Adrian Grafe – Hopkins and Home

Hopkins and Home1)

Adrian Grafe

Published in Connotations Vol. 21.1 (2011/12)

I remember a house where all were good

To me, God knows, deserving no such thing:

Comforting smell breathed at very entering,

Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.3)

In the sonnet "In the Valley of the Elwy," of which the first quatrain is given above, we find Hopkins, or his speaker, meditating on the memory of a house, the home of family friends, in which, as the quatrain makes clear, he was welcomed, and made to feel at home. Hopkins wrote "In the Valley of the Elwy" at the time of his most joyous poems, of often intense spiritual consolation, a time he would call "my Welsh days, […] my salad days" (Letters to R. Bridges 163); indeed, Hopkins's home when he wrote the poem was St Beuno's, a Jesuit seminary on the Welsh coast. Yet, for Hopkins, the poem is uncharacteristically wistful, nostalgic even. Hopkins had felt at home in a house not his home; and the inhabitants of the house "loved him very dearly," according to the mother of the family who lived in it.2) From the biographical perspective, this poem suggests a dual dynamic with regard to home: the home of the people in the house of the first line of the poem; and the temporary home provided by St Beuno's. Indeed, from the moment he joined the Jesuits, all homes, in the sense of houses in which he resided, were temporary for Hopkins—if, that is, there is such a thing as a temporary home: the OED calls home "a fixed residence" (my italics). Hopkins's religious conversion and frequent changes of posting within the Company of Jesus heightened his sense of belonging or not belonging, geographically and spiritually. In his mature poetry, "Hopkins in a way typical of him changes the [→page 56] general and worldly concept for the spiritual and religious one. Home becomes not where his parents are but where his God is, not where his worldly father but where his heavenly father is" (Thornton 138). It is a powerful metamorphosis. As soon as Hopkins leaves home in familial and religious terms, the whole concept broadens out in his poetry and prose, acquiring a multiplicity of meanings and taking on expressive force. And there are still senses in which Hopkins was at home in the world.

This article, then, aims to answer the question: what was home for Hopkins? House or dwelling−place, home, hospitality—of the kind, for instance, which the poet received at the house he celebrates in "In the Valley of the Elwy," though the concept has philosophical and critical resonances to be discussed below—are all intrinsic to Hopkins's poetic imagery, to the grammar of his poetic thought. I take the notion of hospitality as being connected to that of home, to the extent that hospitality involves a host receiving a guest or—more often than not—a person at home receiving a person from outside that home (but ideally making him feel as though he belonged there). Equally intrinsic to the problematic of home is the home⁄non−home dialectic. One main example of non−home is exile. Hopkins was deeply sensitive to exile, whether it be his own (in various forms, as discussed below), or that of the German nuns elegized in "The Wreck of the Deutschland," "exiles by the Falck laws"4) as the poem's epigraph has it, or the social and psychological exile of the unemployed, as in "Tom's Garland" (see below).

In a sense, the home⁄non−home dialectic lies behind all the poems Hopkins wrote in Ireland, the country in which he spent the last five years of his life (February 1884—June 8, 1889). To illustrate this dialectic straight off, just over a single line from "To seem the stranger" will serve: "I am in Ireland now; now I am at a third ⁄ Remove." It is difficult to be quite sure exactly what the three "remove[s]" are. One could be taken as distance from the other members of his family due to religious differences; another to the fact that, as he is in Ireland, he is geographically remote from his family and friends in England and [→page 57] from his home land itself; and the third might have been the fact that, although Hopkins lived and worked with Catholics, they were against England, the English, and English sovereignty.5) Hopkins drew poetic energy from the feelings and the idea of home, just as he did from being away from home. Hopkins's poems, both of his early, pre−conversion days, and those of his maturity exploit the verbal potential of house and home: this shows that the theme of home was one which, in different guises, remained with Hopkins throughout his writing life.

The English word "home" is cognate with German "heim" and Old Icelandic "heimr," which means both "dwelling" and "world" (cf. OED). Therefore to say one is at home in the world is tautological, since to be in the world is already to be in one's "dwelling," that is, at home. To be alive in the world is to be at home. Although this particular sentiment is not found explicitly in Hopkins's poetry, it is implicit in much of the poetry he wrote until his final, less happy, Irish period. It is implicit, for instance, in such lines as:

I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely−asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled−with−damson west:

   ("The Wreck of the Deutschland", stanza 5)

This is Hopkins's beautiful tribute to God as immanent in His creation. But it is also a tribute to the poet's feeling of at−home−ness in the universe, at least when he finds the divine presence within it. As Rilke wrote to the young poet Franz Xaver Kappus: "We have been put into life as into the element we most accord with […]. We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world […]" (Letters 91).6) As will be discussed at various points in this article, the poet became spiritually distanced from his Anglican family's home by his conversion to Roman Catholicism and his decision to join the Jesuits. Nevertheless, Hopkins's warm and loving celebration of all creation, and of what he [→page 58] perceives as God's presence within it, enable one to suggest that he made the whole world his home.7)

The word "home" can be, amongst other verbal categories, a noun, a verb, and an adverb. Grammatically versatile as the word is, it threads its way through Hopkins's poetry and prose,8) as does the idea of home even when the word itself is not mentioned. To give one example from Hopkins's poetry of the word itself: in "Inversnaid," of the stream or "burn" which is the subject of the poem, Hopkins says: "In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam ⁄ Flutes and low to the lake falls home." The word "home" here clearly means the place the downhill flow of the stream is intended to reach; but it also chimes in perfectly with the personification of the stream and its metamorphosis into an animal ("his"), and stresses the idea of the watercourse as a journey, begun in the second line of the poem with the word "high−road."

The following well−known diary note provides not one but two instances of Hopkins's use of the term "home," each quite different to the other: "As we drove home the stars came out thick: I leant back to look at them and my heart opening more than usual praised our Lord to and in whom all that beauty comes home"(Journals 254). When the word first appears here ("drove home") its usage is apparently prosaic (I say "apparently," as its particular grammatical and semantic malleability means that it is used, in a context of motion towards it, without a preposition or article). After leaning back, Hopkins gives up all agency to the beauty of the night sky; he does not praise God for all that beauty: in synecdochal fashion, his heart does. His own nature and his spiritual practices have combined in hospitably responding to beauty, and in associating it spontaneously with God. The beauty Hopkins contemplates is already at home because it is "in" God—because, as Saint Augustine says, it owes its existence to Him9); but it also "comes home" "to" God, meaning not only that its home is in Him but even that He is particularly moved by it, since "to come home to" can mean "to be moved by" (cf. OED). Above all, He is intimate with and to it. Because he is so sensitive to what he perceives [→page 59] as God's presence within creation, Hopkins dwells in what Emily Merriman calls a "providential universe" (Merriman 155). At the same time, Heidegger's claim is relevant for Hopkins: "Language is the house of being. In its home human beings dwell" (Heidegger 239). Hopkins—though he is not the only poet to do so—brings together 'at'−'home'−ness in the universe and in language.

In "The Habit of Perfection" the poet tells his hands that they shall "unhouse and house the Lord"—an allusion to the tabernacle as the home of the Host, a topic to which we shall return. Hopkins himself, after joining the Jesuits, was continually being unhoused and housed, or rehoused, over the course of his professional life. As he himself wrote about one posting: "I am, as far as I know, permanently here, but permanence with us is ginger−bread permanence; cobweb, soapsud, and frost−feather permanence" (Letters to R. Bridges 55). Permanence is part of the notion of home, since the latter implies, as previously stated, fixed residence. By converting to Catholicism and then joining the Jesuits, Hopkins was clearly courting tension with his family and those friends and acquaintances of his who could not follow him. This tension and a certain kind of ostracism were things that, equally clearly, Hopkins consciously or unconsciously sought, however painful the situation was to him, however painful the terms in which he writes about them in the late sonnet beginning "To seem the stranger" for which, here, some contextualization may be useful.

Hopkins's conversion has to be read as an estrangement from home: the word "estrangement" is indeed Hopkins's own, though he apparently takes it up from his father's using it to describe Hopkins's proposed conversion: "You ask me if I have had no thought of the estrangement […] the prayers of this Holy Family wd. in a few days put an end to estrangements […]"(Further Letters 94). This poem, written in Dublin, where he had been posted, is central to the question of home in Hopkins. On the one hand, the speaker claims to feel unrecognized, out of place, not at home, where he is, as well he might do given his status as a (very) English man in Ireland at a time when the Home Rule movement was in full swing. On the other hand, as a [→page 60] Catholic and a Jesuit, living in another country in obedience to his calling, Hopkins felt remote in relation to his family, whether it be spiritually or geographically or even emotionally. He was thus both cut off from his first, or family, home, and his home land, in these different senses, and in addition unable to be or to feel at home where his Order had posted him. This is, at least, the way in which the poet dramatizes his situation:

To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear
, Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace⁄my parting, sword and strife.
England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: […]

The speaker feels "imprisoned" (12)—and therefore not at home, that is, homeless—by other people's gaze upon him.

The poem, then, draws both on his conversion (in 1866) and his time in Ireland (from 1884). One biographer writes: "To the agnostic, writing a century later, [his conversion] seems an inevitable decision—an act of individuation whereby he stepped into a new territory of his own choice and separated himself from the compass of his parents" (Kitchen 95). Here Hopkins's conversion is described in spatial terms: the leaving of home and entering the unknown "territory." Nevertheless, what he himself actually said about it was: "I have no power in fact to stir a finger: it is God Who makes the decision and not I" (Correspondence Hopkins and Dixon 95). Hopkins aligned himself with what Jean−Louis Chrétien calls "the Abrahamic movement of leaving behind the place where you were, and also of leaving who you were behind" (Chrétien 10). Hopkins's poetry is exodic. As soon as Hopkins came to feel at home with himself, he ceased to be at home with his family and vice versa. The question of the accessibility or not of his family home quickly arises in his correspondence with his father: "You are so kind as not to forbid me your house […]"(Further Letters 94): Hopkins's conversion caused huge tension between the [→page 61] poet and his parents, especially his father, and brought out the poet's pugnacious streak, so that one senses he might have been glad, somewhat perversely, had his father banned him from the family home altogether.

When home features in Hopkins's poetry, it is rarely without a home⁄non−home dialectic. We find exactly this pattern: harsh outside world, protective indoor space, or simply outdoors⁄indoors, in several poems, including "The Wreck of the Deutschland." "Part the first" mainly relates to the speaker. "Part the second" focuses on the shipwreck and the drowning of the five nuns. There are incidentally several Biblical types for accounts of storms and shipwrecking including Paul's shipwreck along the Maltese coastline.10)

The speaker addresses the first stanza of "The Wreck of the Deutschland" to God; the second, to Christ and to God. The speaker steps back in the third stanza, transforming the vocative of the two previous stanzas into a third person "he." In the last four lines of the stanza, Hopkins communes with his own heart, congratulating it on its spiritual intelligence. The second half of the third stanza reads:

   I whirled out wings that

And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.—

My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,

Carrier−witted, I am bold to boast,

To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to

  the grace.

The terms "Host" and "Carrier−witted" both allude to home. To be a host is to be at home to, to receive someone at one's home; the slightly indirect answer given to the question posed in the third line of the stanza, "where was a place?," is "the Host." Hopkins not only becomes the guest of the Host; he makes the Host his home. This is a possible echo of George Herbert's "Love (III)," in which the poet is the "guest" (1.7), and therefore the Lord is the Host: the Eucharistic dimension of the poem, and therefore of the Lord as Host in the sense of the sacrament of bread and wine, is confirmed in the third and last [→page 62] stanza: "You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat: ⁄ So I did sit and eat."

As for "Carrier−witted," the phrase refers to the homing pigeon, which is innately capable of flying home over long distances, sometimes 'carrying' a message. The poet is saying here that his heart, using its wits, was able to fly home to the Host—home because, as I say, the image is derived from the homing or carrier pigeon; and this connects "The Wreck of the Deutschland" to the later poem, "The Handsome Heart," discussed below, in which the heart is similarly characterized. Hopkins finds his home, his "place," in the Real Presence: "The great aid to belief and object of belief is the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Religion without that is somber, dangerous, illogical, with that it is—not to speak of its grand consistency and certainty—loveable"(Correspondence Hopkins and Dixon 17). Hopkins's poetry is home to Real Presence. In that sense, incidentally, because it is Incarnational it is Marian. Domesticity was traditionally a feminine space in Hopkins's day, and, while his institutional homes were by definition masculine, Hopkins's poetry contains many examples of hyperdulia: "World−mothering air, air wild, ⁄ Wound with thee, in thee isled, ⁄ Fold home, fold fast thy child." The prayerful last lines of "The Blessed Virgin compared to the air we breathe" form a tender self−consecration of the speaker to the Mother of God, as necessary to life as air. The word "home," especially collocated with the unusual verb "fold," as used here denotes desired filial intimacy with the Virgin.

The image of the speaker's heart, or self, as a homing pigeon clinches the notion that henceforth Hopkins's home is the Host. This is the main image underpinning the first part of the "Wreck."11) In "The Handsome Heart," the poet exclaims of the child who would not be persuaded to accept any other present than what the priest−speaker chooses for him: "What the heart is! Like carriers let fly— ⁄ Doff darkness: homing nature knows the rest—." The idea expressed here is that, once the bird's hood has been removed (doffed), it will know by nature exactly where to go to return home; metaphorically it means [→page 63] that if the spirit is enlightened and sinless, it will naturally be attracted to God its home, selflessness and the things of God. Hopkins makes a verbal adjective out of the verb "to home" and applies it to "nature" as a whole, taking the image he had already used in "The Wreck" a step further.

"Part the second" of the "Wreck," as previously stated, centers mainly on the shipwreck itself and the drowning nuns. Suddenly, however, the speaker returns to himself for only the third time in thirteen stanzas, in the apocalyptic stanza 24. The speaker brings into synchronicity his own situation and the nun's:

   Away in the loveable west,

   On a pastoral forehead of Wales,

I was under a roof here, I was at rest,

   And they the prey of the gales;

She to the black−about air, to the breaker, the thickly

Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails,

Was calling 'O Christ, Christ, come quickly':

The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild−worst


Within our context, it can be seen that the poet sets up a dramatic contrast between his own, literally protected situation at home—"I was under a roof here, I was at rest"—while the nun is exposed to 'life−threatening' weather conditions. The deictic "here" breaks the synchronicity by creating a link with the speaker's present. This is developed in stanza 28 in which the speaker focuses on his own composition process as he tries to articulate the experience the nun has as she approaches death, and as Christ approaches her:

But how shall I … Make me room there;

Reach me a … Fancy, come faster—

Strike you the sight of it? look at it loom there,

Thing that she … There then! the Master,

Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head:

[→page 64] The poet's apostrophe to Fancy stands in parallel to the nun's call to Christ in her agony. It is followed by a short present−tense section in which the poet actualizes the theophany. In each case, the utterance is an insistent invitation, a going−out of oneself.

However, one Derridean critic argues that "[t]he home is a site that allows for self−enclosure, the shutting in of oneself that constitutes individuation" (Wyschogrod 54). This idea would at best be but 'half−true' for Hopkins, since individuation in Hopkins involves a going−out of or from the self. The interiority of home, and the idea of home as interiority or the inner world in Hopkins's poetry is more than matched by exteriority: "only the heart, being hard ⁄ at bay, ⁄⁄ Is out with it!" ("The Wreck", stanzas 7−8); "Each mortal thing […] ⁄ Deals out that being indoors each one dwells" (the "Kingfishers" sonnet). Here, the dynamic of individuation is literally ex−pressed, and the act of selving is movement from home outwards. Hopkins's poems are not self−enclosed beings—stay−at−home types. They become themselves in the wide world, and are at home in that world.

Nevertheless, it is true that inwardness is home, too, and this is a further dimension of the concept in Hopkins—the dwelling−place as a protected interior space, be it a building or what Hopkins refers to in another poem, "To his watch," as his "world within." The sonnet "The Candle Indoors" is a perfect meditation on home by a religiously devout speaker. It first stages the speaker in the street, on the outside of a home looking in, wondering what the inmates are doing by candlelight and hoping that their activity is glorifying God. In the sestet he rounds on himself, accusing himself of having taken a judgmental attitude towards the inmates illuminated by candle−light to the neglect of his own spiritual state:

Come you indoors, come home; your fading fire
Mend first and vital candle in close heart's vault;
You there are master, do your own desire; ("The Candle Indoors")

While the first candle in the poem burns within the home of strangers, the second one, introduced in the sestet, burns within the poet's home: [→page 65] his heart, soul and inner world. The fact that the speaker has to call himself home here twice ("Come you indoors, ⁄ come home") suggests uncertainty as to how far he really inhabited his inner world even then: was he in what John O'Donohue calls "exile from true inner belonging"? (O'Donohue 154). Be that as it may, Hopkins's poems then are full of invitations: "Christ, come quickly" ("The Wreck," stanza 24), "Fancy, come faster—" ("The Wreck," stanza 28), "Come you indoors, come home" ("The Candle Indoors").

To expand briefly on a previously mentioned topic, that of hospitality, we can find the obverse of such invitations as the ones just quoted in the poetic equivalent of Derrida's "pure hospitality": "For pure hospitality […] to occur, […] there must be an absolute surprise. The other, like the Messiah, must arrive whenever he or she wants. I must be unprepared, or prepared to be unprepared, for the unexpected arrival of any other. If […] there is pure hospitality […], it should consist in this opening without horizon, without horizon of expectation" (Derrida 70). Hopkins manifests this pure hospitality. The last line of stanza 5 of "The Wreck" reads: "For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand" ("The Wreck"). The line suggests that the poet is able to discern and welcome the presence of Christ, the "him" of the line, within "the world's splendour and wonder" ("The Wreck," stanza 5). A similar notion appears in the last lines of the sonnet beginning "My own heart let me more have pity on":

      […] let joy size

At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

Here the poet reminds himself that the much−desired presence of God is something that cannot be forced (His "smile" cannot be "wrung" from Him); rather, it can only be welcomed whenever it manifests itself.

A last example of Hopkins's own poetic hospitality—making a home for poetic phenomena—is his famous description, in a letter to [→page 66] Bridges, of some his later sonnets: "I shall shortly have some sonnets to send you, five or more. Four of these came like inspirations unbidden and against my will" (Letters to R. Bridges 221). These sonnets are gate−crashers: uninvited guests, which just "come"—and, however unwanted, are received once they have arrived, and then sent on to Bridges. Whether Hopkins considered them as divine inspirations is another matter: in the context of the Ignatian spirituality to which the poet subscribed, such "inspirations" would normally require discernment, notably with the help of another Jesuit. There is no record of such help being solicited or given. One critic writes, relevantly to Hopkins's position, of "what Derrida calls 'l'invention de l'autre,' the in−coming of the other, of what we did not see coming, opening us up to the coming of something wholly other […,] something that is none of our doing, that delimits our subjective autonomy" (Caputo 86). Hopkins's sense of God's and poetry's absolute unpredictability—a Hopkins poem is itself inexhaustible in its novelty, strangeness and ability to surprise—is linked to what this critic calls the delimitation of subjective autonomy. Hopkins is the most objectively autonomous of poets, this quality enabling him to be the explorer of reality that he applauded his cherished scholastic Duns Scotus so enthusiastically for being.

Through his adhesion to objective autonomy, in his troubled Irish years Hopkins was occasionally able to turn away from the inward focus on his baffling relationship with God and the vagaries of his own poetic inspiration, and look outward. Hopkins's sense of home and of exile endows him with keen sensitivity to the plight of those exiled among the exiled—the unemployed. He enacts a sense of personal exile in "To seem the stranger" and, in a different way, in his invitation to himself to "come home" in "The Candle Indoors." But his poetry proves hospitable to a de−centered version of exile in "Tom's Garland: on the Unemployed," written at a time of economic depression and crisis when unemployment had risen in some sectors from 4% in 1850 to between 14% and 22% in 1886.12) In the poem, the unemployed are:[→page 76]

      Undenizened, beyond bound

Of earth's glory, earth's ease, all; noone, nowhere,
In wide the world's weal; […]

With perfect empathy, Hopkins depicts the unemployed as "Undenizened," a denizen being an inhabitant or occupant, someone who is in his home space, be it a village or town, or a country; the unemployed are physically present within the country and the state but outcasts from the commonwealth, with no home and no identity, no access to the splendor and comfort, "ease," that the earth can provide. This ability to receive the other's discomfort is the de−centered social echo of the Sonnets of Desolation in which the speaker is himself presented as homeless and comfortless. In "No worst, there is none," the speaker in the midst of religious and mental desolation addresses himself: "Here! Creep, ⁄ Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind": though where exactly "here" is, the place which "serves" as shelter from the storm, is not specified.

To conclude: in attempting to answer the question with which I began—"What was home for Hopkins?"—I have demonstrated that no one answer is possible, and that it is necessary to understand what was not home for Hopkins in order to understand his sense of home. I have tried to show some of the various ways in which both the word "home," and a wide range of significations attributable to the notion of home, can shed light on Hopkins's poetry, as well as several of its connotations. These include the idea of the inner world as home; hospitality: being the host (or Host) or guest at home, and receiving the Other (be the Other God, or Christ, a person, or even a poem itself); feeling comfortable—"at home"—in a place, or indeed the entire universe; and home as a fixed, permanent dwelling. The notion has also been considered in relation to its opposite: exile in various forms, the poet's own or that of others, geographical, social, psychological or spiritual exile. As in the early part of this article an exterior, geographical example of Hopkins's use of the word "home" was given, taken from the poem "Inversnaid," I will conclude with a more inward one, from "To what serves Mortal Beauty?" The poem, incidentally, [→page 68] is yet another example of the poet's sensitivity to being away from home—to exile. It recalls Pope Gregory's first sight in a Rome marketplace of some young English boy−slaves up for sale: having asked who they were and heard the reply, so struck by their beauty was he that he responded: "Not Angles but angels."13) Hopkins celebrates mortal (not only human) beauty in the poem, concluding that the most beautiful thing in the world is "men's selves." He then goes on to wonder how to "meet" such beauty, and his answer is: "Merely meet it; own, ⁄ Home at heart, heaven's sweet gift." The grammatical function of the word "home" here is not evident, and it is almost as though the preposition "at" does double duty, as it were, for both "home" (as in the expression "at home") and "heart" (as in "at heart"). The word "Home" slant−rhymes with "own"; and alliterates with heart and heaven, contributing to the harmony of the phrase "own […] gift." "[O]wn, ⁄ Home at heart" seems to mean: "take to heart" or rather, "take to heart, welcome to your inner home." Hopkins's reader is thus invited to "own, ⁄ Home at heart" the "sweet gift" of his poetry.

Université d'Artois

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