Bernadette Waterman Ward, Contributing Writer
With astonishing intensity, for an hour and a half, English actor Richard Austin recited the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins from memory on Monday evening, Nov. 11, in the Art History Auditorium.
About 70 people attended the event, which closed with not only a standing ovation but also two encores. Although the actor has performed onstage and on camera, the mission of his professional life has been to spread the poetry of this 19th-century Jesuit priest in spoken form. “This is the way Gerard wanted it,” said Austin, who always calls the poet by his first name. He read from Hopkins’ letters to friends and family in which the poet insisted that his poetry must be spoken to bring out its meaning.
Bringing out the meaning is no easy task, however. Among English poets, Hopkins is one of the most difficult; convoluted syntax and compressed grammar hamper even an elementary understanding of the sentences. Nevertheless, the sheer beauty of the sound of the poetry and its stunning images attract readers, even when they are not quite sure what Hopkins has to say. Austin’s recitation fully revealed the beauty of the sound-chiming consonants, surprising rhymes, grand crescendos of catalogues. His sonorous English accent authentically reproduced the poet’s own (except for a humorous moment when he lapsed into a Scots brogue for the title of a poem set in Scotland).
But more than simply providing a torrent of verbal music, Austin brought the meaning of these complex works into greater intellectual and emotional clarity. The actor’s rich voice called the poems into action like the wind filling the sails of a grand old ship.
In fact, the two poems about shipwrecks were high points of the evening. Austin began by reciting some lovely and calm verse from the poet’s youth – work saved from the flames by chance, because Hopkins had meant to destroy it all as “not belonging to my profession,” meaning the priesthood. Then he explained the circumstances under which, after a seven-year silence, Hopkins wrote his ode, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”
His Jesuit superior had heard of five nuns who died in a shipwreck while in flight from a German governmental decree attempting to crush Catholic institutions. Hopkins’ superior said that someone should write a poem about it, and the audience laughed as Austin for a moment became the poet, rubbing his hands with eagerness to begin writing in the “new rhythm.” The mood became serious as Austin plunged them into a twenty-minute firestorm of theology, emotion and sheer, overwhelming participation in the horrors of the shipwreck, ending with Hopkins’ grand, rolling invocation of prayer for the salvation of England. At its conclusion, the audience burst out in applause for the first and only time during the recitation.
Deep, attentive silence formed the backdrop for most of the performance, a feat of interpretation and memory that impressed even those most familiar with the poet. (The Hopkins contingent of the Junior Poet project was a little more vocal than the rest.)
Breathless attention met the great nature sonnets of 1877. Austin introduced some of these with a word about Hopkins’ insights into environmental degradation. He also spoke briefly about his own experiences in the English countryside, seeing and hearing the sea and the skylark as Hopkins described them. One of the most moving moments of the evening was his recollection of reciting a Hopkins poem about the mercy of Christ to a dying friend who had fallen away from the Church, and the sick man’s tender response to it.
Only twice in the evening of intricate verbal interplay did the actor pause and begin a sonnet again; he flawlessly rendered the graceful, swift lyricism of “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,” despite its complex interplay of consonance, assonance and rhythm. Three of the most grim and difficult poems followed that exemplar of emotional extremes.
One of the poems fullest of action when performed but hardest to follow on paper was “The Loss of the Eurydice,” a somber prayer narrating a British naval disaster that was witnessed, Austin said, by the four-year-old Winston Churchill. Austin gave a terrifying tone to the account of a world laid waste in “Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves,” though his explanation omitted the poet’s intention of presenting the Last Judgment in his imagery. In “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection,” Austin moved the audience from delight in a bright storm-washed sky, to an earth where the “world’s wildfire” burns to “but ash” even human glory and finally to triumph when Christ’s resurrection transforms that ash into “immortal diamond.”
Austin performed the Dark Sonnets, written near the end of the poet’s life, with very little time between them; perhaps too little. After explaining the poet’s isolation and overwork in Ireland, Austin read the sonnets, which were sent in letters to friends at different times, together like a single work. This highlighted the poet’s anguish, but at the cost of individuating the particular insights unique to each sonnet. Austin stumbled on the very last sonnet of the poet’s life – fittingly, it seemed, as he recalled the last days of the man who never saw his works in publication.
After the event, much of the audience gathered for a reception, and kept Austin there answering questions for well over an hour. Professor of philosophy Dr. Matthew Walz and his young son, who have been memorizing Hopkins together, were enthusiastic about the performance, and Walz bought a CD of Hopkins poetry from Austin’s website after the event.
The recitation attracted members of the local community as well as students and faculty. Nevertheless, it was particularly fitting for the University of Dallas to host the event, where a Hopkins poem is inscribed on the Tower. The mastermind of the UD Core Curriculum, Dr. Louise Cowan, spoke last graduation to commend the practice of learning poetry by heart – and, though she is in her 90s, demonstrated the lasting value of memorized poetry by reciting, as Austin did, treasured works by Gerard Manley Hopkins.