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.

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What in Christ's name does this mean?

The Starlight Night

LOOK at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! 
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there! 
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes! 
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies! 
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare! 
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!—
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, aims, vows. 
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs! 
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows! 
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house 
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse 
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

So what does the poem mean?

What means this bizarre double-jointed curvature, this sharp hairpin turn from fireworks "ooooooohs" and "ahhhhhhhhs" into the kind of heavy and even suffocating religiosity that leaves me completely kerflummoxed?

I don't know much about Gerard Manley Hopkins except to say that when he became a Jesuit, he burned every poem he had ever written. Thus perhaps some of his best works were relegated to the ashcan.

He's the one who wrote about depression, that Carrion Comfort one that I find so harrowing, to the point that I think he must have been a true sufferer. But why must everything in Hopkins be Christified?

The poem starts off very much like an innocent Robert Louis Stevenson verse for children, a "how would you like to go up in a swing" sort of thing. But there is a sort of urgency to it, as if we'd better look now or we'll be too late. It seems to tug and poke at us, hey, take a look up there, look at Casseopeia (which I can NEVER see - I am the poorest of visual discerners and can't tell one bloody constellation from another). Then comes a flood of almost-precious elven description right out of Lord of the Rings. Cockle-shells and dingle-bells. Except that, because it's Hopkins, he can get away with it. It's a surprising, even shocking quality, the art of verbal daring.

Fire-folk sitting in the air, why yes, that's a line any poet would kill for. Quickgold: that's perfect, isn't it - why didn't anyone think of that before? The air swirls with magic, you can see your breath, you're shivering yet too warm, your companion's hand is like ice in yours. Yes, you're there, transported, borne up like a downy feather (take THAT, Gerard!) as the constellations wheel drunkenly over your head.

Where I go off-course is in the line, "Ah well! It is all a purchase, all is a prize." What can he be getting at? Taken literally, it makes no sense at all. Purchase what? Prize what? Does he mean we have to earn the right to get into heaven, so to speak - heaven represented by the rapturous star-filled night? Is immortality a kind of lottery, a spiritual 6-49?

Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, aims, vows.

I don't know if he's talking about "buying your way in", trying to bribe God (good luck!), or the cheapness and crassness of reality compared to the gasping celestial vision. It's one of those weirdball Hopkins-ian things that makes you want to toss the book across the room.

But then he gets back to the "look, look" stuff, which by now is getting a little old (can't help but think it!) in spite of the "Maymess" (a word I really thought *I* had invented) and the "mealed-with-yellow sallows".

But then come the strangest lines of all.

These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

I don't know, this grounds the poem with a thud, steals all its magic. Hopkins must have had some sort of a thing for Christ, and it's weird. When I first read this startling thing, my reaction was "what"? These are indeed the - barn? And what are "the shocks"? Kindly explain yourself, poet.

I can only guess - and I am really guessing here, because this is an odd thing that doesn't make much sense even after a lot of analysis - that he thinks of the heavens/nature and all that jazz as "housing" Jesus and Mary and all those holy folk who to him represent God. Or does he glimpse the holy/eternal in and through, are those starfolk sitting in the air little glints of God, God's little birthday candles maybe?

Is the universe just God's skin?

I might be reading more into this than I should. Hey, maybe I'm smarter than he was, or at least less obscure. But there are things I don't like here, words that may or may not be used for jarring effect: "barn" (barn? Haven't we just travelled to the farthest reaches of the universe? Why use the image of an outbuilding that is basically full of shit?); "shuts" (an awful word, implying "shut-in" and even "shut up!); "spouse", a sort of creaky word referring to one's life partner - oh, that's creepy! Oh, that's creepy! Is he married to Jesus, or his mother? I guess "espouse" can mean just believing in something. Or something.

Or surrendering to it? Oh God. I was never one for surrender, though in certain circles (does the term 12 Step Program mean anything to you?) it's considered the highest achievement.

And that word "hallows" is not one I am comfortable with either - all hallows eve, hallowed be thy name (which for some reason always reminded me of the inside of a pumpkin, that punky smell). So he throws in some language which could not be more at odds with the dazzling fluidity of those first few lines. What of buying, selling, bidding - what's he on about? Maybe it would be better to stop at Line 7. Can the Sunday school lesson; just dazzle us.