Although the English author and Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) wrote no more than 40 mature poems, he is regarded as one of the major English poets.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was born at Stratford, Essex, on July 28, 1844, into a talented family which encouraged his artistic nature. In 1854 he entered Highgate School, where he distinguished himself as a gifted student and began to write Keatsian nature poetry. At the age of 19 he entered Balliol College, Oxford University. Hopkins's undergraduate letters, notebooks, and sketchbooks reveal his intelligence, sensitivity, and sensuous response to natural beauty. Yet he was physically delicate and revealed an ascetic tendency, a strongwilled desire to curb his passionate and egotistic spirit. At Highgate, for example, he once went a week without drinking any liquids, and at Oxford during Lent he allowed himself "no tea except if to keep me awake and then without sugar."
In 1864 Hopkins was deeply moved by his reading of John Henry Newman's Apologia pro vita sua, which carefully detailed the reasons for his conversion to Catholicism. On Oct. 21, 1866, Newman himself received Hopkins into the Roman Catholic Church. Once Hopkins became a Catholic, his need to control his sensuousness and individualism led him steadily toward the most ascetic mode of life he could choose. By January 1868 he had resolved to become a priest, and on September 7 he entered Manresa House, a Jesuit novitiate near London. For 2 years he was a novice at Manresa House. He then took his initial vows and began 3 years of study at Stonyhurst College. In 1874 he returned to Manresa House to teach classics. He then went to St. Beuno's College in North Wales for 3 years of theological studies. He was ordained a priest in 1877 and served for 4 years in parishes in London, Chesterfield, Oxford, Liverpool, and Glasgow. In 1882-1884 he taught Greek and Latin at Stonyhurst, and in January 1884 he was elected to the chair of Greek at University College, Dublin. He taught there until he died of typhoid fever, after a long period of ill health, on June 8, 1889.
"The Wreck of the Deutschland"
During the summer before Hopkins became a Jesuit novice, he burned all the poetry he had written at Highgate and Oxford and "resolved to write no more, as not belonging to my profession, unless it were by the wish of my superiors." For 7 years (1868-1875) he kept this poetic silence. But on the night of Dec. 7, 1875, a German ship, the Deutschland, was wrecked by a storm in the mouth of the Thames River. Most of the passengers were lost, among them five Franciscan nuns who were religious exiles from Germany.
Hopkins was deeply moved by what he considered the martyrdom of the nuns, and when his rector casually expressed the thought that someone should write a poem about it, Hopkins felt relieved of his vow of silence and wrote "The Wreck of the Deutschland." The poem is too long and complex to summarize briefly, but it is essentially a justification of human suffering as God's only means of suppressing the human ego so that men may learn to love Him more than themselves.
The poem is thus conventional in theme. But it is radically innovative in technique, for it is the first poem which Hopkins wrote in what he called "sprung rhythm." Sprung rhythm basically consists of a set number of stressed syllables per line of poetry, but the number of unstressed syllables may vary considerably in each line. If few unstressed syllables are used, the line is heavily accentual, rugged, and slow. If many are used, the line moves quickly and lightly.
Hopkins chose sprung rhythm because he felt it most closely approximated the rhythm of natural speech but was also strongly musical. To heighten this musicality, he often used alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme. He also made heavy use of elliptical compression, multiple meanings, ambiguous syntax, and paradox. He kept his diction simple and precise, but he borrowed words from Welsh and occasionally created his own. The end result is poetry which anticipates many of the characteristics of modern verse in its force, flexibility, and compression.
After "The Wreck of the Deutschland" Hopkins turned to shorter poetry, often written in the sonnet form. Yet he continued to experiment with sprung rhythm. As a result, many of these short lyrics exhibit a tension between the energy and force of the rhythm and the restriction of the form.
Many of the best of these lyrics express Hopkins's ecstatic joy in the beauty of nature. The journal which Hopkins kept from 1868 to 1875 reveals his constant effort to discern and reproduce the particular characteristics of a beautiful object or experience that distinguish it from any other. Hopkins called this individuality or "selfhood" of a thing "inscape" and designated the experience of perceiving inscape and thereby being joined more intimately with the object or experience as "instress."
The journal also shows that from his study of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the philosophy of John Duns Scotus, Hopkins extended his earlier, purely sensuous view of natural beauty to a sacramental view of nature as a material symbol of God's perfect spiritual beauty. The realization of natural beauty thus becomes a religious experience in which a perceiver is instressed with the inscape of a beautiful thing and thus instressed with God, the creator of that beauty. Many of Hopkins's most beautiful nature poems, such as "Pied Beauty" and "Hurrahing in Harvest, " describe precisely this experience. Others, like "God's Grandeur, " express Hopkins's despair that man's corruption prevents him from seeing natural beauty as "news of God." His most famous poem, "The Windhover, " records his realization of the inscape of Christ through the inscape of a hawk and poses his ecstatic joy in the beauty of both bird and Christ against his willing submission to the asceticism of routine religious duties.
During the last 5 years of his life several problems conspired to depress Hopkins's spirits and restrict his poetic inspiration. He disliked living in Dublin "at a third remove" from England and friends, his work load was extremely heavy, his eyesight began to fail, and his general health deteriorated rapidly. He felt confined in a "coffin of weakness and dejection." Moreover, as a devout Jesuit, he found himself in an artistic dilemma. He had decided never to publish his poetry, to subdue any egotism which would violate the humility required by his religious position. But Hopkins realized that any true poet requires an audience for criticism as well as encouragement. This conflict between his religious obligations and his poetic talent caused him to feel that he had failed both.
Hopkins found himself "time's eunuch, " religiously sterile because removed from God's favor and poetically sterile because God is the religious poet's inspiration. In this "winter world" Hopkins's only solution was to make his religious sterility the subject matter of his seven "terrible sonnets … written in blood" in 1885. "To Seem the Stranger, " "I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, " "No Worst, There Is None"—poems which Hopkins said came to him "unbidden and against my will"—record his deep despair, feeling of separation from God, and sense of personal worthlessness.
During the last 2 years of his life Hopkins wrote only five additional poems. Two of them still voice despair, but three climb toward renewed hope for reunion with God. The triumphant poem "That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection" explains Hopkins's dying words, "I am so happy."
Further Reading on Gerard Manley Hopkins
Two good biographies of Hopkins are Eleanor Ruggles, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life (1944), and Jean Georges Ritz, Robert Bridges and Gerard Hopkins, 1863-1889: A Literary Friendship (1960). John Pick, Gerard Manley Hopkins: Priest and Poet (1942; 2d ed. 1966), offers additional insight from the Roman Catholic point of view. Excellent critical analysis of Hopkins's poetry is in Gerard Manley Hopkins, by the Kenyon Critics (1945); Wilhelmus Antonius Maria Peters, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Critical Essay towards the Understanding of His Poetry (1948); and William H. Gardner, Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1884-1889: A Study of Poetic Idiosyncrasy in Relation to Poetic Tradition (2d ed., 2 vols., 1948-1949).
Additional Biography Sources
Bergonzi, Bernard, Gerard Manley Hopkins, London: Macmillan, 1977.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889): new essays on his life, writing, and place in English literature, Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1989.
Keating, John Edward, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.
Kitchen, Paddy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, New York: Atheneum, 1979, 1978.
Martin, Robert Bernard, Gerard Manley Hopkins: a very private life, New York: Putnam, 1991.
Pick, John, Gerard Manley Hopkins, priest and poet, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978, 1966.
Roberts, Gerald, Gerard Manley Hopkins: a literary life, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Srinivasa Iyengar, K. R., Gerard Manley Hopkins: the man and the poet, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.
Weiss, Theodore Russell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, realist on Parnassus, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.
White, Norman, Hopkins: a literary biography, Oxford England: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.