Gerard Manley Hopkins: Life and Biography

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      Gerard Manley Hopkins, the eldest of nine children was born at Stratford, Essex, on the 28th July 1844. He belonged to a middle class cultured family of moderate High Church Anglicanism. One of his three sisters, sketched well, another played piano while the eldest became an Anglican nun. Two of his brothers became professional artist; the poet had a considerable skill in drawing. His father had written some poems as well as a couple of books on marine insurance, his mother was interested in German philosophy. His aunt taught him folk songs and Elizabethan tunes. The poet’s earliest ambition was to became a painter-poet, like D.G. Rossetti. His father ran a successful marine insurance business in the city of London, and in 1867 published A Manual of Marine Insurance. He was also consult General in London for the independent Kingdom of Hawaii. He was a conventionally religious man, a moderate High Anglican and a Sunday-School teacher. Our poet’s mother was a woman of well-developed musical and literary tastes, who read German at a time when it was not common in England, and who took, in later years a keen interest in her son’s poetry. In 1852 the family moved to Oak Hill, Hamstead, and lived there for the next thirty-four years. From 1854 Gerard attended Highgate School, a few miles away, as a boarder. He was familiar to his fellows as a mild, good-humored temperament though capable of showing an iron will and great stubbornness when thwarted. He had keen interest in sports and games. At Highgate School Gerard won the Poetry Prize with The Escortful (1860) and in 1863 an exhibition took him to Balliol College, Oxford, where he read classics.


      At Oxford the ‘influences’ upon him were various and rich. There was Walter Pater who was one of Hopkins’s tutors and had a special liking, for him. Then there were Ruskin and William Morris Pusey and H.P. Liddon, leaders in the Anglo-Catholic movement and the leading figures in Oxford Anglo-Catholicism. Hopkins's Oxford friends were youths centrally concerned with religion. Their subsequent ecclesiastical careers have some typicality about it. The diaries, sketch-books, and letters of the years 1852-1866 throw much light on Hopkins's temperament and tastes. They are a record—both secular and spiritual—of his life during this period and of the way in which his mind worked. They show his love of Nature, his gift for friendship, the range of his interest and the singular earnestness of his character. His eager perception of images and words, his appetite for detail, have been shown in the diaries. His sketches or drawings show his remarkable talent for minute Pre-Raphaelite kind of art and a sure sense of organic design. He delicately sketched trees, flowers, buildings and architectural detail delicately in the manner of Ruskin. In the diaries, there are drafts of poems and lists of books. The great Newman, whose Apologia had appeared in 1864 and whose Difficulties of Anglicans he had read, was the sign of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. In 1886 still, an undergraduate, Hopkins was converted to the Roman Catholic faith. Cardinal Newman’s writing had influenced him at large and brought about this conversion. Hopkins proved himself one of the finest of Greek Scholars at Oxford securing a double first class in the examination. Newman had sound advice as well as sympathy:

      Your first duty is to make a good class (in the Oxford examinations). Show your friends at home that your becoming a Catholic has not unsettled you in the plain duty that lies before you.

      Hopkins thus left oxford, in June 1867, with a Double First in Greats and Jowett’s judgment that he was the star of Balliol, one of the finest of its Greek Scholars.


      Hopkins joined the Jesuit Order to begin nine years of training for the priesthood in 1868 after a visit to Switzerland. He was a novice from 1868 to 1870 and then he took his first vows and started three years of philosophical studies at Stony-Hurst. Hopkins was ordained in 1877. He served as parish priest and preacher at Chesterfield, at the Farm St. Church in London, at Oxford at Bedford Leigh, a gloomy mill and coal-mining town near Manchester, at Liverpool, at Glasgow. In 1881, he re-entered Manresa House, to pursue his ninth year of training his ‘tertianship’ or ‘Second Novitiate’, during which he made a ten month’s retirement from the education of the intellect and from active work in the world in order to re-examine motivations and to school the affections. Six of his sermons have been published. They are brilliant, eloquent, baroque discourses worthy of the poet who wrote them—sermons to go with those of Andrews, Donne, Taylor. ‘Parish Priest’ and ‘teacher’ were two of Hopkins’s lives. He was also a scholar, a student of music and a poet. He had a restless curiosity to learn and do things beyond his professional activities and poetic function.


      At Oxford, he felt the influence of Christiana Rossetti and the male Pre-Raphaelites. He burned all his old poems and resolved to write no more till he should be enjoined to do so. This silence was broken seven years later when a superior suggested that some member of the order should elegize the five Franciscan nuns who perished in the wreck of the “Deutschland” and accordingly the poem was called The Wreck of the Deutschland, written (in 1875).


      In 1872 Hopkins discovered Duns Scotus and in that subtle Schoolman’s “principle of individuation” and “theory of knowledge” he found what seemed to be a confirmation of his own theory of inscape and instress.

      By 1875 Hopkins had completed his writing of his journal. The journal shows a keen observation of Nature combined with a poetic feeling for language. In his vivid descriptions of skies, cloud-formations, trees, waves breaking, flowers opening and withering and other phenomena, Hopkins is mainly attracted by these aspects of a thing, or group of things which constitute its individual and “especial” unity of being, or the very essence of its nature. For this unified pattern of essential attributes he coined the word “inscape”, and he gave the name “instress” to that energy or stress of being which holds the “inscape” together. He often refers to this “instress” as the force which also, as an impulse from the “inscape”, carries it whole into the mind of the perceiver. The origin of these concepts was probably the “plastic stress” of Plato’s “One Spirit”, which sweeps through the world of dull matter to impose upon it the predestined forms of the “Prime Good”.

      “All the world is full of inscape,” wrote Hopkins in his journal at the age of 29, “and chance falls into an order”. In a letter to Bridges, he explained that by the word inscape he meant design or pattern adding that “design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling inscape is what I above all aim at in poetry.” For this unified pattern of essential attributes he coined the word “inscape”; and he gave the name “instress” to that energy or stress of being which holds the “inscape” together. He often refers to this “instress” as the force which also, as an impulse from the “inscape”, carries it whole into the mind of the perceiver.


      At Oxford Hopkins met with young Robert Bridges. This meeting led to life-long friendship. In 1877 Hopkins sent his poem to R. Bridges, an actively publishing poet. Hopkins kept up throughout a correspondence with Bridges as also with a former teacher of his at school, an Anglican priest, church historian and poet, R.W. Dixon. These three men exchanged poems and rigorous criticism of poems as well as general literary information. Bridges and Dixon could print their work but had small or nonexistent audiences. They two were Hopkins’s sole reader. Hopkins could not be printed partly because of his ‘advanced style’, partly because of his own scruples. Hopkins’s originality in style and diction, a new rhythm which had long been haunting his ear gave his sonnets a remarkable distinction. For this reason the number of readers of his poem was too limited.


      Hopkins was extremely sensitive to environment. He was horrified when he saw the squalor of our great industrial town and the social conditions which, in his view, oppressed the working classes. In 1884 Hopkins was appointed to the host of Professor of Greek Literature at University College, Dublin. Hopkins had to peace in mind. He was worried enough about different things. He was worried about the Catholic support for Irish nationalism, heavy examination duties, and doubts as to the usefulness or moral value of the work he was doing. Moreover suffering throughout his life from a certain nervous debility and his bodily weakness aggravated his constitutional melancholia. In Liverpool and Chesterfield, e tells us, his muse turned ‘sullen’. In 1888 Hopkins wrote:

Unhappily I cannot produce anything at all; not only the luxuries like poetry, but the duties almost of any position. I am a eunuch—but it is for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.

      The nervous debility was the reason of his sense of failure. These melancholic moods and deep spiritual unrest underlying them, are reflected in the poem Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves and the six sonnets beginning with Carrion Comfort.

      “Parish priest” and “teacher” were only two influences of Hopkins’s lives. He was also a scholar, a student of music and a poet. Over and beyond his professional activities and his poetic function he had a life-long restless curiosity to learn. But the feeling of frustration had become chronic. Hopkins urged his friends to write poetry for their fame and England’s glory, but he felt it his own duty to renounce such expectations. When his poet-friends tried to persuade him to publish some of his poems, he would at first not hear of it. It was his intention that his poems should be published by “someone in authority” after his death.


      Being attacked with typhoid fever Hopkins died on 8 June 1889. He died only at the age of forty-five. Hopkins was remembered after his death by a wider circle who had known him under various aspects: a learned though impractical member of the society of Jesus; a professor of Greek; a brilliant and eccentric scholar; an Englishman unhappy in Ireland; an amateur composer. He was deeply devoted to the priesthood and also was remembered for this.


      Hopkins died as a non-publishing poet; because during his life time he was willing to allow his poems ‘to be disposed of by obedience’—to be published, perhaps, by ‘someone in authority’ after his death though he also admitted that fame was a spur very hard to find a substitute for or to do without.

      After his death Bridges began his long and careful custodianship of his friend’s manuscript poems. Under Bridges’s sponsorship occasional poems by Hopkins appeared in anthologies such as The poets and Poetry of the Century in 1893; and Lyra Sacra and A Book of Christmas Verse, both edited in 1895 oy H.C. Beeching, who was related by marriage to Bridges. Some of Hopkins’s letter were published in 1900 in the Memoirs and Correspondence of Coventry Patmore, and he was mentioned in the introductions to Bridge’s editions of poems by Richard Watson Dixon (1909) and Digley Mackworth Dolben (1911). The establishment of Hopkins’s reputation was slow process but it went on steadily; several poems appeared in anthologies of religious poetry and in 1912 a poem was included in Sir Arthur Quller-Couch’s Oxford Book of Victorian Verse. In 1917 Bridges, by then poet Laureate and a distinguished Public figure, edited a much-read anthology, The Spirit of Man in which more of Hopkins poems appeared and aroused interest. Hopkins was recognized slowly first then abundantly. At last, he was in the public domain though it would be another ten years or more before he became widely read and admired.

      If as a poet he strove as Bridges said, for an “unattainable perfection of language”, as a man he desired what was perhaps for him an unattainable perfection of sanctity. Both struggles gave his work that pure intensity which puts him, notwithstanding his limitations, in the class of Dante and Shakespeare.

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