Exiles by Ron Hansen (♦♦♦♦)
“As early as 1932, the great British literary critic F.R. Leavis could write that Hopkins ‘is likely to prove, for our time and the future, the only influential poet of the Victorian age, and he seems to me the greatest.’” Page 210
Gerard Manley Hopkins was born on July 28, 1844, the eldest child of Kate and Manley Hopkins. His mother was a dedicated housewife, while his father had a successful marine insurance adjuster business and wrote standard manuals on the topic. His father also delved into a literary career.
Gerard Hopkins won a poetry prize when he was sixteen years-old, and later won a partial scholarship to Oxford thanks to his poetry writing. During his studies at Oxford, Hopkins continued writing poetry, this time of a more religious nature. He graduated with honors from Oxford in classical studies, but his placement as a professor was endangered when he decided to leave the Church of England and join the Catholic Church at the age of twenty-two. At twenty-four he joined the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and entered a seminary to become a priest.
As a Jesuit, Hopkins gave up his poetry writing, but that was interrupted seven years into his seminary life, in 1875, when he read accounts of the wreckage of the steam sail ship Deutschland, which departed from Bremen with destination New York via a stop in England where the sinking occurred. About sixty lives were lost, among them those of five nuns who were escaping from Germany due to the banning of their religious order by the government of Otto von Bismarck, who had all but outlaw Catholicism in Germany. Hopkins was so moved by the details of the wreckage and the nuns' ordeal that he started writing copiously again, 1876 being considered his "annus mirabilis."
In 1877 he was ordained a priest, but couldn't finish the required four year studies in theology to hold higher office because he didn't pass the oral examination. After being ordained he held posts in Liverpool, Oxford, and Ireland, where he was sent in 1884 and where he would remain until his death in 1889.
It seems that I'm constantly rearranging my TBR list, which is a good indication of what I'm going to read next, but this week I've been busy reading Exiles by Ron Hansen, author of Mariette in Ecstasy--both with religious themes--and watching the miniseries The Bible, which I thought was fantastic, so I figured that a natural progression would be to read next The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.
I really liked Exiles by Ron Hansen. The book starts with a biographical sketch of Gerard Manley Hopkins during his years in Oxford and as a Jesuit in the seminary; next it switches to accounts of the lives of the five nuns and Hopkins and concludes with an eerie parallelism between Hopkins’ final years and the wreckage of the Deutschland.
I found that parallelism a masterful touch on the part of Ron Hansen to convey how life seemed to be draining from Hopkins in his years of service in Ireland, yet no one paid attention. At the same time, I didn’t think that the sinking of the ship had been that shocking until Hansen vividly described hour after long agonizing hour. In the end my eyes were moist, both for the lives lost in the wreckage and for Hopkins’ end, a hundred-and-twenty-five years after the fact!
I have read sad (and inspiring) books in my day, but Exiles by Ron Hansen is in contention to take the cake in both categories. I felt moved by the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins, his convictions, the desertion of friends and family when he abandoned the comfort of his faith for a stranger (and poorly perceived) one, desertion that felt to him like betrayal because in the most important moments of his life the people closest to him weren’t present. That hurts! He remained as the nuns, an exile until the end.
In summary, Exiles by Ron Hansen is deeply moving. It is a difficult reading experience yet shouldn’t be missed!
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 honor O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
Y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.
I am in Ireland now; now I am at a third
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spells thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (1844-1889)