Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844–1889
Considered a major English poet, Hopkins's poems are distinguished by stylistic innovations, most notably his striking diction and his pioneering use of a meter he termed "sprung rhythm." Hopkins's radical departure from traditional poetics, coupled with his reluctance to publish his writings, caused his works to be almost completely unknown in the nineteenth-century. However, critics today agree that Hopkins is the author of some of the finest and most complex poems in the English language, and he is firmly established as a major figure in the development of modern poetry.
Born in Stratford, Essex, to Manley and Kate Hopkins, Hopkins was the eldest of nine children. Beginning in 1854, he attended to Cholmeley Grammar School in High-gate, where he excelled in his courses and won a school poetry competition. In 1863, he obtained a scholarship to the prestigious Baillol College at Oxford University. His experiences at Oxford were to have a profound effect on his life: it was there he came under the influence of the teachings of John Henry Newman, a leading figure in the Oxford Movement and an important Catholic apologist and educator. In 1866, after months of soul-searching and against his family's wishes, he converted to Catholicism. The following year he graduated from Oxford. In the spring of 1868, he decided to enter the Jesuit order. He burned his poems, vowing to give up writing and dedicate himself fully to his religious calling. After his ordination in 1877, Hopkins served as a priest at parishes in London, Oxford, Liverpool, and Glasgow, and taught classics at the Jesuit Stonyhurst College. In 1884 he was appointed a fellow in classics at the Royal University of Ireland and professor of Greek at the University College in Dublin, positions he retained until his sudden death from typhoid fever in 1889. Hopkins was a dedicated priest and teacher, but was not, as most of his biographers agree, temperamentally suited to his work assignments, and, as time passed, he became progressively more isolated and depressed, plagued—particularly during his last years in Ireland—by spiritual doubts and ill-health.
In 1876, when the German ship the Deutschland was lost at sea, carrying five Franciscan nuns exiled from Germany with it, one of Hopkins's superiors suggested that someone
ought to write a poem about the incident. Hopkins took the hint and produced his first major work, The Wreck of the Deutschland. In the poem, Hopkins introduced the revolutionary sprung rhythm that he is credited with originating. Unlike conventional poetic meter in which the rhythm is based on the regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, the meter of sprung rhythm is determined by the number of stressed syllables alone. In addition to experimenting with meter in The Wreck of the Deutschland, Hopkins also employed several other poetic techniques for which he has become known. His diction is characterized by unusual compound words, coined phrases, and terms borrowed from dialect, further complicated by intentional ambiguities and multiple meanings. Moreover, he frequently utilizes elliptical phrasing (often omitting, for example, relative pronouns), compression, internal rhyme, half-rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and metaphor. The Wreck of the Deutschland also introduced what were to become the central philosophical concerns of Hopkins's mature poetry. The poem reflects both his belief in the doctrine that human beings were created to praise God and his commitment to the Jesuit practices of meditation and spiritual self-examination. The teachings of the thirteenth-century Franciscan philosopher John Duns Scotus also deeply influenced Hopkins's thinking. From Duns Scotus's teaching of "haecceitas" or the "thisness" of all things, Hopkins developed the concepts of "inscape," a term he coined to describe the inward, distinctive, essential quality of a thing, and "instress," which refers to the force that gives a natural object its inscape and allows that inscape to be seen and expressed by the observer.
After completing The Wreck of the Deutschland, Hopkins continued to experiment with style, language, and meter. He is perhaps most widely known for his shorter poems on nature, many of which were written during the early years of his priesthood. In such celebrations of natural beauty as "Spring," "Inversnaid," "Pied Beauty," "God's Grandeur," "The Starlight Night," and his most famous sonnet, "The Windhover," Hopkins strove to capture the inscape of creation as a means of knowing and praising God. His final poems, known as the "terrible sonnets," express his spiritual struggle. In "No Worst, There is None," "Carrion Comfort," "I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day," and "Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord," Hopkins chronicles the sense of sterility, isolation, and despair he appears to have frequently experienced toward the end of his life. In the sonnets "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves" and "That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire," he worked toward a resolution of his spiritual doubts. Although Hopkins feared that his poetic power was declining in his last years, the unguarded self-revelation and mastery of the sonnet form that critics perceive in these sonnets has led them to regard these poems highly.
None of Hopkins' major works were published in his lifetime. In 1918 Robert Bridges compiled and published the first collection of Hopkins's poetry, The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. His reservations about Hopkins's style, which he clearly voiced in his introduction to the volume, referring to "oddities," "obscurities," and "faults of taste" in the poems, set the tone for the early critical response to Hopkins. Critics tended to echo or to amplify Bridges's reservations. The idea that Hopkins's poetry was odd, obscure, and eccentric, in combination with both explicit and implicit rejoinders to that idea, was to constitute a running dialogue in Hopkins' criticism for at least two decades. A few reviewers of the collection praised his religious feeling, but the predominant response was one of bewildered incomprehension. The 1930s saw an enormous growth of interest in Hopkins's work, a growth that owed at least in part to a second, enlarged edition of the poems. Many critics of that period declared his modernity, and among young poets such as W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell, C. Day Lewis, and Dylan Thomas, he was revered as a model. By the early 1940s Hopkins's status as a major English poet was firmly established. With the centenary of his birth in 1944 numerous critical essays and appreciations appeared, and since that time his works have continued to attract extensive analysis from a myriad of literary critical schools of thought. Acclaimed for his powerful influence on modern poetry, Hopkins continues to be praised as an innovative and revolutionary stylist who wrote some of the most challenging poems in the English language on the subjects of the self, nature, and religion.