Mices Internet Shop, Gloucester Green, Oxford, England

About 60 experts and devotees of Gerard Manley Hopkins are gathered at Oriel College at Oxford to present and listen to papers on a Jesuit poet who once walked these same narrow tunnels connecting the courtyards of the oldest English-speaking university in the world. Darlene and I have adjoining rooms with single beds at Oriel, which is kind of romantic in an odd way. She explored the town while I took in the lectures, which ranged from mind-numbingly pedantic to funny, fresh, and useful. This crowd gathers each year at Regis University in Denver, which is hosting the Oxford conference, and the reunions are not devoid of debate. “He’s full of shit,” one participant sitting beside me muttered at the conclusion of the day’s last lecture, which argued forcefully that Hopkins was a playful guy. This required a four-part definition of play, based on a Dutch philosopher whose name I didn’t catch. And it took some work to find the playful language in Hopkins’s famously depressed later work, which includes these lines from “I Wake and Feel”:

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

I think Hopkins is pretty great, because of his luscious language and constant grappling with opposites such as form and freedom, private inner meaning versus outer reality. He is one of my allowing models of eccentricity. He once stopped in the middle of reading to a class, paused, said, “I have never seen a naked woman; I wish I had,” then continued the reading.

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