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Gerard Manley Hopkins and Pantheism

Critics have long questioned the exact nature of Gerard Manley Hopkins' religious attitude. The essay "Pantheism in Hopkins" presents a viewpoint entertained by something less than a consensus of readers of Hopkins' verse. The paper posits that pantheism, or at least a version of it, permeates Hopkins' admittedly Catholic perspective to an extent unacknowledged by many commentators. Initially, the essay investigates the context of Romantic pantheism that both preceded and accompanied Hopkins, and then provides a detailed explication of "Hurrahing in Harvest," focusing on an analysis of etymology and word selection. The paper contains potentially useful research information and resources about Romantic and Victorian verse, religion, and Hopkins specifically.

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Gerard Manley Hopkins's religious impulse rarely expresses itself in unambiguously positive ways. Christianity in Hopkins's poems reveals itself in many permutations, often, but not always, painful and tentative ones. Part of the reason for this situation is that Hopkins cannot bring himself to renounce fallen creation. Not only does he frequently celebrate natural beauty, he also asserts the near identification of nature with God. In the process, Hopkins's poetry sometimes presents a faith both tenuous and dubious in relation to its adherence to Catholic doctrine. For this very reason, some critics, almost reluctantly, have used the term pantheism in discussing Hopkins's verse. More troubling in their implications concerning Hopkins's orthodoxy, the poems which express a pantheistic attitude are usually the ones in which the speaker seems most content with his faith. Hopkins's love for humanity and for individual humans, which does not always limit itself to the Christian desire to effect mankind's salvation, raises other doctrinally ambiguous questions in his work. Though the poet exalts devotion and decries sin, Hopkins admires humanity even in its fallen state, and, more importantly, sees God literally more often than symbolically in other people, a view which comes perilously close to a transcendental, and hence a pantheistic, one.

Hopkins's Christianity conducts a struggle with something within the poet decidedly more pagan and romantic than strictly Catholic. In fact, the theory of being in some of his work expresses, however unintentionally, many affinities with pure nature worship. The presence of what James Finn Cotter calls "the design and pattern that is Christ in the world and in one's self" (76) in Hopkins's poetry assumes more significance than Cotter and other critics sometimes mean to convey. An investigation of "Hurrahing in Harvest" and "'What being in rank-old nature,'" poems representative in different degrees of Hopkins's pantheistic tendencies, demonstrates the difficulties of characterizing the exact nature of Hopkins's faith, especially regarding the indelible presence of heterodox elements.

Admittedly, some critics see Hopkins in his maturity as a strictly orthodox Catholic Christian, a man tortured perhaps by doubt and guilt, but nonetheless a man sure of his convictions as a Jesuit priest. These readers insist that Hopkins successfully eradicated youthful philosophical and aesthetic views in favor of Catholicism. W. H. Gardner, for instance, alludes to this notion in his account of Hopkins's dramatic burning of his early poems soon after his entry into the Society of Jesus (xx). Gardner attributes the anguish of Hopkins's verse to "a by no means unfortunate tension between the free creative personality of the artist and the acquired, dedicated character of the Jesuit priest" (xix). Gardner's assessment of Hopkins's poetry, typical of many critics of this school, describes his work in terms of "a remarkable reconciliation and fusion, which gave depth and spiritual power to everything he wrote" (xix). Sometimes, however, this fusion seems to elude the poet.

Amazingly, John D. Boyd, whose excellent analysis of sacrament and its meaning in Hopkins reveals many indications of pantheism in Hopkins's verse, insists that the poems show a "harmony with his Christian beliefs and their cultural implications" (51). Like Boyd, David Anthony Downes often provides compelling evidence that Hopkins's view of creation flirts with a subtle form of pantheism. At one point in his argument, Downes, in explaining Hopkins's conception of the Incarnation and nature, makes the assertion, orthodox enough in itself, that "Creation depended on the Incarnation" (25). Pressing this concept even further, Downes claims that Hopkins believed that all "history, all knowledge, all events, all acts, are in some way Christ" (26). While one can regard this explanation metaphorically, one can also regard it as expressing a more insinuative unity between Christ and creation. Downes quotes from one of Hopkins's letters in which the poet affirms this very unity: "'Christ being me and me being Christ'"(33). In spite of the equivocal nature of this material, Downes insists that Hopkins falls clearly within a discernibly Christian tradition (1). Even more emphatically, Jerome Bump, after stating that "nature and mankind are united in the Body of God" in "God's Grandeur," vehemently denies that anyone can confuse this idea with any form of pantheism, either "material" or "spiritual" (40).

Gerald Roberts, whose biography of Hopkins apparently never mentions pantheism per se, notes that Hopkins himself claimed unwanted affinities with the mystic thought of Walt Whitman (117). Roberts speculates that Hopkins may have been drawn to Whitman's "philosophy of 'universality,' or faith in the goodness of things" (118). Apparently, Roberts, at least in his biography of Hopkins, never entertains the possibility that Hopkins was drawn to Whitman's Transcendentalist pantheism. Critics such as these, though they seem aware of the religious dissonance within Hopkins, also seem unwilling to locate him anywhere outside of Catholicism. To be sure, virtually no one contends that Hopkins advocates pantheism. Nor does anyone seriously call into question the sincerity of Hopkins's Jesuit vocation. The issue, rather, revolves around the question of whether and to what extent the language of the poems justifies a reading that indicates a pantheistic or otherwise non-orthodox interpretation of being involving the relationship between creation and Creator.

Hopkins's early exposure to pantheism and his lifelong admiration of nature finds extensive documentation. Jerome Bump notes that Hopkins's father tried consciously to instill a "Wordsworthian love of nature in his children" (8). Strangely, though Bump mentions pantheism specifically only once in his biography of Hopkins, he references Wordsworth in numerous places. Quoting from The Prelude, Bump argues that Hopkins and Wordsworth both saw "types of eternity" in nature (142), but manages to place both Wordsworth and Hopkins in a Biblical framework.¹ Gardner, among others, mentions Hopkins's Wordsworthian "mystical insight into nature" (xxxv), while Downes, in discussing the influence of St Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, traces a connection from Robert Southwell through Wordsworth and Hopkins, to Dylan Thomas (1). Needless to say, Wordsworth's poetry, though it certainly contains numerous Christian references, exudes pantheism to the point that one need not elaborate examples. As Gerald Roberts points out, Hopkins's awareness of Wordsworth and his thought persisted through the priest's life; "A Trio of Triolets," with its reference to Wordsworth's line "The Child is Father to the Man," was published in Stonyhurst Magazine in 1883 (120). Consequently, even though his familiarity with Wordsworth does not prove that Hopkins shared every nuance of the Romantic poet's outlook, one can safely state that the concept of the identity of God and nature was one to which Hopkins was exposed. If for no other reason, the sheer bulk of nature references in Hopkins demands a consideration of the function of creation in his poetry.²

Since John Boyd uses Hopkins's mature poem, "Hurrahing in Harvest," to illustrate the "object-oriented" quality of Hopkins's verse (55), an analysis of the poem might afford the reader some insight into the complexities of Hopkins's attitude towards nature, and by both implicit and overt extension, towards man and creation itself. Boyd quite correctly points out that Hopkins "takes his cue from the envisioning world ... in the rural sense of Keats and Wordsworth ... via his religious beliefs, which have transformed and shored up his sensibility" (55). Boyd contends that Hopkins's concern is to find the "image of Christ" in everything (55). Many critics, including Boyd, interpret this effort to ...

Solution Summary

The essay interrogates the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins in light of its pantheistic features. It argues connections between Hopkins thought and the Romantic tradition of nature worship. As examples of this trend in Hopkins' verse, the paper focuses on the poems "Hurrahing in Harvest" and "'What being in rank-old nature.'"