Pastblast – Gerard Hopkins: The Manley Burden of Responsibility

‘Enough: corruption was the world’s first woe.
What need I strain my heart beyond my ken?
O but I bear my burning witness though
Against the wild and wanton work of men.’

Olympic Garden | The Lovely Brothers

Olympic Garden | The Lovely Brothers

Minutes from the annual general meeting of Julian Richards’ shareholders, backstage at their old haunt; the Gaiety in Times Square. It’s now an American Eagle Outfitters, but if you gather on the second floor in the corner by ladies’ smalls you can still scent ejaculate in the glade. Other than collective back-and-bottom slapping on the subject of 2012’s accelerated workload, the primary issue on the agenda appears to have been the benefits reaped – and pitfalls encountered – by adopting an active, irreverent profile in social media, and the birthing of bloggish organs such as the one you, Dear Reader, have inadvertently stumbled upon whilst searching for unholy eggplant insertions (welcome back, by the way). Beginning at a low rumble, voices were soon raised to an extent that we were required to pause and pretend to be browsing ‘Peace on Earth’ Graphic T’s. Sentiments to the effect of ‘Nobody gives a dog’s cock about Keats, dude, can you score me a fucking Nike campaign?’ along with ‘All this poetry shit, everybody’s gonna think we’re a bunch of queers, sorry Deano, no offence man’ and ‘The Lovely Brothers’ vaginas are freaking out the Pottery Barn people’ all expressed in strangulated whispers so as not to arouse the suspicions of a densely pancaked shopgirl from Secaucus. Which all begs the question: how does one pin down the shifting battle-lines that govern the artist/agent relationship? Where does one thing end and another begin? Is collaboration just another word for nobody’s called about your shit in two months? For those who are churning through the industry like paddle-steamers up the Zambezi, it’s something of a moot point: in such cases the approach is essentially to keep doing what one is doing, and try not to ignore the nagging voice that says ‘maintenance, renewal, pruning, new growth’ (all made much easier by the heady presence of money). But what of the at-any-given-time-unannointed? How does one alchemize interest out of its polar opposite? From the photographer’s point-of-view is it perhaps ‘look, I’ gave you loads of great shit; I gave it to you more than half a decade ago, now go knock on more doors. Or take them up some fucking Krispy Kremes for breakfast or whatever it is’?  One is reminded of Withnail in the Cumbrian telephone booth:

‘Well, lick ten percent of the arses for me then!  Hello?  Hello?  How dare you!  Fuck you!’



Whereas from the agent’s perspective, it might be more along the lines of ‘If I try to show people the same fucking sack of potatoes for the three-hundredth time, rudely wiped, reshuffled, the spine patched, with your name in a different font, not only are they going to make a note explicitly never to use you at all for anything ever, but they’ll probably start to wonder if anything I say about anybody anywhere contains the slightest grain of truth. And before you say it, a baker’s dozen snapshots of crew-members taken on an afternoon off from shooting Cialis alongside TV in Cleveland doesn’t constitute a new body of work’.

Contemplating this riddle whilst browsing the thumbnails of Jacquie et Michel, Amatrices Françaises at three in the morning, I was struck by an analogous situation described in a letter I had read in last month’s Ecumenical Spanker pertaining to that most stygian of the Victorian Vicar Poets, the Undisputed Nonpareil of Sprung Rhythm, the Jumpin’ Jesuit himself … Reverend Gerard Manley Hopkins. Now boys, boys … you’re not going to tell me everybody isn’t frothing at the bit for a dose of G-Hop the Manley? C’mon now, he wrote the poem That Nature Is A Heraclitean Fire! It has the word clit in it! He didn’t have the easiest time of it, Gerard. Deeply religious from an early age, he was somewhat disconcerted upon his arrival at Balliol, Oxford, to discover himself pining for the seventeen year-old buttocks of the handsomely monikered Digby Mackworth Dolben. His not inconsiderable consternation was only marginally relieved by young Diggers drowning in the River Welland whilst frolicking with the ten year-old son of his tutor, Reverend C.E. Pritchard (who may or may not have been watching from the bushes).

Hopkins understandable reaction was to swear an oath of celibacy, convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism (they know on which side an altar boy’s bottom is buttered) and enter the Priesthood. He also took to recording his sins in a diary, which I believe can be reverentially beaten-off to in the Bodleian every Tuesday afternoon in January. Oddly, he also suffered from lifelong diahorreah – which had to be a bit tiresome – and the poor bastard lived in Dublin. I’m not making this up. His poetry was both his solace and his torment, passing largely unnoticed in his lifetime despite the patronage of his friend (and soon-to-be Poet Laureate) Robert Bridges. Hopkins viewed Bridges, with his wealth of contacts in London poetry circles, as a kind of advocate for him; almost (dare I say it) … his agent. The poet wrote long letters to Bridges, imploring him to push some poem or other under the noses of Tennyson or Newman or (for heaven’s sake) Charles Darwin, whose only recorded contribution to the canon of world poetry is a scatalogical limerick about a gibbon. Bridges would write back unfailingly, always attentive and encouraging, even in the face of his contemporaries’ seamless indifference to Hopkins’ work. The following is a letter dated September 1881, from Bridges to Hopkins. It follows a period of intense frustration on the part of the poet. He felt he had written some excellent poems over the years and yet scant interest could be engendered in them from anybody who might have the wherewithal to help him pay the rent. To some extent he seems to be holding Bridges culpable for this failure: the latter wasn’t getting his material to the right people, wasn’t pushing hard enough, had become bored and complacent, focussed on other poets or his home in the provinces. Had he considered doing a Sonnet Breakfast, for instance? Taking along some Butterscotch Bulls Eyes and a flagon or two of mead to some secretaries in a tall building in High Holborn? The poet had gone so far as to remove himself from Bridges’ patronage and place himself under the wing of one Seamus Baggage, hawker of minstrels, who had once carried Wordsworth’s easel up Helvellyn. What follows is Bridges’ response to his denunciation at the hands of an old friend. I think it draws an interesting parallel.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Thursday September 29, The Knotty Pines, Lickham Bottom

My Dear Gerard

Thank you for your correspondence regarding the return of that small stock of pamphlets held in my office for clients to retain after discussion of your work. I find myself saddened by the idea of you taking these items (which, as you know, bear my name and address) gluing a label over said information and replacing it with that of Messrs. Baggage & Baggage. Does this not seem a tad shoddy in your estimation? An item made to my own specifications, of which I was comprehensively a contributor, hastily pasted over and attributed to another? If some person brought such an item to me I am afraid I would reject it out of hand, precisely because it would be so clearly associated with my hypothetical predecessor. Really, my dear Hopkins, it is a trifle tawdry. I would rather, in all honesty, you began afresh; the Baggages are going to need at least that from you – a wholly different approach and plan of attack – if they are going to make headway where I have not been able. You could with certainty have new pamphlets printed in little more than a fortnight, it is a remarkably straightforward affair: and if these pieces are to serve simply as a reminder to their recipients of your talent and earnestness, a keep-sake of sorts, then you will surely need but few; truthfully such items are seldom retained unless they constitute a published volume of some measure. That said, I see no reason as to why you should not produce such a formidable volume for yourself; a remarkable piece, cut and bound in Morocco, something to surprise and elate the viewer and stir him from his erstwhile complacency. It would certainly require earnest investment on your part; which is the reason I have always shied from broaching the matter with you. But in the prevailing climate of difficulty, and bearing in mind that you are already a known (though frequently passed-over) quantity, I do not see that you are presented with an alternative. Baggage’s sphere of influence – along with his reservoir of goodwill –  is demonstrably no greater than anyone else. If he plies the same narrative he will reap the same rewards; which should be your greatest fear, because the truth, I’m afraid, is that he has precisely no magic at his fingertips whatsoever, none: but, my dear Hopkins, you do. You have your works and your passion. It is you that will make this happen, not he. All the paths he treads have been trodden before him (even though it seems it is this very point that you dispute).

‘The Windhover’ has been ever an exemplary piece and I am most gratified that you have finally decided to forge it into the cornerstone of a book; but I am compelled to point out that this is a matter we spoke about at some length several years ago, and on which I was most pressing and encouraging; but which you nonetheless neglected. Not to mention several other ideas and fancies set out in your correspondence. If I display an air of astonishment at any of this, you should understand that it emanates entirely from the feeling of having myself tried to wake these concepts in you on so many occasions, knowing that only a fresh approach could garner the interest of the people to whom I was referring your work; and that I arrived nowhere with my pressing. No new volume from you. Rarely new material of any sort, and then merely a line here, line there, nothing of breadth or of substance. Now you have decided to gather your belongings and move on, to try the same hand elsewhere; and it is the inspirational figure of Baggage that you have alighted upon to parlay this into commercial success. Please don’t misunderstand me; I cannot say I am displeased to see you go. The relief from guilt, from the inability to speak honestly about these matters, from not being free to express myself with candour about certain bodies of work, from having to display implied support for your actions even when I did not believe my own words; my Friend, this is consummate relief indeed. Such an epiphany is troubling only inasmuch as it has caused me to consider other relationships in this light and wonder whether a more joyous life, one less sullied by inner vexation, would be within reach if matters in general were more steeped in honesty. Yet this is likely impossible. Such, I fear, is the lot of an advocate.

What, my dear Gerard, of Baggage? Perhaps my sentiment is best echoed by Cordelia:

‘But yet, alas, stood I within his grace,
I would prefer him to a better place.’

I might have wished your apparent awakening had alighted upon a more worthy recipient. It is not that he is perfectly vulgar and dreadful; but he is by no means deserving, not in the manner of say Miss Nellie Kagan or Mr Ronald Magenta, these being good people with the gall to apply themselves to the development of talent in its nascent form. The Baggages have ever advocated for doggerel. Now it appears they are poaching established (but underachieving) artists in an effort to embroider their gaudy ranks with a veneer of sophistication. But respect is not won through plundering the decade-long endeavours of others; neither by preying upon an artist’s sense of vulnerability during times of trouble. Finding patrons for artists is important, but so too is integrity; and I suspect that ultimately one does not come without the other. Having said that, my desire to see cynicism fail does not extend to you; above all I wish you the success your work deserves. I have invested too much heart and soul to wish it any other way.

I am compelled, however, to address a particular point expressed in your letter. You said your commercial career had dwindled at a time when you felt it should have flourished. This bewildered me, as it bewilders me with other artists; because more often than not I am at a loss to understand what it is they believe they have been doing, in practical, game-changing terms to engender such an anticipated flourishing. Some novel, entertaining, exhilarating body of material, beautifully formulated, fastidiously distributed, augmented by a refreshed, challenging portfolio of works? A renewed passion for lasting, productive working relationships with appropriate luminaries in the field? I can say with due humility that I am able to wrangle a certain quantity of patronage from the community each year by my direct recommendation alone, trusting that the client in question will, when all is said and done, be delighted with the result of placing his trust in me. This has been true for the lion’s share of this year’s successes. Unfortunately you were not able to partake of this, your style and approach being too remote to fit the work at hand. I would have seemed a liar and a scoundrel had I recommended you for work for which you were not suited; and I would in the process have risked killing the Golden Eggéd Goose of Trust. But for the remainder, all an advocate can effectively do is prepare the way for the artist, open the door. It is the artist himself; his work, his personality, his desire, ideas, charms, passions, work ethic, intellect and humour; these are the elements that must combine to bring the matter to fruition. An advocate can almost pretend to be the artist, to create a chimera of enthusiasm and passion which is ultimately attributed to the artist himself. An advocate can fill the gaps, explain away the contradictions, excuse the missteps; but there is a moment at which his influence ceases and the artist must step up, take the baton and sprint to the finish. This is not to say that I am seldom confronted by this vexing enigma. Quite the contrary, it occurs with remarkable frequency. When I ask the artist what it is he has actually done to deserve the spoils he so ardently desires, what more than the scores of other artists who are working so diligently, he will usually respond in the manner of “Because I am good!”.  As if what is required to drink from the Ambrosial Cup is that an artist be ‘good’. That they deserve it all because they are a ‘good artist’ perhaps even more naturally gifted than some of their contemporaries, who have slaved like Hercules to do what is required to win the prize. But believe me, Dear Hopkins, when I state that if an artist could spend but a few weeks in the place of his advocate observing what is required to garner the spoils of victory in the face of such competition; then they would swallow the words ‘because I am good’ before they dribbled out. Few are rewarded with rooms of gold for simply being there and making pleasing work; and rightly so. The artist who truly understands what is needed goes diligently about his business untroubled by the howling and moaning of his contemporaries who sit upon the shoddy laurels of self-proclaimed talent.

I have come to believe that I have on occasion been too close to some of my artists. I have invested emotionally in them as friends and been culpable in fostering the delusion that they were doing what it takes to be successful, when I should surely have been reporting the truth of what I was seeing; namely that they were off the back of the pack and falling farther behind by the day. Perhaps in a small number of cases I should have stepped forward and brought matters to a close, spent my hours and my concern (every hour of the day, though you may doubt it) on subjects more likely to respond with vigour. But I confess to being lily-liver’d in these matters. No decent person enjoys being the bearer of bad news. Instead I have endeavored to enthuse over any grain of possibility the artist produces, even amidst a wilderness of indifference. And after that, embarrassed silence. But it might actually have been kinder (and less cowardly) to tell the truth. Less wasteful too. With less sting when the whole affair culminated in an ironic charade.

I remain, as ever, your friend and firm adherent,

Robert Bridges

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