The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), one of the most important religious and nature poets in English, shows how he saw the manifestation of divinity everywhere.
Although there are many readings of Hopkins from a purely secular standpoint, it is doubtful if Hopkins’ poetry can be grasped properly unless there is some idea of the seriousness and the intensity of his religious beliefs.
Indeed, there are works which seem to be designed to belittle readings that focus on the religious dimension of Hopkins’ work, and seem to be obsessed with readings that do not at all concern with Hopkins’ faith, but seek to ferret out other things like alleged issues of repression.
Richard Dellamora’s Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism, for example, provides what some critics and commentators have seen as a nuanced discussion of sexual repression in Victorian authors including Hopkins. Eric Savoy’s review of the book is all praises for Dellamora’s wide reading in gay theory and its use in his reading of the Victorians.1
Michael Matthew Kaylor’s Secreted Desires: The Major Uranians: Hopkins, Pater and Wilde is a major work in the same direction. Kalylor acknowledges that the major writers he considers in his study display multi-faceted interests, but he has deliberately chosen to focus only on what he sees as homoerotic impulses in their work.
One can only say that much of what follows in Secreted Desires—at least the portions concerning Hopkins—are the secretions of the writer’s own desire to reduce everything to homoeroticism and pederasty. With the zest of a criminal detective, the author goes about finding evidence for his arguments, but there seems little in the book to convince one that the prime force of Hopkins’ poetry was not his faith.
Anyone who reads Hopkins with keen interest cannot fail to notice that when Hopkins looks at nature, he sees God manifested there, and at the same time, his poetry also presents an agonized expression of frustration, despair and astonishment at his contemporary society’s lack of concern for God or religious belief. These and other aspects of his poetry cannot be appreciated fully unless one realizes its intimate and significant relation with Hopkins’ religious belief.
His poetry drew its strength from his religious conviction. In trying to ascertain the truth concerning Hopkin’s agonized religious sensitivity, it is also important to understand his contemporary society’s attitude towards religion.
During Hopkins’ life-span in the nineteenth century, atheism gained ground throughout Europe, and there were many intellectuals who quite clearly expressed their lack of faith. Interestingly, Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher famous for his statement about the death of God, and Hopkins were born in the same year: 1844.
When Hopkins was fifteen years old, Darwin published his famous On the Origin of Species a book that would be seen as destroying the Biblical story of creation for good. Society in England in the nineteenth century was becoming more and more secular, with an increasing number of people losing interest in religion. A census report of 1851—seven years after Hopkins’s birth—shows that British society of the day was deeply divided in terms of religious faith, and that a large number of people did not seem to take religion seriously at all.
Of a total population of 17,927,609, the number of people who belonged to the Church of England were only 5,292,551 while Roman Catholics, the persecuted lot and the group to which Hopkins would eventually belong, were 383,630 in number, and there were 4, 536,265 Protestant Dissenters (Harvie and Matthew, 67). If we subtract the total number of Anglicans, 5,292,551 from the total population of 17,927,609, we get the astonishingly large number of non-Anglicans at that time: 12,635,058. This census report definitely suggested that the non-Anglicans—like Hopkins’ family—were now a significantly large group and could very well assert their rights as citizens:
Of potential church-goers, over 5.25 million stayed at home. The Census was a triumph for non-Anglicans. Their claim to greater political representation and attention was now backed by that most potent of all mid-Victorian weapons, so approved by Mr Gradgrind, Dickens’ Lancastrian manufacturer: ‘a fact’. (Harvie and Matthew, 67)
The census also clearly suggested that for many people then, religion was not an important fact of life. 1851, the year of that census, also saw the opening of the Great Exhibition, a showcasing of the world’s inventions, manufacturing processes and such things in a 19-acre crystal palace in London. It was a time celebrating the triumph of rationalism and science.
However, if Hopkins was born into an England buoyant with enthusiasm about science and rationality, it was also an England that had just seen the Oxford Movement or Tractarianism involving intense debates on the question of faith. Thus, while scepticism and atheism gained ground in the nineteenth century, at the same time matters of faith were important for many.
The intellectual climate of the times was definitely charged with many strains of agnosticism and atheism both as speculative philosophy and as a materialistic way of life embraced by people confident of the progress of science and technology. Hopkins did not seem to have ever been attracted by either of these. However, nor did he have an attitude of uncomplicated complacency regarding his faith and his vocation.
If the so-called “terrible sonnets” written by him towards the end of his life are of any indication, he did go through periods of great emotional suffering. Of course, this despondency did not have anything to do with ordinary material ambitions and frustrations, but mainly with his relationship with his family members whom he loved very much, and his beloved country.
His decision to embrace Roman Catholicism alienated Hopkins from his family, while his desire that England would one day turn to Roman Catholicism remained unfulfilled. His stay in Ireland meant his physical separation from his beloved country, and that was quite painful to the sensitive Hopkins. In fact, critics have argued that at the time of composing the so-called terrible sonnets, Hopkins was suffering from depression.2
The important facts of Hopkins’ life all point to his religious bent of mind. In school at Highgate Hopkins won the poetry prize for a poem with a religious theme, “The Escorial”. A brilliant student at school, he won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford where he studied from 1863 to 1867.
The two poets whose poetry influenced him a lot, George Herbert and Christina Rossetti were devout Anglicans, and he belonged to an Anglican family that took their religion seriously, but at Oxford his thirst for true religious experience found a new direction through the strong influence of Cardinal Newman.
In 1845, Newman had himself converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. Twenty-one years after his own conversion, Newman would receive his pupil Gerard Manley Hopkins into the Catholic Church. Things moved quickly for Hopkins: in 1866 he entered the Roman Catholic Church, in 1867 he passed his examinations with first class degrees and came to be called the star of Balliol, and in 1868 Hopkins joined the Society of Jesus as a monk.
After he became a monk, Hopkins burnt his poems, believing that his indulgence in poetry, involving a keen interest in the things of the world, was against his new religious vocation. In this too, we see how his religion was number one in his list of priorities. He could destroy his own creations if he felt that they did not go well with his religious belief and practice.
Later, when he decided to write poetry again, that decision too was formed partly through the suggestion from his seniors in the Church that he could make the poetry itself the vehicle for the expression of devotion, and largely through his study of Duns Scotus (1266-1308). As a Jesuit monk, Hopkins studied Scotus’ work with great interest, and practised the spiritual disciplines described in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the order.
Hopkins’ keen interest in observing the natural environment is abundantly clear from his journal entries and letters. However, at the same time there was a part of him which perhaps saw even the simple pleasure of observing nature’s beauty as an indulgence of the senses unworthy of one who wished to dedicate his life to the service of God.
Hopkins’ poem “The Habit of Perfection” written when he was only 22 years of age, and studying at Baliol College, Oxford, clearly expresses his desire to embrace an austere, religious life.
While observing nature with keen interest and minute detail, and being enchanted by the sights and sounds of nature can hardly be considered sinful by any standard of religiosity, the strict ban on the senses from engaging in anything but the spiritual that “The Habit of Perfection” seems to impose is something that may be seen as judgemental about all sensuous pleasures, including the ones involving the enjoyment of nature’s sights and sounds.
While Hopkins the nature poet presents exquisite sights and sounds of nature, “The Habit of Perfection” shows his desire for silence and non-engagement, even with the eyes:
Elected silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorled ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
Shape nothing, lips; be lovely dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.
Be shelled, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.
Thus, both the activities of observation and expression which are essential for the poet, are here shown as contrary to the perfect behaviour suitable for one seeking a strict, religious way of life.
This poem which seems to laud a grimly stoical indifference to the pleasures of the senses—even quite simple, innocent pleasures like watching beautiful sights and listening pleasing sounds or music—was written in 1866, but that was also a time when Hopkins recorded his excitement of observing things of beauty in nature. A diary entry of 1865 says:Grey sky at Hampstead lately. Clouds showing beautiful and rare curves like curds, comparable to barrows, arranged of course in parallels. Rain railing off something. The butterfly perching in a cindery dusty road and pinching his scarlet valves. Or wagging, one might say. And also valved eyes. Mallowy red of sunset and sunrise clouds. (Roberts 23)
Clearly, Hopkins has an eye for the landscape, and for detail. He observes the sky, noting the shapes of the clouds, and also the little butterfly on the road.
Again, his journal entry of 3 May, 1866 shows his ecstatic observation of the beauty of nature:
Sky sleepy blue without liquidity. From Cumnor Hill saw St. Philip’s and the other spires through blue haze rising pale in a pink light. On further side of the Witney road hills, just fleeced with grain or other green growth, by their dips and waves foreshortened here and there and so differenced in brightness and opacity the green on them, with delicate effect.
On left, brow of the near hill glistening with very bright newly turned sods and a scarf of vivid green slanting away beyond the skyline, against which the clouds shewed the slightest tinge of rose or purple. Copses in grey-red or grey-yellow – the tinges immediately forerunning the opening of full leaf. Meadows skirting Seven-bridge road voluptuous green.
Some oaks are out in small leaf. Ashes not out, only tufted with their fringy blooms. Hedges springing richly. Elms in small leaf, with more or less opacity. White poplars most beautiful in small grey crisp spray-like leaf. Cowslips capriciously colouring meadows in creamy drifts. Bluebells, purple orchis.
Over the green water of the river passing the slums of the town and under its bridges swallows shooting, blue and purple above and shewing their amber-tinged breasts reflected in the water, their flight unsteady with wagging wings and leaning first to one side then the other. Peewits flying. Towards sunset the sky partly swept, as often, with moist white cloud, tailing off across which are morsels of grey-black woolly clouds.
Sun seemed to make a bright liquid hole in this, its texture had an upward northerly sweep or drift from the W, marked softly in grey. Dog violets. Eastward after sunset range of clouds rising in bulky heads moulded softly in tufts or bunches of snow – so it looks – and membered somewhat elaborately, rose-coloured. Notice often imperfect fairy rings. Apple and other fruit trees blossomed beautifully. (Roberts 23-24)
In this entry, many of the sentences are in fact just short phrases, not complete statements. One feels that Hopkins just wanted to cram all his impressions of the beautiful countryside into the journal, without caring to write fully formed sentences.
This suggests a mind crowded with the impressions received. Obviously, such an attitude of mind is in stark contrast with the sentiments expressed in “The Habit of Perfection”. Maybe, the poem expressed what Hopkins wished to feel while the journal entry shows what he truly felt.
Hopkins’ journal entries on sky-gazing shows his amateurish knowledge of the constellations, and his never-waning interest in the details of the sky. An example is the entry of July 9, 1868: Before sunrise looking out of window saw a noble scape of stars – the Plough all golden falling, Cassiopeia on end with her bright quains pointing to the right, the graceful bends of Perneus underneath her, and some great star whether Capella or not I am not sure risen over the brow of the mountain. Sunrise we saw well: the north landscape was blighty but the south, the important one, with the Alps, clear; lower down all was mist and flue of white cloud, which grew thicker as day went on and like a junket lay scattered on the lakes. The sun lit up the bright acres of the snows at first with pink but afterwards clear white: the snow of the Bernese Highland remained from its distance pinkish all day. – The mountain ranges, as any series or body of inanimate like things not often seen, have the air of persons and of interrupted activity; they are multitudinous too, and also they express a second level with an upper world or shires of snow. – In going down between Pilatus and a long streak of cloud the blue sky was greenish. Since, I have found this colour is seen in looking from the snow to the sky but why I do not understand: can there possibly be a rose hue suppressed in the white…(Roberts 41)
Throughout, there is clear evidence of a keen observer, one who never misses any shade of colour splayed across the sky. Hopkins’ entry of July 20, 1868 also shows his interest in the sky and the clouds, and it also shows using the word “instress”—so much commented on by critics later—while describing a chestnut tree: “Spanish chestnuts: their inscape here bold, jutty, somewhat oak-like, attractive, the branching visible and the leaved peaks spotted so as to make crests of eyes.” (Roberts 43)
An August 21, 1871 entry shows his keen observation of colours and texture, almost as if he is describing a painting, incidentally reminding the reader, perhaps, that Hopkins belonged to a family of artists:
But such a lovely damasking in the sky as today I never felt before. The blue was charged with simple instress, the higher, zenith sky earnest and frowning, lower more light and sweet. High up again, breathing through woolly coats of cloud or on the quains and branches of the flying pieces it was the true exchange of crimson, nearer the earth / against the sun / it was turquoise, and in the opposite south-western bay below the sun it was like clear oil but just as full of colour, shaken over with slanted flashing ‘travellers’, all in flight, stepping one behind the other, their edges tossed with bright ravelling, as if white napkins were thrown up in the sun but not quite at the same moment so that they were all in a scale down the air falling one after the other to the ground. (Roberts 51)
Thus, Hopkins’ ecstatic delight at observing the beauty of nature is clearly expressed in his journal entries. These entries show him presenting details of the scenes before him in a way perhaps not possible with ordinary observers, but artists with acumen for such things.
As has been shown, however, Hopkins could not simply indulge in the pleasure of looking at the beauty of nature, but was wrecked with doubts about this simple enjoyment of beauty being at loggerheads with a self-imposed code of conduct which called for directing all his attention to divine contemplation.
Then a certain kind of resolution to this conflict in him came from the medieval mystic Duns Scotus (1266-1308) whose works Hopkins studied with great interest. Hopkins seems to have developed the terms inscape and instress on his own, and the very fact that he needed new terms to talk about what he saw as the distinctive quality of things shows how important the idea of the individuality of things was to him. When he read Duns Scotus, he found “confirmation of his own joy in the individuality of things” (Roberts 5). In Scotus’ ‘principle of individuation’ and ‘theory of knowledge’ he found what seemed to be a corroboration of his own theory of inscape and instress. (Gardner, XXI)
St. Thomas Aquinas was the official philosopher and theologian of the Jesuits, and Hopkins read him as a part of his training as a Catholic priest, but in Scotus, the subtle doctor, he found corroboration for his own interest in the uniqueness of things:
Scotus asserts that ‘individuality’ or haecceitas (thisness) is the ‘final perfection’ of any creature; that the ‘individual’ is immediately knowable by the intellect in union with the senses; and that in man the Will, as the active principle of ‘thisness’ has primacy over the intellect.(Gardner, XXI)
Hopkins’ genius as a poet of nature is most strikingly apparent when he presents the distinctiveness of a thing observed. Thus, the poem “The Woodlark” begins with a startling rendition of the distinctive call of the bird, empahsizing its “thisness”:
Teeo cheeo cheevio chee:
O where, what can that be?
Weedio-weedio: there again!
So tiny a trickle of sóng-strain;
And all round not to be found again
For brier, bough, furrow, or green ground
Before or behind or far or at hand
Either left either right
Anywhere in the sunlight. (The Complete Poems)
Indeed, it is rare to find a poem beginning with a bird call as “The Woodlark” does. It is Hopkins’ genius of both observation and expression that enabled him to note the peculiarity of the bird’s song and to express it so well in the poem.
The journals and letters that Hopkins wrote during his self-imposed ban on writing poetry do not merely show his pleasure in the beauty of nature, but occasionally his concern about the spoiling of the environment:
In a letter to his friend Robert Bridges Hopkins wrote on 23 February, 1889 that
…our whole civilization is dirty, yea filthy, and especially in the north; for is it not dirty, yea filthy, to pollute the air as Blackburn and Widnes and St. Helen’s are polluted and the water as the Thames and the Clyde and the Irwell are polluted? The ancients with their immense public baths would have thought even our cleanest towns dirty. (Roberts 167)
Incidentally, the nineteenth century actually saw unprecedented pollution of the rivers including the Thames, with industrial sewage and other pollutants pumped into them in very large quantities.3
Hopkins also read the works of St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, whose Spiritual Exercises formed the basis of much of the core practices of a Roman Catholic priest. The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola that Hopkins practised involved a four-week meditation course, requiring a lot of imaginative recreation of things like scenes from Christ’s life.
In engaging the imagination in this manner, Hopkins the priest was also perhaps acting as Hopkins the artist, the poet. According to St Ignatius, man was created to praise God, to do Him reverence, and Hopkins did just that as a poet and priest. In fact, St Ignatius believed that all creation was there only to help man praise God; and that implied that man should not interested in the things of nature for their sake, or merely because he found them interesting, but only for the sake of praising God.
Thus, the obvious interest in nature that Hopkins’ journal entries and letters show could be seen to be contrary to St Ignatius’ teachings. From what we know of Hopkins and his scruples, he must have been worried about this. Again, Hopkins thought that his indulgence with poetry also was somehow not aligned with his priestly vocation, and he burnt his poems.
However, most of his poetry can be seen as an extension of the priestly activity of praising God. Also, Hopkins’ idea about his poetic work being contrary to his vocation was his own idea, not something taught by St Ignatius. The Jesuits did not have any specific injunction against the writing of poems by a priest, and in fact at times Hopkins’ elder priests encouraged him to write poems, albeit with the purpose of glorifying God. Hopkins’ training for priesthood began in 1868, and continued for a period of nine years.
For much of this period, his poetic voice remained silent because of his self-imposed discipline. Later, when he was moved by newspaper reports about the wreck of a German ship called the Deutschland within sight of the people of England, one of his seniors in the Church suggested that someone could perhaps write a good poem on the incident. Hopkins took the hint, and composed the famous two-part poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland”.
The first part of the poem is usually sees as concerned with Hopkins’ own conversion, and the second part with his hope for the conversion of England. This also the first poem in which Hopkins uses his innovation “Sprung Rhythm” which he believed to be more in tune with actual speech than conventional poetic metres.
In “The Wreck of the Deutschland” Hopkins glorifies God even while describing the terrible shipwreck that killed five exiled Franciscan nuns and many others. He did this by presenting the shipwreck itself as an act of harvesting by God, an act of gathering the souls of the nuns, and possibly others, to Himself. Also, in this important poem, Hopkins presents nature as the manifestation of God’s power and glory:
I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed; (The Complete Poems)
In lines such as these, Hopkins expresses his belief that all the power and glory of nature is but a small manifestation of God’s immense glory; that the created world bears the stamp of the creator. His strategy in “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is to first establish God’s grandeur and man’s insignificance, to show how the entire creation merely testifies to the power of the creator, and then, in the second part of the poem, to establish that even the fury of nature, the storm that wrecked the ship, is God’s doing, and for the good of the nuns and the others in the ship.
In “God’s Grandeur”, Hopkins actually presents God’s grandeur through the greatness of nature. It can in fact be considered a key poem in which Hopkins’ idea of the immanence or manifestation of God through nature is coupled with his astonishment at his contemporary society’s lack of abiding faith.
For him, nature for ever speaks of God’s grandeur, and his God is the great Judeo-Christian God before whom insignificant, infinitesimally small man can merely fear and tremble. The argument of this small poem is a three-step argument, and the first step is to establish something that seems obvious to Hopkins—that nature is always charged with God’s glory, that it is God’s grandeur that shines through everything in nature—and also to question about the lack of faith that Hopkins sees in his society:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
The “now” in the question obviously refers to the poet’s contemporary times. The question is not just a question, but an expression of Hopkins’ worry about people’s lack of concern for God’s rod, about how they do not even fear God when his presence is so obvious.
The second step in the argument presents the answer to this question in the explanation that continuous engagement in such things as trade and technology have made people insensitive and unfeeling about God, and the third and concluding step in the argument asserts that although has man has gone astray, nature has remained fresh and charged with God:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
The poem closes with the assertion of God’s protective presence in nature: “…the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” Incidentally, St. Paul’s “Epistle to the Romans” (1.20) also argues that those who do not believe in God are guilty of an inexcusable offence because God can so clearly be seen manifest in his creation:
For the invisible things of Him, both His eternal power and divine characteristics, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being perceived by the things made, so that they would be without excuse; (Romans 1:20)
Thus, Hopkins’ view about the manifestation of God’s power and glory through His creation is in line with St. Paul’s teaching, too. The “Epistle to the Romans” was written by St Paul with the objective of converting the Romans; in other words, it was St. Paul’s response to the unbelief of the Romans.
Somewhat in the same manner, Hopkins’ agonized question (Why do men then now not reck his rod?) is a question about his contemporary society which was swept by the atheistic and agnostic intellectual climate of the times. It is a question that expresses his agonized realization that his society is largely indifferent to the glory and grandeur of God as manifested in nature.
1. This laudatory review of Dellamora’s book appeared in Victorian Review, Volume 16, Number 2, Winter 1990 (88-93).
2. Hilary E Pearson, for instance, has argued in “The ‘Terrible Sonnets’ of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Spirituality of Depression” that Hopkins actually suffered from acute depression while he was in Ireland and was composing the ‘Terrible Sonnets’. (Pearson 23-37)
3. In the summer of 1858, when Hopkins was a fourteen-year old lad, London was filled with unbearable stench from the highly polluted, sewage-filled Thames. This was called the Great Stink, and has been the subject of books on the history of the city and of England. One book that deals with the microhistory of the time is Rosemary Ashton’s book One Hot Summer :Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli and the Great Stink of 1858.
Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993. 376.
Feeney, Joseph J. “Hopkins: A Religious and a Secular Poet”. Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review. 84.334 (Summer, 1995). 120-129.
Gardner, W H and N H MacKenzie (Ed). The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Fourth Edition. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Harvie, Christopher and H C G Matthew, Nineteenth Century Britain: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 67.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems 1876-1889. EPUB. Ed Neil Azevedo. William Ralph Press, 2014.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Complete Poems. Kindle. John Mc Arthur and Lexicos Publishing, 2012.
Kaylor, Michael Matthew. Secreted Desires: The Major Uranians: Hopkins, Peter and Wilde. Brno, CZ: Masaryk University Press, 2006.
Pearson, Hilary E. “The ‘Terrible Sonnets’ of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Spirituality of Depression’. The Way. 46/1. (January, 2007), 23-37.
Roberts, Gerald. Ed. Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Prose. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Storey, Graham. A Preface to Hopkins. Second Edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2013. First pub 1981.
(Sanjeev Kumar Nath, English Department, Gauhati University, firstname.lastname@example.org)
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