Virginia Barton

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ posthumous fame on video

Catholic Herald, 29 December 1989


Review: Gerard Manley Hopkins: Portrait of a Poet: A drama documentary on VHS video cassette and complementary illustrated book. (The Picture Publishing Company, £16.95)


!!!!!-exiles-faceIn 1886 Hopkins wrote that fame, “the being  known”, though dangerous and “spiritually nothing”, is the “true and appointed air, element and setting of genius and it’s work.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins never knew fame. It was not until 30 years after his death that his poems were published.

Today he is acknowledged as one of the great English poets, his reputation is secure, his influence widespread and his admirers worldwide. The young relish his innovative style, curious vocabulary and original rhythms; the rest of us roll the lines round the tongue and prod about, hoping to tease out the obscurities.

The poems are either a delight or irritation of sheer sound – any aid to drawing out the hidden meanings will be seized upon by teachers and students alike.

Pitched at about the GCSE/A level , this combination of video and 188 page book should prove valuable in the classroom. The difficulty of grasping Hopkins is nothing new and many a teacher (and laymen) baulks at the prospect.


The book, compiled by Jonathon Baylis, is useful on several levels. It consists of a shortish biography, a generous sprinkling of letters to family and friends, extracts from diaries and religious writings (including part of a more notorious sermon), a chronology and bibliography. There’s also a jolly “interview” with Peter Gale, the actor who stars in the accompanying video.

And 48 of the poems, a generous selection which is augmented by a Plain Person’s guide to the reading of them . The newcomer to Hopkins’ work will find this a lively introduction, and it should be studied at least cursorily before watching the video.

The drama documentary lasts just an hour. It is written and performed by Peter Gale, a “one-man show”, with the narrative spoken by Anthony Hopkins . The dramatised biographical excerpts all take place indoors. The world of nature, so important to Hopkins, is represented by drawings (many of them the poet’s own work) and photographs.

Gale doesn’t resemble my mind’s-eye image of Hopkins, neither does he “age”. But his performance is sincere and his portrayal of Hopkins the teacher moving. In fact, Peter Gale is a more accomplished teacher than it seems Hopkins ever was; and though he never reaches the agonies or the ecstasies demanded by the verse, he certainly speaks with feeling and some understanding.

Part or all of about half-a-dozen poems feature in the video and reading them as Gale said them was a real pleasure. The hour passed quickly and some of the bafflement at least was dispersed . You will find no offensive innuendo, much to amuse, and some solid fact in this video.


Poor Gerard! Thank goodness you died before Fame overtook you. The posthumous dissection of your psyche, life and work continues to beguile the shrinks, lit crits and fanatics, both pro and anti. I believe it was simple enough. Hopkins was a man who wanted to be good. He strove for goodness and struggled not a little to achieve it. One has to understand Hopkins’ intense and overwhelming love of God, and God’s created world, before one can approach his work.

Crucial too is a recognition of Hopkins’ belief in the Catholic faith. Neither the book nor the video really get to grips with Hopkins’ Catholicism or his vocation to the priesthood.

And to assert, as the author of the book does, that “priesthood provides an effective haven from the perils of serious temptation” is crass. I can hear Gerard wringing his hands.



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