Gerard Manley Hopkins

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

In a review of Robert Bernard Martin’s Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life (1991), Paul Mariania practicing Catholic and a poet himselfcalled for a biography that would uncover Hopkins’s true inspiration for writing “some of the most powerful poetry of the last two centuries”: his love of God. Such a biography would “take into account Hopkins’s mature life . . . the entire twenty years Hopkins spent as a Jesuit” and reveal a man “shaped by his intense indwelling,” that is, his inner quest to remain faithful to Christ.

In Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, Mariani has now written that biography. His text begins with Hopkins’s youthful conversion to Catholicism, assesses the consequences of his decision to leave the Anglican fold, and goes on to cover his years as a Jesuit priest. Within this framework, Mariani describes the origins of Hopkins’s groundbreaking poetry, with its unique rhythms and unparalleled intensity. His work offers Hopkins scholars and readers, who have long relied on Mariani’s Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1970), a full version of the poet-priest’s adult life.

The Hopkins biography is constructed in four sections. The first, “We Are So Grafted on His Wood: 1844-1868,” quotes the last line of “Barnfloor and Winepress,” a poem celebrating the great Eucharistic sacrifice made by Christ. As Mariani interprets the line, it describes the strength of Hopkins’s early commitment to Christianity: “He has seen something, he confesses, has seen into the magnificent mystery of God’s love for him and for millions of others like and unlike himself.” In the same manner, Mariani’s chapter titles stress Hopkins’s religious convictions.

The first two chapters, “In the Breaking of the Bread: Horsham & Home, 1866, and the Early Years” and “The Dense and Driven Passion: Oxford & Hampstead, 1866,” substantiate the vital importance of Hopkins’s conversion. After several years of intense soul-searching, the youth became a Catholic while still a student at Oxford University. His philosophical studies and the influences of professors, tutors, and colleagues led him to believe that the Anglicans had failed to follow the true teachings of Christ. Anglican theorists considered the Eucharistic ceremony to be symbolic rather than a manifestation of God’s actual presence, a position that Hopkins strongly rejected. Without an acknowledgement of God-incarnate in the bread and wine, any observance of Christianity inevitably lacked logical depth and spiritual enlightenment.

After his conversion, Hopkins graduated from Oxford with highest honors, receiving two “firsts” in his field, Classical Greats; however, as a Roman Catholic, he was given no preferential recognition or even acceptance by his countrymen. Animosity between Anglicans and Catholics, originating during the fifteenth century reign of King Henry VIII, continued to relegate English Catholics to the fringes of mainstream society. In these circumstances, Hopkins’s family believed that their oldest son had made a grave mistake and found further cause for grief in his decision to become a Jesuit. Hopkins’s Catholicism disqualified him from partaking of Anglican sacraments with his family, and in a heartbreaking letter his mother asked if he were truly lost to her. After the influential John Henry Newman received Hopkins into the Catholic faith in 1866, the young convert expressed feelings of peace and joy, emotions that encouraged him to study theology and enter the priesthood.

In consenting to God’s call to priesthood, Hopkins gave up personal control of his future in hopes of experiencing a vigorous and joyful spiritual life. He believed that his acceptance of the Jesuit vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience would create an opportunity to strengthen his indifference to worldly concerns, a principal goal of the order. Church leaders would now determine where he would live and what he would do, freeing him to focus on his inner struggle to emulate the life of Christ. With this priority in mind, he burned his finished poems and set aside all plans to write more, although his journals reflect an ongoing philosophical quest to formulate satisfactory views on the nature of reality and the role of language in human perception. These...

(The entire section is 1782 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

America 199, no. 16 (November 17, 2008): 22-24.

Booklist 105, no. 4 (October 15, 2008): 12.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 16 (August 15, 2008): 64.

Library Journal 133, no. 16 (October 1, 2008): 70.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 37 (September 15, 2008): 56.

The Washington Post Book World, November 2, 2008, p. BW10.