A word in defence of G.M. Hopkins


You might have seen that the G.M. Hopkins Summer School was stoutly defended in a letter to this paper the other day from the school's artistic director, Desmond Egan.

Many of us did not actually recall that the school had been attacked, but apparently it was disparaged way back in August by an Irishman's Diary contributor, Brian Maye, who had taken a minor tilt at the notion of summer schools on the grounds of their subjects' occasionally vague connections to the school locations, and the amount of time devoted by the students to fairly harmless extra-curricular activities, i.e. drinking and relaxing.

Mr Egan said the disparagement reminded him of the man who went late to his first ballet performance and after a few minutes shouted: "Speak up! We can't hear a word down here!"

I knew this man well. Seamus O'Boyle was his name, God rest him. He is long dead now. Seamus was from the Listowel area, and a very respectable and quiet fellow until he got a few drinks on him. That is what happened the night he wandered into a Kirov Ballet production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake at the Gaiety a fair few years back, mistakenly imagining he was in the Abbey for a Tom Murphy premiere (Whistle in the Dark, I think it was).

Poor Seamus was horribly embarrassed when the hangover cleared next morning and he realised his faux pas. The sad thing is that Seamus was quite a keen ballet fan, well able to tell his arabesque penchee from his attitude derriere, and a huge fan of Diaghilev, or "Sergei" as he fondly referred to him.

Indeed Seamus once had high hopes of luring the great impresario and his Ballets Russes down to Lisselton, Co Kerry, the plan being to stage Stravinsky's The Firebird in the local parish hall.

Things were going great until the parish priest, Father Maloney, heard some fairly scandalous rumours about Diaghilev, and the whole thing had to be called off, much to Seamus's disappointment. It had reached the stage where he was penning a letter to Braque in the hope he might help out with painting the parish hall interior.

God be good to poor "Nijinsky" O'Boyle, as he was known around the Ballyconry area.

But we are getting away from the G.M. Hopkins Summer School controversy. The artistic director, Mr Egan, questioned Mr Maye's statement that the poetry of Hopkins was inaccessible for most people.

This could be argued on both sides. A line like "Glory be to God for dappled things" is straightforward enough, even if it always puts me in mind of the man who was so rich that he had his gardens professionally dappled.

But say a fellow was to sidle up to you, glance nervously about and let slip that he had "caught the morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon"? How would you feel about that? Would you have any idea of how to respond, short of calling the fisheries patrol or the forest rangers?

I think not. You would feel very, very uncomfortable. If the same lad were then to plaintively ask you "Why do sinners' ways prosper? And why must disappointments all endeavours end?" it is likely you would move off pronto. You might not know what the fellow was on about, but you would know enough to make your excuses.

This is not to run down poor Ger Hopkins or his poetry. Many a man might catch the morning morning's minion and not have the guts to admit it. Most of us get fed up with sinners' ways prospering. It's just that the poetry of Hopkins doesn't appeal to everyone.

Not a word of the man's poetry was published in his lifetime. This is probably the greatest and most important thing about Hopkins. His use of so-called sprung rhythm was so far ahead of its time that it would have made no sense at all to his contemporaries, and he almost certainly realised this. It was only 30 years after his death that his poetry was first published.

Today's poets should take note of this, and most of them would do well to follow the example of Hopkins. Instead, we have tons of the stuff foisted on us when the ink is scarcely dry on the paper (and the thoughts barely formed on the page).

A three-decade moratorium should be declared, if not by poets themselves then by the Government. Everyone would benefit from what we might call the Hopkins Moratorium (or the 30 Years' War), because you can pretty well take it that if poetry isn't worth reading in 30 years' time, it isn't worth reading now.