Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry grew out of his difficult life.
One of Hopkins' best-known poems is "The Windhover," in which he compares the beauty and nobility of a bird in flight to Christ:
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!
The windhover is called a "chevalier," also "dauphin" and "falcon" in the first stanza. It was common in the Middle Ages to compare Christ to a knight or chevalier, and the falcon is associated with kings. The heir to the French throne was called the "dauphin," which means "dolphin," because the dolphin was a symbol of Christ. So the windhover is king of the sky, and Christ is King of Heaven.
We get a picture of Hopkins as a somber, Spartan, somewhat remote figure. But sometimes his beliefs and his emotions were hard to separate, and he poured both into his poetry. There were times when, like Job, he couldn't help crying out to God. These lines from "Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord, If I Contend" are touchingly human:
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me?
It's not uncommon to find that the more we learn, the less we're sure of anything. The we have to rely on faith. That seems to be what Hopkins does in his poem "Summa." The title suggests that this is what Hopkins' beliefs come down to. The poem only has four lines, but they're lucid and eloquent:
The best ideal is the true
And other truth is none.
All glory be ascribèd to
The holy Three in One.
Hopkins' academic ability was recognized by the Jesuits, and after a few years he was made a professor of Greek at the Royal University in Dublin (now University College Dublin). It was a large promotion. But he found life in Dublin bleak and disheartening. The city was dank and misty, and dingy from industrial waste. And being in Ireland really made it clear how isolated he was from home and anything familiar.
Like all teachers, Hopkins was overworked and under a lot of pressure to stay on the class schedule. But illnesses and fits of depression made it hard for him to focus on his work, and he often felt overwhelmed. This went on one gloomy Irish winter after another.
Hopkins was also still troubled by the thought that he shouldn't be writing poetry, that it was an indulgence and he was too weak to give it up. He feared that his continuing to write proved he was a spiritual failure. But, like all gifted poets, he couldn't help writing, and was divided against himself, unable to reconcile the two most vital aspects of his life.
But if his own search for God was elusive, he gave us a permanent and beautiful vision in his poem "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.
To Hopkins, God isn't a theological concept; He's a real force that we interact with. We see that in nature. The world is "charged" with God--He's the energy that drives everything. And He's a loving God who gives us chance after chance to start over. So Hopkins can hang on to his hope of redemption. All around him there's evidence that God renews everything.
The vision was still distant, though, and clouded by mortality. Hopkins faced this frightening reality in his writing. We see Hopkins' intense awareness of death in "The Wreck of the Deutschland." In "Felix Randal" he tells about hearing of the passing of a blacksmith, and remembers the man in his youth, when no one could have imagined him getting sick and dying:
How far from then forethought of, all they more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers
Didst fettle for the great gray drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!
Hopkins sees the paradox in how we view our mortality--we know it's universal, but it always takes us by surprise. We're good at temporarily forgetting about it.
Hopkins' most poignant poem about mortality might be "Spring and Fall: To A Young Child." It describes a little girl who sees autumn's falling leaves, and becomes sad without knowing why. The poem begins:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
But he tells her, "as the heart grows older/ It will come to such sights colder/ Bye and bye nor spare a sigh." And though she’s a child, she has an instinctive understanding of why she is sad, "what heart heard of, ghost guessed." It’s her own mortality she recognizes. Even at her young age:
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Spring in Dublin is damp to the core. In 1889 Hopkins came down with a fever, and, exhausted from the rigors of Jesuit life, frustration, and depression, it was too much for him. He died in June at the young age of forty-four, approaching the vision he had searched for so tenaciously all his life.
It was typical of Hopkins' self-doubt that he didn't try to publish any of his poetry while he was alive. His friend the poet laureate Robert Bridges published his work in 1918, years after his death.
Like all poets, Hopkins wrote to discover himself and his place in the world, and to work out issues in his life. Did he ever reconcile himself to being a poet, and come to some peace with the idea? These lines from "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" might indicate that he did:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
Picture from Wikimedia Commons, it shows the campus of University College, Dublin