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The naked eye: vision and risk in the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Dunleavy, Hannah Victoria (2010) The naked eye: vision and risk in the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins. PhD thesis, University of York.

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Abstract

This thesis takes as its subject vision and risk in the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844-1889. Because Hopkins's poetry displays so evident a fascination with the particulars of language, it is unsurprising that the critical tradition on his work has thus far been heavily dominated by matters of sound: by the verbal, the rhythmic, the musical, and the aural. However, in this thesis I move from the sounded to the seen, identifying in Hopkins's work a central preoccupation with the visual, with looking and seeing, and the possibilities and dangers inherent in each. Here was a man driven to look for beauty, yet this compulsion to look was matched only by a desperate desire to look away. I shall argue that it is this dichotomy, and the excitement of the many and various possibilities it engenders, that so characterises Hopkins's engagement with the visual world. Born into a rapidly-changing late Victorian world, Hopkins was fascinated by sight and by the increasingly problematic act of seeing. He frequently characterises himself in explicitly visual terms, and his poetry is littered with numerous references to eyes, eyeballs, eyelashes, eyelids, and eyesight, in addition to many metaphors of sight in its various forms. He demonstrates a recurring notably obsessive anxiety over the health of his eyes and the acuity of his sight, yet repeated medical reassurance does nothing to quell his fears over his perceived loss of vision. Counter to, but inextricably linked with, this fear for the loss of sight is an intense awareness of the danger of sight. This paradox is central to Hopkins's conception of himself and of his roles as both poet and priest. Chapter One considers Hopkins's engagement with the intensely visual Victorian cultural environment. Hopkins was a keen draughtsman and painter in his youth and for a while considered becoming a professional poet-painter like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with whose family he was well acquainted. Although he decided to relinquish his artistic ambitions in favour of the priesthood, he remained a keen critic of art and architecture throughout his life. His diaries and journals, littered with sketches and accounts of visits to galleries and exhibitions, are fascinating for what they reveal of this intensely eye/I-driven individual, and the acute anxieties he experienced when confronted by beauty, in whatever form. Chapter Two continues this concern with beauty and its inherent dangers, but now moves to consider Hopkins's often anxious visual encounters with other people. As a vigilant social observer, his writing ranges from delightedly detailed depictions of other individuals, particularly young men, to deeply uneasy descriptions of massed crowds and formless groups of people. This chapter shows a particular concern, as Hopkins did, with the purpose of mortal beauty, and the dangers and challenges it could pose. Chapter Three develops the concerns of the previous chapter, by pursuing the additional dimension of people looking. In this chapter I consider a group of Hopkins's strangest and yet most celebratory poems, united by a concern with people looking at others who are themselves looking. With the uneasy concept of the voyeur never far away, this chapter raises questions about the moral, psychological and social dimensions of seeing within Hopkins's work, and thus I assess the meaning of licit and illicit sight, whether on the part of the benevolent or neutral observer, the systematic enquirer, the voyeur or the enlightened seer. This chapter argues that the dynamic nature of this relationship between perceiver and object, the seer and the seen, is central to his endlessly complex dialectic of vision and visuality. It closes by moving to consider the ultimate unseen seer, God. In the figure of Christ we find the ultimate exemplar of mortal beauty, and the chapter returns to the concerns explored in Chapter Two, now from a Christological perspective. In Chapter Four, the concluding chapter, the concerns elicited in the previous chapters are pulled together in a discussion of Hopkins's longest and greatest symphonic poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland (1875-1876). This poem has at its heart an intense concern with seeing and the seeing of seeing, with the act of witness, and the role of the martyr, while foregrounding the reciprocal qualities of beauty and danger. The thesis concludes with a close reading of this electrifying poem about vision and sight in the many senses explored in the course of the study as a whole.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Vision, Risk, Beauty, Sight, Wreck, Deutschland
Academic Units: The University of York > English and Related Literature (York)
Depositing User: Mrs Hannah Victoria Dunleavy
Date Deposited: 24 May 2010 10:37
Last Modified: 08 Aug 2013 08:44
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/870

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