Song of a Soul: A Hundred Years Later, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Poetry Seems More Urgent and Haunting Than Ever

According to the earliest biographical account, the last words of Gerard Manley Hopkins were, “I am so happy, I am so happy.” From a purely secular standpoint, it is difficult to see how Hopkins could have died happy. His career in the Society of Jesus could hardly be considered a success in either its pastoral or academic aspects and much of it was spent in uncongenial settings such as Liverpool and, especially during the last five years, Dublin. Although there was no dramatic rupture, his conversion to Catholicism had in some measure alienated him from his family as well as the society of Victorian England as a whole, and his becoming a Jesuit certainly could not have eased matters.

Above all, when he died at age 45, none of the potential of this immensely gifted man—in painting, music, or literature—seemed to have attained any tangible realization. Only a few poems, none of any lasting significance, had been printed. The tiny circle of men who were aware of his poetic activity regarded him, for the most part, as an eccentric genius. No one could have predicted that within 50 years he would come to be revered as one of the most profoundly original poets of the English language.

Now, a century after his death in 1889, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins seems more vibrantly contemporary than ever. When Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate and Hopkins’ longtime correspondent, first published a collection of his friend’s poems in 1918, the work took several years to catch on. (Apparently Bridges’ patient holding back of the manuscripts for nearly three decades, until he felt the public to be ready for such poetry, resulted from shrewd judgment rather than envy or neglect, as sometimes alleged.) By the 1930s, however, Hopkins was being hailed as a “modern” poet—a stylistic innovator whose acute sensitivity to the delicate particulars of nature and the depths of the human soul somehow survived his quixotic religious preoccupations. This sentimental vision of the poet as a thwarted free spirit, a songbird in a Jesuit cage, today seems rather frivolous.

A critical consideration of the major poems reveals a thoroughly Catholic sensibility and vision of reality. The celebrated metrical and linguistic peculiarities, such as the “sprung rhythm” that measures a line only by counting stresses and not syllables, are manifestations of the poet’s efforts to capture each fleeting detail of a physical universe ceaselessly proclaiming the glory of its Creator. The puzzling concepts “instress” and “inscape” are the marks of a mind restlessly reorganizing the experience of that universe in order that the hidden presence of the Creator might be disclosed.

Father Walter J. Ong has, therefore, rightly rejected J. Hillis Miller’s contention that, for Hopkins, God had “disappeared” from His creation. Hillis Miller is correct, however, in seeing the Victorian age as the period when God had disappeared, or was disappearing, for many of Hopkins’ contemporaries. Insofar as his poetry responds to this situation, which is still more grave in our own time; insofar as it is poetry written by a man virtually in isolation with very little encouragement and no public acclaim; and, most important, insofar as it is poetry that affirms the presence of God when He seems most absent—in all these respects Gerard Manley Hopkins after 100 years remains contemporary with Catholics today.

Jesuit Gloom

Born in 1844, the poet was the eldest of nine children. His father was a prosperous and cultivated marine insurance underwriter who published a book on mathematics as well as one on the insurance business. The family encouraged both artistic pursuits and Anglican piety, and Hopkins had a brother who became a painter and a sister who became an Anglican nun. Hopkins himself wrote a prize-winning poem while in public school and was an exceptional student at Oxford when it was a place of extraordinary intellectual ferment—among his tutors were T.H. Green, Benjamin Jowett, and Walter Pater. For a young man of Hopkins’ affluent middle-class background, blessed with his abilities and education, the future held unlimited promise.

To become a Catholic was to cast a cloud over these sunny prospects, and to become a Jesuit was to steep them in gloom. To be sure, the various statutory penalties imposed on Catholics had generally been removed by Hopkins’ day (although when the poet was ordained a priest in the Society of Jesus in 1877, the sacrament was carried out privately and quietly because the Jesuits were not sure that it was legal); the social stigma, however, remained and affected family and friends.

Hopkins’ family did not break with him over his conversion in 1866, during his final years at Oxford, and continued to treat him with love and affection (his parents were present at his deathbed), but the surviving correspondence shows that his change of religion came as a profound shock, especially for Hopkins’ father. The poet’s entry into the Society of Jesus two years after his conversion could only have served to increase his estrangement from family, friends, and Victorian society in general. The image of the Jesuits as diabolical agents of Roman tyranny has persisted in England since the Elizabethan age. To become a Catholic layman might be regarded as an act of fool-hardy romantic nostalgia, but to become a Jesuit was to incur inevitable suspicion as part of a sinister fifth column.

When Hopkins entered the Society he apparently burned all his poems (or thought he had—manuscripts of a number of youthful efforts have survived) and decided to write no more without the permission of his superiors. For all he or anyone else could tell, Hopkins had sacrificed any hope of fame or even of the satisfaction of exercising his talent with an act of ascetic renunciation. When he did begin writing poetry again, it received significant attention from only three correspondents, of whom two, Robert Bridges and R.W. Dixon, were not Catholic (the third, whom he only came to know late, was Coventry Patmore).

Bridges, to whom we owe the preservation of Hopkins’ manuscripts and the ultimate publication of the poems, could not always restrain himself from uttering his anti-Catholic prejudices in letters to the poet, who bitterly resented and regretted it. Hopkins thus lived with the knowledge that among his small circle of friends and admirers many, including those with the greatest appreciation for his talent, believed that he had thrown his life away.

Even among his fellow Jesuits he cut no very great figure. Although he seems to have been liked and respected, he seems also to have been regarded as a bit odd and ineffectual. Hopkins was not an especially effective preacher: he lacked the booming voice of an orator, and his sermons were often excessively intricate and recherche for his congregations. He was conscientious in his pastoral work, but often found it depressing, especially during his stay in Liverpool. He was particularly appalled by the condition, physical and spiritual, economic and moral, of the British laboring classes.

His appointment as Professor of Greek at University College, Dublin, was probably intended as a more suitable position for a man of his education and refinement, but the raw Irish youths to whom he lectured had as much difficulty comprehending him as some of his congregations. Moreover, he was painstaking to the point of scrupulosity in grading examinations, which came by the hundreds at one time, and the effort often brought him near prostration. Finally, Hopkins’s conversion in no way dampened his enthusiasm for English culture or his patriotism, and he never felt at ease among the Irish.

Hopkins produced a few conventional pieces, some of them in Latin, that circulated among his Jesuit brethren, but the serious work that is the basis for his present reputation went unrecognized. This work began when Hopkins returned to writing poetry in earnest, after a ten-year hiatus, in December of 1875.

A German vessel, the Deutschland, foundered on a shoal near the mouth of the Thames on the eve of the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Sixty persons drowned, including five Franciscan nuns expelled from Germany by the anti-Catholic Falck legislation. Hopkins was deeply moved by the newspaper accounts of the disaster and mentioned it to the rector of St. Beuno’s in Wales, where he was then studying theology. The rector replied that someone ought to commemorate the death of the nuns in a poem, and Hopkins inferred from this remark that he might write poetry with the approval of his superiors. The rector’s response to the finished poem has not survived, but we know that it baffled at least one of his fellow Jesuit scholastics. Hopkins offered “The Wreck of the Deutschland” to the Jesuit periodical The Month, but, although he was initially told that it would be printed, in the end the poem was rejected. Two years later, a poem on another sea disaster, “The Loss of the Eurydice,” was summarily refused by The Month, and Hopkins never again sought to publish.

These poems, then, and the others of Hopkins’ maturity, which now seem so vivid and powerful, were written in the face of isolation and discouragement. Indeed, Hopkins seems to have gained nothing at all in the way of tangible, worldly benefit from any of his activity, if his life is viewed from a superficial, worldly perspective. To all outward appearances his vocation to the priesthood, marked by no visible sign of great success or satisfaction, was merely an obstacle to his vocation to poetry. Such at least is a plausible secular interpretation of the “facts.”

Thirst for God

Yet Hopkins’ poetry is pervaded, early and late, by a ceaseless and unquenchable thirst for God. Anyone who dwells upon his poems for any length of time must soon be convinced that Hopkins as a poet of any other theme is inconceivable. It is not just that his poetry is “religious,” that it treats of matters of faith and devotion; it is the way he apprehends the evidence of faith and the stimulus to devotion in the most unlikely objects, events, and settings. God is most urgently sought and most eagerly seized in what is small, homely, ordinary, or in what is desolate, abject. It is just the “insignificance” of his themes that discloses such compelling meaning for our own harried time, just the evidence of failure that confers such lasting success upon the poems as upon his life.

“The Wreck of the Deutschland,” Hopkins’ longest poem and also the first and most difficult poem of his maturity, is on one level a celebration of the passionate heroism of “the tall nun” (much discussed in the newspaper accounts) who drowned “calling ‘O Christ, Christ come quickly’: The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.” But the poem is also a meditation on the poet’s—and hence the reader’s—response to the nun’s providential destiny. The foundered ship breaking up on the shoal becomes an ark of salvation for those who are inspired by the example of the religious woman:

Well, she has thee for the pain, for the

Patience; but pity of the rest of them!

Heart, go and bleed at a bitterer vein for the

Comfortless unconfessed of them—

No not uncomforted: lovely-felicitous Providence

Finger of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy, the breast of the

Maiden could obey so, be a bell to, ring of it, and

Startle the poor sheep back! is the shipwreck then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?

Hopkins had read in the newspaper accounts how the foundered ship took more than 24 hours to go to pieces in the midst of the storm, so that those who drowned had ample time to contemplate their fate. It is just in the throes of such agony that Christ will indeed “come quickly” to the desolate soul. The steamship was one of the technological wonders of the Victorian age, and the shattering of such a steel-plated leviathan under the elemental forces of Creation is a poignant reminder that man, for all his achievements, remains a vulnerable, mortal creature, dependent on God’s merciful indulgence for his very existence.

As a rule, Hopkins finds the divine presence latent in less dramatic circumstances. “Pied Beauty” proclaims the indwelling goodness of the Creator in what seem to be the most homely and diverse aspects of His handiwork:

Glory be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches ‘wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

The fleeting, contingent, earthly beauty of such things—each flickering through its brief moment of temporal existence—is only possible as the manifestation of divine creative power:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

But there is no sentimentality in Hopkins’ love of nature. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” begins the sonnet “God’s Grandeur,” but this is no guarantee that humanity—proud, weary, or merely distracted—will acknowledge the glory of the Creator:

Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Hopkins thus never forgets original sin, and yet this despondent resignation over the misery and sinfulness of mankind preoccupied with its own affairs to the neglect of God is swept away by a resurgence of hope in providential renewal in the break of every dawn:

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

There is a similar balance of regret and hope, a paradoxical awareness of mankind’s tawdriness set over against the bright expectation of redemption through grace, in “Spring”—a symbolic rendering of the season’s virginal freshness:

What is all this juice and all this joy?

A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning

In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,

Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,

Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,

Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

If Hopkins anticipated certain contemporary concerns with his “ecological” attentiveness to what he called the “inscape” of the natural world, he likewise probed the inner man in a way that brings to mind the psychological preoccupation of our time. No poet since the seventeenth century has plumbed so profoundly the depths of the soul of a man who feels alienated from God: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/ Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap/ May who ne’er hung there.” No poet has ever more vividly recorded the desperation of a man who feels himself abandoned to the prison of his own sinfulness:

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

Even in this abyss of depression, however, wrung out of a withering sense of sin, he ends the poem not in despair, but in the awareness that even this desolation is a mercy of God, warning the poet back from the edge of the even deeper abyss that opens within every man. Hence, in another sonnet he resolves, “My own heart let me more have pity on” and calls on his “poor Jackself” to find joy

At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile

‘s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies

Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

Here the twisting and straining of English syntax and the forcing of diction, which at first seem to obscure meaning, compose at last the meaning itself: the meaning of a man whose words cannot in their routine idiom give utterance to his experience.

Spiritual Reality

This of course is the secret of the permanent value and significance of Hopkins’ poetry, as of all great poetry: it evokes a sense of reality, a tremolo of meaning, too full and varied ever to be exhausted by the speculations of critics and the investigations of scholars. There is no more striking example than Hopkins’ famous sonnet, “The Windhover,” which, having occasioned more critical controversy than perhaps any other comparably short lyric in the English language, remains, nevertheless, his most beloved poem. A windhover is a kestrel, or small falcon, and the octave of the sonnet deploys a splendid image of the bird hovering by breasting the wind. The sestet has provoked endless critical consternation with its puzzling collocation of the beautiful bird of prey, glowing coals, and the gleam of sunlight on a freshly ploughed furrow in the black earth. All these images are somehow related “To Christ our Lord” (the poem’s dedication) and the poet’s “heart in hiding”:

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

It is no part of my purpose here to sort out all these details; let it suffice to observe that the poet has found in the tangled emotions of his own response to one of nature’s grand spectacles a sense of the work of Christ’s grace in the world and in his own abashed soul. Three generations of readers have likewise found in the sonnet a forceful sense of meaning or purpose that, while it cries out for interpretation, is disclosed precisely by eluding interpretation.

In a letter of 13 and 15 June 1878, to R. W. Dixon, Hopkins wrote that fame was both important to a man as an artist, as a spur to achievement, and dangerous to him as a Christian, “as dangerous as wealth every bit, I should think, and as hard to enter the kingdom of heaven with.” There is certainly nothing neurotic in Hopkins’ ambivalence about public recognition—he shows rather a healthy awareness of the realities of fallen human nature and the peril in which our souls stand. Food is necessary to individual existence, but gluttony is a sin; sexual intercourse is necessary for the bonding of marriage and the procreation of children, but lust is a sin. Thus fame, except that in one sense it is an altogether insubstantial good, while in another it is the final exaltation. Hopkins’ letter continues:

Nevertheless fame whether won or lost is a thing which lies in the award of a random, reckless, incompetent, and unjust judge, the public, the multitude. The only just judge, the only just literary critic, is Christ, who prizes, is proud of, and admires, more than any man, more than the receiver himself can, the gifts of his own making. And the only real good which fame and another’s praise does is to convey to us, by a channel not at all above suspicion but from circumstances in this case much less to be suspected than the channel of our own minds, some token of the judgment which a perfectly just, heedful, and wise mind, namely Christ’s, passes upon our doings.

Hopkins must be pleased with the fame that he has achieved: during his lifetime he was spared the public acclaim that he plainly regarded as a distressing temptation; now 100 years after his death, the growing fame of his poetry is a token of Christ’s approval of the work of a faithful servant. Moreover, his fame as a poet is as much “a bell” to “Startle the poor sheep back” as the praying voice of the tall nun whose holy death he celebrates in “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” At a time when modern society seems more and more like a ship going to pieces on a sandbar, Hopkins’ poetry rings out like a voice in the darkness crying “O Christ, Christ, come quickly.”


  • R.V. Young

    R. V. Young was for many years a professor of Renaissance Literature and Literary Criticism in the English Department of North Carolina State University. He is the co-founder and co-editor (with M. Thomas Hester) of the John Donne Journal, and author of multiple books and articles primarily related to the study of literature. He was editor of the conservative quarterly Modern Age from 2007 to 2017.

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