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Biography worthy of the poet

The Victorian Gerard Manley Hopkins, a master of word and image, is celebrated.

nolead begins Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life
nolead ends nolead begins By Paul Mariani
Viking. 496 pp. $34.95

nolead ends This book is, quite simply, necessary: A great poet deserves a great biography. From the first study of him in 1930, though, Gerard Manley Hopkins has never had a worthy biography. Paul Mariani's new Life finally brings him his due.

Hopkins (1844-89), unpublished until 1918 and undiscovered until the 1930s, is now recognized as a major poet: He wrote ageless poems, refreshed poetic language, brought Anglo-Saxon word-force back into English, experimented with rhythm and form, created word-music of distinctive richness, wrote "modern" poems in premodern days, and influenced W.H. Auden, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov, and the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. Major, indeed.

Yet Hopkins was a most improbable poet. Schoolboy or Oxford undergraduate, he couldn't decide whether to be a poet or a painter. After a religious crisis at Oxford, he left his Anglican heritage to become first a Roman Catholic then a Jesuit - both groups a bit suspect in Victorian England. Passionate about nature and God, he taught and ministered in smoky cities, often to exhaustion or depression. An ascetic by choice, he prized sense experience. Devoted to God, he sometimes lost contact with him. His poems ranged from elation to anguish, but often baffled poet-friends and fellow Jesuits. He both feared and esteemed fame, and amid all this, maintained a strong sense of self and immense self-confidence. Gerard Hopkins was a complex man and a complex poet.

Balancing such complexity requires knowledge, understanding and sympathy on the part of biographers, and only two previous biographies still merit reading. Bernard Bergonzi's Gerard Manley Hopkins (1977) is balanced, though short and unresearched. Norman White's fuller Hopkins: A Literary Biography (1992) is carefully researched and well written, but suffers from one glaring lacuna: It cannot comprehend Hopkins' religious dimension.

Now Paul Mariani, poet himself and believer, prize-winning biographer of four poets (John Berryman, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, and William Carlos Williams), and author of A Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1970), has written a new life. Great Hopkins finally has a great biography.

Mariani brings both balance and passion. Presenting Hopkins through his values and loves, he begins not with Gerard's birth but with his stressful conversion and his worry about telling his parents and friends. Looking then at Hopkins' childhood in London, he returns to Oxford, then roams through Gerard's life: teaching in Birmingham, visiting Switzerland, becoming a Jesuit, studying philosophy in Lancashire, teaching in London, studying theology and becoming a priest in North Wales, seven years of peripatetic teaching and parish work in Derbyshire, Lancashire, London, Oxford, Bedford Leigh, Liverpool, Glasgow, Lancashire again, and finally - to Hopkins' surprise - five years teaching Greek in Dublin. He died from typhoid seven weeks before his 45th birthday.

All this time, of course, Hopkins was writing poetry: His first known poem, "The Escorial" (1860), won a prize at Highgate School, and his great poems began with his astonishing ode "The Wreck of the Deutschland" (1875-76) and 11 rapturous sonnets (1877), all written at St. Beuno's College in North Wales.

On this life-framework Mariani erects - or better, weaves - his balanced story of Hopkins. Like Mariani's tapestry of the poet's life, I weave a similar tapestry to describe Mariani's biography.

Beginning with Hopkins' conversion-angst and intellectual probing at Oxford, Mariani weaves in undergraduate conversations, phrases from poems, hikes near Horsham in Sussex, his sense of Christ's sacramental presence in the world, his first conversation with a Catholic priest, visits with parents, brothers and sisters in Hampstead, a photograph with two Oxford friends, his love of Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist, his reception into the Church by John Henry Newman, his lifelong love of beauty, and vivid images from his journals: the sun's "yellow waxen light," a sky "pied with clouds," fields of cowslip "in creamy drifts" speckled with bluebells and purple orchis.

Mariani's study also weaves in glimpses of young Hopkins' mind, his grief when trees are hacked down, his essays on poetry or metaphysics, his first meeting with a Jesuit, his family vacations on the Isle of Wight. Becoming a Jesuit in 1868 (he was 24), he learns prayer and metaphysics, discovers the philosophy of Scotus on uniqueness, enjoys dialect words and Irish fairy-stories, visits art exhibitions, knows "the beauty of the Lord" through bluebells, reads about an American yacht race, hypnotizes a duck, and vacations with Jesuit classmates on the Isle of Man.

He comes to love "Wild Wales," where he writes "God's Grandeur," "The Starlight Night," "The Windhover," "Pied Beauty," and "Hurrahing in Harvest," and holds that his poems should be read with the ears, not the eyes.

Other threads in Mariani's tapestry show Hopkins weary and melancholy (though his work was not overdemanding), or lively, joyful and playful (often punning), or at prayer, or troubled by Irish politics. He was sustained by relationships with his family, his fellow poets Robert Bridges and R.W. Dixon, his friends, his fellow Jesuits, and his beloved God.

Mariani's style is distinctively original: While using third-person narrative, he writes mostly in the present tense, almost as if from inside Hopkins himself, as if expressing Hopkins' own mind and heart. Into his smooth, flowing prose, he well incorporates Hopkins' poems, his image-rich journals, and his fresh-conceived sermons.

Written out of love, Paul Mariani's Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life is a biography for readers who love poetry and who love Hopkins.