ar from home in Hampstead and his alma mater Oxford, the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins toiled in Dublin in 1886 to inculcate the classics into restive and resistant students who persistently tried his patience both as teacher and as displaced Englishman. Still unrecognised as a poet and unappreciated by his priestly contemporaries for his so-called eccentricity, he found life in the Irish capital a frequent trial, although his correspondence reveals there were many lighter moments provided by newly made acquaintances, often, admittedly, of pro-English sympathies.
But perhaps his greatest relief was through his own voluminous letter-writing, and in particular those letters exchanged with his long-standing friend of student days, Robert Bridges, now a retired doctor of independent means, living at leisure in the home counties. Eventually to achieve the exalted status of Poet Laureate, for the moment his publications were limited in quantity and esoteric in subject, but for Hopkins the relationship was an invaluable relief from the disappointments of his Dublin life.
Literature was naturally, but not solely a main theme of their correspondence, and Hopkins, with that mixture of conservatism and independent thinking which marked his outlook, often found himself at variance with the more traditional critical views of his friend. Their differing opinions of the contemporary novel gave rise to one of Hopkins’s most trenchant expressions of his own point of view when writing from a holiday break at Rostrevor (‘a beautiful spot’) he roundly declared to his sceptic friend:
“The abundance of genius in English romance in this age appears to me comparable with its abundance in the drama in the Elizabethan: but here I am afraid I speak to deaf ears.” [Letters of Hopkins to Bridges, 262]
A few months before, the same ‘deaf ears’ had endured another blast from Hopkins on the subject of Bridges’s (somewhat) pedantic strictures on the current best seller, Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Hopkins had become an enthusiast of the Scottish author, and was to praise his genius in three separate letters, roundly declaring, ‘he has all the gifts a writer of fiction should have’ (Correspondence of Hopkins and Dixon, 114). There is no indication that Hopkins knew anything of Stevenson‘s bohemian life-style, still less that both of them in their earlier lives had endured the classic Victorian trauma of division with their parents on religious grounds. Near contemporaries — Hopkins was six years older — sons of well-to-do middle-class parents who were devout members of their respective national churches, the two young men had both broken with their family faiths at the ages of 22 (Hopkins) and 23 respectively.
Hopkins could only bear to explain his change of faith to his parents by post, while still at Oxford, ending one letter (almost in tears, one feels):
‘Your letters, which show the utmost fondness, suppose none on my part and the more you think me hard and cold and that I repel and throw you off the more I am helpless not to write as if it were true. In this way I have no relief. You might believe that I suffer too’.
In a long letter so precise in its arguments that it must have seemed cold and unfeeling to the family who received it, he had already explained to his father his religious position and its likely impact on the Balliol College authorities where he was studying; as for his future: ‘My only wish is to be independent’. Hardly surprising that his father’s reply ended: ‘O Gerard my darling boy are you indeed gone from me’ or that Hopkins told Newman — who was to receive him into the Catholic Church — ‘Their answers are terrible: I cannot read them twice’ (Further Letters of Hopkins,100, 95, 97, 29).
If Hopkins’s conversion was purely and simply an act of faith at a time when religious controversy was rife at Oxford, Stevenson’s apostasy from the Church of Scotland loyalties of his family reflected a more complex situation. It was in January 1873 that he plucked up the courage to tell his father of the religious doubts that had been worrying him for some time, and that he could no longer accept the dogmas of the Church of which his parents were devoted members. Then, and for more than a year to come, his domestic life was dogged by their bitterness over his decision. He was treated as a ‘horrible atheist’ and, as he explained in a letter to Charles Baxter, made to feel how he had blighted their lives:
‘What a damned curse I am to my parents! As my father said, ‘You have rendered my whole life a failure‘
As my mother said, ‘This is the heaviest affliction that has ever befallen me.’ And, O Lord, what a pleasant thing it is to have just damned the happiness of (probably) the only two people who care a damn about you in the world.’ [Letters of Stevenson , I, 273]
As Stevenson was to explain more than once, he never was an ‘atheist’ and continued to respect Christianity on strictly pragmatic grounds for what it had to say about ‘the little rough-and-tumble world in which our fortunes are cast for the moment.’(Letters of Stevenson, II, 240). It was also true that his amoral private life with his roistering Edinburgh acquaintances gave him a horror of the hypocrisy he was forced into by living in the parental home. The emotional break with his parents, especially felt by his father, although it was in the end temporary, was profound enough to become a theme of his later work, notably in the masterpiece Weir of Hermiston and in the earlier Story of a Lie, written in 1879, where a difficult filial relationship is painted with more than a little comical exaggeration:
There was no return to the subject [of Dick Naseby’s refusal to support his father’s publicly expressed tory views]. Dick and his father were henceforth on terms of coldness. The upright old gentleman grew more upright when he met his son…he asked after Dick’s health, and discussed the weather and the crops with an appalling courtesy….
As for Dick, it seemed to him as if his life had come abruptly to an end. (Works, XXI, 14]
In real life, both fathers within a year were reunited with their rebellious sons, as familial ties triumphed over religious differences. While Stevenson was to travel to many countries in search of better health, he remained on intimate terms with his family in Edinburgh, and after his father’s death in 1887 Mrs Stevenson was to make her home with him and Fanny, his wife, on the island of Samoa. In Hopkins’s case, if his parents never entirely reconciled themselves to his vocation as a Jesuit priest, their home, when the opportunity arose, was always open to him and letters flowed freely around the many members of the family: the first-ever edition of her son’s poetry, long after his death, owed much to his mother’s loving interest, as well as Bridges’ skilful editorship.
Hopkins’s first references to Stevenson’s work occurred long after the crucial events of his early life. In June 1878 he had initiated what was to become another of the long-term correspondences in which he could discuss artistic and personal matters which had little opportunity for expression in his life as a Jesuit. The recipient was an Anglican priest, Canon R.W. Dixon, formerly a teacher at Highgate School in London where Hopkins had been a pupil. That early encounter was no more than fleeting, and it was Hopkins who renewed the contact many years later in a letter acknowledging the Canon’s reputation as a poet and historian.
But it was in August 1883, when the correspondence was in full flow, that he mentioned to Dixon that a friend had advised him to read Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights , a collection of stories that had first appeared individually in various periodicals over the preceding five years. Hopkins’s verdict was that Stevenson had ‘all the gifts a writer of fiction should have’ (Correspondence of Hopkins and Dixon , 114), and he also spoke approvingly of the essay A Gossip on Romance and the story The Treasure of Franchard which had appeared in Longman’s in November 1882 and in April-May 1883 respectively (all these titles may well have been read in the well stocked libraries of Stonyhurst College where Hopkins was teaching at the time). He praised the critical essay for its account of the author’s theory of Romance, with its stress on incident, and admired the closeness with which The Treasure of Franchard followed the principles which the essay laid down: ‘To embody character, thought, or emotion in some act or attitude that shall be remarkably striking to the mind’s eye’ (Works of Stevenson , IX, 139).
Dogged by ill-health , Stevenson had long before given up on his father’s ambition that he should follow in the family’s distinguished footsteps as lighthouse builders or to carry on with his own half-hearted studies to become a lawyer. Literature was to be his life, and although he had written much for the magazines by the date of Hopkins’s letter to Dixon, none of his great works had yet appeared in book form. By autumn 1886, however, when next mentioned by Hopkins, he was reaching the high point of popular achievement. Critical comparisons were being made by reviewers with Hawthorne, Poe, and Fenimore Cooper, parallels which suggest how difficult the reviewers found it to place his fiction in the English tradition. Writing to Bridges, Hopkins asserted Stevenson’s ‘great genius’, defending Treasure Island and The Strange of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde against his criticisms, although he had to admit that he had not yet read the first of these and was in fact disputing the excessively literal approach of his friend in declaring that ‘a boy capable of a brave deed would be incapable of writing it down.’ (Letters to Bridges ,238). But quoting some passages from Jekyll and Hyde , he stated simply: ‘These are worthy of Shakespeare‘, and went on to describe their author as a ‘master of consummate style and each phrase is finished as in poetry. It will not do at all, your treatment of him’. (The same quality was noted by the novelist Henry James a year or so later when in a long review in The Century Magazine he remarked that ‘Mr Stevenson cares greatly for his phrase’ (Stevenson: the Critical Heritage, ed. Maixner, 293).
Hopkins’s admiration reminds us that although his reputation for posterity is primarily that of a poet, his letters (including the remarkable contributions to Nature) and his personal journal rank him among the most distinctive prose writers of the Victorian period. Stevenson would not have been ashamed of this impressionist description of a continental city:
But--at night! With a full moon waking the river and sending up straight beams from the heavy clouds that overhung it. We saw this from the bridge. The river runs so strong that it keeps the bridge shaking. Then we walked about the place and first of all had the adventure of the little English-woman with her hat off. We went through great spacious streets and places dead still and came to fountains of the clearest black water through which pieces of things at the bottom gleamed white. [Journals of Hopkins, ed. House and Storey, 169]
The author of Kidnapped would have appreciated the skill in evoking the picturesque, the eye for detail, and the effective simplicity of the diction.
Responsive as he was to the sensuous and the direct appeal of experience, it was not surprising that Stevenson devoted a long essay to the work of Walt Whitman, whose liberal views of life and literature were currently causing something of a sensation amongst conservative readers. Stevenson’s enlightened reaction as a young man to the Whitman philosophy is reflected in his remark that ‘the youth [who reads Whitman], after a short course of reading, ceases to carry the universe upon his shoulders (Works, III, 87), and added at the end of the essay: ‘It seems hardly possible that any being should get evil from so healthy a book as the Leaves of Grass, which is simply comical whenever it falls short of nobility’ (Works, 100). In his notes for this essay ( which was printed in 1874 ) Stevenson also wrote: ‘Whitman: humanity: love of mankind…sense of inequality: justification of art: decline of religion’ (Balfour Life of Stevenson, I, 94) a pointer to the values to which his own life was to bear witness.
Much of what Stevenson writes on Whitman might also be related to the work of Hopkins. The remark that Whitman saw the ‘poetic in outdoor people’ (Works III, 85) recalls Hopkins’s reaction in poetry and prose to such individuals as a ploughman in Dromore, a Stonyhurst gamekeeper, and a blacksmith plying his trade in the city of Liverpool. The further comment that Whitman ‘aims to show beauty in common things’ could equally be applied to the Jesuit scholastic who admired the icy patterns on the urinals at Manresa and in his Commentary on St Ignatius spoke of perceiving the glory of God in ‘a man with a dung fork’ (Sermons of Hopkins, 241.)
At what age Hopkins first came across Whitman’s poetry we can only guess, but in a letter to Bridges in October 1882 (Letters, 154 ) he denies that the few poems he had read were likely to have had any detectable influence upon his verse. He admitted the ‘strong impression [given by these poems] of his marked and original manner and way of thought and in particular of his rhythm’. But he knew enough about Whitman to beware of the dangerously liberal way of life he preached, especially in sexual matters, a topic which was delicately raised by Stevenson in his essay where he described Whitman as speaking ‘at some length and with some plainness on what is, for I really do not know what reason, the most delicate of subjects’(Works, III, 98).
For reasons doubtless connected with this topic, Hopkins came to a damning conclusion: “I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any other man’s living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession. And this also makes me the more desirous to read him and the more determined that I will not” (Letters to Bridges 155). The reader is left to speculate what delinquencies he recognised in his own “heart” -- clues are perhaps provided by his Dublin poetry which was still to come and points to creative frustration, intense depression, suicidal thoughts--but it was to a Stevenson metaphor he later turned to illustrate these feelings, declaring to Bridges: ‘You are certainly wrong about Hyde being overdrawn: my Hyde is worse’ (238)
Uttered in the Irish capital, where he had been sent for the last five years of his life, the words reflect his profound sense of unhappiness and failure in a series of powerful sonnets:
To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near. [Poems 101]
But as Hopkins knew from the beginning of his life as a Jesuit, ‘Much change is inevitable . . . ours can never be an abiding city’ (Further Letters,), and in his 16 years with the Society he was moved some 10 times to different locations. It was an exile that was both geographic and emotional, separating him from a family that he loved, their religion which he had abjured, and ultimately the country, ‘England, whose honour O all my heart woos’ (Poems, 101). Yet he wrote poetry that has come to be regarded as the most distinctive of the Victorian period and he was a conscientious priest: we cannot assume that he would have been a ‘better’ person had he followed another life-path.
Stevenson’s experience of exile was even more comprehensive: religious and temperamental incompatibility with his Edinburgh surroundings was followed by a life out of the country for health’s sake that was immensely productive for his writing. It fed his ‘old gipsy nature’ with the colourful, the exotic, the ever-changing scene that sustained him as man and artist. ‘My exile,’ as he remarked from Sydney to Henry James, ‘can be in no sense regarded as a calamity’ (Works, XXIV, 397). But it was not the end of his complex relationship with the old country: he retained his love for it, and a nostalgia that inspired continuing use of Scottish settings. The Master of Ballantrae, Catriona, Weir of Hermiston, and St Ives, all belong to the latter years of Stevenson’s career and are firmly embedded in his homeland. Perhaps the question may be raised, would Hopkins, an exile for religion’s and not health’s sake, have written such powerful verse if he had been allowed to rest in congenial parishes at Farm Street and Oxford? His complaint in Dublin, “Send my roots rain” overlooks what he actually achieved amidst his unhappiness — indeed, what he achieved because of his unhappiness.
The two men’s view of current literature is further evidence of the wide reading and critical independence they sharedn. Hopkins’s admiration for novels as ‘romance’, in which realism was accounted inferior to story and character, was close to Stevenson’s doctrine inA Note on Realism in which he deplored the emphasis on material detail in much Victorian fiction and insisted that realism was no more than a ‘method’ (Works, XVI, 236). In 1882 when Zola’s Rougon Maquart series of novels was attracting sensational notice, he derided his art as ‘Romance with the smallpox,’ yet he admitted that the ‘curious, eminently bourgeois French creature [had] power of a kind’. (Letters, III, 302). His even-handedness was still evident in the last years of his life when, writing to Henry James, he condemned admirers of Zola as being unable to ‘understand the man’s art’ but simply ‘wallowed in his rancidness like a hound in offal’ (Works, XXV, 322).
If Zola, not surprisingly, does not figure on Hopkins’s reading-list, Balzac, at least from youthful memory, was an author about whom he was able to offer an opinion, and one which, as it turned out, was similar to Stevenson’s. Hopkins’s comment occurs in a long letter to Canon Dixon in October 1881 which includes a critical paragraph on Robert Browning’s poem The Ring and the Book , to the effect that one of the scenes described was a ‘pointless photograph of still life, such as I remember in Balzac, minute upholstery description’ (Correspondence of Hopkins and Dixon, 74). Two years later Stevenson, who was convalescing in the South of France, gave his cousin his own view of the French writer as ‘an inarticulate Shakespeare, smothered under forcible-feeble detail’ (Letters, IV, 169). Although both Hopkins and Stevenson also found much to praise in Balzac, Stevenson’s rejection of realism as a guiding principle is his defence against his fellow-writer W. E. Henley’s criticisms of the seamanship of Treasure Island: “strange as it may sound,” declared Stevenson, the book was not a “work of realism.” (One recalls the criticism that Hopkins directed at Bridges for his over-literal objections to Treasure Island.)
It was not only in literary matters that these two men shared sympathies, and expressed independent judgements. Their opinions on social and political questions were in some respects surprisingly radical. The influence of Carlyle (whom both admired at one time or another) may well have contributed to the rhetoric in certain passages of their own devoted to the plight of the working-classes; the rhythms of the Victorian prophet are clearly heard in Stevenson’s angry attack in February 1874 on the current movement for repealing the income tax:
Is there no shame about the easy classes? Will those who have nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandth of the advantages of our society, never consent to pay a single tax unless it is to be paid also by those who have to bear the burthen and heat of the day, with almost none of the rewards? [Works, 23, 114]
It must have pleased Stevenson that, in the end, talk about repeal went no further. Three years earlier Hopkins in the middle of his studies as a Jesuit priest spoke just as strongly in favour of the working classes in a letter to Bridges (and so antagonised him for the next three years):
It is a dreadful thing for the greatest and most necessary part of a very rich nation to live a hard life without dignity, knowledge, comforts, delight, or hopes in the midst of plenty--which plenty they make . . . England has grown hugely wealthy but this wealth has not reached the working classes. [27-28]
How Hopkins as a cloistered Jesuit student and from a background still more privileged than Stevenson had arrived at these radical conclusions, is open to speculation, but we know that such advanced thinking was prevalent in some of his colleagues. The man who rose from Rector of Stonyhurst College to General of the Society, Edmund Purbrick, had been worrying over “the probability of revolution in the next nine years” (The Month, Journal of the Society of Jesus, Aug. 1926, p.123) precisely at the time that Hopkins was studying there as a scholastic.
Hopkins continued to utter these radical opinions on other occasions in his life, and his comments on the dispiriting Liverpool scene, the compassion of his poem “Tom’s Garland” and his commentary on it for Bridges’s benefit are honest and far-sighted. On other political matters, like Stevenson, he was disgusted by the manner of General Gordon’s death at Khartoum, which they both believed was due to Prime Minister Gladstone’s slowness to act, and blamed the “Grand Old Mischief-Maker” (Letters to Bridges, 257), for leaving England’s reputation, in Stevenson’s words ‘dripping with blood and daubed with dishonour’ (Works, XXIV, 139).
Hopkins lived the last five years of his life in a country full of anti-British feeling, with the Irish Catholic Church sympathetic to the nationalist cause, and the Jesuits of University College, Dublin, regarded with suspicion as pro-establishment supporters. Pained as he was by the absence of patriotism and the Irish hierarchy’s hostility, his judgement was not blinded by his emotions. Scornful of Gladstone he may have been, but he arrived at the same conclusion about the Irish problem:
Home rule is in fact likely to come and even, in spite of the crime, slander, and folly with which its advance is attended, may perhaps in itself be a considered measure of a sort of equity and, considering that worse might be, of a kind of prudence. [Letters to Bridges, 257]
Stevenson, albeit far removed from Dublin in his semi-invalid existence in Bournemouth, took the same grudging view when Gladstone’s Home Rule bill was defeated in June 1886, declaring in the same month: ‘I am a kind of dam home ruler, worse luck to it’ (Works, XXIV, 193) but as the remark suggests he also held strong views which, in characteristic contrarian fashion, put him into the opposite camp. The political murder of the head of a farming family, the Curtin’s, in rural Ireland, about this time, and the apparent inability of the authorities to protect the female survivors, aroused his quixotic fury and impulsive ambition to take himself off to defend the Curtin farm as an act of defiance against the murderers. Writing to a family friend, he passionately related a series of goals he would achieve by going on this idealistic mission:‘If I should be killed, there are a good many who would feel it…a writer being murdered would attract attention’, which he balanced with an even longer list of objections: ‘You [ie. himself] will not even be murdered, the climate will miserably kill you’ (Works, XXIV, 222-23).
Common sense and friendly advice soon diverted him from the enterprise, and his departure to the USA and beyond a few months later put an end to his concerns for British politics. He died in Samoa in December 1894 at the age of 44, finally succumbing to the ill-health that had pursued him all his life. Hopkins, like his Scottish contemporary was never to return from exile: at the same age, he had passed away in Dublin, a victim of typhoid. Superficially so dufferent in their lives and letters, they represent the variety and strengths of Victorian culture in their familial relations, love of country, religious diversity, moral concerns, and seriousness of literary achievement. To describe them as men of their time is no small tribute to the variety and richness of their age.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems. Ed. Gardner and MacKenzie. 4th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Letters of Hopkins to Bridges. Ed. C.C. Abbott. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Correspondence of Hopkins and Dixon . Ed. C.C. Abbott. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Further Letters of Hopkins. Ed. C.C. Abbott. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Ed. B.A. Booth and E. Mehew. New Haven: Yale University Press, vols 1-4, 1994.
Works of Robert Louis Stevenson.. Swanston edition. London: Chatto and Windus, 25 vols, 1911-12.
Created 6 March 2015