The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Joseph Feeney, S.J., is a well known Hopkins scholar. He has published numerous articles, delivered many lectures in America and Europe about the literary works of G. M. Hopkins. He has also served as Co-Editor of The Hopkins Quarterly for several years. His first published book is an impressive scholarly work.
Feeney announces his bold scholarly intentions in the first line of his Preface: "In presenting the playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins I want, quite simply and frankly, to change the way Hopkins is read as a poet and known as a person" (xv). This is an audacious aspiration. Does he realize this intention? Let us first examine his efforts before offering an assessment.
Feeney's approach is not a middling examination of Hopkins' writings; he surveys the whole Hopkins canon--poems, journals, letters, and sermons in quest of finding his verbal playfulness. Thus, the book is filled with multiple examples in every expressive mode. He notes instance after instance of Hopkins' extraordinary capacities for wordplay.
Before he begins his survey, he attempts to construct a definition of"playfulness" by referencing the studies of Johan Huizinga (Homo Ludens: A Study of the PlayElements in Culture, Boston: Beacon, 1955) as his mentor on the ludic in human artistic culture. Feeney concludes, "I simply define 'playfulness' in terms of four qualities identified by Huizinga: (1) fun, (2) creativity, (3) contest, and (4) style" (xviii). He sums up Huizinga categories as "playfulness" (xix).
The pattern of the book is organized around what the author calls "A Ludic Biography" brief narratives of the chronological order of Hopkins' life in which Feeney traces the ludic facets of Hopkins' playful personality and the ways he expressed them. The book is filled with innumerable citations of Hopkins' "playfulness" as a youth, as an Oxford student, as a Jesuit student, as a priest, as a writer. Feeney's survey is a prodigious combing through Hopkins canon, so comprehensively that a reader is struck afresh with Hopkins' extraordinary verbal capacities in every expressive form. In such a plenum of citations of Hopkins' "playfulness" only a few representative examples can here be selected as illustrations of the author's identification of verbal fun throughout Hopkins' writings.
Hopkins' playfulness was noted by his friends when he was in lower-school studies. His nickname was "Skin" a take-off from the last three letters of his surname. A school chum described him as a "kaleidoscopic, parti-coloured harlequinesque, thaumatropic being" (8)! When he was studying in Wales to become a Jesuit he wrote a 49-1ine comic poem titled, "Consule Jones'" making fun of his Rector James Jones (17).
"The Wreck of the Deutschland" was Hopkins' breakout poem in two senses: it was an achievement which certified that he possessed major abilities as a poet and that he would allow himself to write poetry as a Jesuit priest. One would have thought that there would not be much playfulness in a poem about such a dreadful tragedy. Yet Feeney finds many instances of verbal play. For example, at the most dramatic moment in the poem when a nun, facing certain death, stands on a table, thrusts her head through a skylight, loudly cries out to a vision of Christ like a "lioness," Feeney comments, "Finally, the Tall Nun 'rears herself to divine / Ears', the 'rearing'--in a nun!--suggesting a heraldic lion rampant" (76). This, in a longish chapter, is but one of many plays of verbal lightness that Feeney sorts out in this tragic poem.
Perhaps the most famous Welsh poem Hopkins wrote was his sonnet, "The Windhover:' No poem of his has provoked more interpretative comment. Feeney, despite the regal flavor in the poem and its powerful spiritual profundity, finds, as he has in all of Hopkins' Welsh poems, verbal play and tones of hermeneutic lightness. Here is what he writes about this famous kestrel:
"Stirred" by something so small, so plain, as a hungry bird in the morning ... then paradoxically realizes that the bird is just a mere "thing:' ... The comic incongruity is clear: How can a mere inanimate "thing" be both so magnificent and so emotionally moving? ... "stirred for a bird?' ... The incongruity--therefore the playful comedy--is stunning: a plain, hungry "thing" looking for breakfast is as grand as a medieval knight .... So is a plain ploughshare or a dying fire. These three "things" suddenly resemble each other--initially dull and pedestrian, all three endure adversity and thus become brilliant?' (95)
And for readers who add the later dedication as a final line in the sonnet, so it was with Christ. Such verbal "bisociation" the author asserts, is the major ludic pattern in the sonnet. He also discusses other such comic verbal touches that emanate from this basic figuring of"things." It might be added that the entire reading of this famous sonnet is new and warrants critical attention beyond its ludic dimension. Feeney sums up the poems written in Wales ("God's Grandeur,' "The Starlight Night" "As kingfishers catch fire" "Spring" Pied Beauty" and "Hurrahing in Harvest" saying, "He ... expressed in metaphor-chains his innate sense of the incongruous, even the ridiculous. Confident and assertive in his now distinctive style, he even developed enough self-confidence to laugh at himself and at his finest poems" (99).
Here is an example of the ludic mode in what Feeney calls Hopkins' "Middle Poems" poems written in a period of four years after his ordination as a Jesuit priest. In this chapter the author discusses a Liverpool poem, "Felix Randal?' He shows Hopkins' verbal playfulness in writing about a dying a farrier named Randal: "Hopkins puns on 'Felix' (his name, and Latin for 'happy man, 'battering' (blacksmith striking horseshoe, horseshoe striking road), and 'sandal' (light shoe, and technical word for horseshoe)" (112). He might have added the playful fancy that a dray horse might prance in his shoes like a dancer on a stage. Poetic humor about a parishioner's death!
Some readers might have expected that Feeney would have to back off the ludic in Hopkins' poetry in the chapter called "The Irish Poems" the period when Hopkins was at times despondent while working as a teacher in Dublin and wrote sonnets that powerfully utter his deep disconsulations. However, Feeney still locates Hopkins' perennial playfulness even in these so-called "Dark Sonnets."
Feeney discusses all of these sad poems in his efforts to find a linguistic lightness in them. Here is part of his discussion of one of these so-called "Terrible" seven poems:
"To seem the stranger" begins with a pun: to be an outsider is Hopkins's "lot"--his firm fate and / or the result of a dice-throw. He then sets up a contrast based on four words with double alliteration, Christ is "my peace / my parting, sword and strife" but he destroys the parallelism by a slash-mark which makes "peace" stand in contrast to the other three nouns--a trick, a dissonance to disturb expectations. And to call England "wife" to his creativity is a whimsical comparison for the celibate priest. (123)
This is just one example of the several detailed inspections of this sonnet that Feeney cites as verbal playfulness in these sonnets drenched with sadness. Some readers may feel that to declare these wordplays playful to the extent that they mock the dominant tone of the poem, indeed "plays" a counterpoint ludic voice to the dark intent of the poem, is a critical stretch. Feeney recognizes this doubt by his closing remarks about these sonnets: "It is extraordinary that amid such pain Hopkins could still play, and play so much. His playfulness is inexorable, even as it serves to distance himself from his pain, to let him stand outside himself, and in so doing to offer a touch of solace" (127). I would add throughout Hopkins' whole life, whatever the circumstances, such readings of his poems stand up because poetry was the anchor of stability in the "Winter World" of his soul.
After the four-chapter survey of Hopkins' verse, in Part 111 Feeney turns to Hopkins' prose--journals, letters, and sermons. Hopkins was a prolific writer in these three modes, which comprise five volumes in his collected works. It is a fair estimation that these writings show him to be one of the most distinguished writers of prose among the world's authors. Feeney has combed multiple examples of Hopkins' amazing verbal facility for paradox, hyperbole, figuration, and wit in all of his prose writings. This section affirms by its numerous citations of Hopkins' expressive powers, rich in all manners of verbal jest, that what Feeney has called "playfulness" abounds in all of these writings.
In a summary final chapter, "How Hopkins Played," Feeney reflects on his search for verbal lightness in all of Hopkins' texts. He writes, "When he plays, Hopkins' preferred modes are whimsy, comedy and the incongruous, wit, light satire, and silliness. Such categories are inevitably imprecise and overlapping, but to collect his playfulness into 'modes' helps to clarify both his sense of play and his sense of humor" (173). He then briefly discusses each of these modes, offering summary allusions to what he has so richly assembled in each chapter of his book. Finally, he turns to Italo Calvino's notion of "lightness" to refine his use of this summary term in his reading Hopkins: "language whereby meaning is conveyed through a verbal texture that seems weightless, until meaning itself takes on the same rarefied consistency'" (187). He then applies this sense of "lightness" to what he has tried to show in his book, coming to the conclusion he wished to establish in his study: "Gerard Hopkins's inexorable playfulness changes our picture of him, creating the need for a new portrait. In such a portrait, painted with fresh hues and pigments, the Victorian Jesuit still has a thin face and bronze brown hair, still wears a white collar and black clothes, but looks brighter, more colorful, with a glint of a smile. ... In this new brighter portrait, he is different. He is a different poet. He is different a person, He is playful" (189). Thus Feeney closes his book, so very plentiful in its readings, so rich in its scholarly citations, so incisive in its "Works Cited" summary of the definitive scholarship on Hopkins for the past sixty-three years.
Has Joseph Feeney changed the way Hopkins is read as a poet and known as a person? I do think he has added a new critical frame for appreciating Hopkins. Of course, this frame will not override the powerful, often doleful, religious frame of his ma)or poems, nor will it dispel the deep personal darkness that is often the subtext of his creative consciousness, all so trenchantly and simply expressed early on in his short but powerful lyric: "Spring and Fall, to a young child, Margaret are you grieving / Over golden grove unleaving? ... It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for" Feeney's critical frame of"playfulness" will not remove this pervasive sense of the death of all selving beauty in Hopkins' poems, but his rich exploration of "lightness" in Hopkins' writings importantly reminds us that there is also a wonderful self-expressive joy that also frames all his words. Readers of Hopkins need this awareness to complete their admiration of him--man, poet, and priest.
David Anthony Downes
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|Author:||Downes, David Anthony|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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