Now and then a powerful artist late in his career produces a work that is both unexpected and at the same time a kind of culmination of a lifetime. Frederick Buechner's most recent book, Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith, due in paperback in August from HarperSanFrancisco, is such a book.
Buechner's title is taken from some lines spoken by the Duke of Albany in William Shakespeare's King Lear: "The weight of this sad time we must obey, / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." Of his earlier works, this one can most readily be compared with Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. In Speak What We Feel, Buechner reflects on an intriguing and complex question: "within what life-circumstances have great writers produced their very best work?" In four chapters he considers what is at first glance an unlikely ensemble of writers: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton, and Shakespeare.
The epitaph on Hopkins' Dublin grave records that "he had a most subtle mind, which too quickly wore out the fragile strength of his body." Hopkins spent the last few years of his life as a teacher of Latin and Greek to undergraduates, and this seems to have been far from a satisfactory assignment. Hopkins was alienated from his homeland, from his family's Anglicanism and from his father, and even to some degree from his vocation. What's more, even his literary friend Robert Bridges thought very poorly of Hopkins' poetry, so that he can't have had much hope that what he wrote would even outlive him. Buechner gives us a good sense of what must have been Hopkins' cast of mind as he tried to compose a poem for his brother's wedding, writing for a particular ...1
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