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Christianity and Literature Vol. 60, No.4 (Summer 2011) REVIEWESSAY "Dark Heaven's Baffling Ban" David Anthony Downes Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life. By Paul Mariani. NewYork: Viking, Penguin Group, 2008. ISBN 9780670020317. Pp. 496. $39.00. After the first biographical study of Hopkins was attempted in 1930, there was a hiatus of seventeen years during which the Provincial of the British Jesuits, Fr. Martin D'Arcy, authorized the writing of Hopkins' Jesuit life by an American Jesuit, Anthony Bischoff, as a companion to an early life of Hopkins then being written by an English scholar, Humphry House. These were commissioned in the flush ofHopkins' writings being published by Oxford University Press. Neither biography got beyond the draft stage. A biography by Eleanor Ruggles was published in 1947 which could only be called a beginning effort. In the following four decades several studies were written which discussed or touched on some periods of Hopkins' life, but it was not until biographers were catching up to the new materials that it became possible to write a fully informed biography. Notable examples are those authored by Bernard Bergonzi (1978), Robert Bernand Martin (1991), and Norman White (1992). White's biography has been received by most Hopkins scholars as the most definitive work except for lacking a greater insight into Hopkins' powerful religious side. Hence a new biographer might try to write a biography mostly centered on Hopkins' complex spirituality. Mariani's biography is an effort to fill this void in a finally complete biography. Surprisingly, Mariani's book is controversial because of the manner in which Hopkins' religious life is narrated. (An illustrative example of this disapproval is the sharply negative critique in Mark Ford's review of the biography in TheNew York ReviewofBooks,January 15,2009.)The first issue of dissent by such readers is the very structure and style of the biography Mariani has written. The narrative pattern he chose is that of biographical diary organized around aschedule oftime patterns in which he offersa sense of place and predicament made informative by drawing on Hopkins' notebooks, 651 652 CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE letters, and other scribblings. What the reader encounters throughout the book are these piecemeal verbal snapshots of each setting with some personal commentary largelydrawn from Hopkins' writings. What has bothered some readers is that the author often intrudes himself into the scenes, less with biographical insight than with some deeply felt kinship, so that the prose reads like Hopkins' double echoing his subject's words. Another difference, off-putting to some readers, is that the book is written, for the most part, in the present tense. Supposedly this was done in an attempt to vitalize the scenes, giving them a dramatic immediacy of Hopkins resurrected in his own words. Surprisingly,except for noting Hopkins' spiritual struggles, the author seldom does any deep, assessiveprobing ofthe various destructively difficult existential phases of Hopkins' short, tragic life. Mariani attaches the poems Hopkins wrote in each timeframe to show how each one reveals some aspect of Hopkins' spiritual temper in an effort to exhibit how Hopkins' poetic nature became part of his daily strife. Sometimes the poem fitsnicely, but not always. Thiseffort to wed Hopkins' poems closely to his life situations sometimes strains the narrative or the poem. Trying to make these connections exact is often guesswork at best. One attribute that may distract some readers is the tone of the narrative language. After reading a portion of the biography, one gets the impression that there isan overtone in the language which expresses more than that ofits literal meaning. The reader begins to feelthat there is another, higher levelof assertion in the text. I am speaking of a rhapsodizing, religious tonality that is like an organ background meant to elevate the narrative story to a psalmody, as if Hopkins' life story-events and associated poems-are in the author's perspective a canticle, a kind of verbal canonization of Hopkins' life. A sensitive reader, especially one sympathetic to Hopkins' Christian sensibility, might well feel moved by this mantra, especially responding to the powerful religious exhortations in many of the poems. However one is never sure in a poet's use of language how...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2056-5666
Print ISSN
0148-3331
Pages
pp. 651-659
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-14
Open Access
No
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