Thursday, July 28, 2011

Happy Birthday, Gerard Manley Hopkins

On July 28, 1844, Gerard Manley Hopkins was born. Hopkins attended Balliol College at the University of Oxford from 1863 to 1867, achieving a double-first degree. He joined the Catholic Church under the guidance of Father John Henry Newman and entered the Society of Jesus after teaching briefly at Newman's Oratory School. Hopkin's conversion created divisions in his family and his parents visited him for the first time in years when he was on his deathbed. He died of typhoid fever on June 8, 1889.

Hopkins is justly famous now for poetry no one really understood when he wrote it because he had developed a poetic metric, sprung rhythm, that adapted the rules of classical rhythmic structures, and he experimented with the form of the sonnet.

Ron Hansen wrote an excellent novel about Hopkins and his poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland" titled Exiles. Hopkins had given up poetry, but was moved by the deaths of the German nuns, driven into exile and danger by Bismarck's kulturkampf. Paul Mariani wrote the most current biography of Hopkins and Image provides an on-line interview. Mariani had written biographies of William Carlos Williams and Robert Lowell, among others, and was asked if he took a different approach with Hopkins than before:

You hear people you respect saying things like, yes, he was a good poet, though in spite of being a Jesuit. But you can’t separate Hopkins from the fact that he was profoundly shaped by the Jesuit experience and the luminous, searing imagination of Ignatius Loyola. Of course he was most profoundly shaped by his love for Christ, the only one who finally mattered, but that would take a book in itself. For years it was the literary critics I followed, listened and deferred to and argued with. Then, after publishing my biography of Hart Crane, and seeing how profoundly Hopkins had touched our great American orphic prophet as early as the late 1920s, how Crane had copied out as many of Hopkins’ poems by hand as he had time for, before returning his copy of the poems back to its owner, Yvor Winters, I came to see that I would have to undergo the same trial by fire that Hopkins had undergone, if I were ever to understand how he had come to write a wind-fiery masterpiece like The Wreck of the Deutschland. This would mean doing the full thirty-day Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, something every Jesuit undertakes at least twice in his life as a Jesuit. It’s not a matter of reading the text, any more than reading a book on physical exercise is going to make you fit. Rather, it’s a matter of subjecting yourself to the experience of the Exercises, meditating on the grandeur of God’s creation, the self-willed song that pulls you away from the song of creation—Lucifer’s “it’s all about me, anyway,” his countering with his Song of Myself and the glorious aroma of his own armpits rather than the sense of one’s sweating self. It’s a matter of the heart in hiding, dove-winged, beginning to fly back to its dove cote and home. It’s this, and much more. In any event, after making the long retreat in silence in the winter of 2000 on Cape Ann, where T.S. Eliot recalled the long fogs, the cries and whispers of the sea buoys, I came away with a new understanding of what had changed Hopkins from the bright, Anglican Oxford undergrad who had listened carefully to George Herbert and John Donne, into the Jesuit poet reinvented by his encounters with Ignatius, Aquinas, Dante, John of the Cross, Duns Scotus, Edmund Campion, and the cries of a gaunt six-foot German nun perishing in the frigid waters off the English coast.

Note that Mariani wrote a book about completing the Exercises.

One of my favorite poems by Hopkins is The Windhover:

(Just make sure you read it aloud!)

To Christ Our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,--the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

It is so magnificent, how Hopkins catches the swooping and speed of the bird at the beginning (with the gerund forms--morning, riding, rolling, striding, wimpling, gliding, even hiding), and then depicts the harshness of the suffering at the end (with the hard consonants--gall, gash, gold). His poetic method expresses the moment precisely.


  1. And to die so relatively unknown; his works not published until the next generation. He then became established as the premier figure of twentieth century verse.

  2. And yet his last words were, "I am so happy"!