Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Selected Letters Analysis

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Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Letters is drawn from the three-volume set edited by C. C. Abbott. Catherine Phillips orchestrated this selection, and, Cambridge professor that she is, her format is designed for academic readers. A “Biographical Register of Correspondents and Persons Frequently Cited” precedes the letters, and forty-two pages of notes follow them.

Despite the trappings of official British scholarliness, the letters offer an illuminating look at Hopkins’ mind and personality for the general reader. The conventional and fairly superficial sense of Hopkins which readers take from anthologies is of a quintessentially quirky figure, a poet who burned his poems or refused to publish them, a writer of strange-sounding sonnets praising God. The letters reveal a man trapped in his own convictions, longing for a readership while denying the possibility of same. He seems either an artist trapped in a religion or a believer held hostage by art, but whatever emphasis most accurately describes Hopkins, he was a man whose brain penetrated the objects of its apprehension like a root system in fertile soil.

The general terrain included Catholic dogma, art, literature, music, the English countryside, and the English language. The Hopkins growing above the various root systems included a simultaneity of guises: poet, critic, teacher, priest, composer, and logician. Such was Hopkins’ professional profile. His affective profile included a similar diversity: self-denier, patriot, advocate of manliness (“Manley”), beauty-finder (he studied with Walter Pater at Oxford), and melancholic. The letters, with the exception of those to his mother and a few to his sister, are to fellow poets and other men. Though prepared in the fastnesses of Jesuit life, they preserve the feeling of the ruling Englishman brought up in privilege and accustomed to the highest social ranking. Seeing the poor in Liverpool, presenting them with the sacraments in his priestly duties, Hopkins never fully surrenders to a vision of their life. The letters mention the pain but seldom propose an identification.

The codewords which anthologies preserve regarding Hopkins—“inscape,” “sprung rhythm”—are metaphors for his life as lived through the letters. They show Hopkins indefatigably lurching into things. A critique of his best friend’s poems is unsparing: “In general I do not think you have reached finality in point of execution, words might be chosen with more point and propriety, images might be more brilliant etc. I will give you some instances.” “Instances” he does provide, whether to Robert Bridges, the friend above;to his brother Everard, a painter (“The composition will not come right of itself it must be calculated, I see no signs of such calculation.…1 am glad you got the commission but not satisfied with your discharge of it”); or to the poet Coventry Patmore: “Your news was that you had burnt the book Sponsa Dei, and that on reflexion upon remarks of mine.” So highly did Hopkins regard his own literary judgments that he regrets John Keats did not live to read them: “If I could have said this to Keats I feel he would have seen it.”

Such remarks suggest a coldness, an extreme of artistic rigorousness, as well as a comic overestimation. For Hopkins, there was a right way for things to be done, and the artist pursued it. Failing to find it, his feelings should not be considered. There was the possibility, however, that a man might have it right and others, through being insufficientlyinto  the matter, fail, by perception or intention, to catch on. When Robert Bridges complained of not understanding Hopkins’ poem on the composer Henry Purcell, Hopkins wrote back: “It is somewhat dismaying to find I am so unintelligible though,...

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especially in one of my best pieces.” A crib was included but “best” was not seemingly up for negotiation. Master craftsmen know best, whether when considering their work or their neighbors.

And if other poets’ and artists’ work needed cleaning up, so did the material they used to make their forms. “Potato” was the “most laughable” word in the language and should never appear in a poem. “Earth apple” should replace it. Poetry was “speech purged of dross like gold in a furnace.” First, the ore must be mined, and from early English-language strata only, or if the analogy is language as flesh, the words should come skinless, as in John Dryden—“My style tends always more toward Dryden”—who served “the naked thew and sinew of the English language.”

As much attention as the goldsmith pays to setting and shaping, Hopkins gave to placing his words, edge to edge, the sound of the hammer still audible in the finished poem, sparks and twangs flying and ringing. Pages of these letters, dense with metrical and rhythmical analysis, are unreadable save by stray emulators or scholars. This leads to an obvious point. Hopkins’ goal was never to be intelligible, only perfect. Christ was the literary critic he hoped to please:

Plainly if it is possible to express a subtle and recondite thought on a subtle and recondite subject in a subtle and recondite way and with great felicity and perfection, in the end, something must he sacrificed, with so trying a task in the process, and this may be the being at once…intelligible.

The reader of these letters will marvel at the recesses of reclusion in which this very sentence was smithed.

Reclusion. Craftsmanship. Hopkins entered as novice into the ultra-manly Jesuit order at age twenty-four. This was and was not a place for craftsmen. His Jesuit career he spent burying what he had so painstakingly mined and shaped. His non-Jesuit friends begged him to publish. He regretted in letter after letter that the fame naturally awarded to mastery, and necessary for its continuance, should pass him by, but he also included homilies on the evils of human glory attending the makers of images. Hopkins was stuck between condemning idolatry and having the natural disposition to make things by skill which no one else could make.

He suffered what he called melancholy; the symptoms he relates to Bridges sound like clinical depression—weakness, sadness, and hopelessness. The letters chart the affliction through his Jesuit days. He found a poet as ignored as himself, Richard Watson Dixon, and initiated correspondence: “I have said all this … as a sort of duty of charity to make up… for the disappointment you must… have felt over your rich and exquisite work almost thrown away.” Students in English Literature survey courses do not read much of R. W. Dixon, and in Hopkins’ encomiums the reader senses both self-appraisal and the cause of lingering depression:

For disappointment and humiliation embitter the heart and make an aching in the very bones. As far as I am concerned…you have great reason to thank God who has given you so astonishingly clear an inward eye to see what is in visible nature and in the heart such a deep insight into what is earnest, tender and pathetic in human life.…

This man who was so into things was repeatedly put out of things. The Jesuits moved him to Dublin, where typhoid finally killed him. Ireland was a revelation. The people living there lacked the capacity for being governed. They were hopeless. There was nothing inside them. They were all reaction. What had converted Hopkins to Catholicism from his native Anglicanism was Christ being alive within the Eucharist. The Irish, who practiced Catholicism, were a real problem for Hopkins, since their essence made them questionable participants in the faith.

He pursued essence, whether Christ alive in the elements of communion or the inscape” of a poem. The best in art or music was the least general, the most particular, the individual markings of the creator borne visibly or audibly from the work. And writing the unusual poems he did, their particularity was still not assured unless they were performed to his demanding standards of oral performance. The perfectly performed poem would accomplish what he called “bidding”: the ultimate perfection of communication, grasping the hearer, speaking directly to him as he attended with perfect attentiveness because of the irresistible appeal offered. Yet never does Hopkins recount an instance of this fusion. He did not read his poems aloud. He published few. He dreamed of what might have been, what he felt he was due after going to such pains to bring these children to life.

The letters in the year before his death speak more and more of musical composition. He wanted to finish a “highly wrought work and I do hope a fine one.” He went on to Bridges at length about composing a song titled “What Shall I do for the Land that Bred Me?” Here the discussion of technique is as impressively abstruse as in the letters explaining his poetry writing. His gifts were strongly felt. His devotion to sharing the technicalities with a worthy fellow-maker persisted to his death.

These letters open a time capsule of artistic sensibility wholly British. Feminists will stumble over them. They are full of manliness and admiration of manliness. This equated to patriotism, indifference to sensuality, and mental fortitude. Girls, he wrote Bridges, “are not apt to study things thoroughly.” His Jesuit cloistering, examining the minds of young men, however it restrained his art, freed him from the obligations of lower manhood.

What the letters leave out, surprisingly, are the poems Hopkins was writing all the while he was churning out the volumes of letters. Aside from a crib or two, or the dissection of metrical possibilities in a line of a sonnet on which he is working, his own poetry receives no extended attention. What moved him to write such and such a poem, what person inspired another, of this he is silent. He does mention to Bridges that the emotion inspiring poems is love, and he does go on frequently about other poets—William Shakespeare, John Milton, Keats—but little reference is made to himself as a poet in the throes of inspiration. All is technique, art, counting and inventing. The most religious of men is the most technical of poets. If this disappoints, it is further testimony to his existence within things as a generator of things. The presence of passion is to be found in the reading of the poems themselves.

Sources for Further Study

Contemporary Review. CCLVI, June, 1990, p.335.

The Observer. April 29, 1990, p.58.

The Times Literary Supplement. December 7, 1990, p. 1323.

Other Literary Forms

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Gerard Manley Hopkins’s letters and papers were published in six volumes that appeared between 1935 and 1959: The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges (1935, 1955; C. C. Abbott, editor), The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon (1935, 1955; Abbott, editor), The Notebooks and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1937; Humphry House, editor), Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1938, 1956; Abbott, editor), The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1959; House and Graham Storey, editors), and The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1959; Christopher Devlin, editor). A selection of letters from the three volumes edited by Abbott, Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Letters, was published in 1990. Edited by Catherine Phillips, the letters include many analyses of the work of other poets and artists; they also reveal his bouts of “melancholy,” or depression, and implicitly show his internal struggles between his religion and his work as a poet. In addition to the published material, there are significant unpublished lecture notes and documents by Hopkins at the Bodleian Library and the Campion Hall Library at Oxford University.


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Although Gerard Manley Hopkins saw almost none of his writings published in his lifetime, he is generally credited with being one of the founders of modern poetry and a major influence on the development of modernism in art. Many of his letters reflect a sense of failure and frustration. “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” which he considered to be his most important poem, was rejected by the Jesuit magazine The Month. As a professor of classical languages and literature, he was not a productive, publishing scholar. As a priest, his sermons and theological writing did not find popular success. Yet in 1918, some thirty years after his death, his friend Robert Bridges published a collection of his poems. By 1930, when the second edition of this volume appeared, Hopkins had begun to attract the attention of major theoreticians of modernism: Herbert Read, William Empson, I. A. Richards, and F. R. Leavis. They acclaimed Hopkins as a powerful revolutionary force in poetry. Interest in his poetry led scholars to unearth his scattered letters and papers. Here, too, modern readers found revolutionary concepts: inscape, instress, sprung rhythm, underthought/overthought, counterpoint. Since about 1930, an enormous amount of scholarly analysis has combed through Hopkins’s poetry and prose, establishing beyond doubt that he is one of the three or four most influential forces in modern English literature.

Discussion Topics

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Explain why Gerard Manley Hopkins could not be a nature poet in the same way as John Keats and other Romantics of the earlier nineteenth century.

In the great sonnet “God’s Grandeur,” Hopkins omits a preposition, presumably “in,” in the line “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Observe how by placing the missing word in various places in the line, several complementary meanings emerge.

Observe how Hopkins blends both joy and caution in his religious affirmations. Why are both important?

Cite instances of how Hopkins appropriates and heightens extremely common and not particularly beautiful things from everyday life.

Explain what poetry lovers owe to Robert Bridges, other than his poems.

Much religious verse is difficult to read if the reader does not share the poet’s religious outlook. What makes Hopkins’s poetry exceptional in this respect?

Study one Hopkins poem very carefully. Does the experience justify the effort?


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Gerard Manley Hopkins. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Includes a number of significant essays on Hopkins, chronology, a bibliography, and index.

Brown, Daniel. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Tavistock, England: Northcote House/British Council, 2004. A biography of Hopkins that examines his life in relation to his poetic works and themes.

_______. Hopkins’ Idealism: Philosophy, Physics, Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Offers new readings of some of Hopkins’s best-known poems and is the first full-length study of Hopkins’s largely unpublished Oxford undergraduate essays and notes on philosophy and mechanics.

Feeney, Joseph J. The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2008. Feeney examines the poetry of Hopkins, from the early period to the late, looking at his sense of humor and playfulness.

MacKenzie, Norman H. Excursions in Hopkins. Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2007. Examines the poetry of Hopkins in detail. Includes two chapters on “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”

_______. A Reader’s Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2007. This guide provides information about Hopkins that helps readers interpret his poetry.

Mariani, Paul. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life. New York: Viking, 2008. Mariani, a poet, integrates Hopkins’s spiritual and literary life to portray the life and works of Hopkins.

Milward, Peter. A Lifetime with Hopkins. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Sapientia Press, 2005. Jesuit priest and literary scholar Milward looks at Hopkins’s views on God, nature, the self, and people, and examines his place in literary tradition.

White, Norman. Hopkins: A Literary Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. This massive biography traces the life, career, and religious struggles of the brilliant but profoundly alienated Victorian poet.

Wimsatt, James I. Hopkins’s Poetics of Speech Sound: Sprung Rhythm, Lettering, Inscape. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 2006. The author examines the poetic techniques used by Hopkins, including sprung rhythm, lettering, and inscape.


Critical Essays