"Feminism" is as imprecise a term as "Christianity". Feminist literary critics turn to artistic productions to demonstrate how society has been taught to accept `things as they are' and to point the way towards new possibilities.
To begin with there is no such thing as "feminism." That is, there is no one single, exclusive theory or practice called "feminism." Instead, we have multiple, diverse, heterogeneous feminist discourses. "Feminism" is as imprecise a term as "Christianity". Feminist practices, on the other hand, involve two interrelated projects: they are, as Gayatri Spivak suggests,
"against sexism, where women unite as a biologically oppressed caste; and for feminism, where human beings train to prepare for a transformation of consciousness".
Feminist thinking often begins with the realization that `the way things are' is not the way things are supposed to be. Feminist literary critics can turn to artistic productions to demonstrate how a society has been taught to accept `things as they are' and to point the way towards new possibilities.
Feminists share a fundamental, political goal to dispute "the idea that `the human condition' is a unitary experience that overrides" differences of gender, race, class, and sexual preferences . Chief among assumptions to be exposed are the "normative generalizations" of patriarchy which privilege - and naturalize - masculine preferences, behaviours, and life narratives. Because within patriarchal discourse, that which is "female" and/or "feminine" is ultimately defined as "lack, negativity, absence of meaning, irrationality, chaos, darkness - in short, as non-Being" .
However complex or even contradictory feminist projects appear, they all demand that we assess the social, cultural, and historical contexts of everything from power relations and value systems to cultural products such as literature and the visual arts. Historical detail is particularly crucial when, for example, we assess the writings of a white, Oxford-trained, Roman Catholic, English male priest living in mid-Victorian Manchester or Dublin.
In less than three decades, academic feminists have so diversified their interdisciplinary investigations that many are working to unsettle feminism's own categories. For the purposes of this paper, I should like to reinforce the argument that
"any new theoretical approach to literature that uses gender difference as an important category involves a profoundly altered view of the relation of both sexes to language, speech, writing, and culture" .
I will examine issues of gender and sexual difference, and the intersections of sexuality and textuality in Hopkins' texts. Would Hopkins appreciate or approve of such an enterprise? In all probability no.
Feminist readings attempt to destabilize literary conventions, stereotypes, and narratives based on gendered identity. They reject the centres of patriarchal certainty, opening up and decentring its "truth" claims - arguing against, for example, any notion that identity is itself absolutely fixed or that femininity and masculinity are stable, unchanging essences. Furthermore, the insistence upon relativistic structures of knowledge would be anathema to Hopkins. Hopkins's texts have as their objective the comprehension, dramatization, and dissemination of absolute truths. Although the poems are often generated by a conflict between the desire for the absolute and the nightmare of flux and doubt, they accept as being natural and immutable the so-called "universals" which feminisms would like to dismantle. In that regard, the readings which follow may constitute a heretical discourse.
To examine the "sex/gender system" which organizes and regulates our lives is to make visible the seemingly invisible structures and mechanisms of gender ideology - to realize the ways in which a few chromosomal facts have been turned into an elaborate, rigidly dichotomized system of social relations between men and women, masculinity and femininity, in which power is distributed unevenly and unfairly. As readers of texts, our task is to untangle deliberate confusions between biology and socialization - that masculinist "fantasy of sexual difference", and to analyze the ways in which the meaning and representation of gender is constructed and, at times, contested. We must remember, too, that the nineteenth century witnessed the "transformation" of gender ideology by "the impact of biologistic interpretations of Darwinism and the "polarization of gender roles which accompanied the advance of industrialization". It was in the nineteenth century that the social roles of women and men became rigidly assigned to two separate spheres: the public, professional, active sphere for men, and the private, domestic, passive sphere for women. These were not "natural" spheres or roles - they were, instead, carefully and thoroughly "naturalized."
For Hopkins, "femininity" and "masculinity" were not the products of a choice, but the forcible citation of a norm, whose complex historicity is inseparable from relations of discipline, regulation, punishment . Women were cultural ciphers in his society, eclipsed almost entirely by masculinist priorities, barred from what Eve Sedgwick terms "the paths of male entitlement." From Sedgwick's work we have the concept, and term, "homosociality," which describes the importance and "immanence of men's same-sex bonds" in nineteenth-century culture. Hopkins's path took him from one intensely homosocial situation (public school, Oxford) to another (the Society of Jesus, and the priesthood). Consequently, we could say that he was trained and encouraged not to think about women (at least, not positively): not as points of social or cultural reference, not within the realm of intellectual endeavour. In the process of editing his undergraduate essays and notebooks, I have discovered that the subject of "women" never occurs - whether in the field of Roman or Greek history and literature, logic, European history, philosophy, ethics, religious studies. In 12 notebooks - the work of four years, or 17 academic terms - in 45 essays and assorted notes, there are fewer than half a dozen references to women, girls, ladies, or females. The only exception is an essay "On Representation," in which - having read John Stuart Mill's Considerations on Representative Government and listened to the debate about "the Woman Question" in the Oxford Union - Hopkins considered the "physical" and "educational" "disqualifications" which "shut out women" from the vote. He evaluated all the arguments against women's suffrage - and concluded that they were insupportable. Otherwise, however, the homosociality and homoexclusivity of his undergraduate writings are intact. The post-"Wreck" poems make clear that the need to reinforce male same-sex bonds was intensified by vocational experience. In the words of an unfinished lyric, "Me shew mercy from my heart/ Towards my brother, every other/ Man my mate and counterpart" . "The Lantern out of Doors" reminds us that Hopkins was schooled to notice only masculine stimuli: "Men go by me, whom either beauty bright/ In mould or mind or what not else makes rare" (GMH 134).
I have suggested that femininity is ultimately a male fantasy: a fantasy of and for men, imposed upon females. When re-reading Hopkins's poetry, with the exception of poems dealing with female virgin martyrs, only men are seen, and represented, as individuals; it is the behaviour of women that is always marked. So many texts merely invoke gendered categories or states: girlhood, womanhood, motherhood (and manhood). Women are defined in terms of their connections with, or relationships to, men - as in these lines from "The Loss of the Eurydice":
O well wept, mother have lost son;
Wept, wife; wept, sweetheart would be one
Though grief yield them no good
Yet shed what tears sad truelove should. (GMH 138)
Only female lives as seen by Catholic and hagiographic traditions are explored by individual texts: those of St. Dorothea, St. Thecla, St. Winefred, Margaret Clitheroe, and the Virgin Mary. Undoubtedly, "The Wreck of the Deutschland" attempts to add the "tall nun" to that exclusive company.
Additionally, we must remember that being "a man" in the nineteenth century was as highly circumscribed as being "a woman." The policing of gender was every bit as rigorous for men who, being the active, public, socially and culturally self-evident figures, were also presumed to be at acute risk of transgressing boundaries. Consider the number of Hopkins poems which stage the acquisition or recovery of masculinity; a fear of phallic failure haunts the texts. Yet many of the virtues and behaviours that Hopkins cultivated - especially celibacy, self-sacrifice, renunciation, and submissiveness - were paradigms of Victorian womanhood. Small wonder that he, his friends, and subsequently his critics have misconstrued the gendered nuances of his self-representation.
Let us remember that, throughout the nineteenth century, "strength" was the criterion of sexual difference: in physical, moral, and emotional terms. After Darwin, the argument was given a particularly biological spin. Being "manly" was the quintessence of masculinity - as in Hopkins's observation to Bridges,
"I remarked for the thousandth time with sorrow and loathing the base and bespotted figures and features of the Liverpool crowd. When I see the fine and manly Norwegians that flock hither to embark for America . . . it fills me with shame and wretchedness" (Li 127 — 128).
"Manliness" incorporated mental, physical, and moral codes appropriated from ancient Greece and recast, under the banner of the "Hellenic" ideal, for Victorian patriarchal culture. Within Hopkins's intensely homosocial society, the antithesis of "manliness" was "effeminacy" — a concept that only a misogynist culture could invent, so that being other-than-manly-masculine was, horribly, being-like-a-woman.
One of the hallmarks of Hopkins's texts is the linguistic dexterity with which the process of seeing is represented: both the mechanics and products of optical registration, and the connections forged between sight and insight. I am suggesting that all "vision" is mediated by the socio-cultural sex/gender system in which we operate. What we see is what we have been trained to see. Does the Pope wear a dress? - yes and no. As one critic reminds us, "The metaphors that produce meaning reveal gender-marked assumptions which close off possible meanings as they disclose others" . Within Hopkins's canon, whether one is comparing scenes of activity and passivity, dominance and submission, strength and frailty, or coherence and incoherence, gender differentiation is always legible - and always "an effect of the dominant power relationship between the sexes" . This is perhaps one of the most unexpected and surprising dimensions of Hopkins's texts: their habitual need to mark gender differences, and to invoke female signs to express weakness, anxiety, or instability. Instead of presenting the earth, the bird, or the night, the poems insist upon distinguishing between the female earth, the male wind, the male bird, and female night-time.
Literally and figuratively, the "ground" of this metaphorical system is the convention of "mother Earth." Praise for the "sweet Earth" is enunciated whenever and however possible within Hopkins's texts, but so too are the gendered associations of fragility ("Since country is so tender/ To touch," explains "Binsey Poplars, "her being so slender" [GMH 142]), changeability, deceptiveness in appearance, and a "fallen" or sin-susceptible state. To quote from the 1880 poem "Brothers": "Ah Nature, framed in fault,/ There's comfort then, there's salt!/ Nature bad, base, and blind,/ Dearly thou canst be kind" (GMH 152). Within this system of fixed meanings, three surprisingly prominent patterns may be outlined: the temporal, astronomical, and ornithological. All are established in the early works, and given full expression in the poems written in Wales and Ireland.
Whether "telling" time by season, month, or diurnal/nocturnal change, sex/gender differences are always told. "A Vision of the Mermaids" explains what transpires
when Summer of his sister Spring
Crushes and tears the rare enjewelling,
And boasting `I have fairer things than these'
Plashes amidst the billowy apple-trees
His lusty hands [.] (GMH 13)
In "Spring and Death," the speaker/dreamer notes "A little sickness in the air/ From too much fragrance everywhere" (GMH 16). Spring is therefore both fecund and frail, burgeoning with possibilities but prone to "a little sickness." All of these suppositions are combined in the 1877 text, "Spring," for many readers one of the most linguistically and metaphorically rich in the Hopkins canon. And what is the crux of this poem? The identification of natural, seasonal beauty with "Eden garden" - a connection which forces upon the poem, and feminine Springtime, an apprehension of sinfulness which cloys and clouds the discourse.
In other words, the moment that a Hopkins poem encounters a female image, a female sign, it becomes unstable. Abruptly, it can change tone or direction - it falters, or reconfigures its textual energies.
"Hurrahing in Harvest," on the other hand, is an intensely masculinist text. Summer, a male in Hopkins's imagery, is "barbarous in beauty," a beauty reflected in the "stallion stalwart" and rising "stooks." And the purpose of this natural "glory" is to "glean our Saviour" (GMH 134). Uninterrupted by active signs of the feminine, the poem culminates in the metamorphosis of the heart, which "rears wings bold and bolder/ And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet" (GMH 134). (Similarly, one of the other, rare, Hopkins texts in which a feminine sign does not disrupt the self-assured mood and direction of the poem is that celebration of "Amansstrength," "Harry Ploughman.")
The seasons are gendered in Hopkins's canon. Not surprisingly, months of the year are similarly marked. In the belated birthday epistle for Milicent Hopkins, who was born in October, the female speaker observes, "Our sex should be born in April perhaps or the lily time" (GMH 77). Dedicating May to the Virgin Mary became pleasurably axiomatic for the Jesuit; interestingly, in the poem "Ad Mariam," we learn that the winter months are "the sons of Winter" (GMH 99).
Hopkins is simply following the gender-specific codes of Hellenic myth and personification when he designates the sun "masculine" (a source of power and life) and the moon, "feminine" (it reflects rather than provides light or heat). "Winter in the Gulf Stream" and "A fragment of anything you like" are typical: "She stood before a light not hers, and seem'd/ The lorn Moon, pale with piteous dismay" (GMH 11). More than a decade later, however, the poem entitled "Moonrise June 19 1876" is decidedly menacing:
This is the first of many disturbed and vexatious "not-to-call night[s]" relived and reconstructed in Hopkins's poetry. Coded female, night-time becomes a temporal danger zone, more than capable of compromising composure and sanity, entangling "him" in the mind's mountains.
One of the most positive imperatives of Hopkins's poetry is the injunction to "look, look up at the skies!" (GMH 128). High above "mother earth" the reader is granted access to a masculine realm of energized beauty, freedom, and power. An undergraduate lyric "The Rainbow," for example, imagines that a giant walks throughout the countryside; in his wake the rainbow is created (GMH 35). This trope is repeated in the unfinished poem "Richard" (GMH 50). Similarly, we learn in another fragment (GMH 17) that the wind is masculine. And what successfully "rides" that wind in more than a dozen Hopkins poems? Skylarks, swallows, thrushes, nightingales (birds usually associated with female suffering), falcons, and stormfowls - all carefully, deliberately assigned a "mansex fine" (GMH 147). These textual gestures both reinscribe the masculinist solidarity of the Catholic trinity, and reinforce the bonds of homosociality.
The consequences of these textual gestures are best summarized by considering two poems: the early and incomplete Miltonic lyric, "Il Mystico" (1862) and the remarkable, remarkably polished "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves," a product of Hopkins's life in Ireland. "Il Mystico" is informed by the harsh dogmatism of youth; the poetry is as much cliché as it is original utterance. Denouncing all "sensual gross desires," the speaker attempts to rescue and purify "the shaken plumage of my Spirit's wings" (GMH 7). All that is "alien," ominous, sinful, or potentially injurious is labelled female in the poem: the earth, silence, and night ("night clings to what is hers" GMH 7). The speaker's task is to escape from this threatening and besmirching "feminine" realm to that of masculine empowerment: where, inspired by a (male) prophet, lark, sun, and rainbow, he experiences spiritual cleansing and "ecstasy" (GMH 10).
No such release or rescue is imaginable in "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves." The latter is exceptional for many reasons, but most notably, for the purposes of this analysis, because it consists entirely of feminine signifiers. "As-tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs" (GMH 175), the poem spells out a catalogue of "feminine" elements adumbrated throughout the Hopkins canon: evening, moonlight, earth, heart, dragon, thought. Previously, individually, they were invoked to express anxiety or hazard; collectively, horrifically, in "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves," they `whelm, whelm, and will end us." The feminine irrupts throughout the text: "Evening strains ... Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west,| her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height | Waste; her earliest stars, earlstars ... her being has unbound; her dapple is at end ... Ah let life wind | Off her once skeined stained veined variety... now her all in two flocks, two folds ... thoughts against thoughts in groans grind" (GMH 175). In other words, at his most abject, "selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless," the male poet is most "home-of-all" in the "womb-of-all" (GMH 175).
"If `femininity' has a definition," Julia Kristeva and Toril Moi have argued, "it is simply... as `that which is marginalized by the patriarchal order'" and consequently, "men can also be constructed as marginal" . I would argue that one of the underlying problems for Hopkins critics has been the extent to which the poet, and the poems, have occupied or been assigned marginalized positions. Ironically, this has had the effect of "effeminizing" Hopkins and his canon - which in turn impels commentators to insist upon the "manliness" of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his writings.
1 . To satisfy his over-refined scruples, Hopkins elected to remain virtually unpublished in his lifetime, to have his poetry read by a small coterie of friends. This voluntary obscurity actually mimicked the situation imposed upon so many women writers. In June 1889, for example, Coventry Patmore chided Robert Bridges about the "dilettante form" of his recent publication: "Why should an established poet print only 22 copies? I do not discover in the sonnets themselves any sufficient reason for such maidenly reserve" .
2. Hopkins would often plead that a lack of time, a plethora of responsibilities and duties, kept him from writing - material factors most often associated with the circumstances of a female writer. (One thinks of Charlotte Brontë deciding whether to prepare the potatoes for the evening meal or finish a key scene in Jane Eyre; the potatoes prevailed.)
3. In numerous Hopkins texts, the speaking subject actually assumes a marginalized position: "in hiding," on the outskirts, in exile, looking from a distance, painfully excluded. "The whole world passes," one speaker comments, "I stand by."
4. Patriarchal culture is organized by, and measured according to, hierarchies.
Literary productions are no exception: the traditional hierarchy of genres establishes power relations among texts and their reputations. We are all aware of some critics' preoccupation with the relative merits of the "long" poem and the "short" poem; the hierarchy of genres insists upon a descending scale of literary importance from epic and drama through elegy, ode, satire, pastoral and finally down to sonnet and lyric. This hierarchy pre-determines, in part, the value of a text's goals and achievements, and contributes to the canonical ranking of authors.
For the most part, lyrics, sonnets, letters, and journals - genres and traditionally non-literary texts usually associated with women's writing. One commentator has actually cited, as a major "limitation to Hopkins: the slenderness of the material" . Thus the imagined dilemma of some critics: how can Hopkins be considered "great" or "major" if he did not produce texts which can be ranked at the top of the generic ladder? (Similar concerns can also be discerned in Hopkins's own attempts to complete a full-scale drama).
Some readers are relieved and grateful for the presence of a magnificent ode in the Hopkins canon - it lends the latter an aura of generic breadth and strength.
5. Occasionally, a critic will even refer to the "epic" properties or tone or religious scope of "The Wreck of the Deutschland" - analogies, I would suggest, that are more relevant to the reader's gendered anxieties than the poem's particular excellences.
6. Hopkins was short, celibate, and prone to physical weakness. These may seem to be flippant or insubstantial criteria, but unfortunately, they have become all too important. For, as Judith Butler has argued,
"Gender is neither a purely psychic truth, conceived as `internal' and `hidden,' nor is it reducible to a surface appearance; on the contrary, its undecidability is to be traced as the play between psyche and appearance"
Hopkins's physical state has played a part in the critical reception and interpretation of his poems because of what I shall call "the Keats factor."
John Keats - whom, as Bernard Bergonzi summarizes, was "the poet of the nineteenth century that one most immediately associates with Hopkins" - was another short, slim poet whose life was debilitated by illness. In an illuminating article, Susan Wolfson has examined Keats's own "vulnerable sense of masculinity in relation to the social world at large" - a vulnerability expressed throughout his letters, which Hopkins read avidly - and Keats's status in literary criticism as "a negative exemplum of manliness" . The tradition began with William Hazlitt's 1822 essay, "On Effeminacy of Character," which cites Keats as the best example of "`an effeminacy of style, in some degree corresponding to effeminacy of character'" . That theme was intensified by biographies and critiques throughout the nineteenth century - including Coventry Patmore's 1887 review in which he "divides poets, by gender, `into distinct classes' of sensibility'" .
Keats, Patmore reluctantly concludes, must be considered one of the "feminine" poets, one who failed to exercise "`the manly virtue of the vision of truth'" . Small wonder that Hopkins wrote to Patmore a year after the review was published and agreed that Keats's "verse is at every turn abandoning itself to an unmanly and enervating luxury." "Nevertheless," Hopkins added, "I feel and see in him the beginnings of something opposite to this, of an interest in higher things and of powerful and active thought" (Liii 386). Wolfson demonstrates that "Keats's marginality typically tempts critical extremes: he either triggers efforts to stabilize and enforce standards of manly conduct in which he is the negative example, stigmatized as `effeminate,' or `unmanly'; or he inspires attempts to broaden and make more flexible prevailing definitions" .
I would like to suggest that similar extremes have marked a century of Hopkins criticism. Efforts to "re-masculinize" Hopkins in the past two decades can even be discerned in the choice of illustrations for book jackets - changing preferences, I would suggest, that reveal attempts to normalize the public representation of Hopkins according to socially congenial and gendered body norms. In 1975, R.K.R. Thornton's collection of essays featured the watercolour portrait of a youthful Hopkins. The Oxford Authors edition of the poems presents a photograph of an older and more mature "face" - a serious, adult, but also secular representation. When Texas Studies in Literature and Language published a special Hopkins issue in 1989, a bearded and implicitly more virile "likeness" was produced. Two recent biographies have preferred the same portrait based on a photograph - a splendid painting, but also one in which clerics are worn, and the nose and chin are prominently assertive.
What do choices of cover illustrations have to do with Hopkins's poetry? Nothing - and everything. I have tried to demonstrate that feminism's insights about reading and writing practices - how we read, and how Hopkins read, texts, bodies, and everyday experience - and the ubiquitous operations of the sex/gender system in our culture can expand our understanding of Hopkins's life, his poetic discourse, and his critics' preoccupations. This is an opportunity for the reader to "rear herself" - or himself - in new directions, to become re-educated as to the "achieve of, the mastery of" (GMH 132) Hopkins's canon.
1. Felman, Shoshana. What Does a Woman Want? Reading and Sexual Difference. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
2. Spivak, Gayatri, with Ellen Rooney, "In a Word, Interview", Differences 2 (1989): pp. 124 — 156.
3. Korsmeyer, Carolyn, "Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Feminist Scholarship", in Heine, Hilde and Carolyn Korsmeyer, eds., Aesthetics in Feminist Perspective, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993, pp. vii —xv.
4. Moi, Toril, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, London: Routledge, 1985.
5. Kaplan, Cora, "Language and Gender", in Cameron, Deborah, ed,. The Feminist Critique of Language, London: Routledge, 1990, pp. 57 — 69.
6. Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity,
New York: Routledge, 1990.
7. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, New York: Columbia UniversityPress, 1985.
8. Works by Hopkins, and abbreviations used: Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Claude Colleer Abbott, London: Oxford UniversityPress, 1956, (Liii);
Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Oxford Authors, Revised ed, Catherine Phillips, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990, (GMH); The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, ed., Claude Colleer Abbott, London: Oxford UP, 1955, (Li); The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed., Norman H. MacKenzie, Oxford: Clarendon P, 1990, (PW).
9. Munich, Adrienne Auslander, Andromeda's Chains: Gender and Interpretation in Victorian Literature and Art, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
10 . Moi, op.cit., p.166.
11. Moi, op.cit., p.158.
12. Fennell, Francis `The Terrible Crystal': Hopkins Poetry After 100 years, in Fennell, ed., The Fine Delight: Centenary Essays on Gerard Manley Hopkins, Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1989, pp.145 — 182.
12. Butler, Judith, "Critically Queer", GLQ 1.1 (1993): p. 241
13. Bergonzi, Bernard, "Hopkins and the English Poets", in Bottalla, P., G. Marra, and F. Marucci, eds. Gerard Manley Hopkins: Tradition and Innovation, Ravenna: Longo, 1991, p. 264.
14. Wolfson, Susan J., "Feminizing Keats", in Hermoine de Almeida, ed. Critical Essays on John Keats, Boston: G.K. Hall, 1990, p. 329.
15. Wolfson, op. cit., p. 333.
16. Patmore, Coventry, Memoirs and Correspondence of Coventry Patmore. ed., Basil Champneys, 2 vols. London: George Bell and Sons, 1900, quoted in Wolfson op. cit., p. 20.
17. Patmore, op.cit., quoted in Wolfson op.cit., p. 334.
18. Wolfson, op. cit. p. 318.
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