Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

David Anthony

Hopkins was from a middle class Anglican background, but converted to Roman Catholicism as a young man and subsequently became a Jesuit priest, serving in various places as parish priest and teacher.

Quiet, contemplative and introverted, few men can have been so ill-suited to their chosen profession, and his self-doubt turned eventually to near-suicidal despair, weakening an already-frail constitution and hastening his death, from typhoid, in 1889 at the age of 44.

This inner conflict resulted in some of the finest poetry of his era. The awe and wonder at God's unrestrained creation in The Windhover, where he turns to ancient dialect to strive for nature's essence as the words pour out contrasts with the anguish of Carrion Comfort as he suffered his dark night of the soul.

Some of his happiest years were spent in North Wales, studying for the priesthood. He also studied the Welsh language, and the ancient, highly structured Welsh poetic forms appear to have considerably influenced his own verse.

His work was unpublished in his lifetime, and read by few except his friend and correspondent, Robert Bridges, who finally arranged its publication in 1918. Partly for this reason he tends to be seen as a 20th Century poet: partly, but mostly because of his enormous influence on contemporary poetry, which was freed by sprung rhythm from the metrical constraints of all that came before. Hopkins' own invention, it consists essentially of counting the stressed feet in each line, and ignoring (more or less) the syllable count. Many musicians struggle with metrical poetry, while poets often have a poor ear for music: Hopkins loved music, and poets and musicians alike can enjoy his verse. How tragic, that there is no recording of him reading it!

Hopkins wrote some longer verse, but the sonnet was his preferred form, and he rejuvenated it. His last poem, not sprung and written shortly before his death, ironically is a fine, inspired sonnet to lament his lack of inspiration.

This is my tribute to him. It contains echoes of several of his poems:

To Gerard Manley Hopkins

Your spirit hovered quivering, poised on air
of sense and sound, charged like a lightning rod:
now flashing up to seize the grace of God,
now plunging down in darkness and despair.
Despair! Did wisdom really bring you there,
where tired generations trod and trod,
where feet have lost all feeling, being shod,
where hopelessness hangs heavy everywhere?

Sometimes I wonder, did you understand
without the dark your candle could not glow?
Your soul was tortured by self-reprimand,
self-crucified, self-loathing; yet I know
the God you loved and hated took your hand
at last, and led you safe where no storms blow.