In an immediate prose always in the present tense, Mariani distills forty years of research into a biography drawn from Hopkins' journals and correspondence. No critical detours, no theoretical jargon, only a sense of watching the poet labor and priest struggle. It's a scholarly work that reads like a novel.
The highlights, a discussion of "The Wreck of the Deutschland" as the early breakthrough, and the late "Hericlitean fire" poem, show Hopkins consistently battling despair by insisting upon the sacramental vision that transforms the mundane by the example of the Incarnated God. Taking the trouble out of love to become flesh, Christ for Hopkins proves the "Real Presence" in the Eucharist that exemplifies the transformation of the natural into the divine. This, Mariani gracefully depicts, takes Hopkins out of the agnostic, Darwinian, mechanistic milieu of his Oxford peers into a bold decision to take the toughest path possible: to give up his security and his career prospects to become not only a Catholic but a Jesuit.
The arduous years towards ordination do not end there; toiling in gritty, urban immigrant-poor parishes deprived Hopkins of his beloved countryside that in his studies in Wales brought him closest to what "Pied Beauty" and "God's Grandeur" convey memorably: the shattering of the norm by the intense arrival of God, transforming but remaining within our beautiful world. Mariani takes Hopkins' priestly vocation to show how he believed what he preached, lived, and promoted in poems that could not find any audience, and for long stretches as a Jesuit, Hopkins either denied himself or lacked the time or inspiration to write verse.
He wore himself out young, dying at forty-four, of a typhoid flea's bite (or perhaps, Mariani suggests, what we know now as Crohn's disease). Hopkins in these pages remains, of course, a rather introverted, nervous, and conflicted man, fighting a lonely campaign against "acedia" and spiritual despair, shunted about from one dull assignment as a teacher or preacher to another in rapid fashion until at the ramshackle University College, Dublin, he's hired on the cheap as Jesuits will return their 400 pounds annual salary to the running of the institution!
Hopkins wore out his talent in drudgery. He knew it, too. Reading about the 557 exams in Greek and Latin facing him one day to grade down to the eighth-of-a-point, his dreary lessons to bored undergrads, his failure to get even his one patient reader-- lifelong friend, future laureate and editor Robert Bridges-- to understand much of his formidably dense and amazingly original verse, Hopkins emerges as a saint for his willingness to keep on in a very anguished and solitary calling. His eccentricities make him more like us; his gifts separate his daring energy from us.
He had a great knack for wordplay and punning; his comic verse as a young Jesuit sparkles. Arm wrestling, chasing a monkey on a roof, trying to mesmerize a duck so to study its beak, scrutinizing a peacock as closely as an oak tree's leaves, dragging or being dragged around a Dublin classroom to show Hector's posthumous fate: these vignettes enliven an otherwise serious life and biography. Mariani's extended, deadpan recital of a failed student sermon on the miracle of loaves and fishes that tried to relate the Ignatian "Composition of Place" to the Welsh local landscape fails magnificently in its "overdetermined" and unconsciously pedantic parody. I also heard wistfulness, when late in his life-- as Mariani shows, nearly all spent with males around him-- he admits to a Dublin class "while lecturing on Homer's Helen," he looks up from the text. "'You know, I never saw a naked woman.' And then, after a moment, 'I wish I had.'" (391)
The book has its slow stretches, as it takes a closely observed, scrupulously attentive, and very gifted fish-out-of-water character as its subject. And, being so focused on the protagonist's correspondence and journals, you never get a chance to step back from this startlingly precocious modernist. Still, this is a study based on primary sources and archival diligence. Like the man himself, it's a demanding subject.
Hopkins' compression of lines by sprung rhythm that takes the beat and puts it where he wants outside syllabic convention only grows with time into a dense, hammering, melodic, thundering pulse. Mariani takes you through the famous and the obscure poems and intersperses his own subtle explanations of how Hopkins' thoughts and circumstances evolved into what emerged on the pages of his unpublished poems. The instress forces you deep, into dark realms that mirrored Hopkins' own terror, and his rage at the natural world's beauties being savaged, the work of God ignored or denigrated, and the message of the Incarnation belittled or cheapened.
The "lens of faith" magnified and intensified, and perhaps distorted what Hopkins saw, in slums and on slopes. He looked at a Welsh stream's storm flow as if "ropes and hills of melted candy," he saw himself, Mariani imagines, with God "whispering like some old married couple," and Hopkins learned, if to his Jesuit superiors' suspicion, to stress the "haeceittas," the Scotist "this-ness" of the startlingly individualized rather than the conventional Thomistic classification into general categories. He could not help but pick out the detail, to his detriment as a Jesuit preacher perhaps but to his advantage as a radical poet. He seems, too, to have been capable of such craft early on; Mariani does not truly explain 'why' this came to be, but concentrates on 'how' this works in Hopkins' intricate lines, that, as he matured, became more compounded and more off-kilter. Mariani shows how Hopkins' poetry expresses what his life contained, but Mariani seems to step away from accounting for it critically, preferring to present the verse and correspondence to us directly.
(By the way, one wonders what Joyce, who put the real "Rev. John Conmee, SJ" into "Ulysses," would have made of this transplanted Dubliner and his experiments with language, done in the few spare moments by one who met Conmee. Imagine Hopkins, both alienated from Ireland and sympathetic towards Home Rule despite his imperial patriotism, this weary Englishman and transplanted Classics professor longing for the Welsh mountains, by chance wandering and worn out late in his short life on O'Connell St one day. Conmee offered his tired younger confrere a rest at Clongowes Wood.)
A note on two tiny details: the early theologian's name's "Origen," not "Origin." And, Moel Fam[m]au in Wales is translated not as "mother of mountains" but the "'mountain/ bald topped-eminence' of mother." Mariani's love for Hopkins comes through along with his even-handed critiques in an impressively learned book, with a bibliography of Hopkins criticism, that nonetheless without being impeded by intrusive notes wears its own scholarship well. I never thought such an outwardly placid life as Hopkins has been portrayed to live had within such drama.(Posted today to Amazon US. P.S. Remedy for interior desolation? Ignatius advises patience. Last words overheard that Hopkins said, over and over: "I am so happy.")