- The Split World of Gerard Manley Hopkins: An Essay in Semiotic Phenomenology
Dennis Sobolev's new book is the most ambitious scholarly work on the poet to appear in several years. While his publisher's triumphalist claims ("For the first time in almost half a century, the world of Hopkins is examined as an indivisible whole") cannot be allowed, The Split World of Gerard Manley Hopkins nevertheless represents a major undertaking and deserves serious analysis.
The "split world" of the title reflects what Sobolev identifies as the central tension in all of Hopkins's writings: on the one hand a commitment to the perceived truths of the material world, and on the other hand an equally strong commitment to a religiously defined supernatural world whose truths often conflicted with the sometimes-harsh realities forced on him by what he would have called "nature." That tension Sobolev summarizes in this key passage: "Hopkins's poems combine the most orthodox doxological statements with apparent heterodoxy, rationalism with mysticism, complex religious philosophy with metaphysical indeterminacy, divine immanence with 'the disappearance of God,' the self-projection of meditation with the self-effacement of contemplation, the Scotist univocity of being with the Thomistic analogous structure of the universe, moments of symbolic revelation with the chains of allegorical disruption, ecstatic declarations of faith with bouts of loneliness and inner emptiness, and the excesses of happiness with those of despair" (p. 8). An exegesis of these polarities provides Sobolev with his agenda.
The starting point for Sobolev's analysis is the principle of counterpoint, first identified in music and then adapted by the poet to his theory and practice of sprung rhythm. Hopkins' world evidences these complementary opposites at every turn. A material object—for example, a candle, a plough, a windhover—can represent both itself and Christ, both the world of nature and the supernatural world, and Sobolev goes to great lengths, in a series of carefully constructed readings, to tease out these polarities and show their relevance both to the poetry and to the prose. Hopkins emerges as a writer who both celebrates and suffers. Readers should reject (so goes the argument) all oversimplifications, from on the one hand the temptation to see Hopkins as devout Roman Catholic priest uttering orthodox, even simplistic pieties, to on the other hand the equally misleading temptation to view him as a modern paradigm of existentialist despair.
Such a series of theses engenders the temptation to push the "both/and" a little too hard, and occasionally Sobolev succumbs: the reader knows that if Hopkins is said to be X, the argument that Hopkins is equally not-X or also-Y is sure to follow. Nor is Sobolev the first to point out polarities in Hopkins. But by and large the book reflects the poetry: Hopkins is often a poet of irreconcilable opposites, his language does show both ecstasy and [End Page 254] despair. Furthermore Sobolev's determination to live with, even celebrate, the tensions rather than to look for easy answers earns him credit with discerning readers. Steering a middle and admittedly syncretic course, however difficult it can prove to be, has the advantage of providing a direct avenue to the heart of Hopkins' poetry, as seen in the way Sobolev illuminates the myriad ways in which a poetic language devoted to celebration is nevertheless marked by a deep and intense sorrow.
For this reader the best part of the book lies in its oft-times penetrating readings of individual topics or poems. The analysis of Hopkins' concept of inscape, for example (pp. 27-43), seems to me definitive. The careful discrimination of the various meanings of mysticism and then the application of them to "The Wreck of the Deutschland" offers another example. Thoughtful analyses of individual poems and journal passages abound: the readings of "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" (p. 93), for example, or "Spelt from Sibyls' Leaves" (p. 148), or "Carrion Comfort" (p. 264). Sobolev is at his best in explaining Hopkins' thinking; he is a little less successful...