Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Gay, but not OK: The secret life of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Oh Lor'! What have I gotten myself into? Gerard Manley Hopkins?

Gerard Man-friggenly Hop-friggen-kins?

Though I suspected it from some of his imagery, it turns out the poor blighter (who stood only 5'2" on his tippy-toes) suffered all his life from repressed homosexual longing. Reminds me a bit of the E. M. Forster book/movie Maurice, though in that version the protagonist eventually consummates his lust with the gamekeeper, a la Lady Chatterley's Lover.  (It seems that literary figures have a certain need to "fuck down"). 

Even  Wiki-friggin'-pedia has a whole section on this. I was enthralled. Even more enthralling was one of his more homoerotic poems, excerpted below. (Believe me, you would not want to read the whole thing.) Several of the juicier poems were un-find-able, likely because they were not published during his lifetime (kind of like that W. H. Auden poem, The Platonic Blow, which I will NOT reproduce here. I do have some standards. You can, however, look it up yourself, you dirty old thing.)

Erotic influences

Some contemporary critics believe that Hopkins' suppressed erotic impulses played an important role in the tone, quality and even content of his works. These impulses seem to have taken on a degree of specificity after he met Robert Bridges's distant cousin, friend, and fellow Etonian Digby Mackworth Dolben, "a Christian Uranian". The Hopkins biographer Robert Bernard Martin asserts that when Hopkins first met Dolben, on Dolben's 17th birthday, in Oxford in February 1865, it "was, quite simply, the most momentous emotional event of [his] undergraduate years, probably of his entire life."

Hopkins was completely taken with Dolben, who was nearly four years his junior, and his private journal for confessions the following year proves how absorbed he was in imperfectly suppressed erotic thoughts of him.

Hopkins kept up a correspondence with Dolben, wrote about him in his diary and composed two poems about him, "Where art thou friend" and "The Beginning of the End." Robert Bridges, who edited the first edition of Dolben's poems as well as Hopkins's, cautioned that the second poem "must never be printed," though Bridges himself included it in the first edition (1918). 

Another indication of the nature of his feelings for Dolben is that Hopkins's High Anglican confessor seems to have forbidden him to have any contact with Dolben except by letter. Their relationship was abruptly ended by Dolben's drowning in June 1867, an event which greatly affected Hopkins, although his feeling for Dolben seems to have cooled a good deal by that time. "Ironically, fate may have bestowed more through Dolben’s death than it could ever have bestowed through longer life ... [for] many of Hopkins’s best poems — impregnated with an elegiac longing for Dolben, his lost belovèd and his muse — were the result."

Some of his poems, such as The Bugler's First Communion and Epithalamion, arguably embody homoerotic themes, although this second poem was arranged by Robert Bridges from extant fragments. One contemporary literary critic, M.M. Kaylor, has argued for Hopkins's inclusion with the Uranian poets, a group whose writings derived, in many ways, from the prose works of Walter Pater, Hopkins's academic coach for his Greats exams, and later his lifelong friend.

Excerpts from The Bugler's First Communion:

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.

Frowning and forefending angel-warder
Squander the hell-rook ranks sally to molest him;
March, kind comrade, abreast him;

How it dóes my heart good, visiting at that bleak hill,
When limber liquid youth, that to all I teach
Yields tender as a pushed peach,
Hies headstrong to its wellbeing of a self-wise self-will!

Ye gods, eh? Shall we count the ways? I don`t really know where to begin. `Knelt`might, to some, indicate a certain sexual posture, a la Monica Lewinsky and her Presidential knee pads. This cupboard thing, I don`t know, maybe it`s just a miniature closet or something. "To his youngster take his treat", well. . . If Hopkins` muse was a 17-year-old kid, the term  "youngster" might indeed apply, but the poet wouldn`t be welcome at communion again any time soon.

"Tongue true. . . Breathing bloom of a chastity in mansex fine. . . `" Oh dear oh dear. I find it hard NOT to think of that as sexual.  The poem even has the word "molest" in it, though maybe it meant something different back then (but I doubt it). "Limber liquid youth"  is just too descriptive. "Tender as a pushed peach" implies all sorts of stuff, or it could. . . pushing "something" on "someone"? And doesn't a peach look just a little bit like a. . .  It just goes on and on.

All this repressed eroticism leads me to a different point. (A more serious one, this time - another hairpin turn).  The myth is that such repression is no longer necessary, that "gay is OK", that there is no need for the closet any more.

This is far from the truth.

If you are gay and come from a fundamentalist family of any stripe, Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or Sikh, there is a very good chance that your sexual orientation will not be accepted.

You might even be expected to "give it up" as you'd give up a favorite food for Lent. Except in this case, you'd be expected to give it up for a lifetime.

I've heard of those dreadful-sounding Christian anti-gay camps where people "pray the gay away". Young men and women (I presume most of them are young, but I could be wrong) are so contrite and guilty about what they feel, so sure that it's sinful and wrong, that they subject themselves to this anti-gay programming/propaganda. In one particularly repugnant Christian magazine, this was referred to as "healing".

The United Church of Canada is mighty smug about leading the way in gay acceptance, and the percentage of gay clergy is staggering (though no one keeps statistics on these things). Other mainstream Christian denominations are very reluctantly beginning to trot like lambs behind them, just beginning to "look at" issues like gay marriage.

So what do I think? We're in a weird place right now, somewhere between Gerard Manley Hopkins with his suffocating chastity and Oscar Wilde's galloping promiscuity (which, tragically, ended up landing him in prison). We don't know what to think. Celebrities have pushed hard to make being gay not only acceptable, but chic.

And yet, what's one of the worst epithets you hear in schools, particularly high schools? "He's so gay." "That's the gayest thing I ever saw." And so on. Not so accepting, is it? We wouldn't pretend to extend civil rights to everyone, and in the next breath say, "He's such a nigger."

This is a sick, confusing society, and I am sick of it. It's getting harder and harder for me to be happy in it. To some degree, unless you totally turn your back on it, you have to get along in it and within it. That means giving up a part of yourself, compromising. How much does that cost?

Certain poets knew.

  Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!


  1. Well, you've certainly clinched the Lit Dick Award for April 17! Congratulations.

  2. This guy is as complicated as a Russian doll: I just keep finding more, and I don't necessarily like what I find. I just ordered a copy of Hopkin's "secret Dublin diary", which should make for some pretty juicy posts (not to mention great sendups).

  3. No danger of crushing on this guy, huh?