In “The Bugler’s First Communion” Gerard Manley Hopkins describes the pleasure of administering the sacrament to an apple-cheeked young soldier:
|Here he knelt then ín regimental red.|
|Forth Christ from cupboard fetched, how fain I of feet||
|To his youngster take his treat!|
|Low-latched in leaf-light housel his too huge godhead.|
|There! and your sweetest sendings, ah divine,|
|By it, heavens, befall him! as a heart Christ’s darling, dauntless;|
|Tongue true, vaunt- and tauntless;||
|Breathing bloom of a chastity in mansex fine.|
Chastity, yes,I bet that’s just the word that this passage brings to your mind. It is a testament to the awesome power of Victorian repression that GMH was able to offer this fulsomely eroticized scene with a, so to speak, straight face. It’s not that Hopkins was unaware of his attraction to men—he recognized Whitman (unhappily) as a soul-brother, and his confessional journal records sinful thoughts about his friend Digby Dolben. But he must have thought that, as long as he remembered to put “God” in front of “head,” it would all seem perfectly chaste, to others and presumably to himself.
The subterfuge here isn’t going to fool anyone these days, and it doesn’t produce very good poetry either. Hoppy is able to do better, much better, when he allows himself some pleasure that isn’t made to cower in the bunker of Chastity (see “The Windhover,” “Pied Beauty,” “God’s Grandeur”).
But of course the price of repression is not only aesthetic. Hoppy showed a disturbing penchant for asceticism even before his conversion, and the Jesuits didn’t help matters by requiring the sacrifice of the earthly attachments that sustain most of us, not only sex and children but family and even, sometimes, the pleasure of looking at natural beauty. Toss in deep desires that Hopkins must have felt were an abomination to his God, and you are in for a bad trip, as in “Carrion Comfort”:
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee; Not untwist--slack they may be--these last strands of man In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can; Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be. But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan, O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee? Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear. Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod, Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer. Cheer whom though? The hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
It is a bit of a shock, after the goofy preciosity of the Bugle Boy, to follow Hopkins down this harrowing maze of negation (“Not…not…not…not…not choose not to
be”). If the God who scans with darksome devouring eye his bruised bones sounds more like Sauron than a merciful Christ, that is not necessarily GMH’s fault. He was hanging out in an environment where it was de rigueur to keep a whip handy to lash yourself with whenever impure thoughts cropped up.
I wonder if, even in the dark Dublin days of his “terrible sonnets,” Hopkins took some non-carrion comfort in being able to pour his despair into such an intense and beautiful form. I wonder if it would have relieved him to know that, more than a hundred years later, his cry of anguish would move to pity and admiration a reader who cares nothing for his God. Perhaps not.