everyone interested in Hopkins' biography, thought, and art should read Ward's analysis of Hopkins' sonnet [End Page 321] "To what serves mortal beauty?" (pp. 251-257). This University of Dallas scholar, I think, comprehends with a particularly resplendent sensitivity the "I"- "thou" spirit of relational caring which motivated Hopkins to respond so sternly and resolutely, despite earthly erotic stirrings, to the constant supremacy of "God's better beauty, grace."
To be sure, Ward could have offered us even more insight. For instance, her explanation of Hopkins' "Terrible" Sonnets (pp. 235-240) seems unduly cursory. Given her skill at explicating poems, one would have liked to see a few moreof those excellent offerings. She unfortunately makes some small errors when referring to other authors' scholarly volumes—including...