In his literary biography of Hopkins, Norman White writes:
Even before he became a Roman Catholic, Hopkins frequently looked on beauty as a forbidden sweet, rather than as an essential of life. On 6 November 1865, for instance [the year before his conversion], he resolved "to give up all beauty until I had His leave for it." He acknowledged its low place in the Christian moral hierarchy, but he did not overcome his susceptibilities; wherever Hopkins mentions beauty in his poetry he cannot help being excited by it, in human and in non-human nature. With human beauty he knows he has to exercise extreme care; he is aware of danger when he sees it. It inflames; more distantly and composedly, it is dear and sweet; there is a sadness about it because it passes away.How heartbreaking! How sad! To be almost painfully sensitive to beauty, yet unable to embrace it. It seems this was not so much the influence of Roman Catholicism, as it was that Roman Catholicism meshed with some brokenness of Hopkins' spirit. Neurological? Nurture? An inability to deal with his homoerotic impulses? Who knows? In any case, the Jansenistic regimen of the Jesuit order nourished his affliction.
Still, he felt, like all of us, the need to be grateful for beauty and to praise its source. His joyful early poems stand in evidence. It is completely human when feeling gratitude to expect reciprocity of the gift-giver, and when praising to desire awareness of the praise. And so it is that a personal God "fathers-forth" out of our imaginations.
But the universe is silent. The silence is a dark glass, and the hidden God a fickle lover. In his lonely Dublin exile, Hopkins wrestled with the paradox of a God who creates beauty and frustrates its enjoyment. Out of this bleak cloud of unknowing come Hopkins' so-called "terrible sonnets":
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.Rule 8 in Ignatius's spiritual exercises for Jesuits prescribes an antidote for desolation: patience, "Let him think that he will shortly be consoled," says the rule, if not on this side of the grave, then surely on the other. Patience, according to Ignatius, is God's substitute for peace. Hopkins was patient, but never peaceful.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights yoou, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.
I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
This pied, dappled, rose-moled universe contains both beauty and hurt, and answers our prayers with silence. Beauty is the gift, yes, but we need not know the giver -- or so would say the religious naturalist. And if we do not endow the source of beauty with a human face, then nothing is asked in return, neither patience nor abnegation.
One wants to take Hopkins by the scruff of the neck and rub his nose in beauty. Say: "It's yours, Gerard, yours to enjoy. That lower-case "dearest him who lives alas! away" is not that dearest Him of your earlier poems; it is -- who? -- might it be Digby Dolben, with whom you were once in love, and with whom in a different time and place you might have found happiness? Beauty has the highest place in the human moral hierarchy. It is dear and sweet, and, yes, there is a sadness in that it passes away.