Gerard Manley Hopkins Poems In Musical Adaptations
Gerard Manley Hopkins Poems In Musical Adaptations
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Portrait Of The Prophet As A Jesuit
by Sean O'Leary
We all know that Gerard Manley Hopkins was a great poet, a fine scholar, and a good priest: but how many perceive within his work the thunder crash of the prophet? The fire-gold within the dark earth of his work? How many have ears to hear his terrible warnings?

He has all the qualifications of the prophet. We sense that like the great prophet of Carmel he found himself many times beneath the broom tree asking God for the sweet release of death. We know he saw himself as fatally flawed like Jeremiah who said, "I am a worm not a man" for he has written of the dark and cumbrous shame beyond healing. In taking Holy orders, and taking them seriously he follows in the footsteps of the Sons of the prophets who fled the world and its lures and attractions. Such envy we feel that here was one that ran from fame as if from an evil thing. And just as the Sons of Elijah waited for the coming of the woman who would bear the Messiah, so he, Hopkins was able to look back from the other side of history and call her the Mary-in-miracle-of-flames.

He had the great gift of calling a spade a spade. He wouldn't have been too popular at a warm ecumenical gathering. Luther was "beast of the waste wood" even though his offspring were "the poor unconfessed". Also, like the prophets he was not squeamish. Death, disease, running sores, desire, they were all players in his poems.

But even if we knew none of this; all we would need was the work itself to hear his prophetic voice:

 The times are nightfall; see their light grows less. The times are winter, see a world undone. They waste they whither worst as they run.

But then we remind ourselves that he is not an Old Testament prophet. He is a Christian prophet. And here we are dazzled and amazed and fear is lessened for somehow he has managed to tame Jehovah. He tells us an extraordinary thing: Not a doomsday dazzle in his coming, but kind .. Royally reclaiming his own.

Here is prophecy mixed with alchemy. Yes, we will receive the wounds of Christ on our body and the wound of Mary in our heart, but we will receive joy that will lessen the pain. Here is the true opium of the people. Here is the sweets for bitter.
Hopkins has the habit of casually tossing of some great-undiscovered truth as if it were received wisdom, which is hardly worth a mention. Mary is a great mystical mother, yes, but she also lays "The deathdance in our blood" It is phrases like that, which take a lifetime to fully understand.

Men have puzzled over Father Gerard for a hundred years." He was a depressive, read the terrible sonnets," says one "No the sonnets were religious allegory: his poems are filled with joy" says another. O but what is the problem? His joy was so intense because his pain was so great. His light is so vivid because his darkness's were so complete. His faith was so great because he had dredged the seabed of doubts.

But the greatest gift that he brought to the school of prophecy was none of the above: It was simple kindness. He loved men because he knew them at their worst and their best. Has no one considered how difficult it would be for a poet to hear the worst of man by way of the confessional? Yet he came through it with a love and pity for the common man, which is unrivalled in all of English literature.

Lastly we can say that the marriage of poet and prophet and priest was a unique event and a miracle, and because it is a miracle we can stop embarrassing the poor man any longer and understand that he was a work of God and a gift of grace and for that let us all say "Glory be to God..."

© Sean O'Leary 2006