Gerard Manley Hopkins (July 28, 1844 – June 8, 1889) was a British Victorian poet and Jesuit priest. Hopkins sought and struggled to unite his spiritual yearnings with his love of poetry, and the resulting verse is some of the most unique in the language. Hopkins struggled to reveal what he called the "inscape" of ordinary things—the hidden world within the world, what William Blake elsewhere would call "infinity in a grain of sand / and eternity in an hour"—and the resulting poems are charged with wild, almost incantatory power that are unlike anything else in English literature. His poems are best understood when read aloud.
Hopkins was born in Stratford, Essex, as the eldest of nine children of Catherine and Manley Hopkins, who was an insurance agent and consul-general for Hawaii based in London. Gerard Hopkins was educated at Highgate grammar school and then Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied classics. At Oxford he forged the friendship with Robert Bridges that would become important not only to Hopkins development as a poet but also to his posthumous acclaim. Although Hopkins began his time at Oxford as a keen socializer and prolific poet, something about his own youthful behavior alarmed him so much that he became devoutly studious and began to record his sins obsessively in his diary. In 1866, following the example of John Henry Newman, Hopkins converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, and upon his graduation in 1867 accepted a teaching post that Newman had found for him. In the following year Hopkins decided to enter the priesthood.
Influenced by his father who also wrote poetry, Hopkins had begun to write it while still young, winning a prize for his poetry while at grammar school. His decision to become a Jesuit led him to burn much of his early poetry, which he felt was incompatible with his vocation. Writing would remain something of a painful concern for him as he felt that his interest in poetry prevented him from wholly devoting himself to his religion. He continued to write a detailed journal until 1874. Unable to suppress his desire to describe the natural world, he also continued to write occasional poems. He would later write sermons and other religious pieces. In 1875, he was moved, once more, to write a lengthy poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland. This work was inspired by the Deutschland, a naval disaster in which 157 people, including five Franciscan nuns who had been leaving Germany due to harsh anti-Catholic laws, died. The work displays both the religious concerns and some of the unusual meter and rhythms of his subsequent poetry not present in his few extant early works. It not only depicts 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 fueled his ambivalence about his poetry. The poem, though not as "sprung" (see below) as some of Hopkins late great works, is an excellent example of his budding style:
During Hopkins' austere and restrictive life as a Jesuit he was, at times, gloomy, even grim. The brilliant student who left Oxford with a first class honors degree failed his final theology exam. This failure meant that, although ordained, Hopkins, would not likely progress in the order. While he wasn't always happy in his studies he at least had stability there. The uncertain and varied work after ordination was much less to his liking. He served in various parishes in England and Scotland and taught at Mount St. Mary's College, Sheffield, and Stonyhurst College, Lancashire. In 1884 he became professor of Greek literature at University College Dublin. His Englishness and his disagreement with the Irish politics of the time, as well as his own small stature (5' 2"), unprepossessing nature, and own personal oddities meant that he was not a particularly effective teacher. This, as well as his isolation in Ireland, deepened his gloom and his poems of the time, such as I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark and Carrion Comfort, reflected his emotional state. He called them "terrible sonnets." These terrible sonnets are some of the most powerful dark poems ever written, and reflect the strong, superb sound of Hopkins' mature verse:
Hopkins health turned considerably for the worse while teaching in Dublin. Although he attempted to write, he only managed to produce fragments. For several years he convalesced, suffering from typhoid fever. He died in 1889 and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
Much of Hopkins' historical importance has to do with the changes he brought to the form of poetry, which ran contrary to conventional ideas of meter. Prior to Hopkins, most Middle English and Modern English poetry was based on a rhythmic structure inherited from the Norman side of English's 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 this 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. 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." Like the Old English songs he imitated, Hopkins' "sprung rhythm" allowed him to write poems with a sense of urgency not possible in traditional meter, and the result are poems whose sounds are explosive and, though written, seem to be booming out of the page when read, with every new word and rhyme bursting out to the reader as a surprise. The last line of God's Grandeur is, perhaps, one of the most memorable instances of this:
Hopkins is notoriously difficult to classify. Due to his innovations toward meter, Hopkins can be seen as anticipating much of free verse, although unlike true free verse poets, Hopkins retained a (loosened) adherence to rhyme and measure. His work has no great affinity with either the Pre-Raphaelite or Neo-Romanticism schools of his time, although he does share with them a descriptive love of nature. He is often seen as a precursor to modernist poetry or as a bridge between the two poetic eras. He is unique in his own time or any other.
Another major influence on Hopkins' verse was the Welsh language he learned while studying theology at St. Beuno's College in Wales. The poetic forms of Welsh literature, particularly cynghanedd with its emphasis on repeating sounds, accorded with his style and became a prominent feature of Hopkins' work. This reliance on similar sounding words with close or differing senses means that his poems are best understood when read aloud. An important element in Hopkins' work was his 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. He attempted in his poems 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 to probably Hopkins' most studied poem and one that he called his best:
During his lifetime Hopkins published few poems. It was only through the efforts of Robert Bridges that his works were preserved and made public. Hopkins burned all his poems upon entering the priesthood, but he had already sent some to Bridges who, with a few other friends, were the only people to see many of them for some years. After Hopkins' death they were distributed to a wider audience, mostly fellow poets, and in 1918, Bridges, by then poet laureate, published a collected edition.
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