Life of a poet revisited

July 28 is the birthday of Gerard Manley Hopkins, born in 1844, a Catholic convert who became a Jesuit and a great nature poet as well as what  we would call a sacramental poet. His observation of the countryside and seasons was astonishing in its detail and appreciation of ‘inscape’ and I suspect this has to do with his early desire to become a painter, deciding against it finally because he thought it was too “passionate” an exercise for someone with a religious vocation.


Hopkins in a letter: “a white shire of cloud. I looked long up at it till the tall height and the beauty of the scaping–regularly curled knots springing up if I remember from fine stems, like foliage on wood or stone–had strongly grown on me…. Unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is…. if you look well at big pack-clouds overhead you will soon find a strong large quaining and squaring in them which makes each pack impressive and whole.” 

While studying at Oxford, Hopkins was strongly influenced by the poetry and  Catholic medievalism of Christina Rossetti. In July 1866 he decided to become a Catholic, and he traveled to Birmingham in September to consult the leader of the Oxford converts, John Henry Newman. Newman received him into the Church in October. Gerard Manley Hopkins then became a Jesuit priest. Afterwards he made a bonfire of his poems and gave up poetry for seven years. He became estranged from his Anglican family, his parents appalled by his conversion to Rome.


Just writing down the bare bones of his life moves me — thinking of the suffering endured, akin to the heavy price paid by John Henry Newman and other English converts at a time when to be Catholic was to be alien, not really Christian, no longer wholesome, decent or English, to slip into thrall to the “wolf of Rome’.


A letter from Hopkins: “The great aid to belief and object of belief is the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Religion without that is sombre, dangerous, illogical, with that it is–not to speak of its grand consistency and certainty–loveable. Hold that and you will gain all Catholic truth.”


His poetry began again as sacramental poetry and one of the first poems published was The Wreck of the Deutschland on the drowning at sea of five Franciscan nuns, a poem that would influence Robert Lowell during the latter’s shortlived conversion to Catholicism. As he developed as a poet, Hopkins worked out his innovative ‘sprung rhythm’ and  emphasis on Anglo-Saxon rather than Latinate words and phrases. Many of his nature poems were inspired by the Welsh landscape around St Beuno’s College in the Vale of Clwyd.


Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;
   Only the inmate does not correspond:
God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales,
Complete thy creature dear O where it fails,
   Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.


A letter from Hopkins: Christ’s “hidden life at Nazareth is the great help to faith for us who must live more or less an obscure, constrained, and unsuccessful life.”


He spent many of the years of his ministry in what ere then dank polluted industrial cities of the north (Birmingham, Manchester), struggling with his own ‘dark night of the soul’ and died at 44 of typhoid in Dublin, still unreconciled with his family.


No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”‘


    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.



GN Hopkins in 1888


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s