By Ben Howard (Professor of English Emeritus, Alfred University, New York)
In his sonnet “Duns Scotus’s Oxford,“ Gerard Manley Hopkins pays tribute to a kindred spirit. Contrasting the “graceless growth” of Victorian Oxford with the “grey beauty” of the older buildings, he invokes the memory of the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, the “rarest-veined unraveller,” who lectured at Oxford in the early fourteenth century. “[T]hese walls are what / He haunted,” Hopkins recalls, “who of all men most sways my spirits to peace.” (1) Balancing the past and present tenses, these lines portray Duns Scotus as both a historical figure and a timeless, countervailing presence in the poet’s life and art.
Something similar might be said of Hopkins’s own presence in the life and art of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), who discovered Hopkins at the age of thirteen, when she read his poems in Harriet Monroe’s anthology of modern poets. From the start she felt an affinity, and during her years at Vassar College her fondness for Hopkins deepened, culminating in an astute and original essay, “Notes on Timing in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins,” which appeared in the Vassar Review in February, 1934. Over the next four decades, “dear Hopkins,” as Bishop called him, became a sustaining spiritual companion, providing moral guidance as well as literary inspiration.
Another reminder that we’ll be celebrating the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins on Thursday, June 23. Post your favourite Hopkins’ poem for reading and discussion on the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.
See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to date.