A Brief Biography
He was a man of passion and he was a lover, this poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. As a boy he loved to climb a tree in his family garden in London and look up at the sky and down at the earth. At Oxford University he loved his studies in Greek and Latin and won a brilliant “First” in his final examination. He loved his family and friends and God, he loved music and sketching, he loved hiking and swimming, and he loved beauty, nature, and the environment. As a priest he loved his fellow Jesuits, his students, and his parishioners, and as a poet he loved his creativity and the words and images and rhythms and sounds of his poems.
Born in 1844 to a comfortable Anglican family in the London suburb of Stratford, Essex, he was the oldest child of nine, and his father, Manley Hopkins, owned a firm that insured ships against wreck and damage. (His son Gerard later wrote two rather long shipwreck poems!) In 1852 his family moved to London’s leafy Hampstead, and young Gerard wrote poetry as a schoolboy at the Highgate School and in 1863 continued writing poetry at Oxford, where he made lifelong friends, especially Robert Bridges, his best friend and later a physician and Poet Laureate. At Oxford he had a religious crisis, and with the advice of John Henry Newman became a Roman Catholic in 1866. On leaving Oxford in 1867, he taught for a year at Newman’s school in Birmingham, then in 1868 entered the Jesuit Order—the Society of Jesus—to begin studies for the priesthood. But before becoming a Jesuit he resolved to give up writing poetry, thinking (mistakenly) that writing poetry would distract him from his Jesuit and priestly life.
As a Jesuit, Hopkins first learned prayer and spirituality in London’s Roehampton, then studied philosophy in Lancashire where he discovered and came to love the philosophy of the medieval John Duns Scotus and his theory of individuality (“haecceitas,” or “thisness”), individuality being the unique selfhood of every being: for example, that one robin over there sitting on a branch is a totally different self from another robin sitting on the same branch. Then, after a year of teaching young Jesuits in London, in 1874 he went to study theology at St. Beuno’s College in beautiful North Wales.
Happily, in his early Jesuit years Hopkins again felt free to write poems (some suggested by his Jesuit superiors), and at St. Beuno’s in 1875 his poetic talent flowered into genius. Deeply moved by a shipwreck in which five exiled nuns drowned, at his rector’s suggestion he wrote perhaps his greatest poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a 35-stanza, deeply original ode about meeting God in terror/joy: the first ten stanzas told of his conversion at Oxford, the rest told of the five drowned nuns, exiled from their native Germany by Bismarck’s anti-Catholic Kulturkampf, who were sailing on the Deutschland to a new assignment in America. Truly original, “The Wreck” is now recognized as one of the greatest odes in English.
In these months of poetic genius, 1875-77, Hopkins also wrote eleven brilliant, music-filled sonnets set near St. Beuno’s in rural North Wales. “God’s Grandeur” presents God’s presence in the world as both a sudden bright electric spark and as tasty olive oil, then grieves about industrial pollution, yet finds the Holy Ghost caring for the world just as a mother-bird cares for and warms her egg. “The Starlight Night” sees the bright stars as little boys sitting on the ground with arms wrapped around their knees, then as towns, and then as old castles and diamond mines and “elves’ eyes” and cracks of light that let a viewer look into heaven (!). “As kingfishers catch fire” puts into poetry Scotus’s theory of “thisness”: “Each mortal thing… / Selves–goes its self, myself it speaks and spells.” “The Windhover” first describes the smooth flight of a bird, then his struggle against a strong wind, then presents this kestrel as a medieval knight and a parallel to Christ. Other sonnets show Hopkins’ many talents in this year of genius: “Spring,” “The Sea and the Skylark,” “The Caged Skylark,” “In the Valley of the Elwy,” “Pied Beauty,” “The Lantern out of Doors,” and “Hurrahing in Harvest.” Clearly, Hopkins loved nature, and—notably in “Pied Beauty”—praises God as found in a variegated nature and even in the humble instruments of human labor.
In 1877 Hopkins was ordained a priest at St. Beuno’s. “Fr. Gerard Hopkins, S.J.” then worked in a variety of Jesuit schools and parishes in England and Scotland. At times he felt melancholic and pressed by work, but he still wrote poems about his students and parishioners and saints. “The Loss of the Eurydice,” his second shipwreck poem, told how a training ship for young cadets (the age of his students) capsized in a gale and sank with only two survivors. “Binsey Poplars,” written in Oxford, was an environmental plea to preserve trees. And his work in a Liverpool parish brought both “Felix Randal,” a touching memorial to a dying blacksmith he had consoled (“This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears”), and “Spring and Fall,” his most heartbreaking poem, which shows a young girl, Margaret, crying over autumn’s falling leaves while a nearby adult, hearing her crying, realizes that, without knowing it, she is also grieving for her own death-to-come: “It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.” In Scotland, Hopkins wrote the environmental poem “Inversnaid,” which pleads, “O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.” And back in England, he wrote a long, loving, and musical poem, “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we breathe.”
In 1884 Hopkins was assigned to Ireland where the Jesuits’ new University College needed an expert in Greek language and literature. He was warmly received by the Irish Jesuits and made many friends in Ireland, especially the MacCabe family in Dublin, but on first arrival he felt like an outsider and began a poem, “To seem the outsider lies my lot, my life / Among strangers.” Later, his role as examiner at the Dublin university had him review hundreds of examination-books from all over Ireland—a task that exhausted him. In 1885 he suffered months of painful depression, expressed poignantly and brilliantly in what are now called his “Sonnets of Desolation,” pleading to a God who seemed absent. Many are brilliant in their pain: “I wake and feel the fell of dark,” “No worst, there is none,” and “Carrion Comfort” where he finds himself “wrestling” with God. At the same time nature, which before had given him such joy and inspiration, took on a much darker tone, as seen in the experimental sonnet “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves.” Gradually recovering, he wrote “Thee, God, I come from, to thee go,” and “My own heart let me more have pity on.” And soon he was probing further the sonnet form, writing stunning “sonnets” of 19, 20 and 24 lines, for example, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection” (1888) which celebrates how a human, at death, can become like Christ and therefore immortal.
But by 1889 Hopkins felt his poetic inspiration waning, and he begged for God’s help in “Thou are indeed just, Lord.” He also described his lost inspiration to his poet-friend Robert Bridges in his final poem, “To R.B.,” catching the essence of poetry in one perfect line: “The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation.” Soon, with little warning, he caught the typhoid plague then raging in Dublin, and died on June 8, 1889, seven weeks before his 45th birthday.
Publication and Reception
But as a poet Hopkins did not die. His poet-friend Robert Bridges collected the many poems Hopkins had sent him, gathered other poems from his family and friends, edited them, and in 1918 published Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with Bridges’ introduction and notes. Later editions followed, and especially in the 1930s and 1940s Hopkins emerged as a major figure in English poetry and a precursor to Modernism. He is now recognized as a poet of worldwide fame who has influenced such distinguished notable poets as W. H. Auden, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.
His influence still continues, not only on poets but on poetry lovers and students of poetry. Bypassing Victorian traditions, he so loved the rhythms, sounds, words, and forms of poetry that he became an experimenter, and even coined new words for his new techniques. His word “inscape” (influenced by Scotus) describes the unique selfhood of every being that exists, sometimes even including its unique shape, for example, the shape of a leafless tree in winter. And his “sprung rhythm” describes a freer rhythm than, for example, iambic pentameter: instead of five pairs of slacks (-) and stresses (’), as in (–’ –’ –’ –’ –’), Hopkins’ rhythm “springs” from stress to stress, emphasizing the stresses and permitting any number of slacks, for example, ( – – ’ ’ – ’ ’– – – ’ ). Hopkins also plays with sound, employing the Welsh technique of cynghanedd (pronounced “king-hah’-neth”) which introduces internal consonant-rhyme within a line: “the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow.” He invents words: “unchilding,” “sea-romp,” “unchancelling,” “Goldengrove,” “beadbonny,” “easter” as a verb, “Selves” as a verb, and other such wonders. And in his later years, as we have seen, he writes “sonnets” of 19, 20 and 24 lines, with specific instructions about the proper tempo (for Hopkins, poetry was to be heard, not read) and about which lines should “count” toward the sonnet’s fourteen lines and which should not. Such was the Hopkins who loved poetry, and so loved it as to play with language and sound, shattering rules in his poems to make them more beautiful. Readers over many decades have in turn become passionate lovers of his distinctive poems, and, happily, this joy-and-love of Hopkins now shines throughout the world.
Joseph J. Feeney, S.J.
Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia
For complete biographies of Hopkins you may wish to consult:
Mariani, Paul. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life. New York: Viking, 2008.
White, Norman. Hopkins: A Literary Biography. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1992.
Martin, Robert Bernard. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life. New York: Putnam, 1991.
Bergonzi, Bernard. Gerard Manley Hopkins (Masters of World Literature Series). New York: Collier/Macmillan, 1977.