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Hopkins' Achieved Self.

Hermeneutics might be dubbed the enfant terrible of theology. The word that signifies the theory and practice of interpretation is an etymological recollection of Hermes' leap from the mouth of Zeus, a divine birth followed by all manner of communicative play. David Downes is anything but mercurial in his scrupulous cross-references to Hopkins's poetry, journals, notebooks, and letters. However, these basic biographical tools are employed to produce a thorough-going hermeneutic study. This is not a book likely to appeal to readers who seek to trace Hopkins's career from the Jesuit College of St Beuno's, through the Catholic parishes of Chesterfield, London, Oxford, Liverpool, and Glasgow: a life-story that concludes with the poet's death as Professor of Classics at University College, Dublin. Hopkins' Achieved Self is a critique that will attract the attention of specialist students and scholars, be they in the fields of theology, religious literature, or linguistic philosophy.

Downes takes up a position within the milieu of scholars who recognize the seeds of literary modernism as germinating in the soil of Victorian Britain. His preface lays the foundation for the inter-disciplinary chapters ahead in pointing out an intellectual difference between Britain and the rest of Europe. The aesthetic philosophers of the European mainland dominated the study of consciousness while, across the English Channel, it was the poets, the novelists, the critics who were most concerned with the inner self. Dowries understands the literature of nineteenth-century Britain as having developed into 'hermeneutic . . . forms of positing authorial consciousness': an 'inwardness' that is the 'central phenomenological component' of Hopkins's work (ix).

Still, Hopkins scholarship remains dominated by the biography of the priest-poet. Downes rightly maintains that insufficient attention has been paid to his lyric narration of the human self that is conscious of an 'I' and moves towards realization of an 'I am'. Only two previous scholars have attempted a scrutiny comparable to Hopkins' Achieved Self- and both fall short of Downes's dual criteria of faithfulness to the poet's religious identity and phenomenological coherence. J. Hills Miller devotes a chapter to Hopkins in The Disappearance of God (1963), but writes against the 'spiritual grain' of the poet. Although Walter Ong, Hopkins's fellow Jesuit and author of Hopkins, the Self, and God (1986), has succeeded in orientating the theme of consciousness within Victorian Christianity, he does not venture to demonstrate the coherent phenomenology of 'selving' on which Downes insists (ix).

Downes is successful in explicating the relationship between Hopkins's religious consciousness and the textual construction of the self. However, I am troubled by his zeal for phenomenological coherence. That modernism was germinating in the Victorian landscape was only the case because of Hopkins and other figures who, in myriad ways, shared his concern with the object, a desire to describe it accurately without reducing it to merely literal, univocal meaning. The latter decades of the nineteenth century were proto-modernist. Modernism proper had yet to flourish. Hopkins the poet-priest is convincingly re-established as a theological hermeneut whose writing is a means of making 'meaningful utterances of religious states of consciousness', but Downes's demonstration of the scope of these 'hermeneutic systems' is repeatedly put to one side in favour of finding the coherence that escaped Ong: a coherence that is post-modernist fruit (1).

The title Hopkins' Achieved Self in no way indicates a comparative study. Downes's explanation as to why he adopted Paul Ricoeur, writing a century after Hopkins, as a 'critical foil' is characterized by bravado (x-xi). Moreover, the anachronistic transplantation of ideas is confusing when taken to such lengths, particularly as it is assumed that readers of Hopkins will be familiar with the increasing canon of inter-disciplinary theory that is breaking down boundaries between the humanities. It is tempting to write off this association of Hopkins and Ricoeur as critical horticulture, grafting postmodernist phenomenology onto nineteenth-century proto-modernism in a bid to breed the elusive bud of coherence. Downes never does achieve his aim of revealing a coherent phenomenology within Hopkins's writings. Instead, his close comparison of the hermeneutics of Hopkins and Ricoeur illustrates something quite different in terms of intellectual history.

Ricoeur has defined hermeneutics as a method of deciphering indirect meaning, a practice of unearthing significance that lies hidden beneath the significance of the surface. This form of investigation develops systems long-used by theologians in their study of sacred texts to embrace the human self as the agent of the word within the world. Downes's analytic shifts between Hopkins and Ricoeur reveals their shared belief that one cannot describe an object without prior knowledge of it, and their equality in speculative courage.

Hopkins possessed, or was possessed by, knowledge that issues from the divine Logos of St John's Gospel: total faith in the Word that was in principio yet became flesh and guarantor of the grace of salvation. Downes's choice of quotation presents Ricoeur as regarding words as 'graces' that empower humanity to 'speak of possible worlds and possible ways of orientating oneself in those worlds' (182). Ricoeur tacitly posits human selfhood with the attributes of a Hermes, an alter deus able to transcend the absence of a priori knowledge in that the inter-subjectivity of verbal communication enables the affirmation of belief in a real world in which the self enjoys its being. Hopkins's writing is infused with this same affirmative spirit, positing each self as progeny of the Christian deity in its development from 'I' towards an 'I am' that struggles to articulate the spiritual achievement of knowing 'I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am' (180).

If hermeneutics is the enfant terrible of theology it is because, as Downes asserts, despair rather than hope has proved the hardiest plant to sprout from nineteenth-century proto-modernism, dominating the literature, literary theory, and theology of the twentieth century (182-94). The value of Hopkins' Achieved Self is in the book's implication of an intellectual life-cycle. The phenomenological hermeneutics of Ricoeur, one of the innumerable hybrids of post-modernist culture, is split open to expose the seeds of its own origin in the faithfulness of word and world to the divine Word. It is a covenant of 'hope . . . freedom [and] joy', ready to germinate again as modernism continues to multiply (194).

TRACY E. A. MARTIN Merseyside
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Author:Martin, Tracy E.A.
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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