Today is the birthday (1844) of Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ, an English poet and Jesuit priest, whose posthumous fame established him among the leading Victorian poets. His manipulation of prosody (particularly his concept of sprung rhythm and use of imagery) established him as an innovative writer of verse. Two of his major themes were nature and religion.
Hopkins was born in Stratford in Essex (now in Greater London), as the eldest of probably nine children to Manley and Catherine (Smith) Hopkins. He was baptized at the Anglican church of St John’s, Stratford. His father founded a marine insurance firm and at one time served as Hawaiian consul-general in London. He was also for a time churchwarden at St John-at-Hampstead. His maternal grandfather was the physician John Simm Smith, a university colleague of John Keats, and close friend of the eccentric philanthropist Ann Thwaytes. As a poet, Hopkins’ father published works including A Philosopher’s Stone and Other Poems (1843), Pietas Metrica (1849), and Spicelegium Poeticum, A Gathering of Verses by Manley Hopkins (1892). He reviewed poetry for The Times and wrote one novel. Gerard’s mother was particularly fond of music and of reading, especially German philosophy, literature and the novels of Dickens. Both parents were deeply religious high-church Anglicans. Catherine’s sister, Maria Smith Giberne, taught Gerard to sketch. This interest was supported by his uncle, Edward Smith, his great-uncle Richard James Lane, a professional artist, and many other family members. Hopkins’ first ambitions were to be a painter, and he continued to sketch throughout his life, inspired, as an adult, by the work of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. Hopkins became a skilled draughtsman and found that his early training in visual art complemented his later work as a poet.
Manley Hopkins moved his family to Hampstead in 1852, near to where John Keats had lived 30 years before and close to the wide green spaces of Hampstead Heath. When 10 years old, Hopkins was sent to board at Highgate School from 1854 to 1863. While studying Keats’s poetry, he wrote “The Escorial” (1860), his earliest extant poem. At school he practiced early attempts at asceticism. He once argued that most people drank more liquids than they really needed and bet that he could go without drinking for a week. He persisted until his tongue turned black and he collapsed at drill. On another occasion, he abstained from salt for a week. Among his teachers at Highgate was Richard Watson Dixon, who became an enduring friend and correspondent, and among the older pupils was the poet Philip Stanhope Worsley, who won the Newdigate Prize.
Hopkins studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford from 1863 to 1867 and began his time in Oxford as a keen socialite and prolific poet. At Oxford he forged a lifelong friendship with Robert Bridges (eventual Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom), which would be of importance in his development as a poet and in establishing his posthumous acclaim. Hopkins was deeply impressed with the work of Christina Rossetti https://www.bookofdaystales.com/christina-rossetti/ and she became one of his greatest contemporary influences. They met in 1864. During this time he studied with the eminent writer and critic Walter Pater, who tutored him in 1866 and who remained a friend until Hopkins left Oxford in September 1879.
On 18th January 1866, Hopkins composed his most ascetic poem, “The Habit of Perfection.” On 23rd January, he included poetry in the list of things to be given up for Lent. In July, he decided to become a Roman Catholic, and he travelled to Birmingham in September to consult the leader of the Oxford converts, John Henry Newman. Newman received him into the Roman Catholic Church on 21st October 1866. The decision to convert estranged him from both his family and a number of his acquaintances. After taking his degree in 1867, Newman provided Hopkins with a teaching post at the Oratory in Birmingham. While there he began to study the violin. On 5th May 1868 Hopkins firmly “resolved to be a religious.” Less than a week later, he made a bonfire of his poems and gave up poetry almost entirely for 7 years. He also felt the call to enter the ministry and decided to become a Jesuit. He paused to first visit Switzerland, which officially forbade Jesuits to enter.
Hopkins began his Jesuit novitiate at Manresa House, Roehampton, in September 1868. Two years later, he moved to St Mary’s Hall, Stonyhurst, for his philosophical studies, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience on 8th September 1870. He felt his interest in poetry prevented him from wholly devoting himself to religion. However, on reading Duns Scotus in 1872 he saw that the two need not conflict. He continued to write a detailed prose journal between 1868 and 1875. Unable to suppress his desire to describe the natural world, he also wrote music, sketched, and for church occasions wrote some “verses,” as he called them. He later wrote sermons and other religious pieces.
In 1874 Hopkins returned to Manresa House to teach classics. While he was studying in the Jesuit house of theological studies, St Beuno’s, near St Asaph in North Wales, he was asked by his religious superior to write a poem to commemorate the foundering of a German ship in a storm. So, in 1875 he was moved to take up poetry once more and write a lengthy poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”. The work was inspired by the Deutschland incident, a maritime disaster in which 157 people died, including five Franciscan nuns who had been leaving Germany due to harsh anti-Catholic laws. The work displays both the religious concerns and some of the unusual meter and rhythms of his subsequent poetry not present in his few remaining early works. It not only depicts the dramatic events and heroic deeds but also tells of the poet’s reconciling the terrible events with God’s higher purpose. The poem was accepted but not printed by a Jesuit publication. This rejection fed his ambivalence about his poetry. Most of his poetry remained unpublished until after his death.
Although Hopkins was a brilliant Latin and Greek student who had left Oxford with a first-class honours degree, he failed his final theology exam. This failure meant that although he could be ordained (1877), he could not progress in the order. In 1877 he wrote God’s Grandeur, an array of sonnets which included “The Starlight Night”. He finished “The Windhover” only a few months before his ordination. Though rigorous, isolated and sometimes unpleasant, his life during Jesuit training had at least had some stability. The uncertain and varied work after ordination was much harder on his sensibilities. In October 1877, not long after he completed “The Sea and the Skylark” and only a month after he had been ordained as a priest, Hopkins took up his duties as subminister and teacher at Mount St. Mary’s College, Chesterfield. In July 1878 he became curate at the Jesuit church in Mount Street, London. In December he became curate at St. Aloysius’ Church, Oxford, then moved to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. While ministering in Oxford, he became a founding member of Oxford University Newman Society, a society established in 1878 for the Catholic members of the University of Oxford. He taught Greek and Latin at Mount St Mary’s College in Sheffield, and Stonyhurst College in Lancashire.
In 1884 he became professor of Greek and Latin at University College Dublin. His English roots and his disagreement with the Irish politics of the time, as well as his own small stature (5 feet 2 inches), unprepossessing nature and personal oddities meant that he was not a particularly effective teacher. This, as well as his isolation in Ireland, deepened his gloom. His poems of the time, such as “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, not Day”, reflected this. They came to be known as the “terrible sonnets”, not because of their quality but because according to Hopkins’s friend Canon Richard Watson Dixon, they reached the “terrible crystal”, meaning that they crystallized the melancholic dejection that plagued the later part of Hopkins’ life.
Several issues may have exacerbated his melancholic state and restricted his poetic inspiration during the last five years of his life. His work load was extremely heavy. He disliked living in Dublin, away from England and friends. He was also disappointed at how far the city had changed from its Georgian elegance of the previous century. His general health deteriorated as his eyesight began to fail. He felt confined and dejected. As a devout Jesuit, he found himself in an artistic dilemma. To subdue any egotism (which would violate the humility required by his religious position), he decided never to publish his poems. At the same time, he realized that a poet requires an audience for criticism and encouragement. This conflict between his religious obligations and his poetic inclinations caused him to feel that he had failed them both.
After suffering ill health for several years, Hopkins died of typhoid fever in 1889. Although Hopkins suffered from what might be diagnosed now as bipolar disorder or chronic depression, his final words were “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.” Hopkins was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, following his funeral in Saint Francis Xavier Church on Gardiner Street, located in Georgian Dublin.
Much of Hopkins’s historical importance has to do with the changes he brought to the form of poetry, which ran contrary to conventional ideas of meter. Prior to Hopkins, most Middle English and Modern English poetry was based on a rhythmic structure inherited from the Norman side of English literary heritage. This structure is based on repeating “feet” of two or three syllables, with the stressed syllable falling in the same place on each repetition. Hopkins called this structure “running rhythm”, and though he wrote some of his early verse in running rhythm he became fascinated with the older rhythmic structure of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, of which Beowulf is the most famous example. Hopkins called his own rhythmic structure “sprung rhythm.” Sprung rhythm is structured around feet with a variable number of syllables, generally between one and four syllables per foot, with the stress always falling on the first syllable in a foot. It is similar to the “rolling stresses” of Robinson Jeffers, another poet who rejected conventional meter. Hopkins saw sprung rhythm as a way to escape the constraints of running rhythm, which he said inevitably pushed poetry written in it to become “same and tame.” In this way, Hopkins’ sprung rhythm can be seen as anticipating much of free verse. His work has no great affinity with either of the contemporary Pre-Raphaelite and neo-Romantic schools, although he does share their descriptive love of nature and he is often seen as a precursor to modernist poetry or as a bridge between the two poetic eras.
The language of Hopkins’s poems is often striking. His imagery can be simple, as in “Heaven-Haven,” where the comparison is between a nun entering a convent and a ship entering a harbor out of a storm. It can also be metaphysical and intricate, as in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” where he leaps from one image to another to show how each thing expresses its own uniqueness, and how divinity reflects itself through all of them.
Hopkins invented the curtal sonnet form. “Pied Beauty” is probably his most famous poem in this form. The first eight lines of a classic Petrarchian sonnet are translated into the first six lines of a curtal sonnet and the last six lines of the classic sonnet are translated into four with a half line or “tail” at the end. Hopkins describes the last line as half a line, though in fact it can be shorter than half of one of Hopkins’s standard sprung rhythm lines. “Pied Beauty” not only exhibits Hopkins’ unique use of rhyme schemes and meter, but also his complex use of language and imagery.
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 áll trádes, 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:
Because Hopkins was a great Victorian I could give you something from Mrs Beeton, but because he was a Jesuit I think that the French pastry Jésuites is fitting. Jésuites are a triangular pastry, so named because they look like the triangular hats that were once common for Jesuits. They are commonly filled with almond frangipane (confectioner’s custard). I’ll give you a video on how to make them. Sorry about the French. You can find an English written version here: