Gerard Manley Hopkins

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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"The Best ideal is the true/ And other truth is none./All glory be ascribèd to/The holy Three in One."
"The Best ideal is the true/ And other truth is none./All glory be ascribèd to/The holy Three in One."

Gerard Manley Hopkins (July 28, 1844 – June 8, 1889), a Jesuit priest, was an English poet whose posthumous, 20th-century fame established him among the finest Victorian poets. His experimental explorations in prosody (especially in regard to sprung rhythm) and his vibrant use of imagery established him as both an original and daring innovator in a period of largely traditional verse.


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Poetry
    • 2.1 Sprung rhythm
    • 2.2 Use of language
    • 2.3 Erotic influences
  • 3 Notes
  • 4 Bibliography of Poems
  • 5 Bibliography
  • 6 See also
  • 7 External links


Hopkins was born in Stratford, Essex. He was the eldest of nine children, the son of Catherine and Manley Hopkins, a marine insurance adjuster[1]. He was educated at Highgate School and then Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied classics. It was at Oxford that he forged the friendship with Robert Bridges which would be of importance in his development as a poet, and posthumous acclaim.

Hopkins began his time at Oxford as a keen socialiser and prolific poet, but he seems to have alarmed himself with the changes in his behavior that resulted, and he became more studious and began recording his sins in his diary. In particular, he found it hard to accept his sexuality; hence, he began to exercise strict self-control in regard to it, especially after he became a follower of Henry Parry Liddon and of Edward Pusey, the last, lingering member of the original Oxford Movement. It was during this time of intense scrupulosity that Hopkins seems to have begun confronting his strong homoerotic impulses. (See section below on Erotic influences)

In 1866, following the example of John Henry Newman, he converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. After his graduation in 1867 Hopkins was provided a teaching post by Newman, but the following year he decided to enter the priesthood, pausing only to visit Switzerland, which officially forbade Jesuits to enter.

Hopkins's attempts at poetry began at an early age, influenced by his father's own attempts at the art. His decision to become a Jesuit led him to burn much of his early poetry as he felt it incompatible with his vocation. Writing would remain something of a concern for him as he felt that his interest in poetry prevented him from wholly devoting himself to his religion. He continued to write a detailed journal until 1874. Unable to suppress his desire to describe the natural world, he also wrote music, sketched, and for church occasions he wrote some "verses," as he called them. He would later write sermons and other religious pieces. While he was studying in the Jesuit house of theological studies in St Beuno's, he was asked by his religious superior to write a poem to commemorate the foundering of a German ship in a storm. So in 1875 he was moved to take up poetry once more and write a lengthy poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland. This work was inspired by the Deutschland, a naval disaster in which 157 people died including five Franciscan nuns who had been leaving Germany due to harsh anti-Roman Catholic laws. The work displays both the religious concerns and some of the unusual meter and rhythms of his subsequent poetry not present in his few remaining early works. It not only depicts the dramatic events and heroic deeds but also tells of the poet's reconciling the terrible events with God's higher purpose. The poem was accepted but not printed by a Jesuit publication, and this rejection fueled his ambivalence about his poetry. Most of his poetry remained unpublished until after his death.

Hopkins chose the austere and restrictive life of a Jesuit and was at times gloomy. The brilliant student who had left Oxford with a first class honours degree failed his final theology exam. This failure meant that, although ordained in 1877, Hopkins would not likely progress in the order. Though rigorous and sometimes unpleasant, his life during Jesuit training had at least some stability; the uncertain and varied work after ordination was even harder on his sensibilities. He served in various parishes in England and Scotland and taught at Mount St Mary's College, Sheffield, and Stonyhurst College, Lancashire. In 1884 he became professor of Greek literature at University College Dublin. His English roots and his disagreement with the Irish politics of the time, as well as his own small stature (5'2"), unprepossessing nature and own personal oddities meant that he was not a particularly effective teacher. This as well as his isolation in Ireland deepened his gloom and his poems of the time, such as I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, reflected this. They came to be known as the "terrible sonnets," not because of their quality but because according to Hopkins' friend Canon Dixon, they reached the "terrible crystal," meaning that they crystallized the melancholy dejection which plagued the latter part of this life.

After suffering ill health for several years and bouts of diarrhea, Hopkins died of typhoid fever in 1889 and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. Though he suffered from what today might be diagnosed as manic depression, and battled a deep sense of anguish throughout his life, upon his death bed, he evidently overcame some of his feelings of despondency, at times stygian in their intensity. His last words were "I am so happy, I am so happy."


Sprung rhythm

Much of Hopkins' historical importance has to do with the changes he brought to the form of poetry; which ran contrary to conventional ideas of meter. Prior to Hopkins, most Middle English and Modern English poetry was based on a rhythmic structure inherited from the Norman side of English literary heritage. This structure is based on repeating groups of two or three syllables, with the stressed syllable falling in the same place on each repetition. Hopkins called this structure running rhythm, and though he wrote some of his early verse in running rhythm he became fascinated with the older rhythmic structure of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, of which Beowulf is the most famous example. Hopkins called his own rhythmic structure sprung rhythm. Sprung rhythm is structured around feet with a variable number of syllables, generally between one and four syllables per foot, with the stress always falling on the first syllable in a foot. In reality, it more closely resembles the "rolling stresses" of Robinson Jeffers, another poet who disavowed conventional meter. Hopkins saw sprung rhythm as a way to escape the constraints of running rhythm, which he said inevitably, pushed poetry written in it to become "same and tame." In this way, Hopkins can be seen as anticipating much of free verse. His work has no great affinity with either of the contemporary Pre-Raphaelite and neo-romanticism schools, although he does share their descriptive love of nature and he is often seen as a precursor to modernist poetry or as a bridge between the two poetic eras.

Use of language

The language of Hopkins’ poems is often striking. His imagery can be simple, as in Heaven-Haven, where the comparison is between a nun entering a convent and a ship entering a harbour out of a storm. It can be splendidly metaphysical and intricate, as it is in As Kingfishers Catch Fire, where he leaps from one image to another to show how each thing expresses its own uniqueness, and how divinity reflects itself through all of them.

He uses many archaic and dialect words, but also coins new words. One example of this is twindles, which seems from its context in Inversnaid to mean a combination of twines and dwindles. He often creates compound adjectives, sometimes with a hyphen (such as dapple-dawn-drawn falcon) but often without, as in rolling level underneath him steady air. This concentrates his images, communicating the instress of the poet’s perceptions of an inscape to his reader.

Added richness comes from Hopkins’ extensive use of alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia and rhyme, both at the end of lines and internally as in:

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;

Some of his poems, such as "The Bugler's First Communion" and "Epithalamion", embody homoerotic themes, and he has been associated recently with the Uranian poets, whose writings derived, in many ways, from the prose works of Walter Pater, Hopkins's academic coach for his Greats exams, and later his lifelong friend.

One more influence on him was the Welsh language he learnt while studying theology at [St. Beuno's College] near St Asaph, in North Wales. The poetic forms of Welsh literature and particularly cynghanedd with its emphasis on repeating sounds accorded with his own style and became a prominent feature of his work. This reliance on similar sounding words with close or differing senses mean that his poems are best understood if read aloud. An important element in his work is Hopkins' own concept of "inscape" which was derived, in part, from the medieval theologian Duns Scotus. The exact detail of "inscape" is uncertain and probably known to Hopkins alone but it has to do with the individual essence and uniqueness of every physical thing. This is communicated from an object by its "instress" and ensures the transmission of the item's importance in the wider creation. His poems would then try to present this "inscape" so that a poem like "The Windhover" aims to depict not the bird in general but instead one instance and its relation to the breeze. This is just one interpretation to probably Hopkins' most studied poem and one which he called his best.[2]

During his lifetime, Hopkins published few poems. It was only through the efforts of Robert Bridges that his works were seen. Despite Hopkins burning all his poems on entering the Jesuit novitiate, he had already sent some to Bridges who, with a few other friends, was one of the few people to see many of them for some years. After Hopkins' death they were distributed to a wider audience, mostly fellow poets, and in 1918 Bridges, by then poet laureate, published a collected edition; an expanded edition, prepared by Charles Williams, appeared in 1930, and a greatly expanded edition by W. H. Gardiner appeared in 1948 (eventually reaching a fourth edition, 1967, with N. H. Mackenzie).

Notable collections of Hopkins's manuscripts and publications are in Campion Hall, Oxford; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; and the Foley Library at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.

Erotic influences

Hopkins's suppressed erotic impulses played an important role in the tone, quality and even content of his works. These impulses seem to have taken on a degree of specificity after he met Robert Bridges' distant cousin, friend, and fellow Etonian Digby Mackworth Dolben, "a Christian Uranian"[2] whose poetry figured Christ as a pederastic lover and his death as a consummation of the relationship. Hopkins's biographer Robert Bernard Martin asserts that Hopkins’s meeting with Dolben – on the occasion of the boy's seventeenth birthday – at Oxford in February 1865, "was, quite simply, the most momentous emotional event of [his] undergraduate years, probably of his entire life" [3]. "Hopkins was completely taken with Dolben, who was nearly four years his junior, and his private journal for confessions the following year proves how absorbed he was in imperfectly suppressed erotic thoughts of him"[4] He pursued Dolben during the course of their correspondence, writing about him in his diary and composing two poems about the youth, "Where art thou friend" and "The Beginning of the End." Robert Bridges, who edited the first edition of Dolben's poems as well as Hopkins', cautioned that the second poem "must never be printed," though Bridges finally decided to include it in the first edition (1918). [5] Another indication of the nature of his feelings for Dolben is that Hopkins' High Anglican confessor seems to have forbade him from having any contact with Dolben except by letter.[6] Their relationship was abruptly interrupted by Dolben's drowning in June 1867, an event from which Hopkins never fully recovered: "Ironically, fate may have bestowed more through Dolben’s death than it could ever have bestowed through longer life. [for] many of Hopkins’s best poems — impregnated with an elegiac longing for Dolben, his lost belovèd and his muse — were the result."[7]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Timothy d'Arch Smith, Love in Earnest, p. 188)
  3. ^ Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life, p. 80; see also Norman White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, p. 110)
  4. ^ Robert Bernard Martin, "Digby Augustus Stewart Dolben," DNB)
  5. ^ Joseph Cady English Literature: Nineteenth Century [1]
  6. ^ Kaylor, op.cit. p.201
  7. ^ Kaylor, op.cit. p.401

Bibliography of Poems

  • The Wreck of the Deutschland
  • The May Magnificat
  • Moonrise
  • Spring
  • God's Grandeur
  • The Caged Skylark
  • Hurrahing in Harvest
  • As Kingfishers Catch Fire
  • In the Valley of the Elwy
  • Pied Beauty (a curtal sonnet)
  • Carrion Comfort
  • The Windhover: To Christ our Lord
  • Spring and Fall, To a Young Child
  • The Habit of Perfection
  • The Sea and the Skylark
  • Inversnaid
  • That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection


  • Catholic singer-songwriter Sean O'Leary (b.1953) has produced a collection of contemporary settings of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems titled The Alchemist: Gerard Manley Hopkins Poems In Musical Adaptations [48 page booklet with accompanying double album - 2CD - 120 minutes], ISBN 0-9550649-0-2, 2005. The 22 Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems set as songs by Sean O'Leary include: The Wreck Of The Deutschland, God's Grandeur, Spring, The Windhover, Felix Randal, and the 'Terrible Sonnets'.
  • Richard Austin reads Hopkins' poetry in Back to Beauty's Giver [Audio book - CD], ISBN 0-9548188-0-6, 2003. 27 poems, including: The Wreck Of The Deutschland, God's Grandeur, The Windhover, Pied Beauty and Binsley Poplars, and the 'Terrible Sonnets'.


  • Martin, Robert Bernard, 1992. "Gerard Manley Hopkins - A Very Private Life" (London: Flamingo/HarperCollins Publishers)
  • White, Norman, 1992. "Hopkins - A literary Biography"" (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Abbot, Claude Coller (Ed.), 1955. "The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon" (London: Oxford University Press.)
  • Abbot, Claude Coller (Ed.), 1955. "The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges" (London: Oxford University Press.)
  • Norman H. MacKenzie. (Ed.), 1989. "The Early Poetic Manuscripts and Note-books of Gerard Manley Hopkins in Facsimile." (New York and London: Garland Publishing.)
  • Norman H. MacKenzie. (Ed.), 1991 "The Later Poetic Manuscripts of Gerard Manley Hopkins in Facsimile" (New York: Garland Publishing.)

See also

  • Caudate sonnet
  • Curtal sonnet (invented by G. M. Hopkins)
  • Sprung rhythm
  • Inscape
  • Inscape (visual art)
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins Society
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins' Grave
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins Poems In Musical Adaptations
  • The Hopkins Quarterly
  • Online texts of Hopkins Poems: First Edition (1918)
  • Web Concordance of Hopkins Poems
  • Readings of Hopkins' Poetry
  • The Victorian Web - Gerard Manley Hopkins - An Overview
  • 2004 essay by Jim Boushay about Gerard Manley Hopkins and the ‘pain’ of deep gratitude titled To give prayerful thanks with a grateful heart
  • That Nature Is A Heraclitean Fire - Excerpt - Musical adaptation by Sean O'Leary (MP3)
  • The Wreck Of The Deutschland - Verse 1 - Musical adaptation by Sean O'Leary (MP3)
  • 8 Song Samples from Musical Adaptations of Hopkins' Poetry
  • LibriVox - Free Audio Recording of As Kingfishers Catch Fire
  • Michael Matthew Kaylor, Secreted Desires: The Major Uranians: Hopkins, Pater and Wilde (2006), a 500-page scholarly volume that situates Hopkins among the Victorian writers of Uranian Poetry - Free, open-access, PDF version.
  • Religious Crisis in Hopkins' Terrible Sonnets
  • Dark Night of the Soul
  • An Essay on Pied Beauty - Associated Content
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