I turn 44 in a few weeks. On the one hand, I am enjoying my mid-forties. On the other hand, one does become ever more conscious of how little time is left. Neither of my parents made it to 65. I visit cancer journals now and then, including that of a fellow writer in his forties
Last night, I revisited my Penguin edition of Gerard Manley Hopkins's poetry and prose, and registered anew that he had died at the age of 44, and that his last words were reportedly "I am so happy. I am so happy." (According to Eleanor Ruggles, as quoted in Wikipedia, the words were "I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life." Now I am even more curious about these words, and why some accounts leave out "I loved my life.") So I hopped online to seek additional context, and stumbled on this passage in David E. Anderson's review
of a Paul Mariani biography:
Hopkins died on June 8, 1889, just six weeks short of his 45th birthday. He was diagnosed with typhus, but Mariani suspects it was complicated by Crohn's disease, a sickness unnamed until 1932. Hopkins's last words, repeated over and over, were an affirmation--or a plea to himself: "I am so happy. I am so happy." He died unheralded and unpublished, and it was not until 1918 that Oxford University Press published an edition of 750 copies of the poems edited and introduced by his old friend, England's then poet laureate, Robert Bridges.
A decade before his death, however, Hopkins ruminated on the question of fame in an exchange of correspondence with his friend, fellow poet, and Anglican cleric Richard Watson Dixon. "Fame," Hopkins wrote, "is a thing which lies in the award of a random, reckless, incompetent, and unjust judge, the public, the multitude. The only just judge, the only just literary critic is Christ, who prizes, is proud of, and admires, more than any man, more than the receiver himself can, the gifts of his own making."
Nearly a century later, John Berryman, a poet as singular as Hopkins, would appropriate Hopkins in one [of] his last poems, a poem of his own religious conversion:
Father Hopkins said the only true literary critic is Christ.
Let me lie down exhausted, content with that.
I'm fascinated by this stance. As a non-Christian, it's not exactly of comfort to me, but as both a theist and a book industry professional -- having seen so many well-wrought works sell so very little and receive the barest flicker of attention -- I confess that my sanity has long been rooted in the conviction that one's job is to create the right poem/song/story/image for one's right audience regardless of its size, be that a single human being, a swarm of millions, or a silent yet merciful deity. So while the phrase "only true/just literary critic" makes my teeth itch, there's a part of me that nods in recognition at Hopkins's and Berryman's declarations.
Assessing articulations of faith (when are they authentic? when are they obnoxious? when are they engaging? when are they derailing?) is a recurring activity in my various circles. I'm told that accusations of anti-Christianity were flung at critics of this year's Hugo nominations
. Sports fandom has long been divided over expressions of evangelical Christianity on the court and in interviews; for my vacation this past weekend, to get into the spirit of Fed Cup
, I brought along a pile of tennis-related reading I'd been meaning to get to. This bit showed up in a July 26, 1993, New Yorker
essay by Martin Amis:
To see Courier and Sampras on Centre Court was to see a dramatic opposition of will and talent: to see what Courier had given to get as good as he is, and to see, more simply, what Sampras had been given by God. (Refreshingly, neither player is especially religious, unlike Chang, Wheaton, Agassi, and, of all people, Nick Bolletieri.)
Because I don't have cable here at home, one of the things that makes a vacation vacation-y for me is catching an episode of Chelsea Handler or The Best Thing I Ever Made/Ate
. The TBTIEM show on cakes included a segment with Alton Brown; his feature on Apple Spice Bundt Cake
led me to look up grains of paradise, and keeping company with it in the surfing-after-a-show rabbit hole was this interview about (among other things) his family's sense of stewardship
, about saying grace in public, and about the discomfort being a churchgoer raises in other people.
It hadn't been in the plan, but on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, part of my reading was Kathleen Jowitt's entries (so far) on her 2007 pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago
. A sample of why I kept reading (and why I think some of you might find it likewise inviting/compelling):
A Quaker challenged me, the summer before, about the idea of pilgrimage. God is everywhere: no place can be called holier than any other. What was the point? Actually, I agreed. Santiago de Compostela itself, the Holy City of the Iberian peninsula, held no greater attraction for me than any other place; I had my reservations as to whether it was genuinely the resting place of the mortal remains of Saint James the Apostle, and there were other European cities that would have taken precedence my 'must see' list. The traditional way of getting there, however, made it another matter entirely: one's own two feet; one's own pace -- quite literally; the chance to prove that five hundred years of civilisation hadn't turned one soft.
Circling back to birthdays, it is April 23. A few weeks ago, I was reading another old magazine (this one purchased from a church rummage sale years ago) -- an April 4, 1964, issue of Saturday Review
with Ivor Brown's "How Shakespeare Spent the Day" as its cover story. Here is how it opens:
It is remarked by Hamlet that "everyman hath business and desire." That Shakespeare had desire we know from his sonnets. That he had his business in the workaday, money-earning world is sometimes forgotten in the appraisals of his genius. But that he chose to mind, and could successfully mind, the business side of his career is proved by what we know of his life.
People today are apt to think of poets and businessmen as living in far separated worlds. But it was certainly not so in the case of Shakespeare, who was born on the premises of a small-town business. His home was a shop and his neighbors were shopkeepers. There was nothing strange to him in the process of buying, selling, and striving to make a profit.