Hopkins, Gerard Manley

views updated May 14 2018

Gerard Manley Hopkins

BORN: 1844, Stratford, Essex, England

DIED: 1889, Dublin, Ireland


GENRE: Poetry

“The Wreck of the Deutschland” (1875)
“Thou art indeed just” (1889)
“Pied Beauty” (1918)
“The Windhover” (1918)


Frequently dealing with religious themes and evoking imagery from nature, the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins are distinguished by stylistic innovations, most notably his striking diction and pioneering use of a meter he termed “sprung rhythm.” 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.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Religious Childhood and Introduction to the Arts The oldest of Manley and Kate Hopkins's nine children, Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in Stratford, Essex, England, and raised in a cultured and religious environment. Both parents were readers and devout High

Church Anglicans; his father also taught Sunday School and was a published poet.

At grammar school, Hopkins excelled in his courses, especially painting and writing. Though he wanted to be a painter, he eventually made a shift from the visual to the verbal. The young poet's verses were filled with colorful pictorial images characteristic of Victorian word-painting. In 1863 Hopkins obtained a scholarship to Oxford University. There he pursued his interests in poetry, music, sketching, and art criticism, established important friendships, and, most importantly, came under the influence of John Henry Newman, an important Catholic educator.

Hopkins was educated during what is known as the Victorian era of the United Kingdom. During the rule of Queen Victoria, a ruler known for expanding the British Empire and catalyzing the Industrial Revolution, England experienced immense prosperity. The literature produced during this period bridges the Romantic period with twentieth-century literature; it was during this period that the novel became the most significant literary form.

Leaving the Church of England After months of soul-searching, Hopkins resolved to leave the Church of England and become a Roman Catholic, which led to a permanent estrangement from his family. He graduated from Oxford in 1867, and in the spring of 1868, he decided to become a Jesuit priest. He burned all his early poems, vowing to give up writing and dedicate himself fully to his religious calling. After his ordination in 1877, Hopkins served as a priest in London, Oxford, Liverpool, and Glasgow parishes and taught classics at the Jesuit Stonyhurst College. In 1884 he was appointed a fellow in classics at the Royal University of Ireland and professor of Greek at the University College in Dublin. As time passed, he became progressively more isolated, depressed, and plagued with ill health and spiritual doubts, particularly during his years in Ireland.

Sprung Rhythm After destroying his early poems, Hopkins wrote essentially no poetry for nine years. But, in 1875, with the approval of his superior, he returned to writing verse, strictly limiting the time he spent on composition. The first work Hopkins produced after he resumed writing, “The Wreck of the Deutschland” (1875), is an account of the widely publicized loss at sea of a German ship, in which he also examines his spiritual struggles. In this poem, Hopkins introduces his revolutionary sprung rhythm.

Unlike conventional poetic meter, in which the rhythm is based on regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, the meter of sprung rhythm is determined by the number of stressed syllables alone. Thus, in a line where few unstressed syllables are used, the movement is slow and heavy, while the use of many unstressed syllables creates a rapid, light effect. “The Wreck of the Deutschland” also introduces the central philosophical concerns of Hopkins's mature poetry, reflecting both his belief in the doctrine that humans are created to praise God and his commitment to the Jesuit practices of meditation and spiritual self-examination.

Nature Poetry Hopkins continued to experiment with style, language, and meter. He is perhaps best known for his shorter poems on nature, many of which were written in the early years of his priesthood. In such celebrations of natural beauty as “Pied Beauty,” “God's Grandeur,” and his best-known sonnet, “The Windh-over,” Hopkins strove to capture the essence of creation as a means of knowing and praising God. For most of his contemporaries, however, nature existed only to be exploited, as the effects of the Industrial Revolution consumed the wilderness. This apparent disappearance of God from nature in the nineteenth century inspired some of the didacticism that pervades Hopkins's later nature poetry.

The “Terrible Sonnets” Hopkins's last works, known as the “terrible sonnets,” express spiritual struggle. These consist of the six original “terrible sonnets” of 1885—“Carrion Comfort,” “No worst, there is none,” “To seem the stranger,” “I wake and feel,” “Patience,” and “My own heart”—and three sonnets of 1889—“Thou art indeed just,” “The Shepherd's Brow,” and “To R. B.” Most of these poems focus on acedia, the fourth deadly sin, the sin of “spiritual sloth” or

“desolation.” In others he works toward a resolution of his spiritual questionings. Although Hopkins feared that his poetic power was declining in his final years, the terrible sonnets are highly regarded by critics for his unguarded self-revelation and mastery of the sonnet form.

In 1889 Hopkins died in Dublin, Ireland of typhoid fever, apparently caused by the polluted urban water supply. He is buried in Glasnevin cemetery. None of Hopkins's major works were published in his lifetime. He submitted a few of them to periodicals and anthologies, but they were rejected. Following Hopkins's death, Robert Bridges, his literary executor, arranged for a few of his simpler works to appear in verse anthologies. The selections by Hopkins in these works received little notice, however, except in Catholic circles, where “Heaven Haven” and “The Habit of Perfection” were praised for their religious content.

Works in Literary Context

As a young writer, Hopkins had several great influences. The poet Christina Rossetti became for Hopkins the embodiment of the pre-Raphaelites and Victorian religious poetry. In the 1860s he was profoundly influenced by her example. Both Hopkins and Rossetti believed that religion was more important than art. The outline of Hopkins's career followed 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: Poetry had to be subordinated to religion.

During the early 1870s, Hopkins began to study the teachings of the thirteenth-century Franciscan scholar John Duns Scotus. From Duns Scotus's teaching of the “thisness” of all things, Hopkins developed the concepts of “inscape,” a term he coined to describe the inward, distinctive, essential quality of a thing, and “instress,” which refers to the force that gives a natural object its inscape and allows that inscape to be seen and expressed by the poet. These teachings are what inspired Hopkins to write again.

Sprung Rhythm Many of Hopkins's poems are noted for their musical rhythm. His use of sprung rhythm was new and quite different from that of his contemporaries. However, Hopkins claimed that his meter of sprung rhythm appears in classical literature, Old English and Welsh poetry, nursery rhymes, and the works of William Shakespeare and John Milton. Moreover, he valued it as “nearest to the rhythm of prose, that is, the native and natural rhythm of speech.”

By using sprung rhythm, Hopkins recovered the rhythms of early English prose, with its two-beat phrases held together by stress patterns within and between phrases, its dependence on rhythm more than syntax to determine meaning, and its stringing together of main clauses connected by and and but. Just as Hopkins's poetry was influenced by Old and Middle English alliterative verse, his prose was influenced by early English prose. Understanding Hopkins's relationship to medieval prose and verse traditions helps to lead us to the heart of Hopkins's literary achievement. He brought poetry closer to the rhythm of prose.

In addition to experimenting with meter in this poem, Hopkins employed several other poetic techniques for which he is known. His diction is characterized by unusual compound words, coined phrases, and terms borrowed from dialect. He adds more complexity by adding intentional ambiguities and multiple meanings. In addition, he frequently utilizes elliptical phrasing, compression, internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and metaphor.


Hopkins's famous contemporaries include:

Robert Bridges (1844–1930): Bridges, an English poet and poet laureate in 1913, was friends with Gerard Manley Hopkins and assembled Hopkins's posthumous first volume of poetry.

Charles Darwin (1809–1882): In 1859, this English naturalist published On the Origin of Species, a book that highlights his theory of evolution through variation and natural selection.

John Fowler (1826–1864): Fowler, an English agricultural engineer and inventor, developed a much faster method of plowing fields, enabling more land to be cultivated than previously possible.

William Morris (1834–1896): Morris, an English artist and writer, founded the British arts and crafts movement, which originated as a reaction against the mass production made possible by the Industrial Revolution.

Christina Rossetti (1830–1894): English poet and sister of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti; she is best known today for her poem “The Goblin Market.”

Enduring Reputation as an Innovative Stylist Hopkins has been the subject of numerous studies undertaken from a wide range of critical perspectives, and though a few commentators maintain that he is essentially a minor author because of the narrowness of his experience, he is now regarded as one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era. Acclaimed for his powerful influence on modern poetry, Hopkins continues to be praised as an innovative and revolutionary stylist who wrote some of the most challenging poems in the English language on the subjects of the self, nature, and religion.

Works in Critical Context

Because much of Hopkins's work was not published during his lifetime, his critics did not emerge until Bridges compiled and published Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the first collection of the poet's works. A few reviewers of the collection praised Hopkins's expression of religious feeling, but the predominant response was one of bewildered incomprehension.

A Model of Stylistic Originality In the 1920s, the poems found a small but select following among such writers as Laura Riding, Robert Graves, I. A. Richards, and William Empson. Early proponents of a close reading of the poetic text, these critics valued the complexity of Hopkins's works and his stylistic originality.

The 1930s saw an enormous growth of interest in Hopkins's works. In 1933 literary critics Joseph Sheed and Maisie Ward, writing for Form in Modern Poetry, describe the fate of Hopkins's work in deterministic terms, citing his genius as the reason for the late discovery of his work, “Hopkins is only just emerging from the darkness to which his original genius condemned him. It is a familiar story; nothing could have made Hopkins's poetry popular in his day: it was necessary that it should first be absorbed by the sensibility of a new generation of poets, and by them masticated to a suitable pulp for less sympathetic minds.” In that decade his letters and personal papers were first published, together with a second, enlarged edition of the poems. Among the young poets of the 1930s, Hopkins was revered as a model. His influence is evident in the works of writers as diverse as the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, British poet W. H. Auden, Irish poet Cecil Day Lewis, and American poet Robert Lowell.

With the centenary of Hopkins's birth in 1944, numerous critical essays and appreciations appeared, and since that time his works have continued to attract extensive analysis. However his work as a whole has consistently resisted categorization. Critic Alan Heuser acknowledges this while offering a suggestion in his critical essay “The Shaping Vision of Gerard Manley Hopkins” (1958), “Placing Hopkins's poetry in the English poetic tradition has been found a difficult task…. If a distinct label is needed, perhaps ‘baroque’ is almost satisfactory, expressing the vehement and fiery incarnation of idea in word-made-flesh, the word rendered sensational.” Hopkins's writings have proved highly suited to New Critical approaches, which emphasize explanation and interpretation of individual poems with particular attention to their style, rhythm, and imagery. His poems have also received the examination of poststructuralist and deconstructionist critics, who consider his use of deliberately ambiguous language of profound interest.

Recent scholarly publications on Hopkins's work reveal the endless possibilities for interpretation his work affords. Examining the scientific context of his day, critic Marie Banfield describes Hopkins's poetry as reaching far beyond mere innovations in style. In her article “Darwinism, Doxology, and Energy Physics: the New Sciences, the Poetry and the Poetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins” (2007), she writes, “He engages with Darwin's multi-form, individuated, and diverse world but characteristically draws back in his desire for order, design, and unity, positing a power beyond the purely mechanical. He is attracted to and recoils from the universe created by thermodynamics, with its seemingly contradictory laws.” While not all scholars agree on the most appropriate lens through which to view his work, the diversity of contemporary scholarship on Hopkins's poety speaks to his contribution to English literature.


Hopkins's poems about nature explore its mysterious beauty and see the hand of God in its creation. Here are some other works that examine nature and ways of considering it:

“Nature” (1836), an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In this work, the American philosopher explores how the divine can be discovered through nature.

Refuge (1991), a memoir and natural history book by Terry Tempest Williams. A Mormon naturalist tells of the flooding of a bird refuge on the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and her mother's death from cancer, linked to nuclear testing in a nearby state.

Remarkable Trees of the World (2002), a photography book by Thomas Pakenham. This work includes sixty photographs of extraordinary trees from Europe, Africa, Australia, and the United States, among other places, as well as commentary.

Secrets from the Center of the World (1989), a poetry collection by Joy Harjo, photographs by Stephen Strom. This book of prose poems by Harjo, the Native American poet, and photographs of the American West emphasize the traditional Native American belief in the interconnectedness of all things.

Responses to Literature

  1. Read “Pied Beauty” and “God's Grandeur.” Compare and contrast how Hopkins views nature, God, and human nature in these poems.
  2. Gerard Manley Hopkins put his calling as a priest ahead of his talent and love for poetry. Do you think that the two are compatible? Can someone devote their life to two callings?
  3. Hopkins coined the phrase “sprung rhythm” to describe his poetic style. In sprung rhythm a single line may have many stressed syllables right in a row rather than having them spaced out with unstressed syllables. Write a poem about something you believe in strongly, loading the lines with stressed syllables. Use the poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland” as a guide.
  4. Read Hopkins's “terrible sonnets.” In a class discussion, explain how the images and themes of these last sonnets are different from his earlier works. Use specific lines to support your argument.



Allsopp, Michael, and Michael Sundermeier, eds. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889): New Essays on His Life, Writing, and Place in English Literature. Ceredigion, Wales: Edwin Mellen, 1989.

Bender, Todd K. Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Classical Background and Critical Reception of His Work. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966.

Ellsberg, Margaret. Created to Praise: The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Graves, Robert, and Laura Riding. The Common Asphodel: Collected Essays on Poetry, 1922–1949. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1949.

Miller, J. Hillis. The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Spender, Stephen. The Struggle of The Modern. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

Thornton, R. K. R., ed. All My Eyes See: The Visual World of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Sunderland, U.K.: Ceolfrith Press, 1975.

Web sites

Gerard Manley Hopkins Summer School. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Retrieved May 10, 2008, from http://www.gerardmanleyhopkins.org/index.html. Last updated on May 10, 2008.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley

views updated May 14 2018


English poet; b. Stratford, Essex, July 28, 1844; d. Dublin, Ireland, June 8, 1889. Hopkins was the eldest of nine children in a comfortable family devoted to the Church of England. His father, Manley, headed a maritime-insurance firm and published two books of poetry and five of prose; his mother, Kate Smith, was a sensitive and accomplished Victorian woman. Both encouraged their children to develop their talents in drawing, painting, music, and writing.

Growing up in London's Hampstead, Hopkins entered the nearby Highgate School (also known as Sir Roger Cholmeley's School) in 1854, where he later boarded. Two early poems show talent: his prizewinning "The Escorial" (1860) manifests a painterly eye, vivid detail, and precise diction; "A Vision of the Mermaids"(1862) reflects the sensuous intensity of Keats.

In April 1863, Hopkins went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he remained until June 1867, studying

Greek and Latin under Benjamin Jowett and Walter Pater, enjoying the stimulation of undergraduate life, and winning the highest honors. Skilled in drawing, he read John Ruskin and thought of becoming an artist. During summers he sketched, read, and traveled. At Oxford he developed a love of the Eucharist that enriched his whole life, and in the disputes between liberals and High-Church Anglicans he supported the Church party, following E. B. Pusey and H. P. Liddon and embracing a spirtuality that blended High-Church ritual and evangelical morality. His poems reflect his religious struggle ("Nondum"), his guilt ("Myself unholy"), his devotion to the Eucharist ("Barnfloor and Winepress"), and his distrust of the senses and the world ("Heaven-Haven," "The Habit of Perfection"). His dry humor appears in light poems and epigrams, and his "St. Dorothea (Lines for a picture)" (1868) foreshadows his distinctive "sprung rhythm." At Oxford he met Robert Bridges, later a physician and poet laureate, who became his dearest friend and lifetime correspondent.

Conversion and Vocation. Hopkins's religious quest brought him to the Roman Catholic Church, into which he was received on Oct. 21, 1866 by John Henry Newman, from whom he had sought advice. In 1868, while teaching at Newman's Oratory School, Birmingham, he decided to become a priest in the Society of Jesus. He burned his poems before entering the Jesuits, but few if any were lost since his friends had copies. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at Roehampton, London, on Sept. 7, 1868, and took perpetual vows on Sept. 8, 1870. Studying philosophy at St. Mary's Hall near Stonyhurst College in rural Lancashire, he learned traditional Suarezian Thomism, but was more excited by his first reading of Duns Scotus whose concept of haecceitas ("thisness") supported his already strong views on individuality and the self. In August 1873 he returned to Roehampton to teach literature to young Jesuits. A year later he began the study of theology at St. Beuno's College in North Wales, a beautiful land he loved and celebrated as "wild Wales."

The St. Beuno's Poems. As a Jesuit, Hopkins had written only a few poems in English and Latin: some Marian verses, an occasional presentation piece, the comic "'Consule Jones."' Then in December 1875, moved by the drowning of five nuns in a shipwreck in the Thames estuary, he began "The Wreck of the Deutschland" at the suggestion of his rector. His first great poem, it is recognized as one of the finest odes in English. Complex in thought and brilliant in imagery and metaphor, "The Wreck" (187576) is a grand meditation on God and the world, on suffering and redemption, and on God's dealings with Hopkins, with the shipwreck victims, and with England itself. In "Part the First," the poet recalls a past religious struggle (his conversion or his decision to enter the Jesuits) with autobiographical accuracy and vivid imagery. "Part the Second" narrates the shipwreck, imagines one nun's vision of Christ, reflects on the nuns' deaths, begs for the redemption of Hopkin's "ráre-dear Britain," and praises Christ as "hero of us, high-priest, / Oür héart's charity's héarth's fíre, oür thóughts' chivalry's thróng's Lórd."

Popular among his fellow Jesuits, Hopkins was considered a good moralist. In 1877 he wrote eleven sonnets which reflect his love of nature and God, his moral concerns, and his Jesuit spirituality. In "God's Grandeur," the divine presence shines through nature with "the dearest freshness" even though humans disobey God and damage nature through industry and trade. In "The Starlight Night," the sky's "bright boroughs," "circlecitadels," and "elves' eyes" are like the chinks of a barn-wall which offer glimpses of bright light within "Christ and his mother and all his hallows." "As kingfishers catch fire" expresses both Hopkins's Jesuit spirituality and his Scotism: God is found in all things, "each mortal thing" proclaims its self, and "the just man justices" because (more than any actor can) "Christ plays in ten thousand places / / To the Father through the features of men's faces." Two poems mark springtime and summer's end ("Spring," "Hurrahing in Harvest"), and "The Windhover" celebrates a falcon's flight as grandly masterful when smooth yet even lovelier when triumphing over strong opposing winds; many commentators, citing the poem's subtitle "to Christ Our Lord" (added seven years later), find the falcon a symbol of Christ. Popular and original is "Pied Beauty" which glorifies God for creation's quirky individualities; it also initiates Hopkin's experiments with the sonnet form as he changes the traditional structure (the eight to six ratio of octave and sestet) into a "curtal" (curtailed) sonnet three-fourths the normal length (a 6 to 4 2/5 ratio). Hopkins's sonnets are normally in the Italian form, more difficult than the Shakespearean form because its octave's rhyme-scheme (abbaabba) twice demands four rhymes, a feat more difficult in English than in Italian with its similar word-endings.

Poems of the Middle Years. Hopkins remained at St. Beuno's for three years, until after his priestly ordination on Sept. 23, 1877. He had expected a fourth year of theology, but his third-year examination grade, though sufficient to pass, did not merit a fourth year (a Jesuit friend wrote that he gave Scotist answers instead of the Suarezian Thomism he was taught). From 1877 to 1881 he worked in Jesuit schools and parishes in England and Scotland, enduring (like other British Jesuits) frequent changes of place: teacher at Mount St. Mary's College, Chesterfield, (187778) and Stonyhurst College (1878); then parish curate at the Immaculate Conception (Farm Street), London (1878); St. Aloysius's, Oxford (187879); St. Joseph's, Bedford Leigh (1879); St. Francis Xavier's, Liverpool (187981); and St. Aloysius's, Glasgow (1881). No lover of cities, Hopkins was pained by the Liverpool and Glasgow slums, yet wrote fine poems during this period. From Mount St. Mary's came "The Loss of the Eurydice," a second long shipwreck poem which recalls and prays for 300 young sailors drowned off the Isle of Wight. At Oxford he wrote "Duns Scotus's Oxford," which celebrates the philosopher and the city he most loved; "Binsey Poplars," which mourns the destruction of the nearby countryside; "Henry Purcell," which honors his favorite composer; and (with original rhythm and rhyme) "The Bugler's First Communion," which asks God to preserve a young soldier's "breathing bloom of a chastity in mansex fine." His Liverpool months brought "Felix Randal," which reflects on the death of a blacksmith under Hopkins's pastoral care, and the delicate "Spring and Fall" (perhaps his most approachable poem), which ponders the common mortality of nature and of a young girl. On a day's trip from Glasgow, the beauty and sound of a waterfall at "Inversnaid" evoked the cry, "O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet." Hopkins, also a master of prose, wrote fine sermons during these years and began two important exchanges of letters: in 1878, a ten-year correspondence with Richard Watson Dixon, an Anglican vicar and poet, with whom he discussed poetry and religion, and in 1883, a five-year correspondence with the Catholic poet Coventry Patmore.

Hopkins spent 188182 at Roehampton for a peaceful (though apparently poemless) "tertianship," a final year of spiritual training during which he did a second 30-day retreat, delved into Jesuit history and spirituality, and began an unfinished commentary on the Spiritual Exercises. Sent afterwards to teach university-level students at Stonyhurst College, he was not heavily burdened, yet found his work tiring, suffered from melancholy, and worried that "there is no likelihood of my ever doing anything to last"attitudes reflected in his sonnet "Ribblesdale." The Stonyhurst years also brought forth the musical "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo" and the lyrical "The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe."

The Dublin Poems. Moving to Dublin in 1884 to teach Greek at the ailing Catholic University recently entrusted to the Jesuits, Hopkins found good friends, both Jesuit and lay, yet suffered from "nervous weakness," "fits of sadness," and "the melancholy I have all my life been subject to." He was troubled by headaches, aching eyes, separation from family and friends, Irish rancor against Britain, exhaustion from examination grading, and a sense that God was absent from him. A number of marvelous, searing sonnets of 1885 (86?) express his anguish, especially "To seem the stranger," "I wake and feel," "No worst," and "(Carrion Comfort)." Cries of deep pain ("I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree / Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me"), they are written in perfect sonnet form. Peace begins to return in "Patience, hard thing!" and "My own heart." Hopkins' poetic experiments continue in several "caudal" sonnets (sonnets with tails), especially the difficult "Harry Ploughman" and "Tom's Garland" (1887) and the exultant "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection" (1888), the latter a "sonnet" of 24 lines with its jubilant close, "In a flash, at a trumpet crash, / I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and / This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, / Is immortal diamond."

Hopkins's last four poems (188889) return to traditional sonnet form and greater simplicity of language. "In honour of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez" recalls the poet's own suffering and "war within," while "The shepherd's brow" is an ironic self-portrait. With subtler irony, "Thou are indeed just, Lord" and "To R.B." (Robert Bridges) are eloquent, perfect sonnets about Hopkins's inability to write sonnets: "Send my roots rain," "I want the one rapture of an inspiration." On June 8, 1889, six weeks before his 45th birthday, Gerard M. Hopkins, S.J., (as he signed himself) died, a victim of typhoid fever. He is buried in the Jesuit plot at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.

Inscape, Instress, Sprung Rhythm. To express insights into poetry and reality, Hopkins developed three concepts now associated with his name. "Inscape," formed to imitate the word "landscape" and first used in 1868, means both the individual essence or uniqueness of a thing and its distinctive shape. "Instress" is the inner force which sustains a thing and its inner drive to express itself or be understood. "Sprung rhythm," first significantly used in "The Wreck of the Deutschland," "consists in scanning by accents or stresses alone, without any account of the number of syllables." A line leaps or "springs" from stress to stress, downplaying the intervening unstressed syllables which may be several or none. Sprung rhythm stands in contrast to the smooth-flowing "running rhythm" of the ten-syllable iambic-pentameter line or of any line which counts syllables and alternates stressed and unstressed syllables. Instead, sprung rhythm "feels" the timing, as in music, and fits in unstressed syllables (or even silences, like rests in music) according to the poet's ear or the subject of the line. The five-stress line "áll félled, félled, are áll félled" ("Binsey Poplars") catches in six syllables the harsh strokes of an axe felling aspens. Hopkins recognized that earlier poets had used such rhythm he cited Milton among others but held that none before him had used it as a structural principle throughout a poem. (The best treatment of sprung rhythm is in Stephenson, What Sprung Rhythm Really Is. )

Stature. A poet of nature, religion, and the self, Hopkins had an imagination that was inventive and leaping, reveling in physical images, rich sounds, and startling, self-crafted words. His poems were written to be "performed" rather than read. Yet Hopkins, conflicted about personal fame, published few poems during his lifetime. The first collection of his work, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, did not appear until 1918, edited by his Oxford friend Robert Bridges (then poet laureate), to whom Hopkins had sent copies of most poems. An expanded second edition (also by Bridges) appeared in 1930 with an introduction by Charles Williams, and was praised by that era's New Critics for its textual richness and complexity. Hopkins's reputation grew gradually, but because of his limited experience and small output he was long deemed a minor Victorian poet inferior to Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. With Arnold's and Tennyson's reputations declining, Hopkins and Browning are recognized as the finest poets of Victorian England. In 1961, lines from "The Wreck of the Deutschland" were carved on a large wall at the United Nations' Palais des Nations in Geneva (the Lord Cecil Memorial), and on Dec. 8, 1975, a hundred years after the Deutschland's wreck, a memorial stone was dedicated to Hopkins in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. The 1989 centennial of his death brought celebrations throughout the world in books, journals, scholarly and popular essays, conferences, one-man plays, and exhibitions. Two journals are devoted to his work, The Hopkins Quarterly (Philadelphia) and Hopkins Research (Tokyo).

Bibliography: The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. n. h. mackenzie (Oxford 1990). The Oxford Authors: Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. c. phillips (Oxford 1986). The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, ed. c. c. abbott (London 1955). The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, ed. c. c. abbott (London 1955). Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. c. c. abbott (2d ed. London 1956). The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. h. house (London 1959). The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. c. devlin, s.j. (London 1959). p. l. mariani, A Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Ithaca NY 1970). n. h. mackenzie, A Reader's Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins (Ithaca NY 1981). e. stephenson, What Sprung Rhythm Really Is (Alma ON 1987). t. dunne, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Comprehensive Bibliography (Oxford 1976). n. white, Hopkins: A Literary Biography (Oxford 1992).

[j. j. feeney]

Gerard Manley Hopkins

views updated May 29 2018

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Although the English author and Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) wrote no more than 40 mature poems, he is regarded as one of the major English poets.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was born at Stratford, Essex, on July 28, 1844, into a talented family which encouraged his artistic nature. In 1854 he entered Highgate School, where he distinguished himself as a gifted student and began to write Keatsian nature poetry. At the age of 19 he entered Balliol College, Oxford University. Hopkins's undergraduate letters, notebooks, and sketchbooks reveal his intelligence, sensitivity, and sensuous response to natural beauty. Yet he was physically delicate and revealed an ascetic tendency, a strongwilled desire to curb his passionate and egotistic spirit. At Highgate, for example, he once went a week without drinking any liquids, and at Oxford during Lent he allowed himself "no tea except if to keep me awake and then without sugar."

In 1864 Hopkins was deeply moved by his reading of John Henry Newman's Apologia pro vita sua, which carefully detailed the reasons for his conversion to Catholicism. On Oct. 21, 1866, Newman himself received Hopkins into the Roman Catholic Church. Once Hopkins became a Catholic, his need to control his sensuousness and individualism led him steadily toward the most ascetic mode of life he could choose. By January 1868 he had resolved to become a priest, and on September 7 he entered Manresa House, a Jesuit novitiate near London. For 2 years he was a novice at Manresa House. He then took his initial vows and began 3 years of study at Stonyhurst College. In 1874 he returned to Manresa House to teach classics. He then went to St. Beuno's College in North Wales for 3 years of theological studies. He was ordained a priest in 1877 and served for 4 years in parishes in London, Chesterfield, Oxford, Liverpool, and Glasgow. In 1882-1884 he taught Greek and Latin at Stonyhurst, and in January 1884 he was elected to the chair of Greek at University College, Dublin. He taught there until he died of typhoid fever, after a long period of ill health, on June 8, 1889.

"The Wreck of the Deutschland"

During the summer before Hopkins became a Jesuit novice, he burned all the poetry he had written at Highgate and Oxford and "resolved to write no more, as not belonging to my profession, unless it were by the wish of my superiors." For 7 years (1868-1875) he kept this poetic silence. But on the night of Dec. 7, 1875, a German ship, the Deutschland, was wrecked by a storm in the mouth of the Thames River. Most of the passengers were lost, among them five Franciscan nuns who were religious exiles from Germany.

Hopkins was deeply moved by what he considered the martyrdom of the nuns, and when his rector casually expressed the thought that someone should write a poem about it, Hopkins felt relieved of his vow of silence and wrote "The Wreck of the Deutschland." The poem is too long and complex to summarize briefly, but it is essentially a justification of human suffering as God's only means of suppressing the human ego so that men may learn to love Him more than themselves.

The poem is thus conventional in theme. But it is radically innovative in technique, for it is the first poem which Hopkins wrote in what he called "sprung rhythm." Sprung rhythm basically consists of a set number of stressed syllables per line of poetry, but the number of unstressed syllables may vary considerably in each line. If few unstressed syllables are used, the line is heavily accentual, rugged, and slow. If many are used, the line moves quickly and lightly.

Hopkins chose sprung rhythm because he felt it most closely approximated the rhythm of natural speech but was also strongly musical. To heighten this musicality, he often used alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme. He also made heavy use of elliptical compression, multiple meanings, ambiguous syntax, and paradox. He kept his diction simple and precise, but he borrowed words from Welsh and occasionally created his own. The end result is poetry which anticipates many of the characteristics of modern verse in its force, flexibility, and compression.

Nature Poetry

After "The Wreck of the Deutschland" Hopkins turned to shorter poetry, often written in the sonnet form. Yet he continued to experiment with sprung rhythm. As a result, many of these short lyrics exhibit a tension between the energy and force of the rhythm and the restriction of the form.

Many of the best of these lyrics express Hopkins's ecstatic joy in the beauty of nature. The journal which Hopkins kept from 1868 to 1875 reveals his constant effort to discern and reproduce the particular characteristics of a beautiful object or experience that distinguish it from any other. Hopkins called this individuality or "selfhood" of a thing "inscape" and designated the experience of perceiving inscape and thereby being joined more intimately with the object or experience as "instress."

The journal also shows that from his study of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the philosophy of John Duns Scotus, Hopkins extended his earlier, purely sensuous view of natural beauty to a sacramental view of nature as a material symbol of God's perfect spiritual beauty. The realization of natural beauty thus becomes a religious experience in which a perceiver is instressed with the inscape of a beautiful thing and thus instressed with God, the creator of that beauty. Many of Hopkins's most beautiful nature poems, such as "Pied Beauty" and "Hurrahing in Harvest, " describe precisely this experience. Others, like "God's Grandeur, " express Hopkins's despair that man's corruption prevents him from seeing natural beauty as "news of God." His most famous poem, "The Windhover, " records his realization of the inscape of Christ through the inscape of a hawk and poses his ecstatic joy in the beauty of both bird and Christ against his willing submission to the asceticism of routine religious duties.

Last Poems

During the last 5 years of his life several problems conspired to depress Hopkins's spirits and restrict his poetic inspiration. He disliked living in Dublin "at a third remove" from England and friends, his work load was extremely heavy, his eyesight began to fail, and his general health deteriorated rapidly. He felt confined in a "coffin of weakness and dejection." Moreover, as a devout Jesuit, he found himself in an artistic dilemma. He had decided never to publish his poetry, to subdue any egotism which would violate the humility required by his religious position. But Hopkins realized that any true poet requires an audience for criticism as well as encouragement. This conflict between his religious obligations and his poetic talent caused him to feel that he had failed both.

Hopkins found himself "time's eunuch, " religiously sterile because removed from God's favor and poetically sterile because God is the religious poet's inspiration. In this "winter world" Hopkins's only solution was to make his religious sterility the subject matter of his seven "terrible sonnets … written in blood" in 1885. "To Seem the Stranger, " "I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, " "No Worst, There Is None"—poems which Hopkins said came to him "unbidden and against my will"—record his deep despair, feeling of separation from God, and sense of personal worthlessness.

During the last 2 years of his life Hopkins wrote only five additional poems. Two of them still voice despair, but three climb toward renewed hope for reunion with God. The triumphant poem "That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection" explains Hopkins's dying words, "I am so happy."

Further Reading

Two good biographies of Hopkins are Eleanor Ruggles, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life (1944), and Jean Georges Ritz, Robert Bridges and Gerard Hopkins, 1863-1889: A Literary Friendship (1960). John Pick, Gerard Manley Hopkins: Priest and Poet (1942; 2d ed. 1966), offers additional insight from the Roman Catholic point of view. Excellent critical analysis of Hopkins's poetry is in Gerard Manley Hopkins, by the Kenyon Critics (1945); Wilhelmus Antonius Maria Peters, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Critical Essay towards the Understanding of His Poetry (1948); and William H. Gardner, Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1884-1889: A Study of Poetic Idiosyncrasy in Relation to Poetic Tradition (2d ed., 2 vols., 1948-1949).

Additional Sources

Bergonzi, Bernard, Gerard Manley Hopkins, London: Macmillan, 1977.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889): new essays on his life, writing, and place in English literature, Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1989.

Keating, John Edward, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.

Kitchen, Paddy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, New York: Atheneum, 1979, 1978.

Martin, Robert Bernard, Gerard Manley Hopkins: a very private life, New York: Putnam, 1991.

Pick, John, Gerard Manley Hopkins, priest and poet, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978, 1966.

Roberts, Gerald, Gerard Manley Hopkins: a literary life, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Srinivasa Iyengar, K. R., Gerard Manley Hopkins: the man and the poet, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.

Weiss, Theodore Russell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, realist on Parnassus, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.

White, Norman, Hopkins: a literary biography, Oxford England: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. □

Hopkins, Gerard Manley

views updated May 17 2018

Hopkins, Gerard Manley (1844–89). Poet and Jesuit priest. Educated at Balliol College, Oxford, where he came under the influence of Tractarianism, he became a Roman Catholic in 1866 and a Jesuit in 1868. He taught, latterly, as Professor of Greek in Dublin. His poetry was a search after style which would match his vision of God's creation. From the 13th-cent. philosophy of Duns Scotus, he developed the view that all things bear the inward stress of their particularity (what Scotus called haecceitas) and of their own God-given meaning, which he called ‘inscape’. In 1874, Hopkins was sent to St Beuno's in N. Wales as part of his training, and during his three years there, his poetry took off from theory into celebration. After he left Wales, he wrote little poetry until the final so-called ‘black’ sonnets/poems.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley

views updated Jun 27 2018

Hopkins, Gerard Manley (1844–89) English poet and Jesuit priest. Hopkins contributed the principle of ‘sprung rhythm’ to English poetry. His writing concerns itself with problems of faith. The sinking of a German ship carrying five nuns inspired “The Wreck of the Deutschland” (1875). All of his poems were published posthumously.