The back cover blurb is actually accurate:
Reflections on literature and faith: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton and William Shakespeare "wrote in his own blood about the darkness of life as he found it, and about how--for better or worse--he managed somehow to survive it, even to embrace it."
This book tries to correlate a time of darkness in the lives of these writers with the darkness expressed in one or more of their works: for Hopkins the "dark sonnets," for Twain Huckleberry Finn, for Chesterton The Man Who Was Thursday, and for Shakespeare King Lear.
If you have not yet read Huckleberry Finn or The Man Who Was Thursday, do not read Buechner's book yet. Go read Twain and Chesterton. There are some spoilers here, and though the books are great enough to stand many re-readings, I don't want you to miss the pleasant surprises of a first reading.
Hopkins became a Jesuit priest, and was assigned to teach in a Dublin school; a job for which he was temperamentally ill-equipped. Physically and mentally delicate, he burned out in the post, but not before writing a number of poems whose gramlost weldwords deutschverb sigh.*
Buechner parses Hopkins' dark sonnets to find the depths of his dark night of the soul; a dark night of self-knowledge. But it wasn't complete despair, and hints of hope remain. Buechner analyses very well.
But: I'm afraid I must disagree with Buechner and concur with Hopkins' friend Bridge's assessment of The Wreck of the Deutschland: it isn't good. Hopkins wrote much of his poetry in a language of his own, kin to English but with his own words and with grammar contorted beyond the worst of Browning. Sometimes it works in part: Spring and Fall "Margaret, are you grieving Over Goldengrove unleaving," or one of my wife's favorites Pied Beauty "Glory be to God for dappled things." I consider such private languages cheating. We have the rules of the game for communicating with the reader: you'd better have excellent reasons and consummate skill if you plan to break them and make the reader learn a new language. Some times Hopkins made it work, sometimes I find no music there.
Another illustration of cheating might be T.S. Elliott and Wasteland. It seems at first like a kitchen-sink poem with everything tossed in, but it isn't. Less-brilliant and less-workmanlike poets have used that "deeply personal" kitchen sink model disastrously since.
At the beginning of Huckleberry Finn you find this warning:
"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author Per G. G., Chief Ordnance."
I'm waiting for the implications of that to sink in in English classes around the land...
Twain's life wasn't exactly a bowl of cherries. We all know the tragedies of his later life (for which he seems to have often blamed himself), but I hadn't realized how much death there was in his childhood, for which a sensitive child might well have felt responsible. Apparently he started writing Huck in a time of troubles, picked it up again in another time of trouble, and finished it during a happy era of his life. Darkness and gloom don't seem to be the keynotes of the book, but Buechner's closer inspection shows that the crisis of faith Huck endures is set in a background of lies and hypocrisy; a crisis that feels personal. Twain himself seems to have abandoned faith after his crisis—or almost abandoned it. But he preserved a humanist care for people, which Huck mirrors in the book, even for the villainous Duke and Dauphin. Or at any rate, Twain maintained that interest until the bitterness at the end of his life overwhelmed him.
Buechner's choice of Chesterton to illustrate the darkness of life seems very odd. Chesterton is far better known as one who embraced and championed the unspeakable joy of life: the mystery not of pain but of pleasure.
"You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, and swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in ink."
But Chesterton wrote The Man Who Was Thursday and subtitled it A Nightmare; and so it is. Our hero is alone in a hostile world, and the unmaskings and riddles only lead to further mysteries where everything he believed solid proves unstable. Buechner found that this reflected Chesterton's terrible years at art school, where he first became immersed in the reductionist debunking spirit of the age, finally reached a very late puberty, and first discovered the violence in his own soul—all while still an unbeliever. He made a choice for sanity and eventually became one of the champions of the faith, and later wrote Thursday. He claimed afterwards that the book did not reflect his beliefs about suffering, but then it didn't not reflect something real too. A psychiatrist once told him that he had a few patients whose lives were saved because they read The Man Who Was Thursday and understood it.
Lastly Buechner tackles Shakespeare and King Lear. Of course, Shakespeare's life is not well known in detail, but there were a few times that would have been a little tough. And we have the evidence of other plays (some far from great, like Timon of Athens) to suggest that Shakespeare spent a year or so extremely depressed about something. Buechner studies Lear in detail, and does a fine job of showing things I'd overlooked when I last read the play (I've never seen it). Every character winds up embroiled in deception and self-deception, even the loving daughter too stubborn to make the simple declarative statement that would have prevented the breach with her father. Pain rules, with the only glimmers of hope being the transient reconciliation and the pronouncement “on such sacrifices the gods themselves throw incense.” And of course, as C.S. Lewis points out, the nameless first servant who attacked Cornwall when Cornwall blinded Gloster proved that not everyone loved evil or deception. But still the play remains a vivid picture of the deceit and treachery and pain in life.
The play was given a happy ending for two centuries after Shakespeare's death: programmers thought the original too dark and painful for audiences.
Buechner's book takes its title from King Lear: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” He doesn't try to draw great conclusions, except to show people who have looked into the darkness and written honestly about both the darkness and the glimmers of light. He's a very good writer himself. Sometimes we can use reminders of the darkness when people try to pretend that all is sweetness and light. Darkness without despair here: a good book.
I've had complaints that my parody is unfair. Here is the entire poem Spring and Fall of which I was parodying line 8:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.