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

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Friday 24 September 2010
Ron Brownson

I cannot say with any certainty but I have always thought that Colin McCahonaccessed 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' andvowelling 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 steinbachpaper 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 inauguralHocken Lecture for the University of Otago at Auckland - a great initiative for theHocken 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Peter drew upon the amazing material in Charles Brasch's currently unpublished journals and showed, for the very first time, a photograph of Brasch preparing the installation of McCahon's exhibition A Landscape Theme and Variations in the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!