The first book devoted to the study of love in the writings of Gerald Manley Hopkins, ‘Touching God’ offers fresh readings of Hopkins’ poetry by considering love in relation to mutual touch.
About the Author
Duc Dau is an honorary research fellow in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia, where she also completed her doctorate on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
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Hopkins and Love
By Duc Dau
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2013 Duc Dau
All rights reserved.
CONFLUENCE AND REFLECTION
Unity in Nature
Before talking about Hopkins I wish to briefly return to Merleau-Ponty's concept of reversibility, which offers an approach to understanding humanity's being with nature and, by extension, God. Galen A. Johnson argues that Merleau-Ponty 'was committed until the end to the primacy of bodily perception as the starting point for ontology'. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Visible and the Invisible, published posthumously in 1964. In this work, particularly in the chapter, 'The Intertwining – the Chiasm', Merleau-Ponty informs us that perception encompasses not simply touching and seeing, but also seeing as touching. Perception is essentially contact between the self and the other. As Jones puts it, perception is contact with differentiation, and contact is possible because of reversibility. In the words of Merleau-Ponty, 'there is a reversibility of the seeing and the visible ... [T]he visible takes hold of the look which has unveiled it and which forms a part of it'. In other words, the things I see also see me:
[T]he vision [the seer] exercises, he also undergoes from the things, such that, as many painters have said, I feel myself looked at by the things, my activity is equally passivity ... so that the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen.
Reversibility is possible because we are located within the world we perceive and inhabit. In short, 'my body sees only because it is a part of the visible in which it opens forth'.
Drawing on these thoughts, I argue that perception can provoke a physical sensation, along with a cognitive and emotional response, that can transform us intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. Perception is not only an act that we perform; it also happens to us: 'my activity is equally passivity'. As Hopkins says in his ecological poem 'Ribblesdale', 'what is Earth's eye, tongue, or heart else, where / Else, but in dear and dogged man?' (lines 9–10). Yes, 'where / Else' do we perceive the flesh of the earth but elsewhere – in the intertwining of the visible and the invisible. 'Sensible experience for Hopkins', James Finn Cotter informs us, 'leads to knowledge and to love'. In the intertwining the 'eye' can indeed lead – where else? – but to the 'heart'. Hopkins had a lifelong and deeply held interest in nature, the arts and aesthetics; he originally wanted to be a painter (Further Letters, 231). His journals, like many of his poems, are filled with detailed perceptions and descriptions of the land, water flow and clouds.
These intersecting interests encouraged him to look at the world as if it were a painting or a work of art. For instance, a number of Hopkins' remarkable descriptions of nature in his poetry and journals originate from John Henry Parker's Introduction to the Study of Gothic Architecture and the two-volume A Glossary of Terms used in Grecian, Roman, Italian and Gothic Architecture. Like Merleau-Ponty, who tells us that, 'as many painters have said, I feel myself looked at by the things', Hopkins remarks in a journal entry, 'What you look hard at seems to look hard at you' (Journals, 204). Hopkins concludes the entry with the assertion, 'Unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is' (205). 'Inscape' is a Hopkins coinage that appears to suggest, in the simplest terms, something like an 'inner landscape'. Hopkins uses it in relation to the landscape, art and sound. While it has an obvious aesthetic element and is sustained by the visible (or the auditory), it moves well beyond the visible: it is 'deep ... in things'. The inscape will not be seen in its proper light unless the viewer is open to perceiving it:
Stepped into a barn of ours, a great shadowy barn, where the hay had been stacked on either side, and looking at the great rudely arched timberframes – principals(?) [sic] and tie-beams, which make them look like bold big As with the cross-bar high up – I thought how sadly beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people and yet how near at hand it was if they had eyes to see it and it could be called out everywhere again. (221)
If we look hard enough at a thing, it will look back at us; we will see its 'buried' inscape and arrive at a new insight. Hopkins says elsewhere, 'I saw the inscape though freshly, as if my eyes were still growing' (228). The awareness of inscape makes way for the reversibility of the seeing and the being seen, of the self and the other. 'Binsey Poplars', another ecological poem, describes and laments the felling of poplars along the banks of the Thames, close to the village of Binsey. Referring to the delicate state of nature, the poet proclaims his love:
Since Country is so tender
To tóuch, her béing só slénder,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all ... (Lines 9–15)
Nature is 'so tender / To tóuch' that anything more violent than a caress would 'únsélve / The sweet especial rural scene' (lines 21–2) and destroy the scene's inscape. If 'scene' is a pun on the word 'seen', and if 'a prick will make no eye at all', then a lost 'scene' would lose its capacity to look back at us. In our very blindness to the 'scene' of the other, we will have destroyed her 'eye[s]' and lost 'a mutual enfolding'.
Interactions between elements within nature also mirror the intertwining of nature with humans. Hopkins commonly uses descriptions of water and seascapes to demonstrate how natural elements intermingle with, and alter, each other. In his undergraduate essay, 'How far may a common tendency be traced in all pre-Socratic philosophy?', Hopkins argues that, to the mind of Thales, moisture is both 'the principle of all things' and 'a network or skeleton tying all things together' (Oxford Essays, 205, 206). Although Hopkins argues that Thales' ontology was flawed, he nevertheless values its argument: 'Although these various systems [of Thales and Empedocles] broke up on examination[,] the advance they made by the suggestion of a unity in nature cannot be over-valued' (205). The possibility of 'a unity in nature' implies a 'principle' akin to the microcosmic structure of a gothic cathedral with which Hopkins was so familiar through his reading of Parker.
In Hopkins' ontology, this binding principle is what he calls 'instress'. 'Instress', J. Hillis Miller explains, 'weaves nature together and makes it one, as the strands in a rope or web are one, or as the threads in a piece of cloth are unified'. Hopkins says in his notes on Parmenides, 'all things are upheld by instress and are meaningless without it' (Oxford Essays, 127). As we have seen, his criticism of Thales does not prevent him from describing moisture as 'a network or skeleton tying all things together'. The sea, he says, consists of 'a webby space of foamy water' (Journals, 177); it has 'little walking wavelets edged with fine eyebrow crispings, and later nothing but a netting or chain-work on the surface' (184). Watersprigs from a waterfall form a sequence of droplets in the air that 'are strung of single drops, the end one like a tassel or heavier bead, the biggest' (233). Likewise, clouds, which are visible examples of moisture in the air, are 'ropy, the coiled folds being taken back across ... from bottom to top westwards' (138), and 'roped like a heavy cable being slowly paid and by its weight settling into gross coils' (212). In another depiction of clouds, he invokes his own description of Thales' system of moisture: 'Clouds growing in beauty at the end of the day. In the afternoon a white rack of two parallel spines, vertebrated as so often' (138). Hopkins' perception of water and moisture as a system of webs, links and coils – indeed, as a skeleton – points to nature's intertwining, design and unity.
We again witness Hopkins' perception of nature's unity in an observation of waves rebounding off a sea wall. He writes about the sea:
The laps of running foam striking the sea-wall double on themselves and return in nearly the same order and shape in which they came. This is mechanical reflection and is the same as optical. (Journals, 252)
By referring to optics and 'mechanical reflection', he is clearly extrapolating from the basic law of specular reflection, which holds that the angle at which a ray is incident to a surface must equal the angle at which it is reflected from it. Similarly, he appeals to the wave theory of light when associating the waves hitting the sea wall with the light waves bouncing off a reflective surface. These waves return to the direction from which they came and as a result seem to 'double on themselves' by overlapping with the oncoming waves. While this observation does not at first seem to have a theological significance, it nonetheless provides Hopkins with a visible example of a divine pattern. Immediately after the observation he concludes enigmatically, 'indeed all nature is mechanical, but then it is not seen that mechanics contain that which is beyond mechanics' (252). The key indicator of a pattern is recurrence or repetition. Thus, the repetitive and ordered movement of waves off sea walls forms a pattern signifying that 'all nature is mechanical'. The act of a wave hitting the sea wall appears to return the wave and its movement to itself, and this act is repeated, mirrored.
What do waves and walls have to do with love and God? Hopkins' assertion that 'mechanics contain that which is beyond mechanics' refers, like inscape itself, to what is beyond, but nonetheless also present in, the very visible. It alludes to the workings of God, described as 'máster of the tídes' and 'the wáll' in Hopkins' most famous (aquatic) poem, 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' (stanza 32). The interaction between the sea wall and the waves exemplifies the central concerns of this book: the touch between the self and the other and the mutual interchange of love. Just as the water's movement is given back to itself when it touches the wall, so does the beloved, like a mirror, receive and return the love that he or she has received. A wave cannot 'double upon' itself unless it touches something other than itself. For Hopkins, God is the wall, the other who returns his love.
The return of a wave to itself, like the returning of love to the lover, is analogous to the process of union, separation and reunion, of Eden, Fall and Redemption. This trajectory forms the plot of the romance as redemption story, which the final chapter explores. Similarly, Hopkins' undergraduate poem, 'The earth and heaven, so little known', observes a world in flux, transforming and returning to its source:
There is a vapour stands in the wind;
It shapes itself in taper skeins:
You look again and cannot find,
Save in the body of the rains.
And these are spent and ended quite;
The sky is blue, and the winds pull
Their clouds with breathing edges white
Beyond the world; the streams are full. (Lines 17–24)
Fallen rain touches the earth, evaporates and ascends as 'vapour'. It is found again 'in the body of the rains', that is, in clouds. The full-bodied clouds will eventually disperse and become rain to fill the streams.
Hopkins uses his observation of water circulation to depict humanity's separation from, and reunion with, God. In one of his religious notes, he compares the soul to boiling water in a pot, saying, 'the water must always be getting hotter, never cooler, while the pot is on fire' (Sermons, 208). He decries the state of becoming 'cooler', whereby the soul lapses into spiritual 'tepidity' (207) and 'lukewarmness' (208). Disordered in this case, it is no longer driven by mechanics. Hopkins declares, 'while we strive, though we commit faults, we are not lukewarm; when we give up struggling and let ourselves drift, then tepidity begins' (208). In his view, we must continually 'strive' to reach God. It would be worse for the soul to 'drift' midway on its journey than for it to be perpetually cool.
Hopkins reiterates that we should be hot towards God. 'Fervour ... is properly the being on the boil, the shewing the stir of life, of a life not shared by all other things, and the being to pass, by evaporation, into a wholly spiritual condition', he says (Sermons, 208). With this image, Hopkins calls for personal transformation into an advanced or symbolically higher state of existence. As we move towards God, we should resemble the upward movement of vapour. Hopkins' association of 'being on the boil' with 'the stir of life' is based on the untranslatable pun concerning the Greek words zeo ('to boil, to be hot') and zoe ('life'); Aristotle makes use of it in De Anima when he says, 'those who say that the soul is ... hot will say that it is also for this reason that life is so called'. When we display 'the stir of life' we exhibit what is most indicative of our love for God: vigour and motion, not the signs of cool and tranquil water. As Hopkins argues elsewhere, 'God gave things a forward and perpetual motion' (Sermons, 198–9). The fervour of love should impel us towards God.
The water cycle is contingent on a constant and circular motion. The same may be argued of love. 'The barley drink disintegrates if it is not constantly stirred', says the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus. While Heraclitus' image is characteristically mysterious, it suggests the notion of endurance through vigilant motion. Like the barley drink, love must exhibit 'the stir of life' if it is to escape stagnation and disintegration. 'Love is a great reality, and if it returns to its beginning and goes back to its origin, seeking its source again, it will always draw afresh from it, and thereby flow freely', says Bernard of Clairvaux. Digby Mackworth Dolben argues a similar point in an untitled poem that Hopkins copied just before entering the Society of Jesus:
Strange, all-absorbing Love, who gatherest
Unto Thy glowing all my pleasant dew,
Then delicately my garden waterest,
Drawing the old, to pour it back anew. (Lines 1–4)
The sun is synonymous with an 'all-absorbing' element called Love, that is, God. The dew is drawn to Love's heat and invariably falls to earth as rain in a cycle of ascent and descent. This circulation makes possible the continual watering of the soul's 'garden', perhaps a reference to the sexually charged garden of the Song of Songs. The dew represents another life-giving element, love, which Love gathers, absorbs and tenderly (or 'delicately') returns to revive the giver-recipient.
In 'Trees by their yield', Hopkins links the dissolution of love to the soul's barrenness and dryness:
Trees by their yield
Are known; but I –
My sap is sealed,
My root is dry.
If life within
I none can shew
(Except for sin),
Nor fruit above, –
It must be so –
I do not love. (Lines 1–10)
Elsewhere, 'Time's eunuch' calls on the Lord to 'send my roots rain' ('Thou art indeed just, Lord', line 14). It seems, then, that only God can renew the flagging soul and 'refresh' the one who loves not. Hopkins writes in an unpublished sermon, 'the Holy Ghost is such a Paraclete ... He is called, as his hymn ['Veni Creator'] says, the living fountain, for what does he do but make a motion through the soul, cheer it, refresh it, and turn its barrenness into thriving growth'.
Touching and Melting
Thee, God, I come from, to thee go,
All dáy long I like fountain flow
From thy hand out, swayed about
Mote-like in thy mighty glow.
('Thee, God, I come from, to thee go', lines 1–4)
The hand is the body part most associated with touch. With the evocative image of touching hands, Hopkins is able to represent, either individually or at once, redemption, creation and the mutual interchange of love. In 'Thee, God, I come from, to thee go', the fountain's circular flow represents humanity's separation from, and return to, God. The speaker's declaration that he is 'like fountain flow / From [God's] hand out' implies the 'hand' that moulded him is the very thing he will grasp upon his return. The act of gripping is also found in the imperative, 'Grásp Gód', in 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' (stanza 32). This phrase complements the description of touching hands in stanza 1: 'Óver agáin I féel thy fínger and fínd thée'. The speaker 'féel[s]' the touch of God's 'fínger' in an emphatic and mutual gesture of welcome and reception. By announcing that he 'féel[s]' God's finger 'Óver agáin', he argues for the possibility of reunion.
God's finger represents both his love and the means by which he communicates it. Hopkins juxtaposes Ignatius' 'Contemplation for Obtaining Love', from the Spiritual Exercises, with 'Veni Creator' to argue that God's finger is the Holy Spirit who is 'the bond and mutual love' between God, Christ and humanity:
[T]he Holy Ghost is called Love ('Fons vivus, ignis, caritas' [living fountain, fire, love]); shewn 'in operibus', the works of God's finger ('Digitus paternae dexterae' [The Finger of God's right hand]); consisting 'in communicatione' etc, and the Holy Ghost as he is the bond and mutual love of Father and Son, so of God and man ... (Sermons, 195)
Excerpted from Touching God by Duc Dau. Copyright © 2013 Duc Dau. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgements; Abbreviations; Introduction: Love and Touch; Chapter One: Confluence and Reflection; Chapter Two: Virgin Marriage and the Song of Songs; Chapter Three: Conception, Pregnancy, Birth; Chapter Four: Caressing, Conversing, Kissing; Chapter Five: Homecoming; Notes; Bibliography; Index
What People are Saying About This
‘This study will contribute to a new understanding not only for readers of Hopkins but also for those concerned with the subject of Christianity and sexuality. Highly readable, personal yet objective, Dau draws on fresh scholarship of the Victorian background, a wide range of Hopkins studies, and present-day theories. “Touching God” is a first-rate contribution to the whole subject of the theology of the body.’ James Finn Cotter, author of ‘Inscape: The Christology and Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins’
‘“Touching God” offers provocative insights about the relationship between the life of the body and the life of the spirit. This book is quite innovative because it avoids what we might call a standard “queer” or even “gay” approach to Hopkins. While acknowledging an ample fluency in the scholarship on the homoerotic Hopkins, Dau gives us a poet to read for the insight he offers on the experience of the body in relation to the love of God. Dau suggests that Hopkins’ poetry is for everyone, a commendable achievement in a world shaped by the politics of identity. It is a rare book that can speak to a feminist or queer reader as well as a traditional Catholic; “Touching God” is one such book.’ Frederick S. Roden, author of ‘Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture’