Study Guide to In Honour of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez
In an 1888 letter to Robert Bridges, Hopkins explained that this poem was “written to order on the occasion of the first feast since [the] canonization proper of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, a laybrother of our Order, who for 40 years acted as hall-porter to the College of Palma in Majorca: he was, it is believed, much favored by God with heavenly lights and much persecuted by evil spirits.“ He concluded humorously, “The sonnet (I say it snorting) aims at being intelligible.” As to the person being honored, Alphonsus Rodriguez (1532-1617) as a recent widower resolved to join the Jesuits at the age of 40. After his acceptance, he remained in the humble position of the house porter for the College of Palma in Majorca, Spain, for 46 years, answering the door, carrying bags, delivering messages, meeting needs, and offering advice. After his death, his writings revealed that Alphonsus believed that every person who appeared at his door was Christ, and his work was to encounter God in every task. Alphonsus Rodriguez was canonized in September 1888, just prior to the writing of the poem.
Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:
- If you have read other Hopkins poems, do you think Hopkins identified with Alphonsus Rodriguez’s “war within,” and if so why or how? Are you yourself in any way a veteran of that war?
- The warlike pace of the octet slows down in the sestet of the poem. Think about the verbs and the pace of the octet, for example, versus the language about the slow creative power of God described in lines 9-11 or the repetitive phrases “more and more” and “year by year” toward the end. How do these latter add to the slowness, the patience of the poem, and how does this slowing mirror the life of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez?
- Alphonsus is not mentioned until the last line of the poem. Why this postponement, and how does Hopkins prepare the reader for his entrance? How do the words of the first line (“Honour is flashed off exploit”) contrast with the words of the last line (“watched the door”)? Is there a resonance with Jesus’ words “the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30)?
For this poem you might want to be familiar with the following terms from the Hopkins Terminology: sonnet | octave | sestet | epithet.