Friday, June 8, 2012

Priest & Poet

Icon of Gerard Manley Hopkins 
by Fr. William Hart McNichols, 2004

I don’t recall my first exposure to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but I think it was early on in my college seminary days. His use of alliteration was a draw in my own humble attempts to do poetry. More than that, though, it was the depth of his thought and meaning that fascinated me. The pages of my original copy of his work, published by Penguin Books in 1954, is now very fragile and faded. Looking through it again, I notice personal notations: “before the Deluge”, referring to his “prediluvian age”, and “vexatious”, defining his term “cumbrous shame” in one of his early poems, The Alchemist In The City. In his The Habit of Perfection I’ve underlined the verses:

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark 
And find the uncreated light... 
Palate, the hutch of tasty lust, 
Desire not to be rinsed with wine... 
And you unhouse and house the Lord...” 

Both of those poems were written between 1865-1866. Of the poems written between 1876 and the time of his death, my three clear favorites are: God’s Grandeur, The Windhover, and Pied Beauty, among which it’d be hard to say which one I like best. He uses wondrous images and phrases: “It will flame out, like shining from shook foil...”; “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil...”; “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things...”; “ his riding Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend...” Hopkins captured, in one sentence from To R.B., what I most wished for at the time in trying to write poetry, and in living my life: “...I want the one rapture of an inspiration...

 Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (1844-1889) was an English poet, who converted from Anglicanism to the Roman Catholic Church, and became a Jesuit priest. His popularity and fame as a leading Victorian poet came only posthumously. He experimented in prosody, especially sprung rhythm, and his use of imagery established him as a daring innovator in a period of largely traditional verse. Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in Stratford, Essex, now in Greater London, as the first of nine children to Manley and Catherine Hopkins. His father founded a marine insurance firm and, at one time, was the British consul general in Hawaii. He also served as church warden at St John-at-Hampstead, and was a published writer whose works included: A Philosopher's Stone and Other Poems, Pietas Metrica, and Spicelegium Poeticum, A Gathering of Verses by Manley Hopkins. He wrote poetry reviews for The Times, as well as one novel. Catherine Hopkins was the daughter of a London physician, very fond of music and of reading, especially German philosophy, literature and the novels of Charles Dickens. Hopkins’ parents were deeply religious High Church Anglicans.

 Hopkins' first ambition was to be an artist and painter, and, taught early on by his aunt, he continued to sketch throughout his life. He became a skilled draughtsman and found that his early training in visual art supported his later work as a poet. His siblings were greatly inspired by language, religion and the creative arts. Milicent (1849–1946) joined an Anglican sisterhood in 1878. Kate (1856–1933) later helped Gerard to publish the first edition of his poetry. His youngest sister,Grace (1857–1945), set many of his poems to music. Lionel (1854–1952) became a world-famous expert on archaic and colloquial Chinese. Arthur (1847–1930) and Everard (1860–1928) were both highly successful artists. Cyril (1846–1932) joined his father's insurance firm.

The family moved to Hampstead in 1852, near to where John Keats had lived, and close to the wide green spaces of Hampstead Heath. At ten years old Gerard Manley Hopkins went to boarding school at Highgate School for nine years, where he exhibited an ascetic spirit. While studying Keats's poetry, he composed The Escorial (1860), his earliest extant poem. Hopkins, an unusually sensitive student and poet, studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford (1863–67). At Oxford that he forged a lifelong friendship with Robert Bridges, eventual Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, which aided in his development as a poet, and his posthumous acclaim. Hopkins was deeply impressed with the work of Christina Rossetti, who became one of his greatest contemporary influences, and whom he met in 1864. He also studied with the prestigious writer and critic Walter Pater who tutored him and remained a friend until Hopkins left Oxford. In Oxford Hopkins was a keen socialite and prolific poet, but became alarmed at himself for changes in his behavior and became more studious, recording his "sins" in his diary. As an undergraduate he engaged in “romantic” friendships, though they tended to be idealised and spiritualised. He found it hard to accept his sexual attraction to other men, really all his life, including a deep infatuation for Digby Mackworth Dolben. There's no reason, however, to believe that he didn’t remain celibate throughout his life. He exercised a strict self-control in regard to his homosexual desire, especially after he became a follower of Henry Parry Liddon and Edward Pusey, the last member of the original Oxford Movement. This was a time of intense scrupulosity for Hopkins and he seems to have begun confronting his strong homoerotic impulses and began to consider religious life.

 In July, 1866 Gerard Manley Hopkins decided to become a Catholic, and traveled to Birmingham to consult with the leader of the Oxford Movement, John Henry Newman. Newman received him into the Church in October, 1866. In May, 1868 Hopkins firmly "resolved to be a religious." Less than a week later, he made a bonfire of his poems and gave up poetry almost entirely for seven years. His conversion to Catholicism estranged him from both his family and from some of his acquaintances.

After he graduated in 1867 Hopkins was given a teaching post at the Oratory in Birmingham by Newman. While there he felt the call to enter the ministry and decided to become a Jesuit. Hopkins began his novitiate in the Society of Jesus at Manresa House, Roehampton, in September 1868, then moved to St. Mary's Hall, Stonyhurst, to study philosophy in 1870. He took the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience on September 8, 1870. He was conflicted about continuing to write because he felt that his interest in poetry prevented him from wholly devoting himself to his vocation. Nevertheless, after later reading works by Duns Scotus, he saw that the two didn’t necessarily conflict. He continued to write a detailed prose journal between 1868 and 1875. He also wrote music, sketched, and for church occasions he wrote some "verses", as he called them, as well as sermons and other religious pieces.

In 1874 he returned to Manresa House to teach classics. While studying in the Jesuit house of theological studies, St Beuno's, near St Asaph in North Wales, he was asked by his religious superior to write a poem to commemorate the foundering of a German ship in a storm. In 1875 he took up poetry once more and wrote his famous poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland. It was inspired by the Deutschland incident, a maritime disaster in which 157 people died including five Franciscan nuns who had been leaving Germany due to harsh anti-Catholic laws. It depicts not only  the dramatic events and heroic deeds but also tells how Hopkins reconciled the terrible events with God's higher purpose. The poem was accepted but not printed by a Jesuit publication, further causing his ambivalence about his poetry, most of which remained unpublished until after his death.

 Hopkins was at times gloomy. Though he’d left Oxford with a first class honors degree, he failed his final theology exam. This failure almost certainly meant that, though ordained in 1877, Hopkins would not progress in the order. Though rigorous, isolated and sometimes unpleasant, his life during Jesuit training had at least some stability. The uncertain and varied work after ordination was very hard on his sensibilities. Only a month after he’d been ordained, Hopkins became the subminister and teacher at Mt. St. Mary’s College, Chesterfield. In July, 1878 he was made curate at the Jesuit church in Mount Street, London. In December he became curate at St. Aloysius’s Church, Oxford, then moved to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. While ministering in Oxford he became a founding member of Oxford University Newman Society in 1878, established for the Catholic members of Oxford University. He taught Greek and Latin at Mt. St Mary's College, Sheffield, and Stonyhurst College, Lancashire.

In 1884 he became professor of Greek and Latin at University College Dublin. His English roots and his disagreement with the Irish politics of the time, as well as his own short stature, his unprepossessing nature and personal oddities demonstrated that he wasn’t a particularly effective teacher. His isolation in Ireland deepened his gloom, as his poems at that time reflect. They crystallized the melancholy dejection which plagued him from then on. Several problems contributed to Hopkins's depression and stifled poetic inspiration during the last five years of his life. He had an extremely heavy work load. He disliked living in Dublin, away from England and friends. His general health deteriorated as his eyesight began to fail. He felt confined and dejected. As a devout Jesuit, he found himself in an artistic dilemma. To subdue any egotism which would violate the humility required by his religious position, he decided never to publish his poems. But Hopkins realized that any true poet requires an audience for criticism and encouragement. This conflict between his religious obligations and his poetic talent caused him to feel that he had failed them both.

After suffering ill health for several years and bouts of diarrhea, Hopkins died of typhoid fever in 1889 and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, following his funeral in St. Francis Xavier Church on Gardiner Street in Dublin. He is thought to have suffered throughout his life from what today might be diagnosed as either bipolar disorder or chronic unipolar depression. He battled a deep sense of melancholic anguish, even though on his deathbed he said that he was happy and that he “loved his life”.

Hopkins’s poetic language is often striking. He uses simple imagery as well as splendid metaphysical and intricate concepts. He can leap from image to image, expressing how each thing sums up its own uniqueness, and how divinity is reflected through all of them. He uses archaic and dialect words, but also coins new ones. He often creates compound adjectives, in order as one commentator observed, to concentrate his images, “communicating the instress of the poet’s perceptions of an inscape to his reader.” Undoubtedly, Hopkins was somewhat influenced by the Welsh language which he acquired while studying theology at St. Beuno's College in Wales. The Welsh practice of putting emphasis on repeating sounds suited his own style and is prominently featured in his poems. This reliance on similar sounding words with close or differing senses is best appreciated and understood by reading his poems aloud. A key feature of Hopkins's poetry is the concept of inscape, derived in part from the medieval theologian, Duns Scotus. Exactly what inscape means is uncertain, and is, perhaps, known only to Hopkins. It appears to be expressive of the individual essence and uniqueness of every physical thing, communicated by its instress which ensures the transmitting of its importance in the wider creation.

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