Even for someone as prone to tears as I am, I know I have finished a good biography if I cry at the end when the subject dies. The last book that moved me like that was Christophe Wolfe’s biography of J. S. Bach, and it goes without saying that I knew what was coming in the end. “Winston & Franklin” on the other hand, made me eager for the demise of both protagonists. Last night I got misty reading the end of Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life by Paul Mariani. I’ve always admired Hopkins’ poetry (and Mariani’s, for that matter) but had only a passing familiarity with the circumstances of his life – I knew he was a convert, a Jesuit, lived throughout Great Britain, died young, achieved no literary fame in his lifetime.
On the other side of having read this biography, that’s still the story. I now have a greater understanding of his trademark sprung rhythm, a term for which I’d only had cocktail-party level comprehension. New Hopkinsian terms like inscape and instress have worked their way into my vocabulary and will likely disappear once I’m off what promises to be a “Hopkins kick” and have moved on to another temporary obsession.
Every biographer is going to focus on one element or another of a subject’s life, and throughout much of this book we read about Hopkins desire for sacrifice – he sacrifices reputation and relationship to ‘swim the Tiber’, he sacrifices his writing and creativity seeking obedience to his order, and he sacrifices much of his health in that same spirit of obedience. From what I know of Mariani’s other writing, the biographer has undertaken spiritual journeys of his own, including the Spiritual Exercises. The knowledge, both intellectual and spiritual, of Hopkins’ Catholic (and Jesuit) world makes all the difference in his writing about the poet. I imagine it is hard to write about a man who punished himself too much – who probably took himself too seriously – while loving and respecting the man and his actions. Mariani never laughs at or dismisses Hopkins’ deep desire for sacrifice or communion with God.
What I do is me, for that I came. I know I’m not the only person for whom that is one of Hopkins’ most memorable lines. My little liturgist rises up at this affirmation that what we do matters – not what we think, or believe, or intend, or someday might do.
I realized about 2/3 of the way through the book that I was basically reading from poem to poem. Though I gave attention to and was interested in the circumstances of his life, all the while I was measuring out Hopkins’ life in sonnets. I turned each page hoping to see more of his familiar poetry, accompanied by the circumstances of its writing and by Mariani’s unparalleled insights on its inspiration. But would the poet have read his own life the same way? Would he have agreed with posterity on the reason for which he came?
What I do is me, for that I came. We can think we know what it is we do, for what it is we come, but perhaps like our friend Gerard that which survives of us won’t resemble our dreams and intentions. Knowing the future’s uncertainty what else can we do other than catch fire, draw flame, keep grace, offer ourselves over to God and to each other? Perhaps Hopkins would have been even more prolific, more genius (is that a possibility?) had he not indulged his religious scruples. But the brilliance that we have from him was born in that intersection of devastating sacrifice and creative indulgence. His reality – his ‘me’ – was the filthy manger in which his spark took flesh.
For that I came. The eager and inspired want to know what “that” is. It is music, it is sport, it is health, it is justice – we have ideas of our purpose and our end. Or maybe we don’t. Maybe we just slog through, with no sense of what makes us most ‘me’, what will survive, and what may reach beyond us across years to help others suss out dappled things, bright wings, God’s grandeur, our end.