Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems

Life

Early life and family

Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in Stratford, Essex[1] (now in Greater London), as the first of nine children to Manley and Catherine (Smith) Hopkins.[2] His father founded a marine insurance firm and, at one time, served as the Hawaiian consul general in London. He was also, for a time, the church warden at St John-at-Hampstead. His grandfather was the physician John Simm Smith, university colleague of John Keats, and close friend of the eccentric philanthropist Ann Thwaytes.

A poet, Hopkins' father published works including A Philosopher's Stone and Other Poems (1843), Pietas Metrica (1849), and Spicelegium Poeticum, A Gathering of Verses by Manley Hopkins (1892). He reviewed poetry for The Times and wrote one novel. Catherine (Smith) Hopkins was the daughter of a London physician, particularly fond of music and of reading, especially German philosophy, literature and the novels of Dickens. Both parents were deeply religious High Church Anglicans. Catherine's sister, Maria Smith Giberne, taught her nephew Gerard to sketch. The interest was supported by his uncle, Edward Smith, his great-uncle Richard James Lane, a professional artist, and many other family members.[1] Hopkins's first ambitions were to be a painter, and he would continue to sketch throughout his life, inspired, as an adult, by the work of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites.[1][3]

Hopkins became a skilled draughtsman and found that his early training in visual art supported his later work as a poet.[1] His siblings were greatly inspired by language, religion and the creative arts. Milicent (1849–1946) joined an Anglican sisterhood in 1878. Kate (1856–1933) would go on to help Hopkins publish the first edition of his poetry. Hopkins's youngest sister Grace (1857–1945) set many of his poems to music. Lionel (1854–1952) became a world-famous expert on archaic and colloquial Chinese. Arthur (1848–1930) and Everard (1860–1928) were both highly successful artists. Cyril (1846–1932) would join his father's insurance firm.[3]

Manley Hopkins moved his family to Hampstead in 1852, near to where John Keats had lived thirty years before and close to the wide green spaces of Hampstead Heath. When ten years old, Gerard Manley Hopkins was sent to board at Highgate School (1854–1863). [1] While studying Keats's poetry, he wrote "The Escorial" (1860), his earliest poem extant. Here he practised early attempts at asceticism. He once argued that most people drank more liquids than they really needed and bet that he could go without drinking for a week. He persisted until his tongue was black and he collapsed at drill. On another occasion, he abstained from salt for a week.[3][4]

Oxford and the priesthood

At Balliol College, Oxford (1863–67) he studied classics.[5] Hopkins was an unusually sensitive and shy student and poet, as witnessed by his class-notes and early poetic pieces. At Oxford he forged a lifelong friendship with Robert Bridges (eventual Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom) which would be of importance in his development as a poet, and his posthumous acclaim.[5] Hopkins was deeply impressed with the work of Christina Rossetti and she became one of his greatest contemporary influences, meeting him in 1864.[6] During this time he studied with the prestigious writer and critic Walter Pater, who tutored him in 1866 and who remained a friend till September 1879 when Hopkins left Oxford.[3][7]

Hopkins began his time in Oxford as a keen socialite and prolific poet, but he seemed to have alarmed himself with the changes in his behaviour that resulted. He became more studious and began recording his "sins" in his diary. As an undergraduate, he engaged in friendships that may be viewed as romantic, though they tended to be idealised and spiritualised. In particular, he found it hard to accept his sexual attraction to other men, including a deep infatuation for Digby Mackworth Dolben. There is nothing to suggest, however, any physical consummation and he seems to have remained celibate throughout his life. He exercised a strict self-control in regard to his homosexual desire, especially after he became a follower of Henry Parry Liddon and of Edward Pusey, the last member of the original Oxford Movement.[6]

It was during this time of intense scrupulosity that Hopkins seems to have especially begun confronting his strong homoerotic impulses[8] and begun to consider choosing the cloister.

On 18 January 1866 Hopkins composed his most ascetic poem, The Habit of Perfection. On 23 January he included poetry in the list of things to be given up for Lent. In July he decided to become a Catholic, and he traveled to Birmingham in September to consult the leader of the Oxford converts, John Henry Newman.[6] Newman received him into the Church on 21 October 1866.

The decision to convert estranged him from both his family and a number of his acquaintances. After his graduation in 1867, Hopkins was provided with a teaching post at the Oratory in Birmingham by Newman. While there he began to study the violin. On 5 May 1868 Hopkins firmly "resolved to be a religious." Less than a week later, he made a bonfire of his poems and gave up poetry almost entirely for seven years. He also felt the call to enter the ministry and decided to become a Jesuit. He paused to visit Switzerland, which officially forbade Jesuits to enter.[3][8]

Hopkins began his novitiate in the Society of Jesus at Manresa House, Roehampton, in September 1868. Two years later, he moved to St. Mary's Hall, Stonyhurst, for his philosophical studies, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience on 8 September 1870.[9] He felt that his interest in poetry prevented him from wholly devoting himself to his religion. However, after reading Duns Scotus in 1872, he saw that the two did not necessarily conflict.[10] He continued to write a detailed prose journal between 1868 and 1875. Unable to suppress his desire to describe the natural world, he also wrote music, sketched, and for church occasions he wrote some "verses," as he called them. He would later write sermons and other religious pieces.

In 1874 Hopkins returned to Manresa House to teach classics. While he was studying in the Jesuit house of theological studies, St Beuno's, near St Asaph in North Wales, he was asked by his religious superior to write a poem to commemorate the foundering of a German ship in a storm. So in 1875 he was moved to take up poetry once more and write a lengthy poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland. This work was inspired by the Deutschland incident, a maritime disaster in which 157 people died, including five Franciscan nuns who had been leaving Germany due to harsh anti-Catholic laws (see Kulturkampf). The work displays both the religious concerns and some of the unusual meter and rhythms of his subsequent poetry not present in his few remaining early works. It not only depicts the dramatic events and heroic deeds but also tells of the poet's reconciling the terrible events with God's higher purpose. The poem was accepted but not printed by a Jesuit publication. This rejection fed his ambivalence about his poetry. Most of his poetry remained unpublished until after his death.

Hopkins chose the austere and restrictive life of a Jesuit and was at times gloomy. The brilliant student who had left Oxford with a first-class honours degree failed his final theology exam. This failure almost certainly meant that, though ordained in 1877, Hopkins would not progress in the order. In 1877 he wrote God’s Grandeur, an array of sonnets including The Starlight Night. He finished The Windhover only a few months before his ordination. Though rigorous, isolated and sometimes unpleasant, his life during Jesuit training had at least some stability; the uncertain and varied work after ordination was even harder on his sensibilities. In October 1877, not long after he completed “The Sea and the Skylark” and only a month after he had been ordained as a priest, Hopkins took up his duties as subminister and teacher at Mount St. Mary’s College, Chesterfield. In July 1878 he became curate at the Jesuit church in Mount Street, London. In December he became curate at St. Aloysius’s Church, Oxford, then moving to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow.[3] Whilst ministering in Oxford, he became a founding member of Oxford University Newman Society, a society established in 1878 for the Catholic members of Oxford University. He taught Greek and Latin at Mount St Mary's College, Sheffield, and Stonyhurst College, Lancashire.

In 1884 he became professor of Greek and Latin at University College Dublin.[11] His English roots and his disagreement with the Irish politics of the time, as well as his own small stature (5'2"), unprepossessing nature and personal oddities meant that he was not a particularly effective teacher. This as well as his isolation in Ireland deepened his gloom. His poems of the time, such as I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, reflected this. They came to be known as the "terrible sonnets," not because of their quality but because according to Hopkins's friend Canon Dixon, they reached the "terrible crystal," meaning that they crystallized the melancholy dejection that plagued the later part of Hopkins' life.

Final years

Several problems conspired to depress Hopkins's spirits and restrict his poetic inspiration during the last five years of his life.[12] His work load was extremely heavy. He disliked living in Dublin, away from England and friends. His general health deteriorated as his eyesight began to fail. He felt confined and dejected. As a devout Jesuit, he found himself in an artistic dilemma. To subdue any egotism which would violate the humility required by his religious position, he decided never to publish his poems. But Hopkins realized that any true poet requires an audience for criticism and encouragement. This conflict between his religious obligations and his poetic talent caused him to feel that he had failed them both.

After suffering ill health for several years and bouts of diarrhoea, Hopkins died of typhoid fever in 1889 and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, following his funeral in Saint Francis Xavier Church on Gardiner Street, located in Georgian Dublin. He is thought to have suffered throughout his life from what today might be diagnosed as either bipolar disorder or chronic unipolar depression, and battled a deep sense of melancholic anguish. However, on his death bed, his last words were, "I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life."[4]


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