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Much of Hopkins's historical importance has to do with the changes he brought to the form of poetry, which ran contrary to conventional ideas of metre. Prior to Hopkins, most Middle English and Modern English poetry was based on a rhythmic structure inherited from the Norman side of English literary heritage. This structure is based on repeating groups of two or three syllables, with the stressed syllable falling in the same place on each repetition. Hopkins called this structure "running rhythm", and though he wrote some of his early verse in running rhythm he became fascinated with the older rhythmic structure of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, of which Beowulf is the most famous example. Hopkins called his own rhythmic structure sprung rhythm. Sprung rhythm is structured around feet with a variable number of syllables, generally between one and four syllables per foot, with the stress always falling on the first syllable in a foot. It is similar to the "rolling stresses" of Robinson Jeffers, another poet who rejected conventional metre. Hopkins saw sprung rhythm as a way to escape the constraints of running rhythm, which he said inevitably pushed poetry written in it to become "same and tame." In this way, Hopkins sprung rhythm can be seen as anticipating much of free verse. His work has no great affinity with either of the contemporary Pre-Raphaelite and neo-romanticism schools, although he does share their descriptive love of nature and he is often seen as a precursor to modernist poetry or as a bridge between the two poetic eras.
Use of language
The language of Hopkins’s poems is often striking. His imagery can be simple, as in Heaven-Haven, where the comparison is between a nun entering a convent and a ship entering a harbour out of a storm. It can be splendidly metaphysical and intricate, as it is in As Kingfishers Catch Fire, where he leaps from one image to another to show how each thing expresses its own uniqueness, and how divinity reflects itself through all of them.
He uses many archaic and dialect words, but also coins new words. One example of this is twindles, which seems from its context in Inversnaid to mean a combination of twines and dwindles. He often creates compound adjectives, sometimes with a hyphen (such as dapple-dawn-drawn falcon) but often without, as in rolling level underneath him steady air. This concentrates his images, communicating the instress of the poet’s perceptions of an inscape to his reader.
Hopkins was a supporter of linguistic purism in English. In an 1882 letter to Robert Bridges, Hopkins writes: "It makes one weep to think what English might have been; for in spite of all that Shakespeare and Milton have done [...] no beauty in a language can make up for want of purity". He took time to learn Old English, which became a major influence on his writing. In the same letter to Bridges he calls Old English "a vastly superior thing to what we have now".
Added richness comes from Hopkins’s extensive use of alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia and rhyme, both at the end of lines and internally as in:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Hopkins was influenced by the Welsh language that he acquired while studying theology at St Beuno's near St Asaph. The poetic forms of Welsh literature and particularly cynghanedd with its emphasis on repeating sounds accorded with his own style and became a prominent feature of his work. This reliance on similar sounding words with close or differing senses mean that his poems are best understood if read aloud. An important element in his work is Hopkins's own concept of "inscape" which was derived, in part, from the medieval theologian Duns Scotus. The exact detail of "inscape" is uncertain and probably known to Hopkins alone but it has to do with the individual essence and uniqueness of every physical thing. This is communicated from an object by its "instress" and ensures the transmission of the item's importance in the wider creation. His poems would then try to present this "inscape" so that a poem like The Windhover aims to depict not the bird in general but instead one instance and its relation to the breeze. This is just one interpretation of Hopkins's most famous poem, one which he felt was his best.
During his lifetime, Hopkins published few poems. It was only through the efforts of Robert Bridges that his works were seen. Despite Hopkins burning all his poems on entering the Jesuit novitiate, he had already sent some to Bridges who, with a few other friends, was one of the few people to see many of them for some years. After Hopkins's death they were distributed to a wider audience, mostly fellow poets, and in 1918 Bridges, by then poet laureate, published a collected edition; an expanded edition, prepared by Charles Williams, appeared in 1930, and a greatly expanded edition by William Henry Gardner appeared in 1948 (eventually reaching a fourth edition, 1967, with N. H. Mackenzie).
Notable collections of Hopkins's manuscripts and publications are in Campion Hall, Oxford; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; and the Foley Library at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
Some contemporary critics believe that Hopkins' suppressed erotic impulses played an important role in the tone, quality and even content of his works. These impulses seem to have taken on a degree of specificity after he met Robert Bridges's distant cousin, friend, and fellow Etonian Digby Mackworth Dolben, "a Christian Uranian". The Hopkins biographer Robert Bernard Martin asserts that when Hopkins first met Dolben, on Dolben's 17th birthday, in Oxford in February 1865, it "was, quite simply, the most momentous emotional event of [his] undergraduate years, probably of his entire life."
Hopkins was completely taken with Dolben, who was nearly four years his junior, and his private journal for confessions the following year proves how absorbed he was in imperfectly suppressed erotic thoughts of him.
Hopkins kept up a correspondence with Dolben, wrote about him in his diary and composed two poems about him, "Where art thou friend" and "The Beginning of the End." Robert Bridges, who edited the first edition of Dolben's poems as well as Hopkins's, cautioned that the second poem "must never be printed," though Bridges himself included it in the first edition (1918). Another indication of the nature of his feelings for Dolben is that Hopkins's High Anglican confessor seems to have forbidden him to have any contact with Dolben except by letter. Their relationship was abruptly ended by Dolben's drowning in June 1867, an event which greatly affected Hopkins, although his feeling for Dolben seems to have cooled a good deal by that time. "Ironically, fate may have bestowed more through Dolben’s death than it could ever have bestowed through longer life ... [for] many of Hopkins’s best poems — impregnated with an elegiac longing for Dolben, his lost beloved and his muse — were the result."
Some of his poems, such as The Bugler's First Communion and Epithalamion, arguably embody homoerotic themes, although this second poem was arranged by Robert Bridges from extant fragments. One contemporary literary critic, M.M. Kaylor, has argued for Hopkins's inclusion with the Uranian poets, a group whose writings derived, in many ways, from the prose works of Walter Pater, Hopkins's academic coach for his Greats exams, and later his lifelong friend.   
Some critics have argued that homoerotic readings are either highly tendentious, or, that they can be classified under the broader category of "homosociality," over the gender, sexual-specific "homosexual" term. Hopkins’s journal writings, they argue, offer a clear admiration for feminized beauty. In his book Hopkins Reconstructed (2000), Justus George Lawler critiques Robert Martin’s controversial biography Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life (1991) by suggesting that Martin "cannot see the heterosexual beam... for the homosexual biographical mote in his own eye... it amounts to a slanted eisegesis". The poems that elicit homoerotic readings can be read not merely as exercises in sublimation but as powerful renditions of religious conviction, a conviction that caused strain in his family and even led him to burn some of his poems that he felt were unnecessarily self-centered. Julia Saville’s book A Queer Chivalry views the religious imagery in the poems as Hopkins’s way of expressing the tension with homosexual identity and desire. The male figure of Christ allows him to safely express such feelings, which mitigates the political implications.