Friday 24 September 2010

Negative Capability (3) - Colin McCahon and Gerard Manley Hopkins

I cannot say with any certainty but I have always thought that Colin McCahon accessed the poems and prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins through the selection edited by W.H.Gardiner for Penguin Books. First published in 1953, it went through numerous reprints in the 1960s and 1970s.

Gardiner's introduction to Hopkins is one of the best essays on the poet. He writes about the 'sound-texture' of Hopkins's poetry and his technique of 'vowelling on' and vowelling off'. This device is one of the keys to the poet's 'sprung rhythm' and stressed syllables.

Felix Randal was a poem that Colin McCahon admired and he invokes it in Angels and bed no. 9: Thinking of Hopkins-Felix Randal. This 1977 acrylic on steinbach paper can be viewed at the newly revamped Colin McCahon Online Catalogue.

Here is the link to the painting:

The McCahon database is an essential research tool for everyone wanting to know more about this exceptional artist. One can search by collection, date, title, subject and association. I refer to it on almost a daily basis and recommend it to you if you want to study the painter in depth.

The other day I attended the hugely informative illustrated lecture Patron and Painter: Charles Brasch and Colin McCahon delivered by Professor Peter Simpson at the newly opened TSB Wallace Arts Centre. He was presenting the inaugural Hocken Lecture for the University of Otago at Auckland - a great initiative for the Hocken and the University.

Peter drew upon the amazing material in Charles Brasch's currently unpublished journals and showed, for the very first time, a photograph of Brasch preparing the installation of McCahon's exhibition A Landscape Theme and Variations in the foyer of the Otago Museum in 1963.

I thought you may like to read Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem Felix Randal. He must surely be one of the key British poets of the 19th century? It feels so modern and tortured.

Felix Randal the farrier, O he is dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!


Peter Simpson said...

On the matter of McCahon and Hopkins, apart from the reference to Felix Randall there are
several other occasions McCahon alludes to him (which I'm sure you know anyway). There is the line 'Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain' (from the so called 'terrible sonnet', 'Thou art indeed just, Lord...' on 'May
His Light Shine (Cornwall Park)' (1978. Then there is the phrase 'cliffs of fall' from another 'terrible sonnet', 'No worst, there is none...' that appears on several of the Muriwai drawings such as 'McLeavey sat Here' (1975). Then (most striking of all in some ways) are the
lines from 'The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo' in the 'For Don and Julia' diptych (1961), only one of which ('For Julia') is on the McCahon website: 'How to keep, is there any any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch/or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch or key to keep/Back beauty, keep it beauty, beauty, beauty...from vanishing away'. These lines are from 'The Leaden Echo'; the other panel, which I once saw, has lines from 'The Golden Echo', though I cannot be sure now which ones they were.
I suspect that McCahon picked up his interest in Hopkins from his great friend John Caselberg who was a big Hopkins fan and whose own poetry (especially 'The Wake' which McCahon painted in 1958)was greatly influenced by GMH.
On one meorable occasion at Titirangi (as reported by Lois McIvor), McCahon and friends were drinking wine (Dally plonk no doubt)on the deck at Otitori Road when Caselberg gave a reading of the great Hopkins poem 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' (about the drowning of some Catholic nuns in a shipwreck), apparently thumping on the deck with his fist to keep the rhythm, while, according to McIvor, Colin rocked back and forth on his heels chuckling to himself.
:'How to keep...Beauty from vanishing away').

Ron Brownson said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Peter.

You have now made it very clear that McCahon looked very closely at Hopkins's poetry.

Peter Simpson said...

A further small note on McCahon, Caselberg and Hopkins.

In November 1978 McCahon sent Caselberg an envelope full of newspaper clippings about the Bastion Point fracas and also a copy of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems, in case, as he put it, John's copy was as battered as his was. Colin added that he was getting his copy re-bound. He doesn't mention which edition it was but Ron's guess that it was the Penguin edition is probably correct.