By Kevin T. McEneaney
Goldsmith Press. 120 pages
The cheerful title of Egan’s book echoes through its eight chapters. This collection of essays emphasizes the spiritual and artistic vision of Hopkins an intertwined helix. In part, Egan reacts to middle class biographies out of touch with the difficulties and rigors of Victorian life, as well as often neglected deep religious roots of Hopkins the priest. That often dour focus on the melancholy circumstances of Hopkins’ introverted character favored by many critics manages to obscure the real achievement of Hopkins as transcendental mystic and eloquent poet. The amateur psychological tendency to privilege art as an expression of neurosis results in an amusing essay that satirizes such an approach as lacking in common sense and a basic misunderstanding of the artistic project.
Like any unrecognized artist of great merit, there is a tinge of self-pity in certain moments of Hopkins’ life, as his all-too candid letters and poems display, yet this remains countered by great heights of fervid, hopeful affirmation for not only his life but the human situation. Egan points out that dour commentary neglects those aspects of Hopkins as priest. With corrective lens Egan prefers to examine aspects of mystical transcendence in the poems and letters of Hopkins. There is a whole chapter devoted to “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” Yes, there are brief moments of despair in Hopkins’ lesser works, yet his greater poems express exultation, celebration of a Divine vision, and hope to communicate that vision to others: “And, true poet that he is, metaphor is at the mysterious heart of it.”
The chapter on Hopkins as a major node that influenced the development of 20th century poetry speaks of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Somewhat ironically, the influence of Hopkins was predominantly secular with the first two. Egan points out that Pound’s “make it new” motto was more apt in the case of Hopkins than of any poet Pound ever knew.
There is an interesting chapter on the profound influence of Hiberno-English in the language of Hopkins’ poems during the five years spent in Dublin and the Irish countryside near Newbridge where Hopkins composed some of his finest poems. An insightful chapter of the artist as internal exile compares Hopkins to the plight of Oliver Goldsmith and Patrick Kavanagh.
The penultimate chapter of the book, an essay on James Joyce, is astonishing because of the new ground that Egan breaks with his analysis of Joyce’s references to Hopkins in Finnegans Wake. It is remarkable that the hydra-headed legion of Joyce scholars have not brought Hopkins to bear on Joyce’s mischievous funnery of words. Educated by the Jesuits, Joyce certainly had a belated eye on the most famous Jesuit resurrection in Ireland. Any library that boasts a serious collection of books on Joyce should purchase this book for this brilliant essay that illumines the conclusion of Finnegans Wake. Egan’s essay is likely to birth other essays that follow in his footsteps.
There is an eloquent, perceptive, and lively Introduction by Professor Robert Smart of Quinnipiac University. Although heavily footnoted, Egan clear prose makes these essays an enjoyable read for an average literature audience while he amusingly needles academics for being occasionally asleep at the whirling wheel of poetry.
—Kevin T. McEneaney
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By Kevin T. McEneaney