Gerard Manley Hopkins
B. 1844 D. 1889
A great work by an Englishman is like a great battle won by England. It is an unfading bay tree. Gerard Manley Hopkins
About Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Hopkins was born in 1844, went to Highgate School and won a scholarship to Balliol College Oxford where he took a double first in Classics. He then entered the Society of Jesus and, feeling that writing poetry was too self-indulgent for a Jesuit Priest, burnt his early poems. He devoted himself to the life of a novice, to study and to teaching.
Later, however, encouraged by his reading and by his superiors in the priesthood, he began writing again; the poems recorded here were all written in an intense creative burst from 1877 to 1880. He had experimented with poetic metre, looking for an alternative to ‘running rhythm’, the regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables. He turned to the rhythms of Welsh poetry and Old English alliterative verse, eventually devising a technique he called Sprung Rhythm. He felt that his poetry should be read aloud and often added markings to show where a sound should be drawn out and where syllables should be speeded up.
‘Pied Beauty’ begins and ends with the Latin tags which frame all pieces of work done in Jesuit schools: Ad maiorem Dei Gloriam (to the Glory of God) at the head, Laus semper Gloriam (praise God always) at the end; it is as if Hopkins wanted to demonstrate the theological soundness of his poetry. This poem is an ecstatic demonstration of his rhythmic discoveries, and of the sheer joy of creation.
‘Binsey Poplars’ has a different tone: written while working as a parish priest in Oxford, it marks in fury and frustration the loss of trees he remembers from his undergraduate days fourteen years before. ‘Felix Randal’ also reflects his parish work, but by this time he had moved on to Liverpool; here Hopkins describes a poor parishoner whom he had comforted through the final consumptive illness.
Writing in the city become increasingly difficult for Hopkins: ‘time and spirit are wanting’ he wrote, ‘one is so harried and gallied up and down’. But walking back from saying mass at a local country house, and enjoying his brief release from drudgery, he composed ‘Spring and Fall’. This beautiful meditation on the ‘blight man was born for’ starts by comforting the child who is sad at the passing of seasons at Goldengrove, and ends in melancholy realism about the human condition.
Soon afterwards, Hopkins moved to a university job in Dublin, which he hated. The tone of his poetry began to reflect his depression and eventually dried up. In 1889 he died of typhoid fever. Few of his poems had been published in his lifetime, but years late the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, who had met Hopkins at Oxford and had maintained a lifelong friendship, published the first collection. At the age of ninety-eight, Hopkins’ mother was able to hold in her hands for the first time a book of the poems written by her son who had been dead for twenty-nine years.
Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins in the Poetry Store
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Professor of Greek and Latin - Unversity College Dublin