- The Playful Hopkins
The reader of Joseph J. Feeney's The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins is immediately struck by the apparent match between the spiritedness of the author and the subject of his book. Out to convince us to think about Hopkins and his poetry in a new way, Father Feeney's own light, accessible, lilting, in short, playful, style demonstrates as well as argues the merit of his approach. Feeney views "playfulness" as "a new hermeneutic, a transforming idea in Hopkins studies," one that suggests a significant revision in the framework within which we read Hopkins. We are invited to lighten our touch and rethink both our descriptions of Hopkins's poetry and our sense of how it works upon us. Briefly summarizing a sampling of the serious, sometimes solemn, mainstream readings of the poems, Feeney shows how elements that have so far been perceived as either the quirkiness of an eccentric poet or as expressions of soulful agony shine anew within the rubric of play.
Whereas we might expect Feeney's book to open with a theoretical chapter on the concept and consequences of "play," he chose instead, rather playfully, to first provide us with "A Ludic Biography." After briefly mentioning Huizinga's theory of play, which he is going to employ extensively, Feeney immediately puts it into use in his own playful reading of Hopkins's character and experiences. He covers the familiar landmarks in a short sketch of the life of the poet, but shifts the familiar perspective considerably. Documenting Hopkins's love of play, his sense of humor, his family's acumen in punning, imitating and dramatizing, and his fondness for hiking, swimming, fishing, tree climbing and practical jokes, Father Feeney succeeds in portraying a more human, social and down-to-earth figure than we have become accustomed to. He supports his impression with the comments of Hopkins's Jesuit peers who remarked on his originality, the sharpness of his senses, his pleasure in smelling, tasting and touching (in addition to seeing and hearing), as well as his whimsical, sometimes peculiar behavior. Thus, [End Page 114] before Feeney conducts us into the world of Hopkins's creativity, we are asked to revise our view of the man himself.
Having exemplified Hopkins's playfulness, Feeney develops the theoretical underpinnings of what he has been describing, recruiting Johan Huizinga's classic discussion in Homo Ludens (1938) for its view of the modes and purposes of play. Huizinga approaches the subject through a cultural, anthropological orientation in which the group, rather than the individual, is the subject of study and he draws his examples from language, myth, religion, philosophy and psychology as social phenomena. Huizinga's analyses do provide Feeney with a vocabulary for delineating the functions and significance of play, but they also make him aware of incongruities between everyday and poetic play. He can incorporate Huizinga's ideas about "stepping out of 'real' life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all its own," the aesthetic urge, the freedom from utilitarian purposes, and the re-forming of human experience, but he finds Huizinga's categories insufficient for the description of the poet's creative act and its product: poems.
Feeney explains that he needed to transform Huizinga's categories from a social into an individual context in order to apply them to literature. Actually, he adopts and expands four of Huizinga's terms—play-as-fun, play-as-creativity, play-as-contest and play-as-style—all of which already seem apt for describing poetic playfulness. Fun, which he finds most significant, "includes humor, whimsy, comedy, incongruity, understatement, exaggeration, puns, jokes, wit, parody, irony, satire, absurdity, silliness, zaniness, a taste for the ridiculous…. A writer's play-as-fun can involve theme, content, plot, character, point-of-view, image, metaphor, language, sound, rhyme, rhythm, or form." Particularly suggestive is his view of genre change: "Rules are in place, but subverting them is fun," a far cry from Harold Bloom's Freudian "anxiety of influence" approach. We suddenly see the development of literary...