Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Touching God

Hopkins and Love


Duc  Dau


Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series

London: Anthem Press, 2013

Paperback. x+148 p. ISBN 978-1783080489. £25.00


Reviewed by Catherine L. Phillips

Downing College, Cambridge



In Touching God : Hopkins and Love, Duc Dau sets out to argue for the 'importance of love in the work of the Victorian poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins'. There have been a number of studies of Hopkins's homosocial desires but these have tended to play down the intensity of Hopkins's religious belief. The love that Dau investigates is a 'romantic love' for God, for which there is a Christian tradition found in St John of the Cross, Origen, and Bernard of Clairvaux. She argues that Hopkins's vow of celibacy freed him to express his passion for Christ, a passion conveyed through images of 'romantic and sexual tropes such as touching hands, melting and merging subjects, beating hearts, magnetic attraction, mutual gazes, kisses, embraces, fecundity and homecoming' [1] . She argues convincingly that such 'awareness of spiritual eroticism' is 'vital to a fuller understanding' of Hopkins's  poetry. There is evidence supporting such a view, for instance, in Hopkins's statement to Robert Bridges that, 'feeling, love in particular, is the great moving power and spring of verse and the only person that I am in love with seldom, especially now, stirs my heart sensibly and when he does I cannot always "make capital" of it, it would be a sacrilege to do so' (15 February 1879). She argues that, as with St Augustine, consummation with Christ is a matter of the 'interpenetration of spirituality and sexuality',  defending her position by looking at Christian contexts in which the Greek eros or Latin amor, both generally referring to sexual love, have been used in place of agape or caritas, meaning charity. 'Eros', she points out, was used in a way overlapping with agape by Thomas à Kempis in his Imitation of Christ and in his Sermon 20. The same is true of Origen's and Bernard of Clairvaux's writing on the Song of Songs, texts that she says Hopkins became aware of while he was an undergraduate at Oxford. St Augustine in his City of God, a book read out in the refectory while Hopkins was a novice, states that while the love for God and one's neighbour is more commonly called 'caritas' in the Bible, 'amor' is also used, as in the interchange in which Christ asks Peter three times whether he loves him. In his turn, Hopkins refers to love for Christ in his sermons as 'enthusiasm for a leader, a hero, love for a bosom friend, love for a lover' (Sermons, 48) and calls Christ 'the truelove and the bridegroom of men's souls' (Sermons, 35).  The mutual conveying of this love is expressed primarily by Hopkins through images of touch. Dau draws on three models to investigate what Hopkins might have envisaged: St Ignatius's argument of mutual exchange and communication as analysed by Hopkins that because 'all that God gives and does for us he does in love, therefore all that we should do towards God we should do in love' [8-9, Sermons, 194]; Merleau-Ponty's notion of the reciprocity and absence of hierarchy in touch as expressed through a hand-shake [9] and Irigaray's feminist idea of the 'caress' between lovers that declares a respect and love for each other's alterity [10]; it is in a kiss that touch and 'amor' are most tightly intertwined.

Touching God is divided into five chapters, the first of which locates 'representations of divine love, touch and union within Hopkins's preoccupation with water circulation and visual reflection'. 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' dramatises conversion as a turning to God and acknowledgement of his touch as a cycle in which Man's desire to return to his origin in God is seen as like that of the cycle of rain and water evaporation. The second image, that of reflection in a mirror, is examined as a suggestive interpretation of  Hopkins's obscure fragment, 'Hope holds to Christ the mind's own mirror out' , which she explains as inspired by St Paul's desire to return to God, seeing Him 'face to face', not as in a 'mirror dimly'. Chapter Two works with ideas of the idealisation of virginity as a deliberate choice of a particular style of life as sketched out by Foucault and an expression of fidelity to Christ. Hopkins's novice-master, Peter Gallwey, set out the idea in a sermon defending a vow of celibacy for nuns but read in the refectory at Manresa House as relevant to Jesuits too:


If the Convent vow were abolished, both Christ our Lord and the Christian soul that wishes to be His Spouse, would have reason to complain that human love is allowed a privilege and a stability not granted to the Divine love which unites our Blessed Saviour and His Spouses. He loves as no man has loved. He has proved His desire of being loved intimately by giving his body and blood to be man's food; to say nothing of other countless proofs. [49]

It is a well-chosen piece of evidence for her theory. Dau alludes to Hopkins's statements about the desirability of 'virgin marriage' with Christ in such poems as 'St Thecla' and the final stanza of 'At the Wedding March', drawing attention to Hopkins's decision not to give the latter to A W Dixon for publication. This, she sees as in keeping with Hopkins's objection to Coventry Patmore's use of ideas of marital union in the Song of Songs in his Sponsa Dei on the grounds that such feelings were too intimate and precious to reveal to a general audience; 'telling secrets'. Hopkins's reticence may have been exacerbated by his awareness of potential criticism of Catholicism prompted by more ascetic Anglican conventions. Reciprocity of touch, so evident in 'The Wreck' she compares with Tennyson's stanzas in In Memoriam on the hand-shakes with Hallam that he misses so much in section vii and which take a mystical form in section cxix. She interprets these sections in light of The Song of Songs of the soul hearing her beloved, God, call at her door but disappearing when she answers it. The importance of the comparison with The Song of Songs is that the eroticism is qualified and freed by the religious association.

The next two chapters deal with trickier concepts of 'breath exchange', traditions of which she sketches out. The first of the chapters explores the idea  that mankind achieves union with God only through being open to his spiritual presence and reciprocates this gift of the Word through giving birth to it in utterance, as the tall nun does in 'The Wreck of the Deutschland'. The second of the chapters examines concepts of conversation in which mutual engagement, listening and responding are involved. The most intimate of the exchanges of breath is seen as that of the kiss on the mouth, an image that she suggests may be implied in 'Hurrahing in Harvest': 'what lips yet gave you a/Rapturous love's greeting of realer, of rounder replies?' Though the drafts of these lines in which ideas of 'print or pen' and 'tongue and eyes' that give 'overwhelming replies', 'love's greeting', 'rounder, rounder replies', suggest that Hopkins actually placed the emphasis on verbal exchange rather than the more intimate kiss, she usefully explores various poems in which Hopkins uses the image of the kiss as a greeting, from stanza five of 'The Wreck of the Deutschland', in which the speaker kisses 'his hand /To the stars…wafting him (God) out of it' to 'The Soldier' whom Christ kisses and 'Ad Matrem Virginem' in which Mary is asked by the speaker for baby Christ's 'kisses meant for your mouth'. Here Dau draws on Irigaray's idea that the kiss 'enables each participant to caress the other, to become one, and yet remain two' [99].

The final chapter deals with ideas of homecoming, in which 'home' is seen as 'the thing for which we most yearn…a sanctuary, a place of belonging, a haven of intimate relationships' [101]. In Hopkins this is expressed as a nostalgic longing for a return to Eden with its unpolluted land, a desire made keener for him by the polluted cities in which he lived and worked. It is most importantly as expressed in his sermons a desire to enter 'our truest home…the Holy of Holies [at the centre of which] dwells the divine other,' Christ [102]. Dau draws attention here to Hopkins's Latin poem to Mary, 'Ad Mariam' and to 'Rosa Mystica', pointing out that in the former 'Eden is located with the newness of spring and the body of the Virgin Mary' and that in the refrain of the latter the wish of the child speaker anticipates its return to Mary and the 'gardens of God'[102-3]. This is an excellent book, which explores Hopkins's own stated ideas with sensitivity to them and with well-chosen quotations to support its arguments. 


Cercles © 2014

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.