Sunday, November 28, 2010

Six Jesuits (one dead) and Me


A few weeks ago I wrote an essay on Gerard M. Hopkins’ Wreck of the Deutschland, a sharply-wrought, uncomfortable, ecstatic poem. Hopkins had given up poetry when he joined the Jesuits, until he read of the sinking of the Deutschland in 1875, which so affected him that it wrenched open his cellar doors and propelled this beautiful monster out:

THOU mastering me
God! Giver of breath and bread
World’s strand, sway of the sea


going on to create the most radical poem of the nineteenth century. Hopkins was a student at Balliol, and I sneaked around on the internet and discovered that his juvenilia, fragments and devotional writings are housed in Campion Hall, the Jesuit Private Permanent Hall. (A PPH is not one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford). So I wrote to ask if I could take a look at them. The Bodleian, fairly, refused my request to see the mature poems.

Father Philip Endean kindly agreed to let me come to take a look, so I skived off the Decadent Victorian Gothic lectures I so look forward to with the wild-haired purple-vested Dr. Methven, and took a trip down St. Aldate’s.

Campion Hall is tucked on Brewer Street past Dorothy Sayers’ birthplace and the Christ Church Cathedral School, with rich and simple wood-paneled interiors and devotional sculptures on every way. The library is not nearly as ornate as our HMC Tate library with all of its stained-glass and smugly sitting James Martineau, but it is gravely snug, very wooden and cozy, wall to wall books (as libraries should be). Father Endean - a tall, kind and hasty man, with black button eyes and eyebrows that tend towards raised-ness - and I were joined by one, then two, three, four Jesuits. Three were students, and one a very distinguished-looking older gentleman who I thought must be a classicist. Spot the odd one out: the Protestant female in a circle of Catholic priests-to-be in this sanctum of celibacy. (What would Hopkins have said had he known how close my profane fingers were to be to his private writings?)

Father Endean started by opening an early school notebook, an intricate drawing of the battleship positions from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian war, with all the Greek and Persian ships geometrically aligned and perfectly labeled. Hopkins clearly had a mania for order and specificity (very evident in his choice of poetic language). His handwriting is miniscule, and as he is comfortable slipping into Latin, Greek and French, he demonstrates his good education. His ‘d’s’ look like lower-case deltas. In his early journal and notebook, both bound volumes each about the size of a fist, his handwriting shrinks to the microscopic.

“Even a moderately competent priest would have known to burn these,” Father Philip tut-tutted, handling Hopkins’ miniature notebook of confessional prompts. He cheerfully confessed he would have. “Though they’re for Anglican confession, so I suppose it doesn’t count.” (laughing.)

We were shown Hopkins’ sketchbook, his sermons, his personal notes on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, and a draft of his vow. Father Endean left the room to collect another manuscript, and, the vow being in Latin, all Jesuits began to read it, debating the true definition of one or another of the words, ordination practices etc. When I asked awkwardly if anyone would be willing to share a translation or paraphrase, the distinguished classicist kindly jumped forward and began to translate on the spot this beautiful and moving vow for the priesthood. It was a moment to remember: the dry and locked-up words of a man long dead suddenly revived into the closeted air of that rich library.

Father Endean came back and nervously stood behind the desk, watching our nearness to the manuscript, and eventually “Fingers, Father, fingers!” When the reader paused to consider the wording of the last few stanzas, Father Endean could supply them from memory, as he is editing these manuscripts for publication.

In the last notebook we were shown, a compendium of notes, marks (for the university students in Dublin he taught in his later, most miserable years), and comments, we found an early draft of his poem 'Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves' and read in quiet admiration:

Disremembering, disremembering all now. Heart you round me right
With: Our evening is over us; our night whelms, whelms, and will end us.

No comments: