BOOK REVIEW : A Very Private Life of a Victorian Poet : GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS: A Very Private Life by Robert Bernard Martin ; G.P. Putnam's Sons $29.95, 480 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's not easy for a literary biographer to pin down what makes a writer great. Biographers often recount the details of writers' lives without facing up to the very tough question of what it is that makes their subjects worth writing about.

In this life of one of the saddest and oddest of a sad and odd crowd--the late-Victorian poets--Robert Bernard Martin, in a very subtle way, defines what makes Gerard Manley Hopkins great. In his examination of Hopkins' thoughts and crises and raptures in letters and journals, and how Hopkins somehow spun these thoughts and crises and raptures into poems, Martin is present at the place where the spark jumps.

Hopkins, who had barely left his family when he decided to enter the priesthood, led the private life of the title, an outwardly uneventful one. One of nine children of an insurance broker, he went to Balliol College, Oxford, where he got caught up in arguments still roiling over the Oxford Movement, 20 years after the movement's leader, John Henry Newman, went from Protestant vicar to Roman Catholic cardinal.

Martin follows the to-ing and fro-ing of Hopkins and his undergraduate friends between Protestantism and Catholicism, and the subsequent to-ing and fro-ing of Hopkins after he decided at 22 to become a priest and was posted to Jesuit schools in England, Wales and Ireland. Though he was frighteningly devout, poor Hopkins was not a particularly good preacher or teacher.

He was a very good poet. Being a priest, as Martin sees it, created a tension in this intense and sensuous young man that could be released in poetry. Martin's theory is that Hopkins felt guilty about his attraction to male friends at Oxford, and that deciding to be celibate was a way of hiding a desire not to be married--a desire that didn't have much to do with religion. The young poet's confusion between the corporeal and the spiritual was embodied in one person--a colorful supporting cast member whom Martin obviously relishes describing.

Digby Mackworth Dolben was a young nobleman who fancied he was trying out for the priesthood. More attracted to the outfits than the doctrine, young Dolben tramped the countryside barefoot in a monk's habit. Before he had to join his friend, Hopkins, in deciding whether to convert, Dolben drowned in a pond. A sad ending that meant the image of his youthful beauty would haunt his friend.

Hopkins' poetry, and there isn't all that much of it, falls into three major phases, which conveniently can be marked by three of his most familiar poems.

After having burned all his undergraduate poetry when he resolved to become a Jesuit, Hopkins burst forth after seven years of not writing with "The Wreck of the Deutschland." This highly wrought poem told of five nuns who drowned in a shipwreck off the English coast. What caught Hopkins' attention was a report that one cried out as she prepared to die: "My God, my God, make haste, make haste." The erotic language in the poem is startling; Hopkins' nun cries, as she clings to the mast: "O, Christ, Christ, come quickly."

Hopkins was most content observing a world "charged with the grandeur of God," as in the oft-anthologized "Pied Beauty," which begins: "Glory be to God for dappled things."

Hopkins' final creative phase took place in Dublin, a city he loathed. In his case "the blight man was born for" came, when he was only 44, in the form of typhoid contracted from the Irish city's inadequate sewage control. Even before that final illness, Hopkins was deeply depressed, and turned that depression into a series of despairing sonnets.

The life of Gerard Manley Hopkins is a lesson in the importance of being odd. (Incidentally, less than 10 years after Hopkins, Oscar Wilde went to Oxford, where he flirted with converting to Catholicism. The mind reels.)

Hopkins' experiments with elliptical phrasing and double meanings and quirky conversational rhythms turned out to be liberating to poets such as W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas. The man was ahead of his time. His poems weren't published until an Oxford friend judged that the world was ready for them. That wasn't until 1918, 30 years after Hopkins' death.

Martin, who lives in England, can be quite British in his tendency toward understatement.

One striking example is his comment that life at Oxford in the 1860s "did not encourage the growth of heterosexual responses." He is often ironic, in a way appropriate to his subject. In describing how young Gerard hated his middle name, Martin observes that it could not have escaped the young poet that his father intended to lay on him the qualities of the word "manly."

"Honesty, chastity, virility, bravery, frankness, clean fingernails and a host of other major virtues are all comprised in its syllables," Martin writes.

In another of those last infinitely sad sonnets, Hopkins refers to himself as "Time's eunuch," an insufficiently manly artist who cannot breed "one work that wakes."

Luckily for the unhappy poet, his biographer disagrees.

Next: Jonathan Kirsch reviews "The Convent at Auschwitz" by Wladyslaw T. Bartoszewski (George Braziller).

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