Chris Rea: Auberge
"The Triumph of Drivel"

52 Authors: Week 42 - Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

Hopkins ranked with Yeats among the poetic enthusiasms of my college years. This was in part the result of the influence of my roommate, who was a couple of years older than I, and of a teacher for whom we shared a great admiration. At the time it meant nothing to me that Hopkins was a Jesuit; I could not have told you coherently what the word meant. It also meant nothing to me that he was a late Victorian convert, and thus in continuity with the movement from Canterbury to Rome which had attracted so much attention a generation earlier, most prominently in the person of John Henry Newman, who crossed over to Rome in 1845, the year after Hopkins was born, and in 1866 received the twenty-two-year-old Hopkins into the Catholic Church. I did at least understand that he was a Christian, but I was not particularly interested in that fact.

What I was interested in was the special intensity, the almost ecstatic quality, of his poetry, which was the result of (among other things)

  • an unnatural compression of meaning (unnatural in the sense of being far from ordinary speech, even by the standards of poetry), often involving the use of short, forceful, archaic, or arcane words and invented compounds;
  • an exaggerated music which uses alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme well beyond what would generally be acceptable, going right up to the edge of the ridiculous, but made effective by precision, and by mastery of the whole;
  • stressed and contorted syntax;
  • an irregular but highly controlled meter which he called “sprung rhythm”.

These effects are easier illustrated than described. Here is stanza 26 of “The Wreck of the Deutschland”:

   For how to the heart's cheering
      The down-dugged ground-hugged grey
   Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing
      Of pied and peeled May!
Blue-beating and hoary-glow height; or night, still higher,
With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky way,
      What by your measure is the heaven of desire,
The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?

Among Catholics a few of his poems have become fairly popular, for me to the point of over-exposure. “God’s Grandeur” (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God...”) is probably the best example, and then perhaps “Pied Beauty” (“Glory be to God for dappled things...”). Supposing that most of my readers will be familiar with those, I’ll include here one not quite so well-known, but which, if my memory serves, was the first of Hopkins’s poems to impart to me something very much like the sensation described in the last line.

Hurrahing In Harvest

SUMMER ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

Hopkins’s technique is at the service principally of two subjects: an intense religious devotion, and an equally intense love of nature which tends to focus on precise individual details captured as precisely as possible. Individuality—”all things counter, original, spare, and strange”--was both an aesthetic and a theological matter for him, and are nowhere better expressed than in this poem, left untitled by the poet but generally known by its opening phrase:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
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 Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Hopkins didn’t write very much. Given his technique, it’s hard to see how he could have. Moreover, he died young (in 1888, at 44). And upon entering the Jesuits at the age of 22, he gave up poetry entirely, as being incompatible with his vocation, and wrote nothing for seven years, until a superior expressed the wish that someone would write a poem about the deaths of five Franciscan nuns in a shipwreck. Taking this as permission, Hopkins produced a striking, even astonishing, classic, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” I would like to be able to say something like “He burst upon the literary scene...” with this poem, but in fact the only publisher that saw it, a Jesuit monthly, turned it down, apparently because it was too strange—and it is strange. After this a little less than fifteen years of life remained to him. In that time he produced, in obscurity, the few dozen poems that, when finally published in 1913 by his friend Robert Bridges, left open only the question “whether he is a great lesser poet, or a lesser great poet.”

At one time I would have not hesitated to choose the second of those characterizations. I’m not quite as enthusiastic as I once was about some of these poems as poems only. I now find myself a little impatient with the obscurity and compression of the poems that are less than entirely brilliant, or are so obscure that I’m still puzzled by certain passages (and a few whole poems). And in encouraging those qualities on the part of 20th century poets, I think Hopkins’s influence was not 100% for the best; this has retroactively, and quite unfairly, colored my view of him.

Nevertheless: the best of these poems are among the best ever written. There’s pretty general agreement on that, and I’d still say “lesser great” rather than “great lesser.” And if one share’s Hopkins’s faith, the enjoyment and appreciation naturally go much deeper than for one who does not: we read his poems not only as elegant verbal artifacts unfortunately attached to an obsolete “belief system,” but as expressions of truth. We feel something of what he feels, not as a moment of openness produced by the poem, but as an aspect of our relationship to the real world. This is not the usual experience of a Catholic with the art of the past couple of centuries, and it’s pleasant not to have in the back of one’s mind a voice saying “Of course one can’t take his philosophy as-is...”, which I at any rate often do.

The joyful contemplation and adoration encountered in Hopkins’s most popular poems was not the whole of his work, just as it is not the whole (to say the least) of ordinary Christian life. There is a set of poems written fairly late in his life which are know as “the terrible sonnets” because of the desolation they describe. He had difficulties with his vocation (of course). And the work he was given, and the places where he was required to do it, were sometimes ill-suited and uncongenial to him. It’s hard to imagine him as a parish priest. I believe some of these poems were written while he was in Ireland, where he apparently found himself at odds even with his fellow Catholics over Irish-British politics.

I had intended to include one of them here, but they are so dark, and so intense, that to toss one in to be read casually seems wrong, to both reader and poet. So I’ll give you a link to No. 42, “No worst, there is none...” and suggest that you read it at leisure

W.H. Gardner’s Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose gives the non-specialist all the Hopkins he will need in a single volume: all the completed poems, significant fragments, and a selection of prose from journals and letters. Gardner’s introduction is an excellent brief biography and a sympathetic view of the poetic and theological matters with which the poet was concerned, and of the tension between his vocation-by-grace as Jesuit and priest and his vocation-by-nature as artist. Wisely, and happily for the reader weary of contemporary obsessions, he notes the likelihood that Hopkins was troubled by sexual tensions (as most celibates naturally are), but declines to speculate further. I could have used a bit more help with some of the obscurities in some of the poems. Hopkins said “Obscurity I do and will try to avoid so far as is consistent with excellences higher than clearness at first reading.” He certainly sacrificed nothing to that latter consideration.



If even after a couple of readings you're baffled, or half-baffled, by certain poems, my advice is to give up on them for the moment and try them again now and then at long intervals. That seems to have worked for me, at any rate. It's a concession to my laziness, I admit, but there is a point in struggling with a poem where frustration overpowers enjoyment, sometimes fatally for the moment. In that case I find it better to let it go for a while, and to read it again occasionally without making any great effort at puzzling it out. The words sink in, and on one of those subsequent readings come together. I recall years ago finding "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire, and of the comfort of the Resurrection" more or less unintelligible, except for the last two lines. Then a decade or so ago I heard it read by a Jesuit expert on Hopkins whose name I can't remember now, and it made perfect sense.  

—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


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There are some good books about the poems. I was given by the Spiritual director of Opus Dei in Ireland a book called Hopkins in Ireland. It reads the terrible sonnets as atheistic. I lent it to a colleague who said he could refute it in a snap and never saw it again. Its enjoyable. Theres a book by Aidan Nichols which gives you dominican sparks notes on all the poems

I love Hopkins

You could certainly argue convincingly that he was in an atheistic mood. I'm familiar with that. I meant to include, though, that his last words were "I am so happy, so happy."

The first thing one needs is not Dominican notes, entertaining as those might be, but plain old notes for words like "sillion." Gardner helps with a lot of those.

Frequently I find that his poetry is like music in this sense. I know about 6 drops worth of music theory, so when I listen to a great piece of music, I don't understand what the composer is doing or how he is producing the effects that he is producing, but it just washes over me and something within me comprehends it. Sometimes, though I could not begin to parse Hopkins's verse, it just resonates in my soul.

I could not have begun to delineate those four points about how Hopkins does what he does, and I barely understand what you are saying, but I pretty much see what you are saying. ;-)

This is a great piece.


There are poems by Hopkins in the back of the Liturgy of the Hours, and sometimes I like to just sit and read them in adoration. I particularly like the one that begins:

O God, I love thee, I love thee---
Not out of hope of heaven for me
Nor fearing not to love and be
In the everlasting burning.


I think Aidan's book is fairly low brow

"We feel something of what he feels, not as a moment of openness produced by the poem, but as an aspect of our relationship to the real world. This is not the usual experience of a Catholic with the art of the past couple of centuries, and it’s pleasant not to have in the back of one’s mind a voice saying “Of course one can’t take his philosophy as-is...”, which I at any rate often do."

I appreciate this. Great post, Maclin. I look forward to reading it again at leisure.

When I was in college, it was Hopkins and Emily Dickinson who grabbed my attention the most. Very different in style and the feelings they arouse -- Emily's spare and mysterious style was far away from his "special intensity...almost ecstatic quality". But each were unique.

They were alive and working at the same time. Wonder what they would have thought of each other's poetry?

Interesting question. My first unreflective reaction is that he would have liked hers, she would not have liked his. But I don't have any real reason for thinking so.

Thanks for this, Mac. I've admired Hopkins, but at arm's length on account of the difficulties. My favourite of his poems, "The Habit of Perfection", is my favourite in part because it is so simple. But this overview helps me to understand him better, and I think I would like to spend some time with him again.

I struggle for anything intelligent to say, Mac. Wonderful post, lovely poet. I know I told you about the Jesuit two summers back who came and gave a Hopkins lecture - very enjoyable, entertaining, and informative. It is quite something when an expert on a subject inspires you so for a short period of time and you think you understand that subject. Then with time it fades, only hopefully to burn bright again at some later point in the future.

Glad you liked it, Stu and Craig. I do encourage you to give him a chance. Janet's advice to treat it a bit like music is good. I mean, you have to understand *something* to enjoy it, but you don't have to understand *everything*.

All poetry is supposed to be better read out loud, but I think Hopkins especially rewards that exercise.



A fine essay, Mac.

I first encountered Hopkins my senior year of college -- the same year, coincidentally, that I began to suspect I would end up Catholic. I was a fan then of "difficult" poetry -- Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, T S Eliot -- convinced that if a poem was easy to understand it couldn't be very profound. So when "The Windhover" showed up on an English-class reading list, I was in love. Here was a "difficult" poet who was also a Catholic priest and whose poems were religious! (My reaction, in other words, was the opposite of yours. You weren't much interested that Hopkins was a Christian. I found it the most interesting thing about him.)

Because I wanted to "get" the Catholicism in it, Hopkins's poetry motivated me to pay close attention, closer attention than I had ever paid to poetry before. And after a while, it didn't seem quite so "difficult." In fact, Hopkins's poetry taught me, in a way, to pay closer attention to ALL poetry, and I eventually came to see that some "difficult" poems are not all that difficult, and some "easy" poems are not all that easy.

I'm glad you mentioned his last recorded words. It's tempting, from a certain (secular) perspective, to read disappointment and frustration into the story of Hopkins's life as a Jesuit. One finds comfort in knowing that he didn't see it that way at the end.

I've only read tiny bits of Hopkins and you make me want to read more, and more attentively.

Rumer Godden has a novel called "Kingfishers Catch Fire." I never knew till now that it was an allusion!

Yes, the poem is in the front of the book. She's coming up in November.


Maybe I've started a Hopkins Awareness movement. What color should the ribbon be?

The kingfishers we have around here are not that colorful, and when I see them darting around I think about what it would be like if they were as brilliantly colored as the European ones.

Thanks, Jeff. You were obviously way ahead of me in spiritual maturity. I would only have scoffed at the idea that I would ever become Catholic.

The kind of obscurity in poetry that really gets me is the kind where the words are perfectly clear when I take them a phrase or a sentence at a time, but I can't make them add up to anything coherent. That was my experience the few times I sampled Hart Crane. Stevens is sometimes that way, but I can usually more or less see what he's getting at.

I agree about reading Hopkins aloud. I have a recording of some of his poetry that I've been meaning to dig out.

Hearing his poems read by someone else would be a great help for me, especially because of the diacritical marks he used, which I've always found very confusing.

I read "Habit of Perfection" to my kids this morning at breakfast. My ten-year old said, "huh?" My 17-year old really dug it. I didn't hear from the 14-year old.

By the way, some accounts of his last words included "I have loved my life."

I'm really glad that Jeff mentioned the last words because I had missed them.

I lost a comment, but it wasn't important.


RIP Comment. It's not clinging to life in the spam catcher.

That scared me! At first I was thinking, OH NO, Who died?!


Sorry. I guess it was the "I lost..." that suggested that, since people often describe a death that way.


Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!
Oh look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright burroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in the dim woods the diamond delves! the elves'-eyes!


The roommate I mentioned once got a lot of weird looks by shouting out those first two lines as we were walking down the street.

Once when I was talking to an English professor about my total unmusicality he said, 'but you enjoy reading poetry'. He said that many unmusical people get the pleasure others get from music an analogous pleasure to that obtained by musical people from music.

Oh, I'm always stopping people in parking lots and making them look at the setting moon or a rainbow. I don't shout though. Generally, they seem happy to stop.


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