Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) was an English poet disposed to great personal intensity and a type of stubbornness that Margaret R. Ellsberg (Created to Praise: The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) says, “Ultimately molded itself as discipline.” Born in 1844 to a wealthy high Anglican family he was the first of nine children. He went to Highgate School where Samuel Taylor Coleridge once taught. He was a brilliant student but often challenged the system. He began to display strong tendencies to self-discipline and stringent moral ideals. Critics believe these tendencies can be seen in the poems he wrote over the course of his last five years of life.
Hopkins won a poetry prize at Highgate, was considered a superb scholar of the Classics, and then went to Oxford in 1863. While at Oxford he began an earnest search for perfection. To call him a “perfectionist” (in the modern sense) is an understatement. He wrote poems with titles like “Myself Unholy” and “The Habit of Perfection.” While Hopkins was at Oxford the Tractarian Movement was in full swing thus his conversion to Roman Catholicism coincided with this time period. (The Tractarian Movement involved a renewal of sacramentalism that led some prominent members of the Church of England to enter the Roman Catholic Church.) Hopkins said of himself, “If anyone ever became a Catholic because two and two make four [then] I did.” By this he meant that he was intellectually convinced of Catholic arguments and thus he would have become a Catholic no matter what inward or outward obstacles presented themselves. Donald McChesney says, “There was deep within his nature, a deep-seated hunger for absolute obedience.” He was called, while at Oxford, “the star of Baliol” (his college at Oxford), but upon his entry into the Catholic Church his stunning academic career ended. (Moderns have no idea or understanding of these times and the prejudice in England or America.)
Two years after his entry into the Catholic Church Hopkins became a Jesuit. He burned his poetry and entered a long period of silence. He began to write again only when his superior told him he could. He says of these next six years or so that he experienced natural beauty, peace and contemplation like no other period in his life. When he began to write again during these years he produced the very best of his poetry. During these particular years he developed a deep spirituality combined with a literary theory that worked very well for him. He began to see the whole world sacramentally and this led him to compose some of the richest poems on creation and nature that you will ever read. This is how I first came to appreciate Hopkins as a poet.
In 1884 Hopkins went to Dublin to be a professor of classics at John Henry Newman Catholic University. He was only forty but the image that he presented was that of a slight, overwrought priest suffering from chronic eyestrain, headaches, anemia and depression. He hated giving sermons, grading papers and the work he did. His health was broken. What he called “fits of sadness that were so severe as to resemble madness” finally led him to the comfort of the resurrection. A poem of this era is titled: “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.” He wrote of “the mortal trash of humanity” becoming “in a flash” “what Christ is . . . . Immortal Diamond.” Hopkins died in 1889, of typhus, at the age of forty-four. His dying words, amazing to most of us reading about his life today, were: “I am so happy.” In 1976 he was established in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, the highest posthumous honor bestowed on an English poet. While other poets have long epitaphs his reads: “Immortal Diamond.”
What makes Hopkins so relevant to me is his use of sacramental language to describe creation and re-creation. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge he saw poetry as a means for communicating spiritual truth at a deep and imaginative level. To be a part of the created world, the world that we can call objective fact, and to be in sacramental union with God, is “a condition that eludes language” (Margaret E. Ellsberg). I have come to profoundly agree with this perspective.
Tomorrow: How Hopkins Uses Poetry to Express Creation and Incarnation