Sunday 28 May 2017

Review: The Secret Diary of Gerard Manley Hopkins by Robert Waldron

(Bandon, €13.99)

Visitors to the annual Hopkins Festival in Co Kildare are surprised at the global following which the English poet attracts. A convert who had gone on to become a Jesuit priest, he came to Newman's Catholic University in St Stephen's Green, in 1884, to teach Greek (not English, as Robert Waldron suggests). Hopkins remained there until his death five years later and is buried in Glasnevin. He is, as a result, regarded as a prominnent part of the Leaving Cert English course for many years.

It has become commonplace to emphasise Hopkins's depression in Ireland -- and to find confirmation of this in his sonnets on the themes of despair, belief and suffering. Alas, Waldron's novella offers us this appropriated view of the poet as little more than a depressed and self-lacerating person, without humour and mostly without hope. A mistake, in my opinion.

For a start, total identification between the poet and the 'I' of his sonnets is misleading. As any writer will vouch, the minute one writes 'I' it becomes 'not-I'.

Besides which, that despairing victim of 'bottomless depression' whom Waldron describes could not have written those great sonnets, so full of energy, so inspired in their expression, as they battle for hope and enlightenment.

Nietzsche says that there is no such thing as pessimistic art since all art affirms a belief in the value of saying and in the need of mastering the means. For all their bleak wrestling with the temptation to despair, not one of these 'terrible sonnets' declines into it.

Waldron's interest in Hopkins is welcome and his idea to base a novel on the discovery of a lost diary offers scope for an imaginative recreation of his Dublin years.

Unfortunately, Waldron's treatment is too literal-minded: he makes the familiar mistake of reading the sonnets as pure biography, with Hopkins's dysthymia, his hyper-sensitivity, read into almost every entry in the 'diary' as some kind of depressed listlessness close to despair.

'Spring and Fall' for example (written near Liverpool in 1880 and 'not founded on any real incident' as Hopkins wrote) is given a journalistic reading and does not belong here anyhow. Again, the dialogue is very stilted as Waldron tries to achieve a Victorian flavour. The psychology is simplistic.

Waldron presents Hopkins as a weakling, constantly battling with homosexual inclinations. The real Hopkins had long learned to control and sublimate this tendency and it is never explicitly problematic in his Notebooks and Diaries.

Waldron's Hopkins is not the figure we meet in the letters and journals: not the person who wrote, 'I do not waver in my allegiance, I never have'. Waldron's protagonist has little in common with the author of the magnificently assertive 'That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire' (written in Dublin) and whose last words were, 'I am so happy'.

Poet Desmond Egan is Artistic Director of The Hopkins Festival (http://www.gerardmanleyhopkins.org ); his recently published The Bronze Horseman is a collection of essays.

Irish Independent

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