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Transcript
GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS
(28 July 1844–8 June 1889)
Chris Snodgrass @ 2013
The poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Roman Catholic convert and Jesuit priest,
became known publicly only after his death, but their publication established him as a
major Victorian poet, very likely the most “modern” stylistically.
His historical importance derives from the radical changes he
brought to English poetics. No small part of those changes involved
his belief that language itself, when reverently used, can disclose
the etymology and syntax of the world, the interrelatedness and
“plot” of God’s works. He uses many archaic and dialect words,
but does not hesitate to coins new words, if they are necessary to
serve the mission to render bodily the phenomena being described.
The language of Hopkins’s poems, is often striking and powerful in
its rich and extensive use of alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia
and rhyme, both at the end of lines and internally, as well as the
G. M. Hopkins 1880
revolutionary metrical rhythms—what he called “sprung rhythm.”
The result is some of the most accomplished and intellectually
beautiful poems ever produced.
Gerard Hopkins (as his friends knew him) was born in Stratford, Essex (East
London), into what was to become an unusually talented and successful family. He was the
1st of 9 children of well-to-do parents, Manley Hopkins, founder of a maritime insurance
firm and London’s one-time Consul-General for Hawaii, and the former Catherine Smith,
the daughter of a London physician and lover of music, German philosophy, and fiction,
particularly the novels of Charles Dickens. His father was also, for a time, the church
warden at St John-at-Hampstead, a poetry reviewer for the London Times, and the author
of three books of poetry as well as a novel. Both parents were deeply religious High
Church Anglicans, a devotion passed on to all of their children, daughter Milicent
(1849–1946) eventually joining an Anglican sisterhood in 1878. Early on, Gerard
developed a lifelong love of nature, an obsession with Gothic architecture, and a
fascination of the rhyming in nursery rhymes. His mother’s sister, Maria Smith Giberne,
taught her nephew to sketch, an interest supported by his uncle Edward Smith, his
great-uncle and professional artist Richard James Lane, and other family members. Having
had initial aspirations to be a painter, Hopkins would continue to sketch throughout his
life, inspired, as an adult, by the works of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. A skilled
draughtsman and musician, Hopkins’s early training in visual art and music aided his later
work as a poet. Most of his siblings were also keenly interested in poetry and the arts:
sister Kate (1856–1933) would help Hopkins publish his first book of poetry; youngest
sister Grace (1857–1945) set many of his poems to music; and brothers Arthur
(1847–1930) and Everard (1860–1928) both became very successful artists.
Snodgrass, Hopkins Introduction 2
In 1852 the family moved to Hampstead, near Hampstead Heath and the former
home of the legendary Romantic poet John Keats. Hopkins was sent to Highgate boarding
school from ages 10–19, where he learned to practice
asceticism, a practice he was inclined to take to youthful
extremes. In 1863 he entered Balliol College, Oxford, to
study Classics. He was by then already a prolific poet, and
to further his poetry he filled notebooks with linguistically
speculative lists of words designed to prove the natural
relation of words to things. For a time he studied under
G. M. Hopkins, Age 18, 1862
Walter Pater, who was (like Hopkins) a shy but unusually
sensitive man and remained a close friend until Hopkins left
Oxford in his middle thirties. In 1864 Hopkins met Christina Rossetti, who became a
significant influence on his poetry. Even more significantly, he also forged a lifelong
friendship with eventual Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, who was at the time in Oxford’s
Corpus Christi College studying Classics; Bridges helped shape the poet’s development
and was the person responsible for making Hopkins’s poetry known (although
posthumously) and available to the public for the first time. Although Hopkins would soon
burn all his poems upon entering the Jesuit novitiate, he had already sent many of them to
Bridges who, after the poet’s death, first distributed them mostly to fellow poets, then in
1918 published the first collection of Hopkins’s poems.
But some of Hopkins’s other interactions were more problematical. Already keenly
“social” upon arriving at Oxford, the small (5'2") and delicately beautiful Gerard—known
as “Skin” at grammar school and acquiring the nickname “Poppy” at Balliol—engaged in
male friendships which, although they tended to be idealizing and
ostensibly “spiritual,” certainly shaded into the romantic. It was not
coincidental that he had for some time fixated on and worried about
bodies, clearly his own—he used body-building dumbbells, was anxious
about masturbation, was fearful that his eyes might fail, and was given
to self-flagellation, hair-shirts, fasting, and other punishments of the
flesh—but he was also concerned with other people’s bodies, in as much
as he was now having significant difficulty accepting his sexual
attraction to other men. He developed a deep infatuation for Robert
Bridges’s distant cousin, friend, and fellow Etonian Digby Mackworth
Dolben, a “Christian Uranian” nearly four years Hopkins’s junior. He
kept up a correspondence with Dolben, wrote effusively about him in his
Hopkins 1866
diary, and composed two poems about him. The nature of Hopkins’s
feelings for Dolben is indicated by the fact that Hopkins’s High
Anglican confessor forbid him to have any contact with Dolben except by letter. Their
relationship abruptly ended when Dolben drowned in June 1867, an event which greatly
affected Hopkins, although his feeling for Dolben seems to have cooled by then. Alarmed
by what he considered his problematical lifestyle, including the personal vanity he felt his
poetry was engendering, Hopkins focused harder on his studies, began recording his “sins”
in his diary, and exacted corrective penitence. Tellingly, having composed perhaps his
Snodgrass, Hopkins Introduction 3
most ascetic poem “The Habit of Perfection” on 18 January 1866, five days later he
included poetry on his list of things to give up for Lent. But there is, in fact, no evidence
that Hopkins ever physically consummated any of his “romances.” Indeed, he seems to
have remained celibate throughout his life—by maintaining rigid self-control over his
homosexual desires (particularly after becoming a disciple of theologians Henry Parry
Liddon and Edward Pusey) and at one point even contemplating entering a monastery.
In July 1866, before his fourth year at Oxford, Hopkins decided to become a Roman
Catholic, which estranged him from both his devout Anglican family and many of his
acquaintances. He traveled to Birmingham in September to seek the counsel of the
Victorian Age’s most famous convert, John Henry Newman, who in fact received him into
the faith on 21 October 1866 and gave him a teaching post at the Oratory in Birmingham
upon Hopkins’s graduation from Oxford in 1867. In May 1868, 17 months after his
conversion—and less than a week after had categorically “resolved to be
religious”—Hopkins burned all his poems [many survived because they were also written
out in letters to friends] and gave up poetry almost entirely for the next seven years. While
at Birmingham he decided to become a Jesuit priest, beginning his instruction in
September 1868, relocating for his philosophical studies in 1870, and taking formal vows
of poverty, chastity and obedience on 8 September 1870. His interest in poetry continued
to trouble him, as he felt prevented him from wholly devoting himself to his religion.
In 1875, while he was studying in the Jesuit house of theological studies in North
Wales, he was asked by his religious superior to write a poem to commemorate a terrible
shipwreck off the English coast that caused the death of 157 people, including 5
Franciscan nuns who had been leaving Germany due to harsh anti-Catholic laws. He wrote
a lengthy poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” which not only depicts dramatic events,
heroic deeds, and the reconciling of the turbulent disaster with confessions of spiritual
agony and celebrations of martyrdom, but also displayed for the first time the highly
unusual rhythms that would later be so acclaimed and influential. The poem, however,
though accepted, proved too avant-garde to be printed by the Jesuit authorities, despite its
highly orthodox message—a rejection that only fueled Hopkins’s continuing ambivalence
about his poetry.
Hopkins had been a brilliant student at Oxford, earning a First honors degree, but in
1877, after 8 years of retreat, training, scholarship, and self-examination, he failed his final
theology exam—a circumstance that, though he was nevertheless ordained, almost
certainly meant he would not progress in the Order. Although his life during his Jesuit
training had been rigorous, isolated, and sometimes unpleasant, at least it provided some
stability; the uncertain and varied work after he was ordained proved much harder on his
sensibilities. During the 14-month period following his ordination as a priest, Hopkins was
assigned to brief posts in 6 different cities, although while ministering in Oxford in 1878,
he helped found the Oxford University Newman Society. After teaching Greek and Latin
for the next 6 years at Mount St Mary’s College, Sheffield, and Stonyhurst College,
Lancashire, he became professor of Greek and Latin at University College, Dublin, in
1884. Being isolated in a foreign environment away from his friends only deepened his
gloom, as is well reflected in his brilliant but dark “terrible sonnets” written during this
Snodgrass, Hopkins Introduction 4
period. Over the last five years of his life Hopkins’s workload was heavy, and he felt
confined and dejected as his eyesight began to fail and his general health deteriorated.
His Jesuit superiors had authorized his writing of poetry as a part of his duties and
religious mission, yet Hopkins believed his poetry made him vainglorious, violating the
humility required by his religious position. This conflict
between his religious obligations and his poetic talent
caused him to feel he had failed them both. He therefore
resolved that in order to subdue his egotism, he would never
publish his poems—even though he understood that any true
poet requires an audience for encouragement and to test how
effective his art is. After battling melancholic anguish
throughout his life and suffering ill health, including bouts
of diarrhoea, for several years, Hopkins died of typhoid
fever, at age 44, on 8 June 1889. Nonetheless, on his death
bed, ever the faithful devotee, his last words were, “I am so
happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.” Hopkins was buried
G. M. Hopkins 1888
in Glasnevin Cemetery, following his funeral in Saint
Francis Xavier Church on Gardiner Street in the Georgian section of Dublin.
The poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins were revolutionary in both their imagery and
their meter. His imagery can be simple or splendidly metaphysical and intricate; but in
either case it seeks to show how each thing expresses its own uniqueness, and how divinity
reflects itself through all of them. An important element in Hopkins’s work is his concept
of “inscape,” which was in part derived from the medieval theologian Duns Scotus’s ideas
and means the unique and essential form, the individual divine essence, of a thing. Inscape
is sustained and communicated from an object by a powerful burst of bond-building
energy, its “instress,” which enables an observer to penetrate and experience the essence of
the thing and ensures the transmission of the thing’s importance in God’s wider creation.
Hopkins’s poetic meter ran contrary to conventional ideas dating from the days of Middle
English, which were based on a rhythmic structure inherited from the Norman side of the
English literary heritage—repeating groups of 2 or 3 syllables, with the stressed syllable
falling in the same place on each repetition. Although he wrote some of his early verse in
what he called this “running rhythm,” he became fascinated with the older rhythmic
structure of the Anglo-Saxon tradition (of which Beowulf is the most famous example). He
proceeded to deftly construct his own personal system, which he called “sprung rhythm”
and which is syntactically disjunctive, densely repetitive, heavily but variously rhymed,
and structured around feet with a variable number of syllables—generally between 1 and 4
syllables per foot, with the stress always falling on the first syllable in a foot. Hopkins saw
“sprung rhythm” as a way to emulate God’s world in words thought to systematically
repeat divine creation and order. In some respects, his “sprung rhythm” anticipates much
of free verse, and Hopkins is often seen as a precursor of modern poetry (but not modernist
poetry) or as a bridge between the two poetic eras.