Study Guide to The Habit of Perfection

Study Guide to “The Habit of Perfection”

Hopkins wrote “The Habit of Perfection” in 1866, the same year he converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism. While he specifically describes the life and activities in the religious orders (as he does in “Heaven-Haven” [1864]), the poem has a decidedly autobiographical quality. In the letter Hopkins wrote to Reverend Edward William Urquhart just before his conversion, he described his resolve to convert to Catholicism as “strong” and “determined,” and Hopkins explained to his father with impatience that he would not “take backward steps” although it would cost him much personally and professionally. In this poem, Hopkins appears to use the religious orders to explore his own experience of conversion, particularly the spiritual compensation accompanying the choice of renunciation. Hopkins would later enter the novitiate of the Society of Jesus, the “Jesuits,” in 1868 and would take his final vows in 1882.

Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:

  • The seven quatrains of the poem move through the five senses to describe the relationship between the human body, renunciation, and the activity of pursuing holiness. According to the poem what work does each of the senses do in helping an individual towards holiness?
  • Although it is true that most Christians practice particular habits, also known as spiritual disciplines, with a view towards holiness, the poem particularly considers the asceticisms of the religious orders. The title, therefore, has a double meaning; habit refers both to repetition and practice as well as to the unique clothing of the religious orders. In what ways does the poem suggest that the religious orders train their senses towards holiness? Particularly consider the exhortations and commands in each of the stanzas.  In the context of holiness or perfection, what might the significance of seven stanzas be?
  • In addition to the five senses, Hopkins adds poverty to the final stanza. How might poverty relate to the other five senses in the poem? Is Poverty an addition or, rather, a re-description of kind of negation or self-denial the poem demands in each stanza? What is the net result of the self-denial or the embrace of “poverty” in the poem? 
  • Because the rhyme scheme is consistent tetrameter, the poem has both a hymnic quality (the poem can be sung to the “Short Meter”) as well as a sing-song quality (the poem can also be sing to the tune of “Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star”).  How does the meter serve the argument of the poem, particularly the inculcation of a habit?
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