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8 August 2018updated 26 Jul 2021 11:21am

A century on, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is still ahead of the times

Tortured visions of a poet priest.   

By SeA¡n hewitt

In 1879, in a letter to Robert Bridges, Gerard Manley Hopkins offered what now reads as a particularly poignant critique of his own writing: “No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness… Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer. This vice I cannot have escaped.” Indeed, the queerness of Hopkins’s verse, his avant-garde metrics, his eccentric coinages, his formal acrobatics and contractions, his theological and ecological radicalism, baffled the majority of his contemporaries.

It wasn’t until 1918 (30 years after his death and 100 years ago this year) that his work was finally published. Edited by Bridges, Hopkins’s friend, fellow poet and literary executor, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins spoke to a traumatised postwar Britain and the burgeoning fervour of experimental modernism. Although, of course, Hopkins used “queer” to mean “strange”, what we now know about his sexuality (and his painful efforts to repress it) adds a layer of irony. He could no more escape the queerness of his poetics than he could the queerness of his being.

Hopkins is the laureate of “all things counter, original, spare, strange”. He is also, to my mind, the most exquisite English poet of the 19th century. In life, however, he felt the censure not only of his strict Catholicism but also of his own isolation. In one of his late sonnets, he summed up his position as an unpublished – and perhaps unpublishable – poet. A reader unfamiliar with Hopkins’s work will feel immediately the taut difficulty of his language, the force of his sound-scapes, and the miraculous effect of his anthimeria, as in his striking use of “began” as a noun:

Only what word Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

Born in Stratford in Essex (now part of London) in 1844 to deeply religious High Church Anglican parents, Gerard Hopkins (he rarely used the name Manley) was short, fair and slightly built. He was shy, and was noted for his somewhat effeminate manner, but he was also strict, passionate and dedicated. As a boarding pupil at Highgate School, he enjoyed bathing in the ponds on Hampstead Heath, a pastime he would honour in one of his last poems, “Epithalamion”, where he celebrates the male body and boyish playfulness, asking “What is water? Spousal love.” But it was not long before he felt “heaven’s baffling ban”, both poetically and sexually.

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At Oxford, Hopkins was influenced by Cardinal Newman and the Tractarian movement, which sought to revive in Anglicanism many “Catholic” doctrines abandoned by the English Church during the Reformation. The most extreme of these came to be known as “Ritualists” because of their enthusiasm for incense and vestments. By 1865, Hopkins (who had always shown a brutal aptitude for self-denial, once collapsing at school after fasting) was using a scourge to flagellate himself during Lent, and had experimented with a penitential girdle.

He had also become aware of his sexuality. In his diary, he noted, “Looking at a chorister, and evil thoughts.” He also began a long habit of noting each time he masturbated by marking his diary with “O.H.”, or “old habits”, which would be comic if it weren’t for the pervasive sense of shame throughout. At Oxford, too, he met Digby Dolben, a handsome 17-year-old with whom he fell in love, and with whom he shared his enthusiasm for Ritualist practices. Dolben, who drowned aged 19, was also a poet, and was given to self-flagellation – Hopkins wrote that he “striped in secret with breath-taking whips”.

In 1866, after a lot of turmoil, Hopkins converted to Catholicism, he was received into the church by Newman himself, and later applied to become a Jesuit novice at Manresa House in Roehampton. At Manresa, the novices used “modesty powder” to make their bathwater opaque, and Hopkins began the common practice of strapping a pointed chain around his thigh, making him limp with pain as he walked. His conversion resulted in a rift between himself and his Anglican family; most importantly, however, it placed him at odds with his own work as a poet. Seeing his verses as possible distractions from higher spiritual concerns, he burned those he had written so far, noting simply in his diary, “Slaughter of the innocents.”

Afterwards, he spent happy years as a seminarian at St Mary’s Hall at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, where he developed the radical concepts of “inscape” and “instress” that allowed him to reconcile his writing with a personal theology, and to achieve a sophisticated environmental consciousness. Hopkins was a curious and eccentric character among the Jesuits: he studied the patterns of frost on urinals he was supposed to be cleaning, and instead of drinking the hot chocolate offered to him as a reprieve from Lenten fasting, brought it close to his face so that he could observe the grey film on its surface. For Hopkins, to study nature meant bringing a complete attention. At Stonyhurst, he wrote strikingly in his journal that, “What you look hard at seems to look hard at you.” That statement is at the centre of his innovation.

Through discovering the work of the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, and his concept of haecceitas (or “thisness”), Hopkins saw that the unique quality of a thing, what made one thing itself and not something else, was the source of its holiness: through knowing a thing’s “inscape”, its essential character, he could know something of God.

“Instress”, the particular energy with which an inscape was held together, was also a verb, so that God’s mystery was “instressed” through the world, as in the opening lines of Hopkins’s sonnet “God’s Grandeur”: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God./It will flame out, like shining from shook foil”. Poems such as  “The Starlight Night”, with its daring exclamations, and the ecstatic “The Windhover”, take their experimentalism from this mission to find the thingness of the thing.

What we now recognise as Hopkins’s  conservationism, as in the famous ending of “Inversnaid” – “O let them be left, wildness and wet;/Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet” – is based in his sense that all nature is an emanation of its creator, a constant incarnation of Christ. When he saw some trees felled, he wrote that he “wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more”.

The theory of “inscape” combined Hopkins’s sense of queerness with his religious vocation. He coined the verb “to selve” to capture his sense of each object’s (both animate and inanimate) constant act of being itself, of expressing God’s love:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

In 1875, after suppressing his will to write poetry for some time, he was moved by the drowning of five Franciscan nuns in a shipwreck to write his first masterpiece, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”. By turns mystical and rapturous, vulnerable and passionate, “The Wreck” charts Hopkins’s spiritual journey, his theory of instress, his erotic closeness to Christ and to the forces of nature. As the Deutschland sails, Hopkins’s linguistic experimentation takes full flight, encompassing both minute detail and sweeping vistas, as when the “wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind swivellèd snow/Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps”.

Hopkins was, ultimately, unsuited to work as a priest. The role took him to Glasgow and Liverpool, and brought him face-to-face with the crushing poverty of those cities. He had a keen sympathy with the poor (even, at one point, inclining to Marxism), and ministered to them as best he could, but the task was often too much. His sermons, too, were sometimes wildly eccentric – in one, he compared the Church to a cow, full of milk, and the seven sacraments to seven teats through which the milk (grace) flowed out.

Eventually, he was offered a position as professor of Greek and Latin at University College Dublin, but he found the work draining. In one year, he marked a formidable 1,795 examination scripts.

Not only was he separated from friends, family and England (which he described as the “wife/To my creating thought”), but the political situation in Ireland was worsening, and made him anxious.

In Dublin, he slipped into a profound depression, writing a series of six sonnets – the “terrible sonnets” – that are difficult to read not only for their convoluted syntax but for their insight into Hopkins’s tortured mind. He also wrote the apocalyptic masterpiece “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”, one of the most astonishing and complex poems in English, and a bleak and majestic meditation on death and despair:

For éarth  her béing has unbóund, her dápple is at an énd as-
tray or aswarm, all throughter, in throngs;  self ín self steepèd and páshed – qúite
Disremembering, dísmémbering  áll now. Heart, you round me right
With: Óur evening is over us; óur night whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.

Hopkins died, his work unpublished, at the age of 44, of typhoid fever, and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, in an unassuming grave a hundred metres or so to the left of the grand monuments to Daniel O’Connell and the Irish rebels of 1916. To read him now is to discover a sharper vision of the world, a higher ecological standard, and a sense of the inherent spirituality of life. His deeply sensitive personality, his constant toil, and the agony of his depressions, are a black sky constantly lit by the brilliance of his mind. But, as he writes in the final stanza of “The Windhover”:

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

Seán Hewitt is a poet and critic

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This article appears in the 08 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and fall of Islamic State