Author’s note: In yesterday’s post, I argued that one of the purposes of scholarship is friendship with the dead. Today, I reflect on how our relationship with the dead can both enrich and be enriched by friendship with the living.
. . .
We sometimes think of scholarship as something occurring in a vacuum. The researcher, sitting alone with her books (or computer), produces fully-formed a child from her own brain…. That is not actually how it works, however, as the story I’m about to tell you will show.
Many years ago, when David Jeffrey, Doug Henry, and I were mentors to a cohort of senior Crane Scholars, we were discussing ideas for novels to read with them. Dr. Jeffrey mentioned that his wife Katherine had recently read and enjoyed Ron Hansen’s novel Exiles, a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins intertwined with the story of five nuns who died on the wreck of a ship called the Deutschland, the subject of Hopkins’ first major poem. At that point in my life, I wasn’t really a Hopkins fan—his language was too obscure and his meter too clunky for my taste—but because my two colleagues obviously thought so highly of him, I figured reading a novel about him would at least be worth a try. So, we and our seniors did read Exiles, and it turned out to be, for me at least, a revelation.
Here was the story of a man so passionately in love with God that he sacrificed a promising academic career to become a Jesuit priest. He was, at times, full of the deepest joy, and yet he suffered almost unendurable loneliness. He was cut off from his family, who never accepted his conversion to Catholicism, and from his homeland of England when he was sent to teach in Ireland. There he died of typhoid fever, younger than I am now. His final words were “I am so happy; I am so happy.” Decades after his death, his worth as a poet began to be recognized, and he eventually eclipsed his friend and first editor Robert Bridges, who was the poet laureate of the day but has since fallen into obscurity. Too many Christian lessons here to count.
I decided to give his poetry another try. I acquired the edition of his poems that Dr. Jeffrey recommended and took it with me when I flew out for my brother’s graduation ceremony in Seattle.1 After reading the poems for a while, with guidance from the introduction and notes, I discovered that much of my distaste for Hopkins came from a simple misunderstanding of his poetic meter. For instance, the lines from “Hurrahing in Harvest” that I had been reading as
The heárt rears wíngs bold and bólder
And húrls for hím, O hálf hurls eárth for hím off únder his feét
were actually iambic pentameters!
The heárt reárs wíngs bóld and bólder
And húrls for him, O hálf hurls eárth for him off únder his feét.
And some of his most obscure lines made perfect sense once I knew what he was getting at: “deals out that being indoors each one dwells,”2 which seemed perfect nonsense to me, just means “proclaims that being, that unique essence, which dwells inside of each one”—its “itselfness,” or what Hopkins called its “inscape.” The more time I spent with Hopkins, the more I felt myself falling in love with him in his Hopkinsness. What had seemed to be his blemishes I could now begin to recognize as his particular beauties. I felt, in short, that I had made a new friend.
But I say more. Perhaps you all are too young to have experienced that exquisite agony which comes when your flight arrives at DFW airport in plenty of time to make the Waco connection, then sits on the tarmac for five minutes, ten minutes, half an hour, an hour—at last you’re off the plane, you run to the gate where the Waco flight, the last of the day…has just taken off. And so you find yourself spending the night in a hotel near the airport—not the Hyatt, but that other one the airline was willing to pay for, your clothes and toiletries locked up at the airport with the checked luggage. My Hopkins was my one consolation. With the long flight and the longer layover, I had time to read, and read again, and memorize, quite a few of his poems.
Finally, I made it to his last published poem, titled simply “To R. B.”—that is, Robert Bridges. The sonnet begins with a meditation on the creative process, which Hopkins implicitly compares to impregnation by the spirit of inspiration, and it culminates in a lament for his own lost creativity. The last six lines of the poem are these:
Sweet fire the sire of muse, my soul needs this;
I want the one rapture of an inspiration.
O then if in my lagging lines you miss
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.
“My winter world”—something clicked here, and I thought of the exile poetry of Ovid, who was banished in the year AD 8 by the emperor Augustus to what the poet describes as a land of perpetual winter on the shores of the Black Sea. Ovid is constantly bemoaning, in poetry of great creativity and wit, the lack of creativity and wit engendered by his sojourn in this winter world. Moreover, the first eight lines of Hopkins’ sonnet draw almost entirely on classical imagery for poetic creation, in marked contrast to the Biblical or Shakespearean language of his other late poems.
It became increasingly clear to me that my new dead friend Hopkins—who was, by the way, a classicist by profession—was in some sense channeling the voice of my old dead friend Ovid: one exile finding companionship in another. And what fitting irony that this discovery should be made during my own unsuccessful attempt to get home. When I finally did make it back to Waco the next morning, whom should I run into in the airport but Katherine and David Jeffrey. “I’ve never seen you looking so tired,” he remarked. I replied, “Yes, but never mind that—where do I find bibliography on Hopkins’ last poem?”
Following that lead and others, I discovered that Hopkins was indeed a lover of Ovid. As he writes in a letter to his friend Robert Dixon, “Ovid carried the elegiac couplet to a perfection beyond which it could not go and his work remains the standard of excellence.” And imagine my joy upon discovering that the last academic paper Hopkins mentions writing was on a bizarre Roman ritual known almost exclusively from Ovid’s Fasti, a poem he revised from exile, and involved the homesickness of Hercules’ exiled followers. After I showed a draft of my article to Dr. Jeffrey, he recommended that I also consult a young Baylor colleague and Hopkins expert, Joshua King, whom I had heard of but had not yet met. He offered me some excellent suggestions over a lunch in Brooks College, where our mutual love of Hopkins gave us plenty to talk about. My neighbor Ralph Wood, over refreshments in his living room, helped me to understand some of the first stanza’s imagery. Peter Knox and Gareth Williams, classicist friends who have brought Ovid’s exile poetry into the light, gave me several insights through lively email exchanges. And just to close the loop—when the article was published, I sent an offprint-cum-fan letter to Ron Hansen, author of the novel Exiles, who sent me a lovely note in return.
The tale I’ve just told you is probably longer than the article itself.3 But the point of the story is friendship, at every turn: Hopkins with Bridges, with Ovid, with the nuns who gave their lives on the Deutschland; Hejduk with her brother and Hopkins and Ovid and both Jeffreys and Henry and King and Wood and Knox and Williams and Hansen and all the others, living and dead, who helped me and each other along the way. The idea of the “self-made man” is surely one of the most ridiculous that ever the human mind conceived. To grow in faith means to accept and glory in our utter dependence, on God and on one another.
But there is a catch. Friendship is difficult—at least, I find it so. Academics tend to be kind of shy, kind of introverted, and extremely busy, especially if they’re juggling work and family. There’s always more we can do, more we feel we should do; that’s the dark side of the American work ethic. Because friendship does not appear to serve an immediate career or family goal, it can be all too easily deprioritized, sometimes down to zero. I’ve felt the pain of having this done to me; I know firsthand that the power of rejection, even of indifference, can be almost as great as the power of love. And sadly, I’m sure I’ve inflicted this pain on others, perhaps without really thinking about it. This part of the sermon is as much to myself as it is to you. Finding the right balance is the work of a lifetime, and if any of you manage to achieve it, please, tell me your secret. But the first step must surely be to understand the object of the game.
G. K. Chesterton was fond of observing that fairy tales are far closer to reality than what passes for non-fiction. I’d like to close with a fairy tale that left a deep impression on me in my childhood, an English tale called “The Red Ettin.” The plot involves a magical knife and freeing a maiden held captive by a three-headed monster, but what caught my attention was actually the preliminary episode. Like so many parables, it’s about two brothers. The mother tells each one to bring her water from the well so she can make a cake for his journey. He can then choose whether to take the whole cake with her curse or half the cake with her blessing. The elder brother, the foolish one (of course), doesn’t realize that the jar he’s drawn the water from has been leaking; consequently the cake his mother makes him is small, and he feels obliged to take the whole thing with her curse. Needless to say, his subsequent adventure ends in failure. The younger brother, however, listens to a raven who warns him to patch the hole in his jar, so there’s water enough for a much bigger cake. Though he chooses the half-portion-with-blessing option, his half is still bigger than his brother’s whole, and along the way he shares it with an old woman whose advice helps him to defeat the monster, free his brother, and get the girl.
I’ve found the deep wisdom of this tale borne out in my life again and again. Whenever I become too busy to listen to the raven or help the old lady, I find my whole cake turning to ashes. So my advice to you is, Go with the half. The birth of ideas is as mysterious as the birth of babies, and it takes a lot more people. To be a Christian scholar is to be open to the promptings of grace, to accept our dependence with gratitude and joy, and to remember that friendship is not an inconsequential by-product of our profession, but rather its life-blood and its purpose. My dead Jesuit friend and favorite verber of nouns explains why:
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
- W.H. Gardner and N.H. MacKenzie, eds., The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967).
- From “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” (the poem also quoted at the end of this post).
- Julia Hejduk, “‘To R. B.’: Hopkins’ Ovidian Letter from the Black Sea,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 17 (2010): 53-59.