Gerard Manley Hopkins on the Keontic Hymn (Phil 2: 5-11)

Photo by Rowan Gillespie

From The Letters of G. M. Hopkins to Robert Bridges (Letter xcix)

Christ’s life and character are such as appeal to all the world’s admiration, but there is one insight St. Paul gives of it which is very secret and seems to me more touching and constraining than anything else:  This mind he says; was in Christ Jesus–he means as man:  being in the form of God—that is, finding, as in the first instant of his incarnation he did, his human nature informed by the godhead—he thought it nevertheless no snatching-matter for him to be equal with God, but annihilated himself, taking the form of a servant; that is, he could not but see that he was, God, but he would see it as if he did not see it, and be it as if he were not instead of snatching at once at what all the time was his, or was himself, he emptied or exhausted himself so far as that was possible, of godhead and behaved only as God’s slave, as his creature, as man, which also he was, and then being in the guise of man humbled himself to death, the death of the cross.  It is this holding of himself back, and not snatching at the truest and highest good, the good that was his right, nay his possession from a past eternity in his other nature, his own being and self, which seems to me the root of all his holiness and the imitation of this the root of all other moral good in other men.

More On Emerson’s Incarnational Method

I intend to get to Emerson on Montaigne, really to get to it, soon.  But I find myself wanting, needing I guess, to say more about what I turbidly called “Emerson’s Incarnational Method“.  I was drawn to that phrase because it seemed, and still seems to me to educe something deeply important in Emerson, something both inspiring and difficult.  I addressed the inspiring last time.  I want now to address the difficult.  I do so with hesitancy, for reasons that should be apparent momentarily.

A common complaint about Emerson is that he lacks a sense of tragedy.  There is something to that.  Recall the awful scene of Emerson having Waldo exhumed, so that he can see that Waldo is dead, that Waldo’s dust is returning to dust.  Emerson wants to think and write Incarnationally; he wants to live that way.  But he cannot manage it resolutely.  (Can anyone?)  When writing to read in public, he tends always to see the relationship of fact to morals, to see the heavens in the earthly world.  And this makes him, and his urging his readers toward self-reliance and self-obedience, too Docetist.  He has a hard time with the hard facts, with the facts in relation to sensation. He writes from a luminous sense of omniscence, of omnipotence:  everything is transfigured, aglow with uncreated light.  But in his writing for himself, in his living, he finds that he is a dwarf, omni-nescient, powerless.  He is too Ebionite.  His son is taken from him in the sixth year of his joy, but Emerson cannot accept that.  Death, in particular the death of Waldo, seems like the triumph of sensation over morals, a putting-out of the uncreated light, darkness.  As he puts it in a journal entry (the one I am weaving into this post), he knows himself defeated constantly, but believes he is “born to victory”.

It strikes me that Emerson lacks a true sense of the sacramental.  (I believe this shows itself in Emerson’s (mis)understanding of religious ritual.)  For Emerson, creation itself is and should be sacramental, and the Incarnation he is and strives better to be is itself an instance of the sacramental, and is oriented toward the fullness of the sacramental.  The Incarnation finishes the sacramental activity of creation. Emerson needs to see the material as itself what realizes the spiritual, the tangible as what itself what realizes the moral.  But he all-too-often sees the material as opposed to the spiritual, the tangible as opposed to the moral.  So seeing, he all-too-often confronts facts divided, divided into the side that is related to sensation and the side that is related to morals.  So seeing, he becomes overwhelmed with the material, with sensation, and cannot find his way out of the darkness.  He would have Waldo immortal; he cannot imagine Waldo resurrected:  he is left with Waldo dead.  –How can someone born to victory be so defeated?

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