Gerard Manley Hopkins Extended Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844–1889

English poet.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins 1918; also published as Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins [enlarged editions] 1930, 1948, 1967

Gerard Manley Hopkins (poetry and prose) 1986

The Early Poetic Manuscripts and Note-Books of Gerard Manley Hopkins in Facsimile (poetry and prose) 1989

Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins 1990

Other Major Works

The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and R. W. Dixon (letters) 1935

The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges (letters) 1935

The Note-Books and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins (prose) 1937

Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins (letters) 1938

The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins (diary, journal, and notes) 1959

The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins (sermons, journals, and notes) 1959

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Prose (prose) 1989

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Letters (letters) 1990

John Middleton Murry (essay date 1919)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gerard Manley Hopkins," in The Athenaeum, No. 4649, June 6, 1919, pp. 425-26.

[Murry is recognized as one of the most significant English critics of the twentieth century, noted for his studies of major authors and for his contributions to modern critical theory. Perceiving an integral relationship between literature and religion, Murry believed that the literary critic must be concerned with the moral as well as the aesthetic dimensions of a given work. In the following review of the first edition of Hopkin 's poems, he suggests that the most distinguishing feature of Hopkins' poetry is its musical quality, but claims that it is devoid of substantial content and is, for that...

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I. A. Richards (essay date 1926)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gerard Hopkins," in The Dial, Vol. LXXXI, No. 81, September, 1986, pp. 195-203.

[Richards was an English poet and critic who has been called the founder of modern literary criticism. Primarily a theorist, he encouraged growth of textual analysis and during the 1920s formulated many of the principles that would later become the basis of New Criticism, one of the most important schools of modern critical thought. In the following essay first published in 1926, he analyzes the obscure and innovative nature of Hopkins's verse, maintaining that "it is an important fact that he is so often most himself when he is most experimental."]

Modern verse is perhaps more...

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F. R. Leavis (essay date 1932)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gerard Manley Hopkins" in New Bearings in English Poetry: A Study of the Contemporary Situation, Chatto & Windus, 1938, pp. 159-93.

[Leavis is an influential contemporary critic. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1932, he claims that Hopkins' strength lies in his attempt to bring poetry closer to living speech.]

Hopkins's originality was radical and uncompromising: there was, as he owns, some excuse for the dismay of his first readers. He could not himself, as the Author's Preface shows, be reconciled to his originality without subterfuge. His prosodic account in terms of Logaoedic Rhythm, Counterpoint Rhythm, Sprung...

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Austin Warren (essay date 1948)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Instress of Inscape," in Hopkins: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Geoffrey H. Hartman, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966, pp. 168-77.

[Warren was an American educator and literary critic with a special interest in theology and church history. In the following essay which was originally published in 1948, he explores the defining characteristics of Hopkins's middle poems, emphasizing his penchant for "the sensuous, the concrete, and the particular."]

The early Hopkins follows Keats and the "medieval school" (as he called the Pre-Raphaelites). The latest Hopkins, who wrote the sonnets of desolation, was a poet of tense, economic austerity. Their nearest...

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Yvor Winters (essay date 1949)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter, 1949, pp. 455-76.

[Winters was an American poet and critic known for his negative opinion of Hopkins's work. In the following essay, he compares of Hopkins's sonnet "No Worst" to a poem by John Donne and Robert Bridges's "Low Barometer," concluding that Hopkins's poem suffers from its overemphasis of emotion and its failure to suggest a rational motivation for the feeling expressed in the piece. In the second part of the essay, he discusses the difficulties in determining the correct scansion of Hopkins's poetry in general.]

It is my intention to begin by comparing three poems,...

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Robert R. Boyle, S.J. (essay date 1949)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Thought Structure of the The Wreck of the Deutschland," in Immortal Diamond: Studies in Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by Norman Weyand, S.J., Sheed & Ward, 1949, pp. 333-50.

[In the following essay, Boyle examines the major themes of The Wreck of the Deutschland, asserting that it is not a poem about the problem of suffering but a poem about the answer to the problem of suffering.]

In 1877 Sidney Lanier was distressed by a problem that has troubled the minds of most men at one time or another (To Beethoven):

Hopkins had given his answer to that problem just a year or so before in The Wreck of the...

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David Sonstroem (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Making Earnest of Game: G. M. Hopkins and Nonsense Poetry," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, June, 1967, pp. 192-206.

[In the following essay, Sonstroem draws an analogy between Hopkins and the nonsense poets of the late nineteenth-century.]

In the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, there is often a play with words and their sounds that comes very close to nonsense, a verbal play comparable to that of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, or Sir W. S. Gilbert. Hopkins loses nothing in the comparison with his fellow Victorians: play is seldom if ever trivial or meaningless, and it is entirely compatible with seriousness and reverence. Furthermore, the...

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Amy Lowenstein (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Seeing Pied Beauty: A Key to Theme and Structure," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 64-6.

[In the following essay, Lowenstein asserts that the features that give "Pied Beauty" its distinctive quality are characteristic of Impressionist art.]

As Francis Fike suggests [in VP, 1970], there is room for further exploration of Hopkins' relation to the art of painting. Hopkins' belief that poetry and painting are closely allied, that "inscape" or patterning is, to use Fike's word, "crucial" to both, sanctions such endeavors; but aside from Hopkins' complaint to Bridges about Millais' lack of "feeling for beauty in abstract design," there...

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Jerome Bump (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "A New Style," in Gerard Manley Hopkins, Twayne, 1982, pp. 64-92.

[Bump is an American critic with a special interest in Hopkins's work. In the following excerpt, he offers a stylistic analysis of his poetry, focusing on the recurrence or "parallelism" of certain sounds in Hopkins's work.]

Hopkins's new style was developed in response to his question, "If the best prose and the best poetry use the same language… why not use unfettered prose?" [Journals of Gerard Manley Hopkins]. He answered, "It is plain that metre, rhythm, rhyme, and all the structure which is called verse both necessitate and engender a difference in diction and in thought." The...

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Mary Anderson (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hopkins: Numinous Numbers in the Virgin Mary Poems," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 513-21.

[In the following essay, Anderson points out that little attention has been paid to the numerical inscapes in Hopkin's poetry, and argues that the Virgin Mary poems demonstrate the development and complexity of the dialectic between verbal and numerical structures in his work.]

While much has been written about Gerard Manley Hopkins's innovations in meter, such as sprung rhythm, inscape, and instress, little attention has been given the numerical structure that he builds into his work. Hopkins provides us with both verbal...

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Marylou Motto (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Uttering Truth: The Aphorism in the Poem," in Thought, Vol. 65, No. 259, December, 1990, pp. 544-49.

[In the following essay, Motto describes how aphorism functions in Hopkins's poetry.]

It is an often cited paradox that Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet identified with a seemingly unstoppable lyrical onrush of imagery, is also the poet who fits that lyrical onrush into poems so short that they sit two on a page. Similarly, the concentrated stresses of Hopkins's sprung rhythm seem to cram the short space of his line with sound and meaning. And while Hopkins often had his eye on larger-than-life people in the midst of heroic effort—the nun, Harry Ploughman, Felix...

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Desmond Egan (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hopkins' Influence on Poetry," in Saving Beauty: Further Studies in Hopkins, edited by Michael E. Allsopp and David Anthony Downes, Garland Publishing, 1994, pp. 59-93.

[Egan is an Irish poet, critic, and the founder of the Hopkins Society in Ireland. In the following essay, he summarizes Hopkins's influence on several major poets.]

When we compare the lines from Tennyson's "Requiescat" (pub. 1842):

Fair is her cottage in its place
Where yon broad water sweetly slowly glides
It sees itself from thatch to base
Dream in the sliding tides.

with these of...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Dunne, Tom. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Comprehensive Bibliography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976, 394 p.

Lists Hopkins scholarship through 1970.


Bump, Jerome. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982, 225 p.

Biography with some critical commentary.

Lahey, G. F., S.J. Gerard Manley Hopkins. London: Oxford University Press, 1930, 172 p.

The first full-length biographical study of Hopkins.


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