Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1189
Gerard Manley Hopkins was the first of eight children born to Manley Hopkins, a successful marine insurance agent who wrote poetry and technical books. The family was closely knit and artistic. Two of Hopkins’s brothers became professional artists, and Hopkins’s papers contain many pencil sketches showing his own talent for drawing. He was devoted to his youngest sister, Grace, who was an accomplished musician, and he tried to learn several musical instruments as well as counterpoint and musical composition. The family was devoutly Anglican in religion. When Hopkins was eight years old, they moved from the London suburb of Stratford (Essex) to the more fashionable and affluent Hampstead on the north edge of the city.
From 1854 to 1863, Hopkins attended Highgate Grammar School. Richard Watson Dixon, a young teacher there, later became one of Hopkins’s main literary associates. Hopkins studied Latin and Greek intensively, winning the Governor’s Gold Medal for Latin Verse, as well as the Headmaster’s Poetry Prize in 1860 for his English poem “The Escorial.” His school years seem to have been somewhat stormy, marked by the bittersweet joy of schoolboy friendships and the excitement of a keen mind mastering the intricacies of Greek, Latin, and English poetry. He was such a brilliant student that he won the Balliol College Exhibition, or scholarship prize. Balliol was reputed to be the leading college for classical studies at Oxford University in the 1860’s. Hopkins attended Balliol from April, 1863, until June, 1867, studying “Classical Greats,” the philosophy, literature, and language of ancient Greece and Rome. The first year of this curriculum required rigorous study of the structure of the Latin and Greek languages. This linguistic study terminated with a very demanding examination, in which Hopkins earned a grade of “first” in December, 1864. The remaining years of his program involved the study of the philosophy and literature of ancient writers in their original tongues, concluding with the final honors examination. Hopkins concluded his B.A. (Hons.) with a “first” in June, 1867. A double first in “Classical Greats” is a remarkable accomplishment. Benjamin Jowett, the Master of Balliol and himself a famous classical scholar, called Hopkins “The Star of Balliol” and all who knew him at this period predicted a brilliant career for him. Hopkins loved Oxford—its landscapes and personalities, the life of culture and keen intellectual striving—and always looked back to his college days with nostalgia. His schoolmate there was Robert Bridges, who was to be his lifelong friend and correspondent.
These years were not peaceful, however, for the promising young scholar and poet. The colleges of Oxford University were then religious institutions. Only Anglicans could enroll as students or teach there. For some thirty years before Hopkins entered Balliol, Oxford University had been rocked by the Oxford Movement. A number of its illustrious teachers had questioned the very basis of the Anglican Church, the way in which the Church of England could claim to be independent of the Roman Catholic Church. Many of the leading figures of the Oxford Movement had felt compelled to leave Oxford and the Church of England and to convert to Roman Catholicism. Among the converts was Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose Apologia pro Vita Sua, or history of his conversion from the Anglican to the Roman Church, was published in 1864, the year Hopkins was preparing for his Moderations at Balliol. To follow Newman’s lead meant to give up hope of an academic career at Oxford, and perhaps even the hope of completing his B.A. Nevertheless, by 1866 Hopkins was convinced that the only true church was the Roman. In October, 1866, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church by Newman himself. It is hard for modern readers to imagine the pain and dislocation this decision caused Hopkins. His family letters reveal the anguish of his father, who believed that his son’s immortal soul was lost, not merely his temporal career. Hopkins was estranged from his family to some degree ever after his momentous conversion. After he had completed his B.A. at Oxford, Hopkins taught in 1867 at Newman’s Oratory School, a Roman Catholic grammar school near Birmingham. There he decided to enter a religious order. In May, 1868, he burned all manuscripts of his poems, thinking that poetry was not a fit occupation for a seriously religious person. Fortunately, some of his early writing survived in copies he had given to Robert Bridges. He wrote no further poetry until “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”
In the summer of 1867, he went on a walking tour of Switzerland. In that September, he entered the Jesuit Novitiate, Manresa House, London, for the first two years of rigorous spiritual training to become a Jesuit priest. There he followed the regime of the Ejercicios espirituales (1548; The Spiritual Exercises, 1736) of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. From 1870 to 1873, he studied philosophy at St. Mary’s Hall, Stonyhurst, in the North of England. Although Hopkins had been a brilliant student of classical philosophy at Oxford, he seems not to have pleased his Jesuit superiors so well. Perhaps part of the problem was an independence of mind that could be disconcerting. At Stonyhurst, he first read the medieval philosopher John Duns Scotus, who had an unusually strong influence on Hopkins. He then returned to Manresa House for a year as professor of rhetoric. From 1874 to 1878, he studied theology at St. Bueno’s College in Wales. There he began to write poetry again when he heard of the wreck of a German ship, the Deutschland, and the death of five Catholic nuns aboard.
It is the custom in the Jesuit order to move priests from one location to another frequently and to try them out in a variety of posts. In the next few years, Hopkins tried many different kinds of religious work without remarkable success. He was assigned to preach in the fashionable Farm Street Church in London’s West End, but he was not a charismatic or crowd-pleasing performer. Parish work in the Liverpool slums left him depressed and exhausted. When he was assigned temporarily to the Catholic parish church in Oxford, he seemed to have had trouble getting along with his superior. Finally, he was appointed professor of Greek and Latin literature at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He held this post until his death in 1889. The Catholic population of Ireland at that time was in near-revolt against English oppression. Hopkins felt a conflict between his English patriotism and his Catholic sympathies. Although he had been a brilliant student as a young man, the University College duties gave him little opportunity to do gratifying scholarly work. Much of his time was spent in the drudgery of external examinations, grading papers of hundreds of students he had never taught. His lectures were attended by only a handful of students. He projected massive books for himself to write, but never was able to put them together. In this period, he wrote many sonnets that show spiritual desolation, unhappiness, and alienation. He died of typhoid in 1889 at the age of forty-five. Not until a generation later did the literary world recognize his genius.
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