OCTOBER 16, 2019
“LOOK AT THE STARS! look, look up at the skies!” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in a now-famous sonnet called “The Starlight Night.” It was not just any sky, but the sky over Wales in the spring of 1877 that inspired him to see the constellations as “quickgold,” “whitebeam,” and “flake-doves.” Hopkins, awaiting his ordination as a Jesuit priest, was living and studying at St. Beuno’s, a small theological college set into the side of a hill called Maenefa. As he described it in one poem, he was “[a]way in the loveable west, / On a pastoral forehead of Wales.” It was here at St. Beuno’s, a few days after writing “The Starlight Night,” that Hopkins delivered his earliest extant sermon.
If the setting for the sermon was a friendly one, so was the audience. The attendees were Hopkins’s Jesuit brothers, the aim of the sermon being to gain him practice before his first assignment as a parish priest. The stakes, in other words, were low.
Hopkins, however, was not one for halfhearted pursuits. He had no intention of taking it easy on himself. He opened with a grand metaphor, one designed to make his hearers reflect on the act of hearing. “Lend me your ears,” he said, and then presented an image of the Sea of Galilee as “a man’s left ear.” The River Jordan, he began, “enters at the top of the upper rim [and] runs out at the end of the lobe.” The city of Bethsaida Julias rests, he said, “above the ear in the hair.” He described the Apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip as coming from “against the cheek where the bow of the ear ends.” The city of Tiberias he situated “on the tongue of flesh that stands out from the cheek.”
And on he goes. And on. And on. As though the image were not complex enough, he fancifully transposed the ear/map composite onto the Welsh landscape surrounding St. Beuno’s. He connected Holy Land locations with Welsh places like Rhuddlan and Llannefydd, and finally he made the spot where his listeners sat on the slope of Maenefa, the very site where the biblical story they were about to hear took place.
A metaphor bringing together the Holy Land, Wales, and an ear is a surprising feat of the imagination — and a playful one, too. But there is no reason to think Hopkins did not also mean for it to inspire. Surprise, in fact, is integral to his strategy. He wants to collapse time and space, to thrust his reader into the scene, making the Gospel story a vivid, felt reality. This much is certain: Hopkins missed his mark. Hearing their left ears compared to the Sea of Galilee, his listeners did not sit in silent amazement. They guffawed. And as Hopkins disentangled himself from his baroque opening metaphor, he encountered fresh difficulties.
His Gospel text — Jesus’s miracle of feeding five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes — drew him to new oratorical heights. Preoccupied still with the thought of hearing, he drew attention to Jesus’s command, “Make the men sit down.” Jesus declared it, Hopkins says, “with royal, with military strength, hearing no denial.” Taking “the imitation of Christ” quite literally, five-foot-tall, wan-visaged Hopkins thundered the phrase — or tried to — again and again, first in English, then in Greek, then in Latin, and even in Welsh, as though the multitudes really stood there before him inside the austere walls of St. Beuno’s. He strove to spark admiration, to make his hearers’ hearts “swell with pride for Christ the King of Glory.” Instead, “people laughed at it prodigiously.” He later recorded, “I saw some of them roll on their chairs with laughter. This made me lose the thread, so that I did not deliver the last two paragraphs right but mixed things up.” He notes that “[t]he last paragraph, in which ‘Make the men sit down’ is often repeated, far from having a good effect, made them roll more than ever.” Such was the inauspicious beginning of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s preaching career.
Today, nearly a century and a half later, Hopkins is a canonical poet. It has become a rite of passage for English majors everywhere to wrestle with his muscular poems that stand out starkly from the preened, prettiness of most Victorian verse. But most of Hopkins’s readers never realize he also preached. Fortunately, they can now find all 32 of Hopkins’s surviving homilies scrupulously reproduced, lovingly edited, and carefully introduced in a new edition out this year from Oxford University Press. In this new volume, edited by Jude V. Nixon and Noel Barber SJ, we have, finally, a full and clear picture of Hopkins’s preaching career in all its daring, all its striving, and all its misadventures.
One especially striking feature of the text is that it preserves Hopkins’s cancellations, additions, underlining, et cetera, rather than reproducing the final text only. As a result, we witness Hopkins in the heat of composition — as well as in fits of dissatisfied revision. We detect in the uneven, shifting textures of the text Hopkins’s ongoing struggle as a poet in the pulpit.
After Hopkins left St. Beuno’s, his struggles continued at London’s Farm Street Church, in what would be his only fashionable assignment as a parish priest. Hopkins, who had been the “Star of Baliol” during his Oxford undergraduate career, might have seemed like an ideal preacher for high society congregants. But in one sermon, he chose to present the Church as a great milk cow’s udder, the seven sacraments being the teats by which we receive spiritual nourishment. The comparison proved a bit too homely for Victorian sensibilities.
“Homely” is, in fact, a word Hopkins himself used to describe his strange images that leap from the mundane to the holy in unexpected ways. (He uses the word in the British sense, meaning “unpretentious” rather than in the American sense, meaning “ugly.”) In a sermon on the Holy Spirit or “Paraclete,” he writes, “One sight is before my mind, it is homely but it comes home,” and he then proceeds to compare the Paraclete to a player in a cricket match crying, “Come on, come on!” He explains:
[A] Paraclete is just that, something that cheers the spirit of man, with signals and with cries, all zealous that he should do something and full of assurance that if he will he can, calling him on, springing to meet him half way, crying to his ears or to his heart: This way to do God’s will, this way to save your soul, come on, come on!
Hopkins, a student (later a teacher) of Greek, knew full well that the Greek paráklētos literally means a helper or “one who calls alongside.” In other words, just like Hopkins’s amalgam of an ear, the Sea of Galilee, and North Wales, the image appears ludic (some might say ludicrous), but it also has an incredible theological lucidity.
Theological robustness notwithstanding, Hopkins’s fusing of the homely and the holy continued to cause him problems. In one sermon, a meditation on the human qualities of Christ, he likened the way Christ becomes one’s personal hero to the way a girl makes a hero of her “sweetheart.” The use of the word “sweetheart” was considered so indecorous, Hopkins later recorded, that “I was in a manner suspended and at all events was forbidden (it was some time after) to preach without having my sermon revised.”
Some congregants seemed not so much disapproving as perplexed or even bored by Hopkins’s homely homilies. One told Hopkins after a sermon that he didn’t compare to Fr. Clare, the rector who had taken issue with the word “sweetheart.” The same parishioner also admitted “he was sleeping for parts of it.”
Hopkins, despite these discouragements, never stopped hoping he would make an impact. Once, when he preached on “our Lord’s fondness for praising and rewarding people,” he looked out into the pews and was amazed: “I thought people must be quite touched by this consideration and that I even saw some wiping their tears,” he wrote. However, “when the same thing happened next week I perceived that it was hot and that it was sweat they were wiping away.”
All of this is simply to say that Hopkins’s sermons did not please Victorians any more than his poems did. (It would take publication 30 years after his death and rediscovery by Modernists to elevate Hopkins’s reputation to the level it rests at today.) So why have his sermons not been included in this posthumous reevaluation? In part, it is because there is another prejudice we share with the Victorian era, which remains largely unchallenged: a bias that disqualifies forms of public address from counting as “literary.” We tend to operate with a default assumption like that made by John Stuart Mill in his essay “What is Poetry?” Mill makes poetry the antithesis of what he calls “eloquence.” “Eloquence is heard,” he writes, “poetry is overheard.” Poetry is a soliloquy, its defining feature being “the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener.”
But Hopkins did not treat poetry and sermons as two separate (or separable) domains. He remains every bit a poet as he mounts the pulpit. In fact, his poetry and his sermons cross-pollinate: ideas, images, and turns of phrase appear first in sermons and later in poems, or vice versa.
Nor would Hopkins, despite the fact that he had no “public” to speak of, accept the idea that poetry is a special, uniquely isolated form of communication — “feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude” is Mill’s phrase. Hopkins sees poetry as essentially auditory and public. He explained his choice of rhythm as being “the nearest to the rhythm of prose, that is the native and natural rhythm of speech, the least forced, the most rhetorical and emphatic of all possible rhythms.” He also reiterated again and again that “[m]y verse is less to be read than heard.” He reminded the few readers he had to “[t]ake breath and read [poetry] with the ears” not “with the eyes only.” He was even excited by the recent invention of the phonograph, hoping it would lead to a rediscovery of poetry’s essential, spoken nature.
Of course, there is a corollary point, one that may be even harder to accept than the idea that a sermon by a poet can have literary merit. If Hopkins is a poet in the pulpit, the reverse is also true: he preaches, in a sense, in his poems. “You are my public and I hope to convert you,” he told — warned? — his friend Robert Bridges. But in Hopkins’s view, we are all being converted in one way or another every day of our lives. The term for conversion, metanoia, another Greek term he knew well, means “to turn.” For Hopkins, we are always constantly turning toward or away from the truth and the source of being as part of a process he calls “selving.”
In “The Starlight Night,” the sonnet Hopkins composed just before his disastrous sermon to his Jesuit brothers, we can see his poem-preaching in action. After introducing his reader to the stars as “fire-folk,” “bright boroughs,” “circle-citadels,” “elves’-eyes,” and the like, he exhorts the reader not to disconnect the experience of beauty from admiration for the divine:
These [the stars] are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
In another metaphor that wonderfully fuses the homely and holy, Hopkins makes the stars mere tiny twinkles of light seen through the cracks in a barn door — behind which is a harvest of Christ, Mary, and the saints. The passage is far from simpleminded, coercive, or heavy-handed, but it remains hortatory in the ways Mill thought a poem should not be. It aims to surprise us, to move us, to startle us, even, and certainly to create a change of heart. Do we wish it were merely pretty? Would we prefer it pleased us but left us more or less as we were?
I’d rather be converted.
Brett Beasley, PhD, writes about ethics and religion with a focus on the role of language, literature, and narrative in the moral life. His work has appeared in Salon, Notre Dame Magazine, The Public Domain Review, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, and many other publications.