This post is part one in an on-going series of poets that (I think) you should know. In each post I will include a short bio, some reasons that you should consider diving into their poetry, and some recommended works to get started with. Up today is one of my personal favorites: Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
I first encountered Gerard Manley Hopkins while at Baylor University, in a victorian poetry course. Although a political science major, I mostly took the class in order to impress and woo my girl friend (now wife!) who had a particular knack for poetry and was also enrolled. I had no idea that this Jesuit wordsmith would make his mark on my conscience and teach me a vital and important lesson.
Hopkins was born to a religious Anglican family in Stratford in 1844. Curiously enough, his father was a literary man: he published several works of poetry and a novel, as well as worked intermittently as a critic for the The Times. In the same mold, Hopkins imagined himself to be a painter, artist and poet, studying the arts at school and receiving an Oxford education in the classics.
The camaraderie with his father, however, did not last. In 1866, Hopkins converted to the Catholic church, a move which would shape the rest of his life. Ostracized and alienated from his family and scores of his friends, the young Hopkins turned inward. After contemplating the course he wanted to set out on, he wrote a simple note in his journal, dated May 5, 1868:
“Cold. Resolved to be a religious” (The Major Works, 193).
“To be a religious”, for Hopkins, was to devote himself wholeheartedly to the Catholic church. He soon entered into the Jesuit order, burning pages and pages of his poetry as a sign of devotion. He would’t pen any more lines until early 1875, nearly eight years later.
Hopkins spent the rest of his life as a student, a priest, an academic and an instructor. He was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1877 after completing his theological training, and held seven different ministry positions in England and Scotland from 1877 to 1881. Throughout this time, Hopkin’s poetry was more or less a passionate hobby. He never felt like his work deserved much attention. He was a priest after all, not an artist — he had given up that dream long ago. Because of this, he never wholeheartedly sought publication for his poetry and remained unknown and misunderstood. Eventually he was commissioned to teach Greek and Latin at University College Dublin.
In Dublin, Hopkins sank into a deep depression. He felt isolated and alone: a failed teacher and a failed artist, unappreciated and unlike the rowdy Dubliners that surrounded him. The poems of nature that once ignited his pen turned into “sonnets of desolation”, works of intense and impassioned melancholy. Hopkins died a stranger in a strange land, overworked and overlooked. Typhoid fever took him, without a sound, on June 8, 1889.
Why Read Hopkins?
The dense structure and complex language of Hopkin’s poetry means that this Jesuit’s works are no walk in the park. Hopkins use of language is unorthodox, and his rhyme schemes do not flow off the tongue easily. Hopkins is hard work. What makes him a treat is that his lines are a direct pipeline to his heart. Since he held no fame or recognition in his life, he is devoutly honest, at times too honest. Hopkins was deeply conflicted, and many scholars think he struggled with homosexual thoughts and desires his whole life, yet never acted on them. Through his poems the reader gets a glimpse into what was truly important to this troubled and ingenious man. Hopkins loved nature, loved the person of Christ, and loved Christ in nature. At his best, reading Hopkins is like looking into an immaculate piece of landscape art: the colors are vibrant, the figures are strong, and the images feel real. But behind the highly visible, Hopkins also paints with the brush of his robust Catholic theology.
For Hopkins, God is to be praised, thanked, heeded, and obeyed, because he is beautiful and creative. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”, he says, and he means it. Everywhere Hopkins’ seems to look, he finds his creator. In the same way, his Christ is not just creator of beauty, but beauty itself, a consuming fire and a valiant knight, more awe-inspiring in death than anything else could be in life. Even when Hopkins, in Davidic fashion, rages against God in despair, he still acknowledges God as creator and Lord. His bitterness is “God’s most deep decree”; God leads him to intimacy not just through ecstasy but also through suffering.
Most of Hopkins’ poems were not published until 1918, years after his death. Yet today, Hopkins is widely considered to be the greatest victorian poet of religion and nature. He has a particular way of integrating creation, beauty, wonder, and devotion. To read Hopkins is to love Christ more, and to see Christ’s work in all things, big and small, good and bad. The lesson I learned from Hopkins that I didn’t expect was simple: “there is a dearest freshness deep down things”, and that dearest freshness is Christ himself.
My favorite poem by Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur” is a beautiful reflection on the eternal nature of creation. This masterful work is at once a condensed treatise on Trinitarian aesthetics and a call to remember the kindness of God in the midst of human indifference.
A lovely and spellbinding tribute to the pervasive nature of Christ and the distinct roles of created beings. Hopkins’ brilliant use of language is most clearly here. The line “Christ plays in ten thousand places” is striking — partially because of its boldness, but also because of the novel idea it presents, that Christocentricity pierces the very heart of the ordered world.
Comforting and light, “Pied Beauty” is a tribute to “dappled things”, a hymn of worship for the unexpected and the uncommon.
Infused with erotic language, “The Windhover” is a complex word-study of what it means to have union with Christ. It seems irreverent, but when read rightly it turns out to be a genuine love letter to the King of Kings.
Hopkins must have lived in the imprecatory Psalms near the end of his life, because these poems read like a regurgitation of David and Hezekiah’s darkest moments. They are powerful because of Hopkins’ ability to bare his soul and cry out to God in the midst of his depression.
This is not an easy poem to read, and even harder to digest. Once the layers are peeled back, it reads as a powerful commentary on the necessity of the resurrection for purposeful living.
If you are interested in Hopkins, I would recommend reading a longer bio here and picking up a volume of his works here. If his poems leave you flabbergasted and confused, you are not alone. Let me know what you think.