Torn in two: Vocation and wholeness in the poetry of George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins and R.S. Thomas

McKenzie, Timothy A (1999) Torn in two: Vocation and wholeness in the poetry of George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins and R.S. Thomas. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Abstract

This is a literary study of the priestly and poetic vocations as they appear in the poetry of the priest-poets George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins and R.S. Thomas. These vocations can pull in contrary directions and this thesis investigates these three men's attempts to live and write though subject to sometimes competing claims. Chapter One discusses the possibility of vocation and religious belief in a universe threatened by dislocation. It suggests that religious faith places the priest-poets on the margins, but that their convictions and their vocations can in fact flourish away from the centre. Chapters Two and Three then examine how the three poets understand their priestly and poetic vocations. The priest is inevitably a man apart from other men, but Herbert, by stressing his community of faith and his dependence on Christ, calls his people into communion with him around Christ's eucharistic meal which undoes social distinctions. Hopkins, although sundered from mainstream English life by his conversion, nevertheless finds a vital sacramental role as a priest in the alternative Catholic order. Thomas in the twentieth century is less able to escape his isolation and this leads to the nagging feeling that his priestly vocation is pointless. Nevertheless, Christ's experience of isolation and rejection provides him with the example which prevents him from abandoning his priestly service. In Chapter Three, Thomas' doctrinal uncertainties are also apparent in his conception of poetry. He sees poetry in religious terms, but its function is largely non-doctrinal and involves keeping the airwaves of the spirit alive against the materialism of his age. In doing so, however, his poetry remains haunted by the Christian imagery of his priestly vocation. Herbert and Hopkins conceive poetry in more overtly Christian terms as a sacrifice of praise to God. For Herbert, this means that all his experiences contribute to a poetry which he places under God's submission. Hopkins attempts to circumscribe what he writes about, initially limiting his poetry to that which praises God by celebrating the inscapes of Christ. This prepares for Chapter Four's consideration of the priest-poets' responses to suffering. It is here that the tensions between their two vocations become most apparent. Hopkins' lofty conception of his priestly duty threatens to deny any poetry of suffering. Yet the agonised experience of the terrible sonnets turns his poetic corpus into a priestly activity which, like the priest's eucharistic duties, descends into the dark places of the soul and discovers, however unwillingly, that Christ's inscape is present in broken minds, broken poetry and broken bread. Herbert's communal conception of priesthood means that he turns his struggles of faith into a poetry of pastoral example which encourages others on the journey of pilgrimage to Christ's banquet. Thomas' Romantic poetic sympathies make his priestly duties seem increasingly outmoded, yet in responding to the degradation of the planet, he combines his roles in a prophetic challenge to the materialism of the age. Chapter Five suggests that these vocational tensions experienced by the priest-poet shadow the Christological tensions between Christ's divinity and humanity. In Christ's example, Herbert finds the source for both his vocations, because he is certain that Christ stands behind the call to both poetry and priesthood. This is a more difficult matter for Hopkins whose poetry is forced in terrifying confrontation with Christ to face the terror of the cross. In that confrontation, his poetry, wittingly or not, conveys the Christological and eucharistic agony which holds nonetheless that God is known in suffering as well as joy. Thomas looks primarily through Christ's cross in an attempt to understand the relationship between humanity's suffering and God. Although finally elusive about the nature of this relationship, his poetry treats the cross as a signpost for the reader to follow in the hope that it leads to the unity which priest, poet and prophet seek. For all three priest-poets, Christ's example is hard to follow, and as Chapter Six makes clear, it dooms them to the painful role of outsiders in relation to both their traditions. Yet, from this marginal position, they act in their different ways as fools for Christ's sake, scorned by their traditions, but challenging their traditions with the suggestion that the painful and contentious combination of religion and literature is in fact a necessity. For as the priest's eucharistic duties and the poet's linguistic wrestling foretell, the heart of God in Christ can be seen in tension, hurt and breaking. In different ways, the priest-poets' lives and their poetry demonstrate this painful lesson.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Adviser: David Jasper
Keywords: English literature, Religion
Date of Award: 1999
Depositing User: Enlighten Team
Unique ID: glathesis:1999-71287
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 10 May 2019 10:49
Last Modified: 10 May 2019 10:49
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/71287

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