Saturday, November 23, 2013

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours -- a Saturday reprise

I have often written here before about the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. How could I not be drawn into his orbit? A very Catholic poet. Catholic in temperament, in his sacramental attachment to nature, in his intuition of "inscape." It was this that no doubt drew him to the Church.

His God showed himself everywhere, flashing out of a leaf or hill or starscape "like shining from shook foil." But his was a silent God, who revealed himself teasingly in shimmers of radiance, then retreated into a cold aloofness. Oh, how Hopkins wanted assurance, to put his hand into the wound, to be relieved of his aching existential loneliness.

He needed a lover, God or man.
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, 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.
Who has ever written a more heartrending evocation of the night terrors that come to everyone who seeks the unseekable, who loves the elusive, who longs for the unapproachable lover's touch?

I will leave it to others more knowledgeable than me to decide if Hopkins was clinically bipolar. I think he was just a lonely introspective genius with an abiding sense of the mystery of things, who was prevented by his own scrupulosities (and British law) from acting on his homoerotic impulses. He gambled that God would provide a solace for his loneliness, only to discover that the Creator of the Universe makes an unresponsive bedfellow.

Like John Donne before him, Hopkins plowed the ground between the sacred and the profane. He was not as successful as Donne at keeping those two balls in the air at the same time. Donne, at least, had no reluctance to act on his erotic inclinations.

The tragedy of Hopkins is that his deepest intuitions were that the sacred and profane are one, but he was never able to reconcile them in his own mind, no doubt because of the fierce strain of philosophical dualism in Catholic Christianity -- natural/supernatural, matter/spirit, body/soul -- a bipolar theology that tore his soul apart.

Hopkins was a religious naturalist caught in a transcendent deity's terrifying grip. "God's most deep decree/ Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me."

(This post originally appeared in November 2010.