Ambrose Bierce and Gerard Manley Hopkins: Writers Famous for Not Being Famous

You can argue with the politics of The Weekly Standard all you want, but the magazine’s Books, Arts & Society section is almost uniformly superb.

Two recent examples are reviews of writers who failed to achieve fame in their lifetimes – or ours.

Start with Ambrose Bierce, profiled by the always-readable Andrew Ferguson in the latest edition of the Standard.

Cynic’s Progress

The brave life and mysterious death of Ambrose Bierce.

One golden autumn morning 100 years ago, a few blocks from where I’m writing these words in northwest Washington, D.C., BOB.v19-16.Dec30.Ferg_.TheHuntingtonLibraryAmbrose Bierce said goodbye to his secretary, turned the key in the door to his apartment on Logan Circle, and went off to God knows where.

I’m not speaking figuratively: God and nobody else knows where Ambrose Bierce ended up—or when, how, or why.

That was fitting for a man “whose fame was not general, even at its most robust,” as Ferguson notes.

“We have produced but one genuine wit,” H. L. Mencken wrote, in a survey of American letters: “Ambrose Bierce. And save to a small circle he is unknown today.” Mencken was writing decades after Bierce had gone off to Mexico, by which time his life was best remembered for the way he had left it. And the circle of those who read him is even smaller now, needless to say. When the Library of America finally got around to issuing a canonical selection of his writing, in 2011, the single volume (Philip Roth got nine!) was relatively slender; it was the 219th in the library’s series of great American writers.

Bierce suffered the unfortunate fate of being a “writer’s writer” – remarkably prolific, superbly epigrammatic, supremely ironic.

But mostly remembered – if at all – for his short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and his iconic The Devil’s Dictionary.

Then again, Ferguson says,

[H]e earned the right to be read and remembered for more than his cleverness, sharp as it was—especially now, on the 100th anniversary of his curious exit and in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. He served in the war with great distinction, and, in the decades that followed, he came closer than any other American to turning the great national cataclysm into art.

Reduced to contemporary terms, Bierce has earned the right to be read and remembered at least in Ferguson’s piece.

Next up: Jesuit priest and poet supreme Gerard Manley Hopkins, who suffered the fate of being a “poet’s poet.”

From Edward Short’s Weekly Standard piece on The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

His bold, innovative syntax and his celebration of “the roll, the rise, the carol” of creation are like nothing in English poetry:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came. 

Truly, Hopkins’ poetry is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. We defy you to read The Windhover and not get shivers.

But, like Ambrose Bierce, Hopkins was unfamous in his own time. From Short’s piece:

When it came to his own verse, Hopkins was human enough to miss fame . . . [But these] letters correct the view that Hopkins Unknownresented the religious order that forbade the publication of his verse: “When a man has given himself to God’s service,” he wrote to the poet Richard Watson Dixon in 1881, “when he has denied himself and followed Christ, he has fitted himself to receive and does receive from God a special guidance, a more particular providence.”

Now if you value what I write, if I do myself, much more does our Lord. And if he chooses to avail himself of what I leave at his disposal he can do so with a felicity and with a success which I could never command. And if he does not, then two things follow; one that the reward I shall nevertheless receive from him will be all the greater; the other that then I shall know how much a thing contrary to his will and even to my own best interests I should have done if I had taken things into my own hands and forced on publication.

Contrary to the Lord’s decision (and at ridicule-risk), we’ll publish our favorite Hopkins poem here (via the Poetry Foundation).

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection


Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
                            Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
                            Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                            Is immortal diamond.


Immortal, yes? And we’re not even religious.

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6 Responses to Ambrose Bierce and Gerard Manley Hopkins: Writers Famous for Not Being Famous

  1. Don Swaim says:

    With all due respect, I do not think you are correct when you say that Ambrose was not famous in his lifetime or ours — despite the Mencken quote eons ago. The number of Bierce books published since his death is staggering (being in the public domain helps). His work has been transformed into film, music — even opera. Not a day goes by that he is not quoted somewhere.
    Google shows 3,800,000 Bierce entries. There have been at least seven biographies. He has served as a character in several novels, including The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes. Gregory Peck played him in the movies.
    There are several Bierce websites in addition to my own.
    Bierce was celebrated in his lifetime, particularly as a bylined writer for the Hearst newspaper and magazine empire. Bierce may be even more prominent today than in his lifetime — not only because of his mysterious disappearance.
    I invite you to visit my website to see for yourself. The Bierce chronology is particularly illuminating.
    Don Swaim, founder
    The Ambrose Bierce Site:

    • Campaign Outsider says:

      Thanks for your interesting and illuminating comments, Mr. Swaim. With all due respect, though, we think your beef is more with Andrew Ferguson than with us. We’d be interested to know how he responds if you contact him. Meanwhile, all best for the new year.

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