During his three years in a poor but beautiful part of Wales where he would learn the Welsh language as perhaps the single thing he had time to enjoy outside of his theological studies he was assigned to undertake as part of his training to become a Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins began writing poetry again. He had burnt all of his poetry seven years earlier when he had joined the Jesuits.
Hopkins’s rector at St. Beuno’s in Wales, Father Jones, who had a better feel for Hopkins’s true gifting than any of his superiors to date – Jesuit superiors as well as his superiors at Oxford, where he had converted to Catholicism around age twenty – saw how moved Hopkins had become reading in The Times about the foundering of the North German steamer Deutschland off the English coast and suggested that someone at the theologate write an ode celebrating the lives of the five Catholic nuns who drowned in the disaster. Hopkins volunteered. The papers were still adding to the public’s knowledge of what happened when Hopkins began writing his ode.
Hopkins sent The Wreck of the Deutschland to The Month, a Jesuit magazine, which took a few months to reject it. During The Month’s consideration, the pump primed by the Deutschland, Hopkins had written a few sonnets and a curtal sonnet, including three of his most famous poems: “God’s Grandeur,” “Pied Beauty,” and “The Windhover,” the last of which Hopkins always considered his finest poem. These sonnets contained his sprung rhythm, which was his new system of meter that counted only the stressed syllables in a given line, and the cyngnedd – consonantal chiming – that he had picked up from the Welsh. He took no steps to publish any of these sonnets.
For the first couple of years after becoming a priest at the end of his stay in Wales, Hopkins was sent to various assignments for short periods, and he rarely had the time or the inclination to write poetry. Before leaving Wales, though, he had sent some of his work, including the Deutschland, to his good friend Robert Bridges, a doctor who, in his old age, would become England’s poet laureate.
Bridges hated the Deutschland and offered Hopkins little encouragement about it or about another ode about another shipwreck, The Loss of the Eurydice, which Hopkins had written in ways that incorporated some of the criticism that Bridges had offered about the Deutschland. Still, Bridges was a poetic lifeline for Hopkins: he was an old Oxford friend and a good poet, and the two of them enjoyed their correspondence particularly about English verse, past and present. And Hopkins, for his part, was never less than candid with Bridges about the merits and faults of the latter’s poetry. Bridges, a more conventional poet, was busy getting published.
Discouraged about his poems’ receptions, Hopkins, then thirty-three years old, remembered an obscure Anglican priest, Richard Watson Dixon (photographed above), a master at the Highgate School while Hopkins was attending it before he matriculated to Oxford. Dixon had left a book of his own poems with one of the other masters when he left Highgate, and the title caught Hopkins’s eye. And then, in 1878, about thirteen years after the fact, Hopkins decided to write him.
After introducing himself to Dixon, Hopkins told him how he had taken the book with him to Oxford and became “so fond of it that I made it, so far as that could be, a part of my own mind.” He also had found another book by Dixon, and treasured that, too. When Hopkins became a Jesuit, “I knew I could have no books of my own and was unlikely to meet with your works in the libraries I should have access to, [so] I copied out St. Paul, St. John, Love’s Consolation, and others from both volumes and keep them by me.”
“How many beautiful works ‘have been almost unknown and then have gained fame at last,’ he surmises, though no doubt ‘many more must have been lost sight of altogether.’” Paul Mariani quotes Hopkins in his 2008 biography Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life (202), which I’m about halfway through reading. Mariani continues:
“You cannot but know that I must be deeply moved,” Dixon responded. “Nay shaken to the very centre, by such a letter as that which you have sent me: for which I thank you from my inmost heart. . . . I can in truth hardly realize that what I have written, which has been generally, almost universally, neglected, should have been so much valued and treasured. This is more than fame: and I may truly say that when I read your Letter, and whenever I take it out of my pocket to look at it, I feel that I prefer to have been so known & prized by one, than to have had the ordinary appreciation of many.”
A lively correspondence blossomed, benefiting both men. Six letters into the correspondence, Hopkins forwarded Dixon his two odes at Dixon’s request. Mariani writes,“A week later, a stunned Dixon replies, having read Hopkins’s poems with more ‘delight, astonishment, & admiration’ than he can easily say. ‘They are among the most extraordinary I ever read & amazingly original,’ he gasps, and they must – must – be published” (220).
According to Wikipedia:
Canon Dixon’s first two volumes of verse, Christ’s Company and Historical Odes, were published in 1861 and 1863 respectively; but it was not until 1883 that he attracted conspicuous notice with Mano, an historical poem in terza rima, which was enthusiastically praised by Mr. [Algernon Charles] Swinburne. This success he followed up by three privately printed volumes, Odes and Eclogues (1884), Lyrical Poems (1886), and The Story of Eudocia (1888).
Dixon’s poems were during the last fifteen years of his life recognized as scholarly and refined exercises, touched with both dignity and a certain severe beauty, but he never attained any general popularity as a poet, the appeal of his poetry being directly to the scholar.
To me, this is the enterprise we enjoy as bloggers and microbloggers. Not fame, but a knowing: to be someone for another to write for, and in turn to have someone to write for. I feel so much gratitude for you, my readers, and particularly (naturally) for the one whom, at any given point in my writing, “I have been so known & prized by.”
An update: This morning, while reading the novelist and poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s preface to The Last Poems of Richard Watson Dixon, which volume was published in 1905, I discovered a reference to Hopkins. In her preface, Coleridge listed a number of well-known poets who had praised the unsung Dixon: Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris among them. Then this:
There was one who gave more than praise. A young Oxford student of brilliantly original power loved the poems of Richard Watson Dixon with such devotion that, when he entered the ranks of the Jesuits and was forbidden to take any books with him, he copied out almost all those in his possession. Such minds as these do not labor in vain; others trust in them, follow their lead.
The world was still pregnant with Hopkins’s fame almost twenty years after his death, and Coleridge did not bother to name him in her preface. She apparently had had access to Dixon’s papers, though, since she seems to have had access to the letter from Hopkins that had meant so much to Dixon. I wonder if she read Hopkins’s odes that he had sent to Dixon or if her assessment of Hopkins as possessed of “brilliantly original power” was simply borrowed from Dixon.
But I love how her “more than praise” echoes Dixon’s “more than fame.” Hopkins’s dedication to Dixon’s poetry was more than praise, and his letter thanking Dixon was more than fame.
The editor of The Last Poems of Richard Watson Dixon was Robert Bridges, who later started his late friend Hopkins down the road to fame by editing The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, published in 1918 by Oxford University Press. It would take twelve years for that 750-copy, first edition of Hopkins’s poems to sell out.
I wonder how Bridges viewed Coleridge’s reference to his old friend in her preface.