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Book Review

A poet's life, from the inside

By Floyd Skloot
Globe Correspondent / December 31, 2008
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Paul Mariani is one of our most distinguished literary biographers. He is drawn to write about tormented poets, having published lives of John Berryman, Hart Crane, and Robert Lowell. Mariani also writes about troubled poets who seek balance by making lives outside the world of literature, like physician-poet William Carlos Williams. In addition, Mariani has published his own poetry, a memoir of his 30-day Catholic retreat experience, and a study of religious poetry. Now, in his new biography of the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a man tortured by doubt and guilt and instability, Mariani has brought all these interests together. In his new book, the result of decades of immersion in Hopkins's life and work, he has found a way to tell Hopkins's life story that plunges a reader deeply into the mind and soul of this passionate, disturbed, highly original poet, thereby producing an unusual and powerful work of biography.

Hopkins, born near London in 1844, lived just shy of 45 years before dying in Dublin, weakened by years of nervous illness, after contracting both typhus and typhoid. Though raised within the Church of England, Hopkins at 22, after a period of intense and anguished consideration, convinced of his calling, converted to Catholicism. This conversion, and the subsequent struggle to commit himself even more intensely to a Christ-like life, represent the central story of Hopkins's life. Along with that, his compulsion to write poetry of tremendous originality and immediacy, his guilt over homoerotic urges, his powerful need to express how fully he saw God in all of nature, and his effort to balance religious retreat with his callings as teacher and writer devastated Hopkins's soul as he tried to sustain the pure, simple life of a Jesuit priest and teacher of classics.

Most of Hopkins's story is essentially internal, an account of emotional, philosophical, and spiritual ordeal. This presents serious problems for a biographer, especially when his subject is long dead and restrained by Victorian and Church pressures against candid expression. Mariani makes use of Hopkins's letters and notebooks, and devotes extensive space to analysis of Hopkins's poetry, where the inner man is most open. But what distinguishes this biography from previous ones is not Mariani's scholarship or uncovering of vital new material, but the fullness of his absorption into his fellow poet and fellow Catholic's experience and art.

Wisely, Mariani chooses a nontraditional approach. Rather than succumbing to a typical biographical arc, he begins with the conversion story, and with Hopkins's years as a student at Oxford, plunging us into the thematic heart of the story. He also emphasizes the intensity and immediacy of Hopkins's quest for religious consistency, his experience of thought and feeling, by using a present-tense narrative. He seeks to echo Hopkins's literary quirks in recounting the poet's manner of thinking, and finds places where Hopkins, even when young, expressed himself in ways that reveal the core of his dilemmas in a voice already uniquely his own: "the activities of the spirit are conveyed in those of the body as scent is conveyed in spirits of wine, remaining still inexplicably distinct."

By creating such a vivid sense of Hopkins's inner life, Mariani makes moments dramatic that might otherwise seem matters of course, as when, on the 15th anniversary of joining the Jesuits, Hopkins "makes a solemn promise to offer up the rest of his life as a sacrifice in imitation of Christ." Knowing him as intimately as Mariani has allowed us to, we feel real anxiety at this moment, certain that Hopkins will be relentless in his pursuit of sacrifice. Later, when we read of his interrupting a lecture on Homer's Helen of Troy to say "You know, I never saw a naked woman. I wish I had," we are as astonished as the student who recorded this remark, shocked equally by what Hopkins said and what it cost him to realize it.

Ultimately "Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life" gains its deepest revelations through Mariani's sensitive readings of the poems. Along the way, he manages to make this strange, remote, hidden, difficult man seem knowable, often likable, alive and real to us as the human being behind the enduring, unique verse that brings us to wonder about the life.

Floyd Skloot is the author of "In the Shadow of Memory" and "The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer's Life."

GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS: A Life By Paul Mariani

Viking, 496 pp., $34.95

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