Guest post by Denise Trull.
I spent the better part of a gorgeous summer once under the enchanting spell of Gerard Manley Hopkins as woven by one of his biographers: Robert Bernard Martin, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life.
Perhaps it is because I am middle aged myself that I find one incident in his life so beautiful. It was during the time shortly after he had become an ordained Jesuit priest, and was sent to a rather depressing assignment teaching high school in a poorer, run-down Jesuit school. While there, he begins to think of past teachers and friends and reestablishes a correspondence with them. He finds in these letters a great source of comfort which he (and they) happen to need at that particular time.
One such correspondence was delightful because it came as such a surprise and was the result of Gerard overcoming his reticence and shyness. The recipient of this sudden but furtive outreach was a man named Richard Watson Dixon. Dixon had been a teacher at the high school Gerard had attended long ago. He had liked and admired Prof. Dixon then, but he did not know him particularly well. And in turn, Dixon had not particularly noticed him either. The Professor had written some poetry and had chanced to give a copy of his poems to another teacher; that teacher in turn thought perhaps Hopkins would like to read them. He did and came to love them—so much so, that long after he had moved on from high school, he carried the book. And when he entered the Jesuits and could not bring personal belongings like books with him, he copied some of these poems by hand in a notebook so he could have them at hand. Dixon was the kind of person Hopkins described as the man “who would talk Keats by the hour.”
Fast-forward many years from that time in high school, and Hopkins happens to remember this teacher, who is now “a widower Parson living with two stepdaughters, a pony, a clutch of cats, and a black retriever to which he fed port wine. He was tall, stooped, grey, with a straggly beard that gave him a frequently remarked and unfortunate resemblance to a scholarly goat.”
Hopkins had encountered Dixon once before at a literary party of a mutual friend. He had “noticed the other man but was apparently too shy to introduce himself.” Hopkins eventually decided “that the time had come to get in touch with Dixon once more, and he wrote to him.” I imagine him writing that letter, sealing it, putting on the stamp and then having second thoughts, picking it up again and putting it down again. I bet it stayed on his desk for a day or two waiting for him to get up the courage to just send it to a man who probably didn’t remember who he was.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dixon, “had settled into a quiet acceptance of the fact that his years of promise were over, that he was never going to light the sky with either his churchmanship or his poetry, and he had resignedly begun a six-volume work on the history of the Church in England that could be counted on to occupy him for the rest of an uneventful life. Hopkins’ letter was the most exciting, the most unsettling thing that had happened to him for years.”
Those lines jumped out at me when I read them. Hopkins, who was very unsure that the man would even remember him, created, by his heartening little missive, a “new man” from the ashes of middle-aged sighs and filled him with the “vigor of youth.” All because Gerard had had the courage to mail the letter. In it he told the older man that he had his book of poetry and had truly enjoyed it all these years. And even though it might not have a revival, it was not “for want of deserving.” He continued with a few sentences about how moved he had been by the Pre-Raphaelite richness and ‘medieval coloring.’ To any poet or writer those words would have been flattering enough, but to this middle-aged man who probably assumed his books of poetry had not been read for years, it was balm, and kindness, and a renewed enthusiasm for beauty. I bet he did a little dance around his room, gave an extra dose of Port to the retriever, went to his bookshelves and dusted off his poetry books. Someone had KNOWN him through his writing. Love of poetry had given Gerard the courage to write and gave Dixon a real happiness. That moves me to the very core!
As it turns out, Hopkins was right. Dixon did NOT remember him from school. But it didn’t matter at all, now. Dixon himself was so taken aback and moved by the letter that he took two days to respond. And then he said, “I was deeply moved, nay shaken to the very centre by such a letter which now is valued among my best possessions.” Quoting a friend’s words to Hopkins in the letter, he said, “One only works in reality for the one man who may rise to understand one, it may be ages hence. I am happy in being understood in my lifetime.”
They only met once after that face to face, and yet they corresponded regularly, and Dixon became one of Gerard’s dearest friends.
This is just one little piece of two particular lives crossing in a certain time in history, but there is a sense of wonder in this exchange of two souls, meeting this way, needing friendship for different reasons and finding it in such a way, at just the right time. Gerard’s kindness and very real admiration made Dixon a true friend.
Some may call it chance that Gerard had remembered this teacher out of the blue. I prefer to think it’s because “the Holy Spirit over the bent world broods / with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
Denise Trull lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband Tony. She is the artistic director of a small but mighty theater company and loves the written word in all its forms.