A poet says “Jew” to another poet

Jews have always stuck in the throat of English literature.

George Orwell’s history of the condition is succinct and accurate. “There has been a perceptible antisemitic strain in English literature from Chaucer onwards,” he explained to an American Jewish magazine just before the end of World War II, and after a long list of examples he concluded: “Offhand, the only English writers I can think of who, before the days of Hitler, made a definite effort to stick up for Jews are Dickens and Charles Reade.” One huge omission from this short roster of exceptions is George Eliot, and if you want to consider James Joyce a writer in an English tradition the list will lengthen from three names to four. A possible fifth might be Anthony Trollope, who vented his hatred of Benjamin Disraeli in racial terms but wrote sympathetically about some of his own Jewish characters. But who else can be added? Israel Zangwill, Edwardian Jewish writer with crossover appeal whose play The Melting-Pot supplied Theodore Roosevelt’s America with a metaphor? Henry Harland, American-born editor of The Yellow Book who in his New York youth wrote Jewish-themed novels under a Jewish pseudonym? Even those minor-indeed writers came to literature’s attention only as traditional Christian Jew-hatred was being reinvigorated by nineteenth-century racial thinking. Before then, Jews in English literature were less a subject than a trait: a diagnostic sign of an author’s unconscious or barely conscious sense of his Christian culture.

So it may be interesting that a Victorian poet with the trait was once put through a rigorous diagnosis by another Victorian poet. No improvement in the patient’s condition followed, but the diagnostician’s notes retain a literary value. They show us one manifestation of the trait communicating with another.

The poet whose trait presented as a case of Jews in the head was Coventry Patmore, his diagnostician was his fellow Catholic Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the specific symptom examined was his poem “1867.” The poem’s title refers to one of Disraeli’s triumphs: his capture on behalf of the Conservatives of the Representation of the People Act of 1867, the second of three Parliamentary reforms (in 1832, 1867 and 1884) that broadened the franchise in Victorian England. Patmore, a Conservative himself, didn’t approve of that, at all. As he indignantly explained to Hopkins in 1883:

I hate (in all charity) Lord Beaconsfield [Disraeli] more, if possible, than I hate Gladstone. . . . Do you remember the details of the passage of his Reform Bill in 1867? How it began by being a real work of defence against the tide of revolution, and how it ended – rather than Mr. Disraeli should go out of office – in actually consummating the revolution wh. the Radicals were only dreaming of? (Abbott 345)

He had been more poignant than that when he published “1867” in 1877. Then he had only cried,

Patmore, The Unknown Eros

“I, Ah, me” is a mere sigh, with the two first-person pronouns stripped of their referents. But now, in 1883, Father Hopkins was trying to make his patient think about the sigh and rewrite it in meaningful words. Logic, said Hopkins; and not only logic but also theology; and not only logic and theology but history as well, all indicated flaws in Mr. Patmore’s processing of language. Implacably, Hopkins’s Scotist prose spooled out onto the page:

As Claude Colleer Abbott points out about the Hopkins-Patmore correspondence, the relation between the two poets was bound to be prickly. They had their conversion to Catholicism in common, but they were mutually rebarbative. Patmore was also 21 years older than Hopkins, and as of 1883 The Angel in the House, the long sentimental poem about marriage that had made him famous in the high Victorian age, was 29 years in the past and beginning to look comical to the young. So it probably isn’t surprising that when Patmore republished “1867” in the third edition of his collection The Unknown Eros in 1890, a year after Hopkins’s death, he refused to alter its position in the calendar of his life. On the contrary, he augmented its title with the superscript that you’ve noticed and then tried to tag it to unchanging history with a footnote:

Patmore, The Unknown Eros

Trailed by the note into the land of the dead, Hopkins was presumably to have considered himself awakened at last to a proper sense of the shamefulness of what he had to say. After all, his education in life had been one long preparation for the experience. One of the many depressing memorabilia in Robert Bernard Martin’s biography is the manuscript of a practice sermon with a line drawn at the point where Hopkins had to stop speaking because his fellow seminarians had begun laughing at him. The Sea of Galilee, he had been preaching when the ha ha ha’s exploded, is shaped like a human ear, and this teaches us . . .

No, Hopkins’s mind and its vocabulary didn’t separate realities from one another the way other minds and vocabularies do. The thought that it might be alarming to lie down in a driveway in order to get the inscape of its sandy surface (another incident from the biography) didn’t matter to him or (take your pick) didn’t occur to him. There was also the time when Patmore wrote to Hopkins that he was proud of his son, and Hopkins solemnly informed Patmore in reply that pride is a sin. In the labyrinth of Hopkins’s language any point is at maximum distance from the exit to daylight and its reflection in a human eye, and in his dark matrix Hopkins couldn’t accept language on any terms but his own. Patmore was suffering, and Hopkins wouldn’t understand.

And then, in his suffering, Patmore wrote into a poem a word so reflective of suffering that it can drive even sober prose crazy. What happened after that suggests that to say the word “Jew” in a way sanely comprehensible was beyond the skill even of that subtle madman Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Up to this point, what you have been reading is a revision of something I wrote in the summer of 2015, when I was concerned about the Modern Language Association’s ideas about the disposition of Israel. Two years later, with the American language being changed in ways that make it increasingly hard to have an idea about anything, the Modern Language Association seems trivial. Its language is going obsolete and the language of Patmore seems set for a return to lingua franca. As once-topical terms like “Boycott, divest, sanction” recede into “What was that about?” incomprehensibility, Patmore’s term “their Jew” seems to be noticeable again in a way once again comprehensible. Its return to the currency of significance is occurring, too, in a Patmore way, not a Hopkins way — that is, not as a concept but as a lyric sound. Hopkins’s corrective letter speaks to the song called Their Jew in prose, but the song sings back only to itself, because it is a song. To those who happen to overhear, however, it adds, “Hey, just sayin’.” And then it also adds:

Once you become one with me in my song, you’ll never again need to think the word Jew, or anything else.


Abbott, Claude Colleer, ed. Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Including His Correspondence with Coventry Patmore. Oxford University Press, 1956.

Martin, Robert Bernard. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life. Putnam, 1991.

Orwell, George. “Antisemitism in Britain.” Contemporary Jewish Record, April 1945. http://orwell.ru/library/articles/antisemitism/english/e_antib, accessed 20 June 2015.

Patmore, Coventry. The Unknown Eros. Third edition. London: George Bell and Sons, 1890.

I owe my reminder of Trollope to Steven Helmling. See also Ann Marlowe, “Why Anthony Trollope is the Most Jewish of the Great English Novelists,” Tablet 24 April 2015, http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/190465/anthony-trollope-bicentennial