What are some significant comparisons and contrasts between the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the poetry of A. E. Housman? In particular, how do they present different depictions of relations between the self and God?
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Important differences between the English poets Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) and A. E. Housman (1859-1936) result from the fact that whereas Hopkins was a devout Christian, Housman was a convinced atheist. The poetic results of these significantly different outlooks -- especially as they affect the two poets' ideas of relations between the self and God -- can be glimpsed by comparing and contrasting two representative poems: Hopkins’ “Thou art indeed just, Lord” and Housman’s “Easter Hymn.” Some of the similarities and differences between these two works include the following:
- Both poems directly address Jesus, but whereas the speaker of Hopkins’ poem simply assumes that Jesus is the Christ, is thus also God, and is therefore in fact still very much alive, the speaker of Housman’s poem suggests that Jesus may simply have been a man who died and who is still dead.
- Both speakers express disappointment with the state of the world. In Hopkins’ poem, the speaker seems frustrated with the lack of success of his own life, even though he is devout, while non-believers, in contrast, seem successful. Thus he asks God,
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end? (3-4)
In Housman’s poem, the speaker mainly seems disappointed with the hatred that exists in the world, especially religious hatred, including hatred between Christians and non-Christians and even hatred among Christians themselves (2-5).
- Both speakers seem frustrated that God, if he exists at all, does not take a more active part in seeing that justice is done in the world. Thus, Hopkins’ speaker wonders why Christ seems to “Defeat” and “thwart” him (7), and he ends the poem by beseeching Christ, “O thou lord of life, send my roots rain” (14). Meanwhile, although the speaker in Housman’s poem is not at all sure that Christ really does exist, he is willing to allow the possibility. If Christ is indeed alive in heaven, then Housman’s speaker urges him to intervene in the world to do good in the here and now: “Bow hither out of heaven and see and save” (12).
- Ironically, although Housman’s poem was written by an atheist, Housman’s poem is the one that seems to express a more general concern for mankind as a whole. In contrast, although Hopkins’ poem was written by a devout Christian, Hopkins’ poem is the one that seems to express a more narrow concern with the life of one particular person. To say this, of course, is not to say anything about the general thinking of the two poets; it is only to point out a significant difference between these two poems. In the Hopkins poem, the speaker assumes that God exists but that God is not doing much to assist the speaker; in the Housman poem, the speaker assumes that God may or may not exist but that if God does exist, he is not doing much to aid humanity in general.
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