In 1884, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) became Professor of Classics at what was then the brand-new University College, Dublin. UCD was then in transition from the old Catholic University. Its management had been passed to the Jesuits, along with the lease on a group of buildings in poor repair on the south side of St Stephen’s Green. In his engaging history of UCD: A National Idea, Donal McCartney tells us that a contemporary of GMH described the place as ‘a dingy old barracks’, with rotten floors and crumbling woodwork. It’s common knowledge that GMH disliked living in Dublin, and with some justification – rumour has it that he contracted the typhoid that killed him from dodgy plumbing in number 86.
There’s nothing dodgy about Newman House and its adjacent buildings now. Fully restored to former glories, UCD’s own website describes it as ‘rather lush’. This is where I came to experience the unusual No Worst There Is None, an event that resists categorization. Is it an installation? A radio play? (It’s available as a podcast from RTE (http://www.rte.ie/drama/radio/genres-culture-noworstthereisnone.html.) The Festival programme bills it as a ‘unique listening experience’. Stomach Box, who conceived and produced it, call it ‘a sonic journey into the psyche of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as he approaches death’. (http://www.thestomachbox.com/)
The Dublin Writers’ Festival arranged for people to come, singly and in turn, to listen to GMH’s words as reconstructed by Stomach Box, in the room where the poet lived, slept, prayed and probably conjured his last poems. Two are reproduced in the room: “No Worst There Is None” and “I Wake And Feel The Fell Of Dark, Not Day.”
A delightful young woman came to collect me from the waiting room when it was my turn to go up. Climbing the main staircase under the spectacular chandelier, I had a weird sense of pilgrimage. We took the back stairs further up, to GMH’s old bedroom. The young woman set me up with an ipod nano and a set of headphones, told me I could sit on the bed if I liked, and left me to it. The door closed behind her, a bell tolled, and Will O’Connell’s rich voice struck its gong deep in the pleasure centres of my brain, speaking the poet’s words. ‘My dear Mother,’ he begins, and goes on to describe the onset of the bout of typhoid that would kill him.
The text continues, weaving passages from letters and from the journal in and out of lines from poems, whole poems, poems sung in eerie, haunting chants by the Dublin Choral Foundation and St Patrick’s Cathedral Choir. It uses echoes, harmonies and discords, strings and sibilants in an acoustic production that had me completely absorbed and utterly rattled by the time it was over.
As bedrooms go, this one is large, by our standards. Well, by my standards. Good for pacing. It looks out on the gorgeous Iveagh Gardens, Dublin’s favourite secret park. Today, an unexplained marquee had been pitched in the Gardens, with fat, cheerful, blue and yellow stripes. It undermined the Victorian effect, so I turned my back on it, to absorb the room. It’s been carefully restored, based on accounts in GMH’s letters and journal. The walls are a colour I can only describe as nausea brown, the floor is black. Not a great colour scheme for someone with depressive tendencies. I wondered at the two plump pillows on the plain iron bed. GMH, I felt sure, would only have had one. If even. The bed was movingly rumpled, as though someone had recently lain there. Maybe they did. In a weirdly provocative echo of the whole experience, I never saw the person who came before me, or whoever came after me.
I was far more moved than I expected to be. It was as if GMH had been eavesdropping on insomniac bouts of mine, rather than the other way around. Who’d have thought that a neurotic, underachieving and hopelessly flawed twenty-first century Irishwoman would have so much in common with a Victorian Jesuit genius? His regret at wasted time, at work undone or inadequately done, for failing to pay adequate attention, failure to live up to his own expectations, struck a deep chord. But when he reproached – himself – twice! – for yielding to the biscuits, my heart broke for him. The first time, they’re mentioned in passing: Biscuits; a sad little word, all on its own. Later, among a string of other failings: two biscuits! Ah yes, that second biscuit.
It’s not hard to imagine what it might have been like to be him, away from home and lonely, wrestling with his conscience and his art. I wished I could tell him to go easy on himself. I wanted to reach back inside the past and tell him he’d be a giant, later. That people would mount the stairs in orderly procession to his old room, to sit in the uncomfy chair beside the black and empty grate, stroll around the room to look at the clothes brush, the razor, the ewer, and reflect. That he’d be one of the first writers to book out in a literary festival in 2013.
I don’t think I’d tell him about the reconstructed room, though. I’m not sure he’d like the idea, of the room, or the pilgrims, or even the greatness. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t think much of me. But I loved the experience. It drew me fully into the pity and fear that Aristotle uses to define tragedy, the emotions coming from recognition. And it was an inspired idea, to give people access to aspects of the poet’s mind alone in a room where the man actually lived and wrote some of the lines they are hearing, delivered in sonorous tones, direct to the drum of the ear.
No Worst, There Is None (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,/More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring./Comforter, where, where is your comforting?/Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?/My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief/Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —/Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-/ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”‘
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap/May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small/Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,/Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all/Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
Donal McCartney, UCD: A National Idea: The History of University College, Dublin. Gill & Macmillan. 1999