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Gerard Manley Hopkins

Updated: Jul 26, 2022

The Eroticisation of the Working-Class Male Body

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in Poems, his collection published posthumously in 1918, returns consistently to themes of the body. The body is viewed through an erotic lens that presents a complex mediation of power between the poet and the object he describes. Hopkins depicts a range of bodily imagery, from Christ’s physical suffering to the eroticised working-class labourer, suggesting that, for Hopkins, the body is a battleground for the negotiation of power. Across his work, the physicality of the male body is accentuated via the focus on appearance and function, reducing the viewed body to an object. Sarah J. Gervais remarks that objectification ‘can manifest in a perhaps more insidious, narrowed focus that goes beyond a mere appearance focus to a form of body reduction’ (Gervais, 8). She argues that objectification is an act of violence against the viewed individual by reducing personhood to physical function alone. Hopkins’ male figures become limited not only as their silence and physicality initially suggests; they further function as manifestations of the poet’s desire for power. Julia F. Saville notes that Hopkins' weak health made him 'alert to the presence of virility in others’ (Saville, 162). Thus, his admiration of masculine strength becomes significant as an act of implicit self-criticism through association.

While not strictly sites for desire, bodies such as those depicted in 'Harry Ploughman' (1881) and 'Felix Randal' (1887), present an exploration of Hopkins' internal guilt for which Saville cites the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. She argues that 'the proliferation of poems celebrating manly beauty […] provide the poet with relief from his compulsive self-castigation […] [and stimulate] in him an even more intense feeling of guilt’ (Saville, 158). In this way, the bodies of Randal and Ploughman become more than objects of eroticisation, but also the moral grounds upon which Hopkins’ self-castigation takes place. Saville notes that the act of writing does not only relieve Hopkins from this, but furthers his self-castigation simultaneously, thus evoking a complex site upon which this power dynamic is explored. The objectification of these bodies, however, complicates Saville’s argument, as the process of objectification necessary to achieve this also enacts violence upon the bodies Hopkins places as superior to his own.

Hopkins' consistent poor health lends a certain sense of worship to his examination of strength and physical beauty. In his correspondence, Hopkins writes: 'it is certain that in nature outward beauty is proof of inward beauty, outward good of inward good.' (FL, 306-07). He uses both religious imagery and objectification to legitimise his admiration of strength, and Saville argues that these come with a significant masochistic undertone. However, I suggest that Hopkins employs both masochist and sadistic tendencies in these works. By depicting these male figures as objects, Hopkins is not only comparing their strength to his weakness, thus punishing himself for his failings, he is also exerting power over them in a way that they cannot refute. In this way, the ego and superego are constantly in flux within these poems. As Saville notes, the masochism becomes another site for sexual gratification through the admiration of the men that places Hopkins, as poet-narrator, morally and physically beneath them. However, I argue that these poems are even more complex – while, indeed, I abide by Saville's argument, I suggest expanding it to include considerations of the power imbalance between the well-educated, middle-class Jesuit priest, and the working-class labourer. The power dynamics within these poems are multifaceted as both figures within each poem – the narrator and the object – are engaged within the roles of both the powerful and the weak. While Randal and Ploughman possess a physical strength that Hopkins admires, envies, and compares himself to, it is the voice of the poet that possess social and spiritual power. In this way, Hopkins' objectification is not only an act of masochism towards the self as the religious lens lowers the poet-narrator's worth by presenting the objects as Christ-like, but also of sadism while the act of writing enables the opposite.

In order to deconstruct Saville’s argument that Hopkins creates his bodies with masochistic intent, it is necessary to understand Freud’s theory of masochism. He engages extensively with these theories in his 1924 work The Economic Problem of Masochism. In this work, he states that masochism is, at first glance, an odd phenomenon because it refutes our supposed instinct towards survival.

If mental processes are governed by the pleasure principle in such a way that their first aim is the avoidance of unpleasure […] [then] masochism is incomprehensible. (Freud, 159)

However, Freud later concedes that masochism is not solely an incarnation of the death drive, or the desire for self-destruction. For masochism, as Freud presents it, to become comprehensible, some form of pleasure must be derived from it. When Saville engages with Freud’s theory of masochism to organise her ideas of eroticisation within Hopkins’ work, she highlights the function relating to pleasure received by the narrator through the action of placing the male body on a pedestal and argues that this demeans the self. Sarah Sugarman, demystifying Freud’s theory, writes that since ‘pleasure can arise through an increase in stimuli, it follows that masochism, as an instance of such an increase in its cultivation of pain, can bring pleasure’ (Sugarman, 124). Freud outlines three modes of masochism, the first of which, erotogenic masochism, is a primary ‘lust for pain’ that ‘derives from the capability of any intense process within the organism to excite the sexual instinct.’ Similarly, feminine masochism also has sexual connotations, relating to the desire to be ‘forced into unconditional obedience’ (Sugarman, 125). Moral masochism, however, which Saville uses within her argument, is unique in that there is ‘no fantasized tormentor, [the] individual desires only punishment, regardless of the source.’ While moral masochism differs in that it is not inherently sexual, as Freud suggests erotogenic and feminine masochism are, it is associable with sexual desire in the sense that the subject, through all areas of masochism, my derive pleasure from their desire for complete passivity. Sugarman argues that Freud’s 'avoidance of unpleasure' is subverted as that very unpleasure becomes pleasure in its creation, and so any form of increased negative stimuli is inherently pleasurable to the masochist (Freud, 159). This applies to Hopkins' work due to the self-castigation identified by Saville. Nonetheless, these figures, when raised above the self by Hopkins, are objectified in accordance with this. The inherent pleasure Sugarman argues is derived from this action is only amplified through the action of objectifying these figures through a complex interpersonal relationship. This presents a multifaceted sado-masochistic relationship within these works.

In Freud’s work, it is the superego that seeks to inflict pain upon the ego, and the ego that desires to receive it – thus, pleasure is received simultaneously, as sadism and masochism become inextricable from one another, and both dependant on pleasure. In Hopkins’ work, we may theorise that the ego, the perception of reality, and the superego, the perception of morality, are manifested through his narrative voice. With this in mind, Hopkins’ poet-narrator becomes the ego, reporting the world as he views it, and the male bodies he describes, an impossible standard he strives to reach, becomes the superego. It follows that sadism is further applicable to the eroticisation of the body in these works, as Saville suggests masochism is, as the enaction of the power dynamics favours each in different ways. Hopkins crafts his superego in written form, as well as the comparable figure with which he must be positioned beneath. Robert Grimwade notes that ‘the sexual aim of the sadist is overstated acts of mastery […] toward the sexual object’, meanwhile ‘in masochism the aim of sadism is sustained but, by inversion, the object becomes the subject’ (Grimwade, 157). In his poems, Hopkins utilises both. The act of objectifying the male body and reducing it to its functional parts works as a sadistic dehumanisation, while the simultaneous admiration confounds the poet-narrator into Saville's idea of self-castigation. Both processes are pleasurable to the poet, and both adhere to the complexity of the ego and superego relationship.

In his poems, Hopkins attempts to regain the control he does not have in reality due to his weak health by exerting his will, his dominion, over those physically stronger, but spiritually and socially weaker, than himself. Hopkins transmutes his weakness into strength and confounds what Saville identifies as masochistic tendencies into those with a more sadistic intention. While the physical strength of figures such as Randal and Ploughman initially identifies them as the powerful, and Hopkins as the weak whose only ability is to view them in admiration, through the act of writing he regains power over the men he objectifies. Objectification, as Gervais asserts, is an act of violence, and Hopkins uses this sadism to reassert power, while also submitting to the physical superiority of these figures. In this way, the power dynamics are consistently in flux within both poems as Hopkins' engages in a complex battle of domination and submission. In praising the figures, Hopkins places himself beneath them; through the act of writing, he places himself above. One is reminded of Sandra Gilbert's landmark theory of the pen as a metaphorical penis; she argues that the act of writing is an expression of power over the written subject and uses Hopkins as an example. Gilbert cites his correspondence with R.W. Dixon for this 'crucial feature of his theory of poetry’ (Gilbert, 3). Hopkins claims that 'the most essential quality [is] masterly execution, which is a kind of male gift,' and in so saying he presents the action of writing as one of inherent power. It is through this that Hopkins may reclaim the virility Saville claims he requires (Hopkins, Correspondence, 133).

Works Cited

Abbott, C.C., The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon (London: Oxford University Press, 1935)

Abbott, C.C., Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London: Oxford University Press, 1935)

Freud, Sigmund, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume Nineteen (1923-19250: The Ego and the Id and Other Works, ed. by James Strachey, Alix Strachey, and Alan Tyson (London: Vintage, 2001)

Gervais, Sarah J., Objectification and (De)Humanisation: 60th Nebraska Consortium (New York: Springer, 2012)

Gilbert, Sandra M., The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Nota Bene, 2000)

Grimwade, Robert, 'Between the Quills: Schopenhaeur and Freud on Sadism and Masochism', The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 92 (2011)

Hopkins, Gerard Manley, The Major Works, ed. by Catherine Phillips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Saville, Julia F., A Queer Chivalry: The Homoerotic Asceticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London: University of Virginia Press, 2000)

Sugarman, Sarah, What Freud Really Meant: A Chronological Reconstruction of his Theory of Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016)

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