Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889) was an English poet, Catholic and Jesuitpriest, whose posthumous fame established him among the leading Victorian poets. His manipulation of prosody (particularly his invention of sprung rhythm and use of imagery) established him as an innovative writer of verse. Two of his major themes were nature and religion.
Early Life and Family
Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in Stratford, Essex (now in Greater London), as the eldest of probably nine children to Manley and Catherine (Smith) Hopkins. He was christened at the Anglican church of St John’s, Stratford. His father founded a marine insurance firm and at one time served as Hawaiian consul-general in London. He was also for a time church warden at St John-at-Hampstead. His grandfather was the physician John Simm Smith, a university colleague of John Keats, and close friend of the eccentric philanthropist Ann Thwaytes.
As a poet, Hopkins’s 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. 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.
Hopkins became a skilled draughtsman and found that his early training in visual art supported his later work as a poet. 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.
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). While studying Keats’s poetry, he wrote “The Escorial” (1860), his earliest extant poem. 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.
Oxford and the priesthood
At Balliol College, Oxford (1863–67) he studied classics. 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. 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 in establishing his posthumous acclaim. Hopkins was deeply impressed with the work of Christina Rossetti and she became one of his greatest contemporary influences, meeting him in 1864. During this time he studied with the eminent writer and critic Walter Pater, who tutored him in 1866 and who remained a friend until Hopkins left Oxford in September 1879.
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 Roman Catholic, and he travelled to Birmingham in September to consult the leader of the Oxford converts, John Henry Newman. Newman received him into the Roman Catholic 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 by Newman with a teaching post at the Oratory in Birmingham. 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 first visit Switzerland, which officially forbade Jesuits to enter.
Hopkins began his Jesuit novitiate 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. He felt his interest in poetry prevented him from wholly devoting himself to religion. However, on reading Duns Scotus in 1872 he saw that the two need not conflict. 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 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“. The 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. Biographer Robert Bernard Martin notes that “the life expectancy of a man becoming a novice at twenty-one was twenty-three more years rather than the forty years of males of the same age in the general population.” The brilliant student who had left Oxford with a first-class honours degree failed his final theology exam. This failure almost certainly meant that, although ordained in 1877, Hopkins would not progress in the order. In 1877 he wrote God’s Grandeur, an array of sonnets which included “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. While 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. 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, not Day”, 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 melancholic dejection that plagued the later part of Hopkins’ life.
Several issues brought about this melancholic state and restricted his poetic inspiration during the last five years of his life. His work load was extremely heavy. He disliked living in Dublin, away from England and friends; he was also disappointed at how far the city had fallen from its Georgian elegance of the previous century. 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.”