Hopkins, Poetry, and Overcoming Utilitarian Views of Art and Beauty
For anyone interested in poetry Gerard Manley Hopkins is a figure of some importance. His output, though comparatively slim, has steadily grown in influence ever since its posthumous publication almost a hundred years ago, and he is now considered to be not only one of the major poets of the 19th century, but a writer of such originality that his language is often compared to poets writing decades later. His work is readily available in numerous editions, and some of them include selections from his devotional writings and sermons (he was a Jesuit priest). For help in reading Hopkins there are several good guides, such as Norman H. MacKenzie, A Reader’s Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins; Aidan Nichols, OP, Hopkins: Theologian’s Poet; and Peter Milward, SJ, A Commentary on the Sonnets of G.M. Hopkins. All three contain exposition (MacKenzie covers all the poems, the others selections, with Milward concentrating on the sonnets), while the last two also contain the text of the poems. MacKenzie’s book is something of a classic, now in its second edition, while Nichols is rich with informed theological exposition. The recent biography by Catholic poet Paul Mariani also stands out, as does the recent novel Exiles by Catholic novelist Ron Hansen. And here in town there is the newly-formed Hopkins Society of Phoenix (full disclosure of shameless promotion: I had a hand in this).
Hopkins is far from the only poet writing verse that can be classified as “Catholic” or “Christian.” Denise Levertov, an adult convert to the Church, has several volumes in print, along with a books of essays. Her The Stream and the Sapphire is especially noteworthy, as it is a collection of poems chosen by Levertov as a record of her conversion. I assign this slim volume in my Art and Catholicism course at Xavier, as it contains poems that are not only skillful but accessible. Here is one of them, “Of Being,” which is rather nice:
I know this happiness is provisional: the looming presences— great suffering, great fear—
withdraw only into peripheral vision: but ineluctable this shimmering of wind in the blue leaves:
this flood of stillness widening the lake of sky: this need to dance, this need to kneel:
this mystery:Another poet of interest is Jane Kenyon, whose “Looking at Stars” is a small piece of beauty, at the same time suggestive and precise:
The God of curved space, the dry
God, is not going to help us, but the son
whose blood spattered
the hem of his mother’s robe.
And for a collection of poems written by Christians, see Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poetry. This volume seeks to answer the charge that, as one literary critic has put it, “there is no significant poet whose work does not mirror, both formally and and in its preoccupations, the absence of the transcendent.” Poems by Scott Cairns, Denise Levertov, Wendell Berry, Geoffrey Hill, Kathleen Norris and others, suggest that this judgment stands in need of correction.
That these names are unknown to many or most Catholics suggests other problems. The reality that few Catholics today bother with poetry should be more troubling than it apparently is, for there are implications that extend well beyond the literary world. Consider how many Catholics in Phoenix have routinely expressed strong dissatisfaction with Church architecture, the interior design of local parishes, much of the music heard during the liturgy, & the general lack of aesthetic appreciation among religious believers today. Yet seldom does the topic of poetry surface, not to mention painting, sculpture, opera, classical music, and similar art forms, apart from the scattered critical comment about the godlessness of our society. Regarding the medium of film, for most people today the dominant art form, a “good film” typically means for Catholics something either mainstream or one that contains a clear Catholic message about life issues or, recently, religious freedom. The heritage of films about anything not explicitly “Catholic” and that stand up to repeated viewings over a lifetime is largely unknown to those heralding “Bella” or “For Greater Glory” as great films. Ever since becoming a Catholic about 15 years ago, I’ve heard a lot of talk about the dearth of culture in this diocese. “Phoenix is more than a literal desert,” it has been said. “It is culturally bereft.” In this context will many care about the “terrible sonnets” of Hopkins, or his innovative use of language, apart from citing him as a Catholic who wrote some lines about the beauty of creation in “God’s Grandeur” or “Pied Beauty”? Will many care about art that traditionally has nurtured a rich appreciation of beauty?
I think it likely that the indifference to liturgical beauty lamented by Catholics is directly related to the general indifference to other expressions of beauty, an indifference they themselves often seem to share. And that one can’t but expect a lowering of aesthetic standards in parishes when even those Catholics who claim to care most about beauty are themselves largely unconcerned with those forms of the arts that traditionally have been so important. I also think that it is not difficult to detect an implicit utilitarianism behind this indifference, one that sits uncomfortably next to a profession of faith in a God who reveals himself in and through created beauty.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky had some interesting things to say about beauty that are pertinent there, especially when addressing a nakedly utilitarian understanding of art and beauty. “How can we use this?” is the default question for the utilitarian regarding art.“What is the practical point of this stuff? What purpose does it serve?” Dostoevsky knew these questions well, and responded strongly to the school of thought represented by writers like Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Dmitri Pisarev, who argued that of all the arts, literature alone has real value, insofar as it may reveal the flaws & injustices of decadent society. Writers who lack the skill to advance progressive social aims, Pisarev wrote, would better serve as bakers or shoemakers, whose work serves immediately pragmatic needs. Man, it would seem, truly does live by bread alone, and the only value art has is to make more bread available. Yet change the terminology a bit and you can come up with something like: “This film/novel/etc. has value insofar as it promotes Catholic teaching on ___. It is good because we can use it to defend the Church, evangelize, challenge secularism, refute liberal Catholics, etc.” To this general approach, Dostoevsky wrote the following:
“Art is as much a need for humanity as eating and drinking. The need for beauty and for creations that embody it is inseparable from humanity and without it man perhaps might not want to live on earth. Man thirsts for beauty, finds and accepts beauty without any conditions but just as it is, simply because it is beauty; and he bows down before it with reverence without asking what use it is & what one can buy with it.”
As an example, Dostoevsky appeals to Homer’s Iliad. “How can you determine, measure and weigh the benefit that The Iliad has brought to the whole of humanity? Where, when, in what cases has it been useful, and in which way?” Kenneth Lantz summarizes Dostoevsky’s argument thusly: “If art does not seem to be serving immediate, useful goals it is only because we have defined ‘useful’ in the most narrow & mundane way.” Which means we have to think more carefully about the words we use.
How useful are Mozart or Giotto, Hopkins or Bresson? Does a film, painting, or poem matter if it doesn’t promote the teaching of the Church and assure us that we are right? Dostoevsky held a more expansive view, which enabled him to say that “There is only one positively beautiful figure in the world, Christ, and so the appearance of this immeasurably, infinitely beautiful figure is of course an infinite miracle.” Beauty will save the world, said his Prince Myshkin, placing aesthetics in a much broader context than many secularists would prefer. Catholics should know this impulse of Dostoevsky’s, especially when considering the incarnational logic of our faith, and respond more appropriately to art than merely seeing it as a form of apologetics or perhaps as a diversion to be pursued when the weekend comes.
This is where aesthetics shows its theological dimensions. Christ is, according to St. Augustine, “Beauty, ever ancient, ever new.” So many people, though, inside and outside the Church, reduce Jesus to a peddler of moral and social advice, important insofar as he teaches us how to get along with others and/or how to get to heaven. In other words, he is useful to us in practical terms; he serves needs we already have decided are important. Of course, as in the case with the rich young man in the Gospel, Jesus challenges what we consider to be good or important. What precisely “beauty” has to do with this is of course going to be an irrelevant matter once we reduce Jesus to a means to some desired end. Aesthetics will always be pushed aside when any form of utilitarian thinking holds sway. Yet, as the Psalmist says, “Praise is fitting for loyal hearts.” That is, praise is the natural response to God. “What do we get out of this?” makes no sense in the context of praise and worship. Bowing or dropping to one’s knees are not simply for reasons of posture or social convention. Shouldn’t we realize this about art, which is itself a form of praise, a natural response to the created order that comes from God, who declared all that he created to be good? Dorothy Sayers wrote that GEN 1 tells us important things about God & ourselves; created in the image of a creative God, we naturally strive to emulate him through works of creativity. Naturally so, with little thought of what benefits, social or otherwise, we might derive from them.
We’ve had two popes in recent years who were deeply concerned with these issues and who wrote eloquently and often about them. Has no one in the Church been listening? Is Bl. John Paul II only to be remembered for the Theology of the Body & Veritatis Splendor? Is his legacy to be reduced to attacking contraception and highlighting errors in moral theology? How incomplete an assessment that would be, especially given his commitment to drama and poetry, and his strong emphasis on the implications of an incarnational religion. And Pope Benedict XVI’s great love for Mozart is hardly just a matter of what he likes to do in his spare time, when the important matters of writing encyclicals and challenging secularists and liberal Catholics is finished. Mozart, and all he represents, is integral to his vision of the Church and its witness to the God who creates & redeems. (Go here for Benedict’s “Address to Artists.” And here for “Pope Benedict XVI, Mozart, & the Quest for Beauty.”) One of the reasons so many, including his friend Joseph Ratzinger, find Hans Urs von Balthasar such a compelling theologian is because of his great love for and knowledge of the various artistic traditions that have shaped Western, and Catholic, sensibilities, and how much his theology is colored by his experiences with Mozart, Bernanos, Dante, Hopkins, etc. Yet to talk about aesthetics today among Catholics is often to be met with blank stares. Is this a sign of the victory of pop culture, or of a deepening suspicion of the supposed elitism of those who appreciate “high” culture? Of the laziness so typical of utilitarian modes of thought? Or, of a tawdry consumerist mentality which lacks the attention span to attend to matters of great depth, complexity, and subtlety? All of this together?
To broaden the conversation, we can say that the arts are “useful” by drawing us more deeply into the heart of reality, although this goes far beyond the limited concerns of the social critic or interior decorator. As C.S. Lewis wrote in An Experiment in Criticism, we seek in the literary arts—and, by extension, all the arts—”an enlargement of our being.” We want to be, according to Lewis, “more than ourselves.” “We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.” For, in reading great literature, “I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” We rightly value the work of the poet, painter, photographer, composer, sculptor, etc. because they illuminate, by means of their creator’s talent and vision, dimensions of our world and experiences that often lie outside our ability to articulate. This encounter, by making the familiar strange and awakening us to what we often take for granted, informs, inspires, & refreshes us by sharpening our sense of the glories of God’s creativity, while freeing us from the narrow focus on ourselves which utilitarianism endorses. Thomas Gradgrind’s admonition to his daughter in Hard Times, “Never wonder, Louisa!” is at the back of every insistence that beauty be “practical,” and is another illustration of how utilitarianism is bad theology. (In a later post I will address GK Chesterton’s considerations of art and literature, along with the ironic fact that most Catholics consider him only as a scourge of atheists, relativists, and religious liberals.)
Bad theology; laziness; the different forms of utilitarianism strike me as not only both of these, but perhaps above all, a reflection of self-centeredness. Consider the Russians mentioned above whom Dostoevsky challenged. To say that a work of art must serve some progressive social aim is to have already determined what social aim is needed, and what is already wrong with society (or, other people in my society). That is, by saying that a novelist has value only insofar as he supports my social criticism, I am saying that I have nothing to learn from him. He is a good writer because he supports what I am or agree with. Likewise, a novel or poem has little value if it does not agree with or support me. In other words, I know from the outset what is needed, and have no need to have my assumptions and doctrines addressed or questioned.
Yet doesn’t continued growth and, in Christian terms, the renewal of our minds in Christ, require us to confront our limits of understanding, and doesn’t art contribute to the maturation process by helping us to see things differently? To transcend ourselves and see with the eyes of others, as Lewis wrote? Isn’t this what critical thinking is supposed to be about? Flannery O’Connor gave a great piece of advice to the young Alfred Corn, who had written her about the challenges to religious faith he encountered in college. Skepticism is fine, O’Connor wrote, as long as it is consistently applied. “Be skeptical of skepticism, including that of the fashionable unbelievers of our day.” That is, think critically.
There is a lot to worry about, I suppose, when thinking about all this. The Visigoths are always at the gate. But the day of resurrection approaches, and ours is a faith resistant to the lunacies of the moment, no matter how ascendant they appear. Truth will always out, as they say, and I teach enough students who love to read for the sheer delight of reading, of entering the adventure of story and the spell it can weave, to be hopeful about our future. Theirs is the kind of self-forgetfulness that the best art can encourage and render habitual. In this sense, art is closely related to play. What point is there in children playing tag? In my youngest son playing with pirate ships and waving a sword around, in my other son playing football, or in my daughter swimming? In any child playing any game? Who really cares? The person who tries to justify these games in the name of exercise, good health, socialization, whatever, mistakes some of the results of the activity for its ontology. The activity itself is the point, along with the joy resulting from it. The more play and reading children do while unencumbered by the question, “What purpose is this serving?” the better chance they will have as adults to resist the demands to reduce the mystery and magic of art and beauty to what it can do for them, right this moment. All the evils we do daily battle against can be conquered only by the force of love, and the childlike wonder that both precedes and strengthens it. “Unless you become like a child, you can not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Love and wonder also lie at the root of genuine art, which is what I suppose Augustine was getting at when he wrote that “only he who loves can sing.” Joseph de Maistre saw this connection as well when he wrote: “Reason speaks in words alone, but love has a song.”
So, by all means, rush to the local bookstore and grab a volume of Hopkins. Read the poems aloud, delighting in the sound of his alliteration. Like all artists, he writes for the ear, and the habit of silent reading we teach to our children deprives them of the power of not only poetry, but well-crafted prose as well. His poems are not easy, and while some of their charms lie on the surface, many are accessible only to those willing to commit themselves to multiple readings and thinking. And not directed at “figuring out the meaning.” Flannery O’Connor had a lot of good advice on how not to turn reading into a classroom assignment, one we can finish by mining the hidden core of meaning from a story, play, or poem and feeling as if we “get it.” So pick up a copy of her Mystery and Manners, as well. And enjoy the following by Hopkins: