Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 - 1889)Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of the three or four greatest poets of the Victorian era. He is regarded by different readers as the greatest Victorian poet of religion, of nature, or of melancholy. However, 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.
Hopkins's idiosyncratic creativity was the result of interactions with others, beginning with the members of his family. Hopkins's extended family constituted a social environment that made the commitment of an eldest son to religion, language, and art not only possible but also highly probable. His mother, Kate Smith Hopkins (1821-1900), was a devout High Church Anglican who brought up her children to be religious. Hopkins read from the New Testament daily at school to fulfill a promise he made to her. The daughter of a London physician, she was better educated than most Victorian women and particularly fond of music and of reading, especially German philosophy and literature, the novels of Dickens, and eventually her eldest son's poetry.
Manley Hopkins was the founder of a marine insurance firm. It is no accident that shipwreck, one of the firm's primary concerns, was the subject of Hopkins's most ambitious poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland (1875). Nor can the emphasis on religion in that poem be attributed solely to the mother's influence. Manley Hopkins was a devout High Church Anglican who taught Sunday School at St. John's in Hampstead, where he was churchwarden. He loved music and literature, passing on his fondness for puns and wordplay to his sons Gerard and Lionel and his love for poetry to Gerard especially. His publications include A Philosopher's Stone and Other Poems (1843), Pietas Metrica (1849), and Spicelegium Poeticum, A Gathering of Verses by Manley Hopkins (1892). He also reviewed poetry for the London Times and wrote one novel and an essay on Longfellow, which were never published.
Competition and collaboration between father and son continued even long after Hopkins left home to take his place in the world... Competition with his father was an important creative stimulus.
The most joyous synchronic reading of the Bible and the Book of Nature was the hymn of creation, a traditional genre inspired by Psalm 148 to which such poems of Gerard's as "God's Grandeur" (1877), "Pied Beauty" (1877), "Hurrahing in Harvest," and "Easter" (1866) belong. A line such as "Flowers do ope their heavenward eyes" in Hopkins's "Easter," for instance, would normally be ascribed to the influence of George Herbert, but the representation of a flower "breathing up to heaven/The incense of her prayer" like a "natural altar" in "The Fraxinella" in Pietas Metrica reveals that it is just as appropriate to look to contemporary poetry for a context for Hopkins's poems as it is to look back to Metaphysical poets such as Herbert. Indeed, in some cases it may be more appropriate to seek contemporary models. Though Herbert's "The Flower" is a famous example of a flower straining toward heaven, he employs no satellite imagery of opening eyes; indeed he only twice uses the word ope in all of his poems, neither time referring to flowers, and he never uses the adjective heavenward.
Gerard also wrote a poem about an alchemist, "The Alchemist in the City," but the poem of his which captures this didactic tone best is perhaps The Wreck of the Deutschland, especially the eleventh stanza:
`Some find me a sword; some The flange and the rail; flame, Fang, or flood' goes Death on drum, And storms bugle his fame. But we dream we are rooted in earth--Dust! Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same, Wave with the meadow, forget that there must The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.Hopkins's Ruskinese sketches are significant because although Hopkins is remembered as a poet, he wanted to be a painter, deciding against it finally because he thought it was too "passionate" an exercise for one with a religious vocation. Nevertheless, even after he became a Jesuit he continued to cultivate an acquaintance with the visual arts through drawing and attendance at exhibitions, and this lifelong attraction to the visual arts affected the verbal art for which he is remembered. In his early poetry and in his journals wordpainting is pervasive, and there is a recurrent Keatsian straining after the stasis of the plastic arts.
...what Hopkins said about Keats applies as well to his own early poems: "even when he is misconstructing one can remark certain instinctive turns of construction in his style, shewing his latent power." The most significant "instinctive turn" in Hopkins's early poetry occurs in "Il Mystico" (1862), in which older, more traditional religious ideals replace his Keatsian dream visions. "Il Mystico" anticipates that general move that Hopkins, like Tennyson, made from the imitation of Keats to a more explicitly Christian Romanticism, a conversion which enabled him to fulfill his own prophecy for Keats: "what he did not want to live by would have asserted itself presently and perhaps have been as much more powerful than that of his contemporaries as his sensibility or impressionableness, by which he did not want to live, was keener and richer than theirs."
Hopkins eventually began to be critical of mere love of detail, however--"that kind of thought which runs upon the concrete and the particular, which disintegrates and drops toward atomism in some shape or other," he wrote in his journal--and he became increasingly aware of the importance of religion as the ultimate source of unity.
His religious consciousness increased dramatically when he entered Oxford, the city of spires. From April of 1863, when he first arrived with some of his journals, drawings, and early Keatsian poems in hand, until June of 1867 when he graduated, Hopkins felt the charm of Oxford, "steeped in sentiment as she lies," as Matthew Arnold had said, "spreading her gardens to the moonlight and whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Ages." Here he became more fully aware of the religious implications of the medievalism of Ruskin, Dixon, and the Pre-Raphaelites. Inspired also by Christina Rossetti, the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence of God in the Eucharist, and by the Victorian preoccupation with the fifteenth-century Italian religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola, he soon embraced Ruskin's definition of "Medievalism" as a "confession of Christ" opposed to both "Classicalism" ("Pagan Faith") and "Modernism" (the "denial of Christ").
Among the Pre-Raphaelites the most important figure for Hopkins was Christina Rossetti. She benefited from the emphasis on the feminine in the Pre-Raphaelite focus on Marian figures such as Dante's Beatrice. When Hopkins met her in 1864 he met an icon, the model for the Virgin in the paintings of her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She influenced Hopkins more than any other contemporary at this point in his career and was particularly important in Hopkins's replacement of Keats with Dante as the dominant paradigm in his poetic imagination.
Christina Rossetti became for Hopkins the embodiment of the medievalism of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Oxford Movement, and Victorian religious poetry generally. In the 1860s Hopkins was profoundly influenced by her example and succeeded, unbeknownst to her and to the critics of his time, in becoming a rival far greater than any of her contemporaries.
Both Hopkins and Christina Rossetti believed that religion was more important than art. The outline of Hopkins's career follows 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. Whenever religious renunciation and self-expression were felt to be at odds, as they often were, self-expression had to be sacrificed. Poetry had to be subordinated to religion.
The attitudes of Christina Rossetti and Hopkins toward art and religion have destined them to share much the same fate at the hands of twentieth-century readers: criticism for deliberately narrowing their subjects to a range too limited for modern palates, for expressing religious convictions with which it is now difficult to sympathize, for allowing religion to take precedence over poetry, or for actually impairing the creative gift itself. On the other hand, both are often praised by twentieth-century readers for the same feature: the expression of counterpoised forces generating dramatic tensions.
The sequence of events is clear. On 18 January 1866 Hopkins composed his most ascetic poem, "The Habit of Perfection." On 23 January he included poetry in the list of things to be given up for Lent. In July he decided to become a Catholic, and he traveled to Birmingham in September to consult the leader of the Oxford converts, John Henry Newman. Newman received him into the Church in October. On 5 May 1868 Hopkins firmly "resolved to be a religious." Less than a week later, apparently still inspired by Savonarola, he made a bonfire of his poems and gave up poetry almost entirely for seven years. Finally, in the fall of 1868 Hopkins joined a "serged fellowship" like Savonarola's and like the one he admired in "Eastern Communion" (1865), a commitment foreshadowed by the emphasis on vows of silence and poverty in "The Habit of Perfection."
Thus it is important to realize that he converted to Catholicism not to be more ascetic, for asceticism was as Protestant as it was Catholic, but to be able to embrace the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence.
The next month Hopkins wrote to Baillie, "I have written three religious poems which however you would not at all enter into, they being of a very Catholic character." The first of these poems was apparently "Barnfloor and Winepress," published the next year in the Union Review. This poem adumbrates the poetic as well as religious importance of Hopkins's belief in the Real Presence of God in the Eucharist, the "Half-Way House" of God in this world as Hopkins called the sacrament in a poem of that name in 1864. "Barnfloor and Winepress" in some respects foreshadows the poetry of nature Hopkins was to compose in the late 1870s.
Though primarily a celebration of the Real Presence, this poem reveals how Hopkins could in his imagination extend the idea of the mystical Body of Christ in the communion bread and wine to the rest of nature. In this poem the wheat and grapes are not mere raw materials for Transubstantiation but are represented metaphorically as if they were already participating in the Being of God. One of the attractions of the doctrine of the Real Presence for Hopkins was that it was, as depicted in "Barnfloor and Winepress," the central instance of a metaphor participating in the reality it represents, an archetype for a sacramental poetry of nature.
This potential for a new sacramental poetry was first realized by Hopkins in The Wreck of the Deutschland. Hopkins recalled that when he read about the wreck of the German ship Deutschland off the coast of England it "made a deep impression on me, more than any other wreck or accident I ever read of," a statement made all the more impressive when we consider the number of shipwrecks he must have discussed with his father. Hopkins wrote about this particular disaster at the suggestion of Fr. James Jones, Rector of St. Beuno's College, where Hopkins studied theology from 1874 to 1877. Hopkins recalled that "What I had written I burnt before I became a Jesuit and resolved to write no more, as not belonging to my profession, unless it were by the wish of my superiors; so for seven years I wrote nothing but two or three little presentation pieces which occasion called for [presumably `Rosa Mystica' and `Ad Mariam']. But when in the winter of '75 the Deutschland was wrecked in the mouth of the Thames and five Franciscan nuns, exiles from Germany by the Falck Laws, aboard of her were drowned I was affected by the account and happening to say so to my rector he said that he wished someone would write a poem on the subject. On this hint I set to work and, though my hand was out at first, produced one. I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realized on paper."
The result is an ode of thirty-five eight-line stanzas, divided into two parts. The first part, consisting of ten stanzas, is autobiographical, recalling how God touched the speaker in his own life. The second begins with seven stanzas dramatizing newspaper accounts of the wreck. Then fourteen stanzas narrow the focus to a single passenger, the tallest of the five nuns who drowned. She was heard to call on Christ before her death. The last four stanzas address God directly and culminate in a call for the conversion of England.
The Wreck of the Deutschland became the occasion for Hopkins's incarnation as a poet in his own right. He broke with the Keatsian wordpainting style with which he began, replacing his initial prolixity, stasis, and lack of construction with a concise, dramatic unity.
Excerpted from 17-page article at The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=81375 accessed 6/30/08.
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. 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.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed. 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. 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.
Margaret, are you grieving Over Goldengrove unleaving? Leaves, like the things of man, you With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? Ah! as the heart grows older It will come to such sights colder By and by, nor spare a sigh Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; And yet you will weep and know why. Now no matter, child, the name: Sorrow's springs are the same. Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed What heart heard of, ghost guessed: It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.
Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord
Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen
justa loquar ad te: quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c. (Jerem. xii 1.)
Poems from www.poetryfoundation.org and from www.poets.org accessed 6/30/08.