Gerard Manley Hopkins
BORN: 1844, Stratford, Essex, England
DIED: 1889, Dublin, Ireland
‘‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’’ (1875)
‘‘Thou art indeed just’’ (1889)
‘‘Pied Beauty’’ (1918)
‘‘The Windhover’’ (1918)
Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins, Gerard Manley, photograph.
Frequently dealing with religious themes and evoking imagery from nature, the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins are distinguished by stylistic innovations, most notably his striking diction and pioneering use of a meter he termed ‘‘sprung rhythm.’’ Because his style was so radically different from that of his contemporaries, his best poems were not accepted for publication during his lifetime, and his achievement was not fully recognized until after World War I.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Religious Childhood and Introduction to the Arts. The oldest of Manley and Kate Hopkins’s nine children, Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in Stratford, Essex, England, and raised in a cultured and religious environment. Both parents were readers and devout High Church Anglicans; his father also taught Sunday School and was a published poet.
At grammar school, Hopkins excelled in his courses, especially painting and writing. Though he wanted to be a painter, he eventually made a shift from the visual to the verbal. The young poet’s verses were filled with colorful pictorial images characteristic of Victorian word-painting. In 1863 Hopkins obtained a scholarship to Oxford University. There he pursued his interests in poetry, music, sketching, and art criticism, established important friendships, and, most importantly, came under the influence of John Henry Newman, an important Catholic educator.
Hopkins was educated during what is known as the Victorian era of the United Kingdom. During the rule of Queen Victoria, a ruler known for expanding the British Empire and catalyzing the Industrial Revolution, England experienced immense prosperity. The literature produced during this period bridges the Romantic period with twentieth-century literature; it was during this period that the novel became the most significant literary form.
Leaving the Church of England. After months of soul-searching, Hopkins resolved to leave the Church of England and become a Roman Catholic, which led to a permanent estrangement from his family. He graduated from Oxford in 1867, and in the spring of 1868, he decided to become a Jesuit priest. He burned all his early poems, vowing to give up writing and dedicate himself fully to his religious calling. After his ordination in 1877, Hopkins served as a priest in London, Oxford, Liverpool, and Glasgow parishes and taught classics at the Jesuit Stonyhurst College. In 1884 he was appointed a fellow in classics at the Royal University of Ireland and professor of Greek at the University College in Dublin. As time passed, he became progressively more isolated, depressed, and plagued with ill health and spiritual doubts, particularly during his years in Ireland.
Sprung Rhythm. After destroying his early poems, Hopkins wrote essentially no poetry for nine years. But, in 1875, with the approval of his superior, he returned to writing verse, strictly limiting the time he spent on composition. The first work Hopkins produced after he resumed writing, ‘‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’’ (1875), is an account of the widely publicized loss at sea of a German ship, in which he also examines his spiritual struggles. In this poem, Hopkins introduces his revolutionary sprung rhythm.
Unlike conventional poetic meter, in which the rhythm is based on regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, the meter of sprung rhythm is determined by the number of stressed syllables alone. Thus, in a line where few unstressed syllables are used, the movement is slow and heavy, while the use of many unstressed syllables creates a rapid, light effect. ‘‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’’ also introduces the central philosophical concerns of Hopkins’s mature poetry, reflecting both his belief in the doctrine that humans are created to praise God and his commitment to the Jesuit practices of meditation and spiritual self-examination.
Nature Poetry. Hopkins continued to experiment with style, language, and meter. He is perhaps best known for his shorter poems on nature, many of which were written in the early years of his priesthood. In such celebrations of natural beauty as ‘‘Pied Beauty,’’ ‘‘God’s Grandeur,’’ and his best-known sonnet, ‘‘The Windhover,’’ Hopkins strove to capture the essence of creation as a means of knowing and praising God. For most of his contemporaries, however, nature existed only to be exploited, as the effects of the Industrial Revolution consumed the wilderness. This apparent disappearance of God from nature in the nineteenth century inspired some of the didacticism that pervades Hopkins’s later nature poetry.
The ‘‘Terrible Sonnets’’. Hopkins’s last works, known as the ‘‘terrible sonnets,’’ express spiritual struggle. These consist of the six original ‘‘terrible sonnets’’ of 1885—‘‘Carrion Comfort,’’ ‘‘No worst, there is none,’’ ‘‘To seem the stranger,’’ ‘‘I wake and feel,’’ ‘‘Patience,’’ and ‘‘My own heart’’—and three sonnets of 1889— ‘‘Thou art indeed just,’’ ‘‘The Shepherd’s Brow,’’ and ‘‘To R. B.’’ Most of these poems focus on acedia, the fourth deadly sin, the sin of ‘‘spiritual sloth’’ or “desolation.’’ In others he works toward a resolution of his spiritual questionings. Although Hopkins feared that his poetic power was declining in his final years, the terrible sonnets are highly regarded by critics for his unguarded self-revelation and mastery of the sonnet form.
In 1889 Hopkins died in Dublin, Ireland of typhoid fever, apparently caused by the polluted urban water supply. He is buried in Glasnevin cemetery. None of Hopkins’s major works were published in his lifetime. He submitted a few of them to periodicals and anthologies, but they were rejected. Following Hopkins’s death, Robert Bridges, his literary executor, arranged for a few of his simpler works to appear in verse anthologies. The selections by Hopkins in these works received little notice, however, except in Catholic circles, where ‘‘Heaven Haven’’ and ‘‘The Habit of Perfection’’ were praised for their religious content.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Hopkins's famous contemporaries include:
Robert Bridges (1844-1930): Bridges, an English poet and poet laureate in 1913, was friends with Gerard Manley Hopkins and assembled Hopkins's posthumous first volume of poetry.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882): In 1859, this English naturalist published On the Origin of Species, a book that highlights his theory of evolution through variation and natural selection.
John Fowler (1826-1864): Fowler, an English agricultural engineer and inventor, developed a much faster method of plowing fields, enabling more land to be cultivated than previously possible.
William Morris (1834-1896): Morris, an English artist and writer, founded the British arts and crafts movement, which originated as a reaction against the mass production made possible by the Industrial Revolution.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894): English poet and sister of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti; she is best known today for her poem ''The Goblin Market.''
Works in Literary Context
As a young writer, Hopkins had several great influences. The poet Christina Rossetti became for Hopkins the embodiment of the pre-Raphaelites and Victorian religious poetry. In the 1860s he was profoundly influenced by her example. Both Hopkins and Rossetti believed that religion was more important than art. The outline of Hopkins’s career followed that of Christina Rossetti’s: an outwardly drab, plodding life of submission quietly bursting into splendor in holiness and poetry. Both felt that religious inspiration was more important than artistic inspiration: Poetry had to be subordinated to religion.
During the early 1870s, Hopkins began to study the teachings of the thirteenth-century Franciscan scholar John Duns Scotus. From Duns Scotus’s teaching of the ‘‘thisness’’ of all things, Hopkins developed the concepts of “inscape,’’ a term he coined to describe the inward, distinctive, essential quality of a thing, and “instress,’’ which refers to the force that gives a natural object its inscape and allows that inscape to be seen and expressed by the poet. These teachings are what inspired Hopkins to write again.
Sprung Rhythm. Many of Hopkins’s poems are noted for their musical rhythm. His use of sprung rhythm was new and quite different from that of his contemporaries. However, Hopkins claimed that his meter of sprung rhythm appears in classical literature, Old English and Welsh poetry, nursery rhymes, and the works of William Shakespeare and John Milton. Moreover, he valued it as ‘‘nearest to the rhythm of prose, that is, the native and natural rhythm of speech.’’
By using sprung rhythm, Hopkins recovered the rhythms of early English prose, with its two-beat phrases held together by stress patterns within and between phrases, its dependence on rhythm more than syntax to determine meaning, and its stringing together of main clauses connected by and and but. Just as Hopkins’s poetry was influenced by Old and Middle English alliterative verse, his prose was influenced by early English prose. Understanding Hopkins’s relationship to medieval prose and verse traditions helps to lead us to the heart of Hopkins’s literary achievement. He brought poetry closer to the rhythm of prose.
In addition to experimenting with meter in this poem, Hopkins employed several other poetic techniques for which he is known. His diction is characterized by unusual compound words, coined phrases, and terms borrowed from dialect. He adds more complexity by adding intentional ambiguities and multiple meanings. In addition, he frequently utilizes elliptical phrasing, compression, internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and metaphor.
Enduring Reputation as an Innovative Stylist. Hopkins has been the subject of numerous studies undertaken from a wide range of critical perspectives, and though a few commentators maintain that he is essentially a minor author because of the narrowness of his experience, he is now regarded as one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era. Acclaimed for his powerful influence on modern poetry, Hopkins continues to be praised as an innovative and revolutionary stylist who wrote some of the most challenging poems in the English language on the subjects of the self, nature, and religion.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Hopkins's poems about nature explore its mysterious beauty and see the hand of God in its creation. Here are some other works that examine nature and ways of considering it:
''Nature'' (1836), an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In this work, the American philosopher explores how the divine can be discovered through nature.
Refuge (1991), a memoir and natural history book by Terry Tempest Williams. A Mormon naturalist tells of the flooding of a bird refuge on the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and her mother's death from cancer, linked to nuclear testing in a nearby state.
Remarkable Trees of the World (2002), a photography book by Thomas Pakenham. This work includes sixty photographs of extraordinary trees from Europe, Africa, Australia, and the United States, among other places, as well as commentary.
Secrets from the Center of the World (1989), a poetry collection by Joy Harjo, photographs by Stephen Strom. This book of prose poems by Harjo, the Native American poet, and photographs of the American West emphasize the traditional Native American belief in the interconnectedness of all things.
Works in Critical Context
Because much of Hopkins’s work was not published during his lifetime, his critics did not emerge until Bridges compiled and published Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the first collection of the poet’s works. A few reviewers of the collection praised Hopkins’s expression of religious feeling, but the predominant response was one of bewildered incomprehension.
A Model of Stylistic Originality. In the 1920s, the poems found a small but select following among such writers as Laura Riding, Robert Graves, I. A. Richards, and William Empson. Early proponents of a close reading of the poetic text, these critics valued the complexity of Hopkins’s works and his stylistic originality.
The 1930s saw an enormous growth of interest in Hopkins’s works. In 1933 literary critics Joseph Sheed and Maisie Ward, writing for Form in Modern Poetry, describe the fate of Hopkins’s work in deterministic terms, citing his genius as the reason for the late discovery of his work, ‘‘Hopkins is only just emerging from the darkness to which his original genius condemned him. It is a familiar story; nothing could have made Hopkins’s poetry popular in his day: it was necessary that it should first be absorbed by the sensibility of a new generation of poets, and by them masticated to a suitable pulp for less sympathetic minds.’’ In that decade his letters and personal papers were first published, together with a second, enlarged edition of the poems. Among the young poets of the 1930s, Hopkins was revered as a model. His influence is evident in the works of writers as diverse as the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, British poet W. H. Auden, Irish poet Cecil Day Lewis, and American poet Robert Lowell.
With the centenary of Hopkins’s birth in 1944, numerous critical essays and appreciations appeared, and since that time his works have continued to attract extensive analysis. However his work as a whole has consistently resisted categorization. Critic Alan Heuser acknowledges this while offering a suggestion in his critical essay ‘‘The Shaping Vision of Gerard Manley Hopkins’’ (1958), ‘‘Placing Hopkins’s poetry in the English poetic tradition has been found a difficult task. ...If a distinct label is needed, perhaps ‘baroque’ is almost satisfactory, expressing the vehement and fiery incarnation of idea in word-made-flesh, the word rendered sensational.’’ Hopkins’s writings have proved highly suited to New Critical approaches, which emphasize explanation and interpretation of individual poems with particular attention to their style, rhythm, and imagery. His poems have also received the examination of poststructuralist and deconstructionist critics, who consider his use of deliberately ambiguous language of profound interest.
Recent scholarly publications on Hopkins’s work reveal the endless possibilities for interpretation his work affords. Examining the scientific context of his day, critic Marie Banfield describes Hopkins’s poetry as reaching far beyond mere innovations in style. In her article ‘‘Darwinism, Doxology, and Energy Physics: the New Sciences, the Poetry and the Poetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins’’ (2007), she writes, ‘‘He engages with Darwin’s multiform, individuated, and diverse world but characteristically draws back in his desire for order, design, and unity, positing a power beyond the purely mechanical. He is attracted to and recoils from the universe created by thermodynamics, with its seemingly contradictory laws.’’ While not all scholars agree on the most appropriate lens through which to view his work, the diversity of contemporary scholarship on Hopkins’s poety speaks to his contribution to English literature.
Responses to Literature
1. Read ‘‘Pied Beauty’’ and ‘‘God’s Grandeur.’’ Compare and contrast how Hopkins views nature, God, and human nature in these poems.
2. Gerard Manley Hopkins put his calling as a priest ahead of his talent and love for poetry. Do you think that the two are compatible? Can someone devote their life to two callings?
3. Hopkins coined the phrase ‘‘sprung rhythm’’ to describe his poetic style. In sprung rhythm a single line may have many stressed syllables right in a row rather than having them spaced out with unstressed syllables. Write a poem about something you believe in strongly, loading the lines with stressed syllables. Use the poem ‘‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’’ as a guide.
4. Read Hopkins’s ‘‘terrible sonnets.’’ In a class discussion, explain how the images and themes of these last sonnets are different from his earlier works. Use specific lines to support your argument.
Allsopp, Michael, and Michael Sundermeier, eds. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889): New Essays on His Life, Writing, and Place in English Literature. Ceredigion, Wales: Edwin Mellen, 1989.
Bender, Todd K. Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Classical Background and Critical Reception of His Work. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966.
Ellsberg, Margaret. Created to Praise: The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Graves, Robert, and Laura Riding. The Common Asphodel: Collected Essays on Poetry, 1922-1949. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1949.
Miller, J. Hillis. The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.
Spender, Stephen. The Struggle of The Modern. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.
Thornton, R. K. R., ed. All My Eyes See: The Visual World of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Sunderland, U.K.: Ceolfrith Press, 1975.
Gerard Manley Hopkins Summer School. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Retrieved May 10, 2008, from http://www.gerardmanleyhopkins.org/index.html. Last updated on May 10, 2008.