- Good(s) Sonnets:Hopkins's Moral Materiality
Hopkins Quarterly, 38.1-2, published by agreement of the editors in conjunction with Victorian Poetry, 49, no.2, as sharing the common theme, “Prosody.”
Hopkins can be a rough read. When he destroyed much of his juvenilia, "The Wreck of the Deutschland" became ground zero in any inquiry into the broader arc of his career, and that piece, characterized by Bridges as "a great dragon folded in the gate" to Hopkins's poetic domain, affords a problematic—or, as Bridges puts it, "forbid[ding]"—starting point. It's difficult, even opaque; like the shipwrecked nuns whom the poem takes as its subject, "Wreck" readers are tasked with finding succor in a tempest, with seeing "sweet heaven" in a veritable linguistic storm (l. 168). In response to Bridges's concerns about the readability of "The Wreck," Hopkins chides, "I was not over-desirous that the meaning of all should be quite clear, at least unmistakeable [sic]….Why, sometimes one enjoys and admires the very lines one cannot understand."1 Hopkins's apparent taste for obscurity is linked to his abiding love for an inscrutable Christian God, whose "mystery," he writes in "The Wreck," "must be instressed, stressed; / For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand" (ll. 39-40). To read his work, the popular wisdom goes,2 is to embrace mystery in its various guises—difficulty, opacity, impenetrability—at the levels of both theme and form.
But to gloss Hopkins as solely or even primarily a difficult poet is to cede to Bridges's dragon even as we fight it; only "sometimes"—not always—does Hopkins recommend the pleasures of opacity, and to expect or even privilege difficulty in his work is to overshoot its entrances. In other words, to classify pieces more comprehensible than "The Wreck" as anomalous or, worse, frivolous is to deny Hopkins's affiliation with the practicality and expediency central to the Victorian mythos, and in doing so, we avoid the shock of the shipwreck by missing the boat. It's telling, for instance, that readers have said so little about "Cockle's [End Page 73] Antibilious Pills," a simple poem but one of the few published3 during Hopkins's own lifetime:
'When you ask for Cockle's Pills,Beware of spurious imitations.'Yes, when you ask for every ill'sCure, when you ask for Cockle's Pills,Some hollow counterfeit that killsWould fain mock that which heals the nations.Oh, when you ask for Cockle's PillsBeware of heartless imitations.
The juxtapositions at the heart of "Pills" represent, albeit comically, conventional theological tensions not at all unlike those explored in "The Wreck": singularity versus multiplicity, truth versus falsehood, life versus death. Rather than pursue obscurity, however, Hopkins writes with relative minimalism, toying with the language of advertisement in a way that indicates interest in and familiarity with the ever-practical arts of retail. "[E]very ill's / Cure," Cockle's Pills are saving, even Christ-like, but they're shelved with devilish "counterfeit[s]." Unlike "heartless"—that is, cruel or even evil—"imitations," Cockle's Pills are a good good, the moral alternative to a "hollow" fix, and "Pills" is a seemingly silly piece that offers real insight into Hopkins's more serious work. "Pills" was inspired, quite simply, by a thing for sale, and although critics concur that "'[t] hing' … is a big word in Hopkins,"4 I want to suggest that good is a term perhaps even more central to his idiosyncratic project—a term that speaks to a core simplicity in a way that a critical vocabulary dominated by words such as tension, pressure, and stress cannot. Good simultaneously (if punningly) gets at the rich materiality of Hopkins's often thing-packed poems and the abstract moral vision that underwrites them; good can denote either philosophical virtue or marketable commodity, and despite his justifiable association in the literary-critical imagination with Catholic probity and the ethical beauty of the natural world, Hopkins typically eschews the word goodness in favor of the noun good. The builder who shapes "walls," Hopkins writes, has "made...