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Joseph J. Feeney. The Playfulness of Gerald Manley Hopkins.

Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. 228 p. ISBN 978–0-7546–6005–7.
Bénédicte Coste
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Joseph J. Feeney. The Playfulness of Gerald Manley Hopkins.
Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. 228 p. ISBN 978–0-7546–6005–7

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1A distinguished Hopkins scholar and member of the SJ, Joseph J. Feeney presents an unexpected vision of G. M. Hopkins, far from the received image of the serious-minded writer as if his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1866 had permanently darkened his mind and writings. His main argument is that the poet also expressed a great amount of playfulness: ‘Hopkins is truly and essentially playful.’ (xix). Hopkins cannot only be seen as a difficult and gloomy poet: his linguistic creativity may be read as the manifestation of a playful relationship to language. Joseph J. Feeney foregrounds his analysis in Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1938) which defines play as a cultural phenomenon, essential if one wants to understand man beyond the mere dimensions of homo sapiens and homo faber. Play as such is an invaluable contribution to the development of culture.

2Chapter one, ‘A Ludic Biography’, gives a general overview of Hopkins’s life as grounds for reading his poetry and prose as playful as was the poet. The second chapter tries to give a theoretical basis and descriptive definition of literary play. Huizinga defines playfulness as the addition of fun, creativity, contest, and style. Feeney uses these qualities in his description of the literary play. Hence he defines play-as-fun as ‘bring[ing] delight, a smile, a chuckle, a laugh. It includes humor, whimsy, comedy, incongruity, understatement, exaggeration, puns, jokes, wit, parody, irony, satire, absurdity, silliness, zaniness, a taste for the ridiculous. It is a frolic, distinctively non-serious. A writer’s play-as-fun can involve theme, content, plot, character, point-of-view, image metaphor, language, sound, rhyme, rhythm, or form.’ (46) To play-as-creativity as defined by Huizinga as one of the great archetypal activities ‘a shining, a sudden appearance’ occurring in the primitive ‘region of dream, enchantment, ecstasy, laughter,’ Feeney adds A. Koestler’s theory of bissociation (when two opposite frames of reference are brought into contact) which results in creating something unexpected and incongruous. Play-as-contest involves the ‘competitive impulse’ and the ‘agonistic element’ present in all play, and play-as-style involves the profoundly aesthetic quality of play, its beauty of style, the beauty and artistic unity of word, image, sound, rhythm, and rhyme.

3Playfulness in literature can hence be defined as ‘a mixture of fun, creativity, contest, and style. Of these, fun is the most important: the playful work of a playful writer must, above all, be “fun.”’ (50) Feeney focuses on fun defined as ‘the salient aspect of playfulness, and includes such pleasures as wit, puns, humor, comedy, parody, irony, satire, incongruity, understatement, exaggeration, jokes, even silliness’ (xviii-xix) and devotes the following chapters to examining Hopkins’s poetry and major prose along these lines, starting from the ‘Early Poems’ to the ‘Irish Poems’ and including Hopkins’s prose in journals, sermons, essays. He studies Hopkins’s modes of play defined as whimsy (i.e. a light spontaneous benign humor which notes and enjoys airy parallels), comedy, the incongruous, wit, light satire, and silliness. He notes that Hopkins had a fondness for the comic, the ridiculous and incongruity and that he may be seen as a light satirist and ironist. Studying Hopkins’s metaphors, images, perspectives, wordplay, and soundplay, he underlines that Hopkins evinces a great sense of bissociation in his devising incongruous images morphing into genuine metaphoric chains. A pun-lover, Hopkins also manifests a total creativity as regards word-building, hyphenation, coinages, grammar, syntax and typography. His soundplay includes alliterations, cynghanedd, assonance, rhyme, and sprung rhythm which constitutes relevant characteristics for a poet who thought all poetry was made to be read and performed. Very interesting, although only touched upon, is Feeney’s analysis of Hopkins’s way of looking at the world structured along 4 axes: directly although with some help, from a strange viewpoint, through a medium or through a reflection.

4For Feeney all the above-mentioned features constitute ‘a playful affront to Victorian propriety’ (184) and he concludes that Hopkins struggled with other poets, norms and traditions as well as with himself. Indeed Hopkins enjoyed singularity, and playfulness touches everything he dealt with: from God to fish, including, saints, sacraments, sin, himself, other people, literature, and nature. His texts may be seen in the light of I. Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium (1988) celebrating lightness as opposed to weight.

5Feeney’s jargon-free demonstration is convincing but somehow repetitive as the pattern for studying Hopkins’s playfulness is repeated in all chapters with the effect of flattening all poems to a single type and depriving the poet of the dimension of change. It is as if Hopkins had crafted a relationship to language early in life and consistently applied it to all he wrote, never varying in his method. Although Feeney makes close readings (one may rightly argue that it is difficult to do otherwise with such a language-twister as Hopkins), his analysis tends to become monotonous because it appears to be locked in a too tight pattern. One may also find that his definition of fun encompasses and confuses too many different notions, some literary, some extra-literary. The justified emphasis on Hopkins’s playfulness may also result in making one forget the point of Hopkins’s ambivalent relationship to language, both a medium for creativity and transformation and somehow incapable of achieving the task assigned of grasping the real as such. We may argue that such an ambivalent attitude on Hopkins’s part ended when he ‘rejected any further development of the distinctive style he had devised’ under the criticism of Bridges and Dixon in 1888 and stopped writing altogether, as Feeney rightfully points out (186). As if the cost of breaking rules had become too high for him.

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Bénédicte Coste, « Joseph J. Feeney. The Playfulness of Gerald Manley Hopkins. »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 70 automne | 2009, mis en ligne le 18 décembre 2018, consulté le 17 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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