Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Victorian Jesuit priest who found release from deep anxiety and pain through writing poetry. He learned how to express the tremendous power of the human heart through language that moves those who read his work with reflection. His priestly vocation gave a special vocabulary to the language he used. His deep inner struggle was eloquently chronicled in a verse where the very first lines he wrote as a priest captured this by saying: “Thou mastering me/God!”
What Hopkins was able to accomplish is rare, whether in a poet or any other Christian writer. He used sacramental language to celebrate the particularities of grace in nature. His voice, writes one student of his work, “was perfectly pitched at praise.” In the last few years of his life Hopkins wrote what are called his eight “Terrible Sonnets.” Here his authentic voice no longer uses indirect speech. He addresses God without formality and writes “O thou my friend.” There is a deep cry for help and comfort in these poems. He even asks for mercy rather directly and asks it of God alone. These poems have a disturbing quality but they are moving because they become so personal without falling into despair at all. They are sonnets of “desolation.” St. Ignatius saw this as a predictable part of the spiritual journey and Hopkins experienced both “the darkness of the soul” and the sense of relief that followed.
Hopkins best friend believed the disciplines of the Jesuits did not help him to gain peace and joy but Margaret R. Ellsberg writes: “Not everyone personally experiences God’s will, but Hopkins did, through discipline, intelligence, and no doubt grace. This plaintive sonnet (his final one before he died) is a monument to the personal integration of that experience with suffering.”
At the end of Hopkins’ terribly difficult life it seems poetry became a sacrament of flesh, word and spirit “charged by their interpenetration with each other. When his resistance broke, Hopkins’ highest gift was released” (Ellsberg).
What Hopkins teaches me is that sacramental language and poetic language share certain common tasks. The holy and the divine manifests itself in concrete created things through sacraments. Poetry, by using symbolism and metaphor condenses an unseen reality into human words. For Hopkins poetic words address, reveal and praise God and thereby become sacramental words because of the reality in them.
The question is rather basic. Is the physical accident simply a representation of the substance of a divine truth or is the physical accident itself the very truth? This debate still divides us but we need to be willing to think about it with fresh ears and eyes without the devices of the past lurking in every attempt at dialogue.
One thing is certain about Hopkins’ poetry—he was able to contemplate simple objects like flowers, trees, streams and landscapes and see the very presence and energy of God himself. Outward and visible beauty was a reflection of the invisible beauty of God to Hopkins. In this sense all of nature was sacramental to him. It was the visible sign of an invisible, creative energy that truly revealed the Creator.
In distinction to most evangelical poets Hopkins was more than a devotional poet. For him faith was the total reaction of the whole person to the whole of life. Man was created to serve and praise God and Hopkins did both, with both joy and pain. His attitude to God’s mystery is summarized in the paradox that can be seen in one of his greatest poems:
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart Thou hast wrung:
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.
There is a dynamism of nature in words like these. They reveal power and great glory. There is also a religious realism about this way of expression that I was never exposed to in my insular evangelical background. Maybe this is why Hopkins now appeals to me the way he does.
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