Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins (July 28, 1844- June 8, 1889)

Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins

As a whole, Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of the Victorian era’s greatest poets. He is regarded by different readers as the greatest Victorian poet of religion, of nature, and of melancholy. Gerard was an English poet whose manipulation of prosody, particularly his invention of sprung rhythm, and his use of imagery established him post death as an innovative writer of verse. Throughout most of his poems, the two main theme that dominated were nature and religion.

Early Life and Family
Born at Stratford, Essex, England, on July 28, 1844, Gerard was the first of nine children born to Manley and Catherine Hopkins. In addition to being raised in both a prosperous and artistic household, his creativity was the result of interactions with core members of his family. Both his mother and father were devout High Church Anglicans who brought their children up to be religious as well. Since his mother, Catherine, was the daughter of a London physician, she was more educated than most Victorian women. She was particularly fond of music and reading. His father, was the founder of a marine insurance firm. Manley, for a short time, was the church warden at St. John-at-Hampstead, and a published writer. His works include, A Philosopher’s Stone and Other Poems (1843), Pietas Mertrica (1849), and Spiceleguim Poeticum; A Gathering of Verses (1892). He reviewed poetry for The Times, and wrote one novel.

When Hopkins was 10 years old, he was sent to Highgate Boarding School from 1854-1863. While there, he studied John Keats and was inspired to write his own poem, The Escorial, in 1860. Not only did Gerard have a passion for writing, but painting as well, and hoped to become a painter one day.

Adult Life and Death
Hopkin’s attended Balliol College on a scholarship from 1863-1867, where he earned two first-class degrees in Classics and Greats. In addition, he developed a relationship with Robert Bridges (eventually known as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom) during his time at Oxford. Hopkin’s relationship with Bridges played a key role in his development as a poet.

In July 1866, Hopkins decided to become a Catholic. In September that same year, he travelled to Birmingham to consult John Henry Newman, the leader of the Oxford Converts. Newman later received Hopkins into the church. A week later Hopkins burned all of his poetry in a huge bonfire. His conversion and actions led to his estrangement from his friends and family. Hopkins gave up writing poetry for seven year. After Hopkins graduated in 1867, Newman offered him a position at the Oratory. While he was there he decided to join the ministry and become a jesuit.

Hopkins began his novitiate in the Society of Jesus at Manresa House, Roehampton in 1868. Two years later, he moved to St. Mary’s Hall, Stonyhurst, for his philosophical studies in 1870. Hopkins took vows of poverty and chastity. Although he was able to give most of himself to religion, Hopkins was still concerned that his love for poetry would keep him completely devoting himself. Then, after reading the writings of *Duns Scotus, Hopkins began to heavily consider the idea that his poetry might not necessarily conflict with Jesuit principles.

*Duns Scotus (1265-1308), a medieval Catholic thinker, argued that individual and particular objects in this world were the only things that man could know directly, and then only through the haeccetias (“thinness”) of each object. As a result, Hopkins continued to write in a journal where he composed his own music, sketched, described the natural world, and created church verses.

Hopkins studied theology in North Wales in 1874 to teach classics and would later adapt Welsh poetic rhythm to fit his own work. In 1875, Hopkins began to write again after being deeply affected by the story of a German ship, the Deutschland, that was wrecked during a storm at the mouth of the Thames River. Many of the passengers, including five Franciscan nuns, died. Those who were on the ship were escaping Germany due to strict anti-Catholic laws. Hopkins’ work reflected religious concerns and a showcased a different and unusual writing style that Hopkins later became known for. Although unconventional in theme, Hopkins poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, introduced what Hopkins called “sprung rhythm*,” a result of his knowledge of Welsh language and poetry. After submitted it for publication, Hopkins was crushed after receiving news of his rejection. This further ruined his feelings towards poetry.

*Sprung rhythm is used to imitate natural speech and “is constructed from feet in which the first syllable is stressed and may be followed by a variable number of unstressed syllables.” By not limiting the number of “slack” or unaccented syllables, Hopkins allowed for more flexibility in his lines and created new acoustic possibilities.

Despite dedicating himself to the strict life of a jesuit, Hopkins failed his Theology exam. He would be ordained in 1877 but he would not further progress in the order. For the next seven years Hopkins carried out his duties teaching and preaching in London, Oxford, Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester and Stonyhurst. During this time, Hopkins wrote, God’s Grandeur, which is an array of sonnets that included The Starlight Night and The Windhover. In 1877, Hopkins was a subminister and teacher at Mount St. Mary’s College in Chesterfieled. A year later, he would become the curate at the Jesuit church on Mount Street in London and that December he would become curate at St. Aloysius’s Church in Oxford.

His appointment in 1884 as Professor of Greek and Latin at University College, Dublin, left 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 occurred 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 importantly, however, was his sense that his prayers no longer reached God; and this doubt produced the “terrible” sonnets. Still, his last words as he lay dying on June 8, 1889, were, “I am happy, so happy. I loved my life” He died of Typhoid fever, after battling many illnesses.

Although his poems were never published during his lifetime, his friend poet Robert Bridges edited a volume of Hopkins’ Poems that first appeared in 1918. Hopkins was also very interested in ways of rejuvenating poetic language and regularly placed familiar words into new and surprising contexts. He also often employed compound and unusual word combinations.

“The sense of coldness, impotence, and wastefulness evident in Hopkin’s religious poetry of the 1860’s is an important feature of acedia, but by far the most important is “world sorrow,” the predicament lamented in Hopkin’s “No worst, there is none” (1885). A great range of emotions are “herded and huddled” together in this “main” or “chief” owe as Hopkins calls it in the poem. Besides impotence and world sorrow per se, the acedia syndrome includes feelings of exile and estrangement, darkness, the disappearance of God, despair, the death wish, and attraction to suicide- all emotions which recur throughout Hopkin’s life and art but become particularly evident toward the end.”

(qtd at

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