Whenever I read Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry, I am filled
with wonder. He was a man with an exquisite sensibility, fine-tuned
to beauty. And because he had faith, all the beauty he perceived
across the face of the earth led him to wonder at that beauty's
creator. "Glory be to God for dappled things", he would
write, exulting in a glut of detail, of skies of coupled colour
as of a brinded cow, of kingfishers catching fire and dragonflies
drawing flame. A Wildean dandy up at Oxford, he fell under the
influence of Newman and resolved to become a Jesuit. In his early
years in the Society of Jesus, not least when in St Beuno's, Wales,
he would write his glorious sonnets which pulsate with a dynamism
and an immense joy, affirming that the World is charged with the
grandeur of God.
So many of his poems are epiphanic. That is to say that the sensitive,
utterly observant Hopkins registers all of nature's variety and
abundance, whether in motion or at rest, and this observation
reveals to him God's irrepressible spirit and grace welling up
In his mostly short poems (always excepting the extraordinary
'Wreck of the Deutschland'), Hopkins manages to rivet onto the
page a stream of intense excitement as he seeks to express his
sacramental encounter with the divine.
He created his own poetic form in order to do this – what
he would call instressing the inscape. That is to say, in a precise
"thisness of experience", he would apprehend God's spirit
surging up from within nature (the inscape). Instressing was how
his poetry sought to contain and express this pure energy.
So when he sees a kestrel hovering and then soaring away on the
wind ("The Windhover"), his heart in hiding stirs for
a bird. All creation seems to fall in on itself – "here/Buckle"
– such is the intensity of his feeling. The bird is somehow
at the centre of the divine mystery, the divine energy which charges
And this is the greatness at the heart of Hopkins: his ability
to exquisitely observe individual moments and elements and characters
– "Each mortal thing ... Selves–goes itself;
myself it speaks and spells" – whilst connecting them
all up into a greater whole and locating their spiritual connectedness
– "For Christ plays in ten thousand places." Of
course, the motto of the Society of Jesus is "Deus Meus et
Omnia" – My God and my All.
At a time of relative poetic decadence, Hopkins also revolutionized
poetic form with his 'sprung rhythm'. He saw this in fact as an
attempt to recapture 'the naked thew and sinew of the English
language'. He sought to animate his lyrics with alliteration and
muscular Anglo-saxon words – 'degged with dew... flitches
of fern' - and to make his lines span by accent rather than syllabic
He chose the sonnet form above all others because, as a busy
priest, scholar and administrator, he only allowed himself a few
hours a week to write poetry. So the lines of his verses travelled
and niggled away in his head until he came to write them down.
As our planet stares ecological disaster in the face, Hopkins
speaks to us with a eco-prophetic voice:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Or again, 'My aspens dear, felled, felled are all felled.' Of
course, such a sensitive and exquisite soul, whilst full of empathy
for those who were suffering and recognising dignity and beauty
in the unsung and the ordinary ("This Jack, joke, poor potsherd
... Is immortal diamond"), was also profoundly aware of loss,
of decay, of ugliness. His joy was countered by much personal
suffering which could verge on despair. Such polarities of feeling
can be found in his poetic dialogue between the despairing leaden
echo and the ever hopeful golden echo. But this latter always
beckons yonder. So for all his apprehension of a divine presence
within each individual and throughout creation, Hopkins the suffering
servant also pines for what can only be identified as a transcendent
union with the godhead.
In his later years, his depression and suffering increased. Terrible
sonnets from this time attest to his own dark night of the soul.
He wakes and feels the fell of dark; cries heave world sorrow
on an age-old anvil. He feels at a third remove. Birds build not
he, time's eunuch. He pleads with himself, 'My own heart let me
more have pity on'.
In truth, he was spent with exhaustion and ill health and too
much administration (the society had appointed him to the Chair
of Latin and Greek at University College, Dublin), anathema to
his soul. Nevertheless, that he could express his anguish in such
beautiful, stark and haunting words is a poetic marvel. He would
continue to wrestle with his God, his God, until he died of typhoid
in 1889 at the age of 45.
Unsung and unrecognised as a poet during his life, his poems
only emerged several years after his death. What a precious legacy
they are, what nourishment to the soul in all their vibrant sorrow
and joy, their accuracy and constant struggle with mystery.