Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Brief Biography

Glenn Everett, Ph. D.


  Gerard Hopkins was born July 28, 1844, to Manley and Catherine (Smith) Hopkins, the first of their nine children. His parents were High Church Anglicans (variously described as "earnest" and "moderate"), and his father, a marine insurance adjuster, had just published a volume of poetry the year before.

At grammar school in Highgate (1854-63), he won the poetry prize for "The Escorial" and a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford (1863-67), where his tutors included Walter Pater and Benjamin Jowett. At one time he wanted to be a painter-poet like D. G. Rossetti (two of his brothers became professional painters), and he was strongly influenced by the aesthetic theories of Pater and John Ruskin and by the poetry of the devout Anglicans George Herbert and Christina Rossetti. Even more insistent, however, was his search for a religion which could speak with true authority; at Oxford, he came under the influence of John Henry Newman. Newman, who had converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1845, provided him with the example he was seeking, and in 1866 he was received by Newman into the Catholic Church. In 1867 he won First-Class degrees in Classics and "Greats" (a rare "double-first") and was considered by Jowett to be the star of Balliol.

The following year he entered the Society of Jesus; and feeling that the practice of poetry was too
individualistic and self-indulgent for a Jesuit priest committed to the deliberate sacrifice of personal
ambition, he burned his early poems. Not until he studied the writings of Duns Scotus in 1872 did
he decide that his poetry might not necessarily conflict with Jesuit principles. Scotus (1265-1308),
a medieval Catholic thinker, argued (contrary to the teachings of the official Jesuit theologian, St.
Thomas Aquinas) that individual and particular objects in this world were the only things that man
could know directly, and only through the haecceitas ("thisness") of each object. With his
independently-arrived at idea of "inscape" thus bolstered, Hopkins could begin writing again.

In 1874, studying theology in North Wales, he learned Welsh, and was later to adapt the rhythms
of Welsh poetry to his own verse, inventing what he called " sprung rhythm." The event that
startled him into speech was the sinking of the Deutschland, whose passengers included five
Catholic nuns exiled from Germany. The Wreck of the Deutschland is a tour de force containing
most of the devices he had been working out in theory for the past few years, but was too radical
in style to be printed.

From his ordination as a priest in 1877 until 1879, Hopkins served not too successfully as preacher
or assistant to the parish priest in Sheffield, Oxford, and London; during the next three years he
found stimulating but exhausting work as parish priest in the slums of three manufacturing cities,
Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow. Late in 1881 he began ten months of spiritual study in
London, and then for three years taught Latin and Greek at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire. His
appointment in 1884 as Professor of Greek and Latin at University College, Dublin, which might
be expected to be his happiest work, instead found him in prolonged depression. This resulted
partly from the examination papers he had to read as Fellow in Classics for the Royal University of
Ireland. The exams occured five or six times a year, might produce 500 papers, each one several
pages of mostly uninspired student translations (in 1885 there were 631 failures to 1213 passes).
More important, however, was his sense that his prayers no longer reached God; and this doubt
produced the "terrible" sonnets. He refused to give way to his depression, however, and his last
words as he lay dying of typhoid fever on June 8, 1889, were, "I am happy, so happy."

God's Grandeur

     THE world is charged with the grandeur of God.
       It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
       It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
     Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
     Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
       And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
       And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
     Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

     And for all this, nature is never spent;
       There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
     And though the last lights off the black West went
       Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
     Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
       World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The Windhover:       To Christ our Lord

     I CAUGHT this morning morning's minion, king-
       dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
       Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
     High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
     In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
       As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
       Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
     Stirred for a bird,--the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

     Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
       Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
     Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

       No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
     Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
       Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Pied Beauty

     GLORY be to God for dappled things--
       For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
         For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
     Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
       Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough;
         And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

     All things counter, original, spare, strange;
       Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
         With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
     He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                       Praise him.

Spring and Fall:  to a young child

     MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
     Over Goldengrove unleaving?
     Leáves, líke the things of man, you
     With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
     Áh! ás the heart grows older
     It will come to such sights colder
     By and by, nor spare a sigh
     Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
     And yet you wíll weep and know why.
     Now no matter, child, the name:
     Sórrow's spríngs áre the same.
     Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
     What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
     It ís the blight man was born for,
     It is Margaret you mourn for.

Felix Randel

FELIX Randal the farrier, O he is dead then? my duty all ended,
     Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
     Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some
     Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

     Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended
     Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
     Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
     Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

     This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
     My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
     Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

     How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
     When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
     Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Binsey Poplars
                    felled 1879

                MY aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
                Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
                All felled, felled, are all felled;
                  Of a fresh and following folded rank
                          Not spared, not one
                          That dandled a sandalled
                      Shadow that swam or sank
              On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
                O if we but knew what we do
                      When we delve or hewó
                  Hack and rack the growing green!
                      Since country is so tender
                  To touch, her being só slender,
                  That, like this sleek and seeing ball
                  But a prick will make no eye at all,
                  Where we, even where we mean
                           To mend her we end her,
                      When we hew or delve:
              After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
                Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
                  Strokes of havoc únselve
                      The sweet especial scene,
                  Rural scene, a rural scene,
                  Sweet especial rural scene.