Philip Ballinger's book takes the reader on a wonderful journey assessing the formative influences on Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Going beyond the detailed scholarship on the subject, Ballinger explores three formative factors in Gerard Manley Hopkins' life and poetry, namely, John Ruskin, Ignatius of Loyola and Duns Scotus. He then creatively examines the theological aesthetic of Hopkins, utilizing Hans Urs von Balthasar's general approach, and concluding with the poem as sacrament. Ballinger states, "I intend to flesh out what I believe is the main area of Hopkins' theological contribution, namely, his theological aesthetics and, ultimately, his unspoken vision of the poem as 'sacrament'" (20).
Toward this end, the author clarifies certain concepts such as inscape which, "in its deepest root, refers to beauty" (52) and instress which refers to the force that holds the beauty of an object together as well as the "effect or feeling produced by inscape in the beholder." (53). According to Ballinger and others, it was John Ruskin who taught Hopkins, an "artist of keenest vision," how to see (26). The chapter on Ruskin's influence will thrill the artist in each of us. It will also challenge the reader, whether theologian, poet, educator, or mature Christian, to approach life and work in a new way. Art, with its sensitive and reflective approach to life, becomes a basis for the theological aesthetic in Hopkins' poetry.
Hopkins was not only a poet and an educator, he was also a Jesuit priest. He began his Jesuit training in 1868 and was ordained in 1877. However, rethinking the influence of the Spiritual Exercises on his creative work makes sense in light of the fact that the exercises provide method and context for the formational process (101). They do not necessarily contribute to Hopkins' theology and artistry. While Ignatius might be Hopkins' mentor for the inner life, Ruskin and Duns Scotus "supply the primary theological and philosophical underpinnings for his theological-aesthetical synthesis" (102). And von Balthasar concurs that "Hopkins and Ignatius do not look one another full in the face" (102). The kind of poetry we discover in Hopkins results from a more complex and interesting mix of events and personal influences.
John Duns Scotus' contributions to Hopkins are clearly identified by Ballinger, namely, the ability "to recognize all things in their reality and uniqueness," to discover sensation as "a kind of spiritual sense", and "to synthesize the beginnings of a theological, or even sacramental, aesthetic" (149-50). According to Marucci, Hopkins glimpsed in Scotus "the possibility of making poetry a theology" (149). Hopkins view of the Incarnation comes primarily from Scotus and he is the formative theological influence on the poet (122-23). Hopkins' poetry reflects a unique understanding of and approach to God because of this theological forefather.
Ballinger demonstrates how Hopkins echoes theological insights from his time but also integrates previous life experiences into the theological aesthetic identified partially by von Balthasar and clarified by the author. In this section of the book, Ballinger goes beyond previous studies. Particularly insightful is his view that "Hopkins does not come to his 'style of seeing God' in a whole piece. He evolved the style from his earliest roots" (180) and Ruskin played a significant role in the poet's artistry. Hopkins continues to stimulate the imagination of the contemporary reader because he had creative insights into life's realities. The early influence of Ruskin seemed to order his world whether theological, literary or religious. Perhaps, the artist's influence is why we resonate with the essence of Hopkins' poetry. Gerard Manley Hopkins enables us to glimpse God as the beautiful, not simply the true and the good (152-53). Ultimately, according to Ballinger, "poetry, in Hopkins, is a conveyance and heightening of some experience of unique divine self expressiveness, 'beauty,' or inscape" (190). This approach complements other theological perspectives and is refreshing reading in today's world.
This book is a scholarly and readable explanation of the formative influences on Gerard Manley Hopkins and his theological aesthetic. In addition to the obvious reasons for reading such a work, Ballinger's book is a resource for those exploring the origins of creativity and its development in a poet who still powerfully moves us to experience God's beauty in our world and in ourselves. While Hopkins did not attempt a synthesis of a theological aesthetic in his life time (233), Poem as Sacrament moves the discussion to a new level. Well documented and well written, Ballinger not only examines Hopkins from different perspectives but reinforces his points in Hopkins' own words. If you have not read the work of this poet/priest in a while, you will be eager to return to his work with a new level of interest and insight because of Ballinger's superb work.