Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) is a great poet. Unnoticed during his life, he later became one of the points of reference for Roy Campbell, George Mackay Brown and for many other British poets of the twentieth century (including non-Catholics). Hopkins wrote most of his poems between 1876 and 1889. It was not until 1918, almost thirty years after his death, that his friend Robert Bridges finally published a complete edition of his verses, entitled simply Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The success was immediate and thanks to the Jesuit Martin D’Arcy and other scholars, there began a slow process of rediscovery of Hopkins’ works.
Hopkins, who came from an Anglican family, showed uncommon talents from an early age. He attended Balliol College in Oxford with excellent results. Among his teachers was the famous Walter Pater, inspirer of Wilde and decadent English aesthetes. Influenced by the Oxford Movement, he surprised everyone when in 1866 he converted to Catholicism, welcomed into the Church of Rome by Newman. He then taught at the Birmingham Oratory School until 1868, when he decided to become a Jesuit priest. He burned all the poems he had written: literature was a profane pastime, not suitable for a future man of God.
Hopkins spent the last period of his training as a seminarian, between 1874 and 1877, at St Beuno’s College in North Wales. While there, he learned Welsh and was able to appreciate the medieval poems of that mysterious and evocative land. Not without hesitation he took the pen again and in 1875 wrote what would become his most famous poem: “The Wreck of the Deutschland”. The poem, inspired by a real event – the sinking of a ship carrying a group of nuns exiled from Germany due to the new anti-Catholic laws – was defined by David Jones as one of the most fascinating works ever written in English.
Hopkins continued to cultivate his passion, alternating between literature and the many commitments that came from his dual role as priest and teacher. Nevertheless, he always regarded his verses as a pastime, and as moreover unsuitable for a priest (despite the example of an illustrious Jesuit of the past such as Robert Southwell, poet and martyr under the reign of Elizabeth).
In 1884 he became a professor of Latin and Greek at the Royal University of Ireland in Dublin. He was anything but satisfied and the papers of the period are full of anguish and gloomy despair.
He died prematurely five years after and when his poems were finally printed, they had the effect of an earthquake. Not only did Hopkins show that he wanted to abandon traditional forms, but, drawing heavily on Greek culture and biblical Psalms, he focused mostly on the rhythmic effect. Musicality was guaranteed by references to the Christian liturgy and medieval poetry, as well as by the skilful chiselling of alliterations, assonances and onomatopoeias.
In the poems, nature suggests to man the existence of profound truths, generated by symbolic allusions. Hopkins’ Catholicism, on the model of the medieval Duns Scotus, is revealed in the constant reference to God, a mystery that pervades everything. Simplicity and complexity coexist brilliantly. Thus, for example, what could appear as simple descriptions or landscape sketches, finally reveal themselves for what they are: clues of a greater Presence that goes beyond the sensible datum. However, this certainty does not take away from the faithful the effort of having to prove themselves a good Christian; error and desperation are enemies that are always lurking.
In addition to Marian and non-religious poems, Hopkins wrote many other lyrics that contain ideas drawn directly from the Catholic imagination. Among the most interesting are “God’s Grandeur”, “Pied Beauty”, “Binsey Poplars”, “Spring and Fall” and “Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves”.
In 1975 a plaque dedicated to the memory of Hopkins was placed in the famous Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, next to those of the most illustrious names in English culture: it was a worthy, albeit belated, tribute to one of the greatest poets of the second half of the Nineteenth century.