Tuesday 17 May 2016

G. M. Hopkins' confessions

From Joseph Phelan's review of The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins Volume Three:  Diaries, Journals and Notebooks, edited by Lesley Higgins and published by Oxford University Press:

During the period leading up to his conversion to Roman ­Catholicism in 1866, Hopkins made a habit of listing his sins in his diary and then striking them through following confession. These sins range from predictable anxieties about his “noctural emissions” to more enigmatic shortcomings: “anger at Post Office woman”, “self-indulgence at Croydon in fruit”, “talking with Arthur against Cyril in the affair of the cold beef” and “evil thoughts, especially from Rover lying on me”. He seems to have found it difficult to stop himself killing moths, earwigs and spiders (“cruelty to insects generally”), yielding to the lure of tasty snacks (“Eating two biscuits at the Master’s”), or ­providing raw material for future readers of a psycho­analytical disposition (“looking at and thinking of stallions”).

Paging Doctor Freud!

Phelan observes that previous editors had omitted such personal material on the grounds that 'they were covered by the seal of the confessional, but "Lesley Higgins […] overcomes this scruple with a manoeuvre worthy of Hopkins’s spiritual mentor John Henry Newman; the confession in question was, he argues, an informal Anglican practice rather than a full-blown Catholic sacrament, so its contents are not privileged in the same way." 

An elegant if troubling manoeuvre - is nothing sacred?. Does what Hopkins must have felt about 'privileged contents' count for nothing? Having said which, what Phelan calls his 'enigmatic shortcomings' are both revealing and hilarious. It must have been a singularly scrupulous spirit that balked at the thought of a second biscuit.

Hopkins has long been for me a touchstone poet, both technically and - for want of a better word - vocationally. He continues to fascinate, although the more I learn of him the more unknowable he becomes. Although 'anger at Post Office woman' is a bracingly human emotion.

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