The first collection of Hopkins' poetry was not published until 1918. Until this point, Gerard Manley Hopkins was the forgotten poet of the nineteenth century.
Hopkins was born in 1844 in Stratford in Essex and at the age of 19 was granted a scholarship to study at Balliol College, Oxford. It was here that he came under the influence of the Oxford Movement, and was received into the Catholic Church by Cardinal Newman, much to the anguish of his staunchly Anglican parents. Hopkins left Oxford to high acclaim in 1866 and was initiated into the Jesuits in 1868, undertaking to live without the comforts he had grown up with, and burning the poetry he had written in his youth, saying he would "write no more, as not belonging to my profession". Despite the encouragement of his close friends, Coventry Patmore, Rev. Richard Dixon and Robert Bridges (the future poet laureate who was the first person to publish Hopkins work), Hopkins refused to publish any of his poetry during his own lifetime, seeing it as incompatible with the life of a Jesuit priest. Perhaps Hopkins was aware whilst he was writing, as we his audience are aware now, that there is constant tension in his work between his primal, sensual love of nature, and his ascetic devotion to an unforgiving God.
In 1874, Hopkins moved to North Wales and began to study the language there. It is the lilting, mellifluous tone of Welsh that we find in Hopkins poetry: he claimed that the language much better captured the sounds and senses of nature. Under the guidance of his superior at the theological college in St Beunos, Hopkins took up poetry once more and in 1875 composed "The Wreck of the Deutschland".
Hopkins was ordained in 1877 and served in various Jesuit churches and institutes around the country He was appointed professor of Greek literature at University College, Dublin, in 1884, but found the climate and lifestyle not to his liking. He became ill and fell into a deep depression. This malaise is reflected in his Terrible Sonnets, which are amongst the most bleak and forlorn poems in the English language.
"The Wreck of the Deutschland"
In 1875 Hopkins, deeply affected by the death of five Franciscan nuns in a shipwreck, broke his poetical silence to compose the challenging long poem "the Wreck of the Deutschland". The nuns had been exiled to Germany on account of their faith, and Hopkins finds in them the bravery that he felt on converting to Roman Catholicism. The first part of the poem outlines a battle between Hopkins and God, where God is trying to make Hopkins realize that the drowning of the nuns was a divine act. The outlandish rhythm helps to give the impression that Hopkins is under the influence of a higher power, that he is committing to poetry an experience of great spiritual importance.
Hopkins mind then moves back to his own conversion to Catholicism and the agony he went through:
"I did say yes
O at lightening and lashed rod;
Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
Thy terror, O Christ, O God "
These lines capture perfectly the somewhat hysterical voice which Hopkins makes his own when contemplating divinity. Hopkins feels that he was trapped between Hell and a God who expected too much of him, like Scylla and Charibdis, or the nuns on the Deutschland: "where, where was a, where was a place?"
After the emotional distress engendered by this recollection, Hopkins reverts to a consideration of natural beauty to ease his troubled mind. His naivety, exuberance, and recognition of the beauty in nature are all evidenced here. Hopkins "kisses his hand" to the stars in a gesture of abandon to the glory of God and nature. One senses Hopkins contentment at this part of the poem. The everyday speech and sense of spiritual crisis followed by spiritual resolution give us an insight into the very core of human experience.
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