Four Unexpected Prophets Who Shine Light into the Darkness
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In 1886 Gerard Manley Hopkins met a young Irish poet named Katharine Tynan while she was sitting for her portrait in the Dublin studio of J.B. Yeats, father of the great W. B. "A simple, bright-looking Biddy with glossy very pretty red hair, a farmer's daughter," is the way he described her in a letter to a friend, and she in turn described him as "small and childish-looking, yet like a child-sage, nervous too and very sensitive, with a small ivory pale face."
It is hard to imagine a more incongruous pair -- the shy, reclusive little Jesuit who had never published a line and the burgeoning young colleen whose work was being touted everywhere -- but they became friends of a sort anyway and saw a fair amount of each other for the two or three years that he had left to live. He sent her some books, they exchanged a few letters, and on at least one occasion, together with a Jesuit colleague who was eccentric and bookish in somewhat the same way he was, Hopkins went even so far as to visit her farmhouse at Clondalkin. As token of the ease of their relationship, somewhere along the line she apparently asked him a question generations of his admirers have been asking themselves ever since. How was it that a man like him with all his interest in art and literature had decided to become of all things a priest? For someone as normally reserved and self-effacing as he was, his answer was startlingly straightforward.
"You wouldn't give only the dull ones to Almighty God," is what he is reported to have told her, and one wonders if perhaps at some other unguarded moment he found it possible totell her with equal candor about what seems to have been the almost unrelieved desolation of those last few years of his life in Dublin, where his decision to be a priest had landed him.
The double-barreled job he had been assigned there was to teach Latin and Greek literature to undergraduates at the newly founded University College, and at the same time to be a fellow of the Royal University of Ireland, which despite its grandiose name was little more than an examining body whose function was simply to grant degrees to successful candidates from a number of nearby colleges and private schools. On the face of it that would have seemed a congenial enough assignment for a man of Hopkins' interests and abilities, but it turned out to be far otherwise.
First of all, the Dublin of his day was the shabby, impoverished relic of what had once been a beautiful city. Its lovely old Georgian mansions had been converted into overcrowded rooming houses; the streets were swarming with tramps, drunks, and begging children. The river Liffey served as the chief public sewer, so that disease was rampant, and the death rate had risen so high that a lot of country people were afraid to come visit. Nor was the college, where Hopkins lived, in much better condition. The building was full of dry rot, sanitary provisions were primitive, and because it stood on very low ground, the basement stank with filth and vermin. Nor, for Hopkins, was all that the worst of it. Thinking that, come winter, he would be in danger of freezing to death, his mother sent him some warm things to wear, and he responded to the gift in a letter he wrote in comic Irish to his favorite sister, Kate. "Be plased tintimate to me mother Im entirely obleeged to her for her genteel offers," he said. "But as titchin warm clothen tis undher a misapprehinsion shes labourin. Sure twas not the incliminsee of the saysons I was complainin of at all at all. 'Twas the povertee of books and such like educational convainiences." What he refers to is that when the college was turned over to the Jesuits, the entire library was removed to the diocesan seminary at Clonliffe, and when they appealed to the bishop to return it, their petition was ignored. For Hopkins the absence of books was worse than rats in the cellar.
His job as a professor was to teach Greek and Latin literature to undergraduates, and by all accounts he was never much good at it, that child-sized, ivory-pale man. His voice was "weak but sweet, rather plaintive," as a friend remembered it, his manner was variously described as graceful or effeminate, and he had a long, narrow face that made his head seem almost too large for his body. In his lectures he tended to go on much too long about the kind of niceties of language and poetic meter that fascinated him as much as they left his students cold, and he also made the fatal mistake of telling them that, as a Royal University fellow, he would himself be the one to make up their examination when the day of reckoning came and for that reason would never lecture on any subject that the examination would cover for fear of giving them an unfair advantage over students from other colleges. That being the case, they not unreasonably concluded, there was no particular point in listening to what he did lecture to them about and instead spent a good deal of class time talking and laughing and generally cutting up. They made fun of his Conservative English views and at one point burst into gales of merriment when, God only knows why, he confessed to them that he had never seen a naked woman. On another occasion a colleague is said to have come upon him on his back letting a student drag him around the table by his heels to demonstrate what happened to Hector at Troy -- another version has it that it was the student who was being dragged by him -- and what they made of that one can only imagine. "I do not..."Speak What We Feel. Copyright © by Frederick Buechner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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