Angele's Reviews > Exiles

Exiles by Ron Hansen
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Mar 12, 09

Read in March, 2009

As in an earlier novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, in Exiles Ron Hansen traces the agonies and ecstasies of a devout Catholic--in this case, the 19th-century poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins--illuminating the attractions of the religious life without minimizing its painful restrictions and cruel sacrifices.

Hopkins's narrative poem "The Wreck of the Deutchland"--his first lengthy experiment in "sprung rhythm," as well as one the great poems that never saw print in his lifetime--is the centerpiece of the novel.

In the poem, Hopkins contrasts his own spiritual quest with the contemporary martyrdom of five youthful German nuns in an 1875 shipwreck off the British coast. The title of the poem is ironic. The nuns were on their way to the U.S. because of anti-Catholic laws enacted by the government of Otto von Bismarck--among the many Catholic religious who fled Germany for Europe and America because Bismarck believed that Catholics were wrecking "his" Deutchland.

In the novel, Hansen contrasts a detailed account of the excruciating shipwreck and its victims with the destiny of Hopkins, who died in Dublin of typhoid in 1889 at the age of 44, feeling himself to be a failure as a poet, teacher, and priest.

But here Hansen falters; he goes so far as to imagine Hopkins's rescue and recovery from the dreary Jesuitical duties that helped to kill him, but he is unwilling to explore, except in brief references, Hopkins's homosexuality and the influence it had on his theology, work, and relationships, including that with his closest friend and literary executor, the poet Robert Bridges. (Bridges, who judged Hopkins's work to be "freakish and obscure," also censored some of his friend's early romantic poems and his letters, "[having:] conservative scruples over revealing even the most innocent intimacies in their private correspondence.")

But the puckish genius has the last laugh. In the final pages of Exiles, Hansen describes a visit paid to the 85-year-old Bridges--Britain's poet laureate, and still a man of imposing handsomeness--by Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf. While Huxley scans Bridges's most popular collection (the now-forgotten Testament of Beauty), Woolf asks to see Bridges's handwritten copies of Hopkins's poems, upsetting the literary lion: "[H:]e watched with gall and wormwood as the interesting author of Night and Day and To the Lighthouse marveled over the exacting vocabulary and imagery of his Oxford classmate, now forty years gone."

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