Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet whose work came out of his difficult life.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet and a priest, was complex and difficult to know. He was not a saint and not much of a sinner. He lived most of his life in isolation and self-doubt. But sometimes the best we have comes out of our struggles, and, out of his, Hopkins produced poetry of luminous beauty.
Hopkins was born in 1844 in Stratford, Essex, near London, where his father was a successful businessman. The elder Hopkins raised his family in a typical upper-middle-class Protestant home, and expected his son to do the same. So he was pleased when Gerard was off to a good start. Always a bright student, Hopkins excelled in his classes at Oxford, and he was also recognized as a talented poet.
But Hopkins' life was destined to take a different turn. Academics weren't enough; he felt the need for more meaning in his life. All his life Hopkins craved a sense of spirituality, a mystic vision of something beyond ourselves. He began to investigate the Roman Catholic faith while still a student at Oxford.
In the mid-nineteenth century, under the leadership of John Henry Newman, a trend started that became known as the Oxford Movement. Large numbers of Anglicans converted to Catholicism, mainly in the Oxford University community. Hopkins found what he'd been looking for in the idealism and fervor of this movement. He converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-two.
Hopkins' decision had devastating consequences. His father and mother rejected him outright. Hopkins said about their reaction to his conversion, "Their answers are terrible. I cannot read them twice." He never reconciled with them.
Years later Hopkins wrote:
To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife
In spite of his isolation, or maybe because of it, Hopkins clung to Catholicism, and found the beauty and spirituality he'd longed for. He began thinking seriously about the priesthood. He was very much influenced by Newman. They had a special bond; Newman was also a convert and understood the difficulties Hopkins was facing. After several months of praying and talking with Newman, Hopkins left Oxford and entered the Jesuit order.
Hopkins had distinguished himself for his poetry at Oxford. But when he joined the Jesuits he burned all his poetry. He had a new life now, and all the temporal pursuits and indulgences of the old life had to be left behind. Later, in "The Habit of Perfection" he wrote:
And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.
He felt that, like the lilies of the field, he didn't need to ask for anything. God would provide. And, like the lilies, he should be perfect in what he was, a priest. To Hopkins, accepting the world's praise for his poetry was demanding too much.
With his usual grit, Hopkins was determined to conform to the Jesuits' strict discipline. But he had poor digestion and a tendency toward depression, and these were both aggravated by long required fasts. It seems that he deliberately picked the most difficult way possible to live his faith. But he needed the challenge. He needed this austerity to make him feel that his life had meaning. In "The Habit of Perfection" he wrote:
Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!
With irony that a poet would appreciate, he says that real indulgence comes from self-denial. But an irony he missed was that no one can make a habit of perfection, since we're all imperfect by nature. Hopkins was definitely hard on himself.
After he entered the priesthood, Hopkins decided he would never write poetry again. A life of perfect spirituality would be his poetry. But writing was a part of him, and his mind was filled with images he had to express. He heard the story of the ship Deutschland, which went down, drowning several nuns who were fleeing from religious persecution. Hopkins felt so much sympathy for the nuns that at last he was moved to compose. With the wise approval of his superiors, he wrote "The Wreck of the Deutschland."
The poem describes the terror of the nuns and their final hope of heaven rising out of their desperation. But it also reflects concerns, conflicts and hopes in Hopkins' own life. Hopkins felt that, like the unfortunate nuns, we’re all driven through this world, with no real home or security, only to face death. We're all refugees of some kind on a ship that's doomed to sink in the end. But our real home is heaven, the celestial vision that's central to Hopkins' poetry and his life. This is summed up in the first verse:
Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World's strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
Hopkins was probably thinking of his estrangement from his family. Did the ship sinking represent his fear of failing in the demanding obligations of the priesthood? But even in the endless sea, when effort is abandoned and hope is lost, the finger of God can still reach out and touch us. And to Hopkins that makes all the difference.
No matter how sure we are of our beliefs, we always want to confirm them. Hopkins explored his beliefs in his poetry. But in spite of his considerable credentials as a scholar, he never uses complex logic in his poems. Hopkins' approach is always personal. He often makes a point with analogies from nature. In "The May Magnificat" the rebirth of nature in the spring represents the Blessed Virgin's motherhood. In May
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfèd cherry
everything, including hope, is new and fresh. So spring is the mother of life, and Mary is the mother of our Savior and our new life:
This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ's birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, picture from Wikimedia Commons