Religious Elements in G. M. Hopkins Poems

Also Read


      The religious or devotional element is not only conspicuous in The Wreck of the Deutschland but also in other poems. The Habit of Perfection indicates Hopkins’s desire to become a priest. Here he opts for silence, because silence is conducive to spiritual contemplation. He vows to deny to himself all the pleasures of the senses.

      In the poem The Wreck of the Deutschland Hopkins interprets the shipwreck as a revelation of God. The theme of the poem is not to mourn the loss of human lives, or to present a narrative of events. Instead the poet gives us the picture of his own spiritual vicissitudes. The poem opens with an invocation to God, “giver of breath and bread,” and “lord of living and dead”. The poet recalls the spiritual stress and strain which he has undergone and God’s grace which he achieved. He expresses his feeling of adoration towards the stars and starlight, towards “the dappled with-damson west.” He speaks of the birth of Christ, or the Incarnation, the Passion of Christ, the ardent desire of the faithful to worship the hero of Cavalry. In the poem he celebrates Roman Catholic Christianity.

      Hopkins sees God’s grandeur through the beauty and splendor of nature. He sees the presence of God manifested in the objects of nature:

      “Glory be to gold for dappled things”. In Hurrahing in Harvest Hopkins fuses his love for nature with his worship of God. In the beauty of the sky, he recognizes a greeting from Christ. He declares that the hills are the shoulders of Christ who carries the entire weight of the world. In The Starlight Night, Hopkins expresses the devout idea that the beauty of nature has to be paid for by human beings in terms of prayer, fasting, alms-giving together with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The Windhover is perhaps the most eloquent devotional Poem. The poem is dedicated: “To Christ our Lord”. The sub-title emphasizes the significance of the poem. The falcon in this poem is presented as a symbol of Christ. The epithets used for the falcon are such as could be applied to Christ too. The devotional is also pronounced in Felix Randal. The central conflict of the terrible sonnets is a clash between impulses within the poet. He is caught between his desire to reach spiritual fulfillment and his reluctance to surrender human identity. Perhaps it was the loss of physical vitality which caused the depression and inner conflict of Hopkins’s last years; perhaps the basis was primarily psychological. Out of the gloom of those final years, Hopkins created six intensely introspective sonnets, the most important of which is the Carrion Comfort and I wake and Feel the Fall of Dark.

      In 1885 Hopkins depression and spiritual desolation reached a new pitch of crisis. He later described it to Bridges as a state “when my spirits were so crushed that madness seemed to be making approaches—and nobody was to blame, except myself partly for not managing myself better and contriving a change”. One result of this crisis was to make Hopkins start writing poetry again after two years of silence. In May he told Bridges he had written two sonnets: “if everything was written in blood one of these was.” This according to Bridges, was Carrion Comfort. By September, Hopkins told Bridges that he had “five more” sonnets ready to send him. These poems cannot be identified with absolute certainty, but it is most probably that they comprise the group known as the “terrible sonnets”, Nos 64 to 69 in the fourth edition of Hopkins’ poems.

      These ‘terrible sonnets’ are outcries of a man to his tortured consciousness. By degrees, Hopkins learns that a finite being must become infinitesimal before it can partake of the infinite. Therefore, it is not surprising that Hopkins gave expression to his feeling of terrible nothingness of self.

Religious Element in Carrion Comfort

      In Carrion Comfort Hopkins is fighting his own self-pity. Refusing to indulge in despair the comfort of decaying flesh, the poet chooses to assert himself but what can he do? He ‘can something hope, wish not choose not to be’. But, ironically in not choosing not to be, he is pitting himself against the Almighty. Taking pride in the invincible human spirit, Hopkins is coming dangerously close to denying man’s dependence on God; for it is not man’s place to choose to be: man is made to serve, not to govern. Man was made to give God glory; “to praise God freely, willingly to reverence him, gladly to serve him”. By contrast, not choosing not to be is an ungodly answer: it is rooted in human pride rather than Christ like humility; and because the poet suggests this as a possible way of asserting himself he encounters a divine enemy.

      God the Son is a constant reminder to Hopkins of divine self-sacrifice. Moreover, Christ, the perfect manifestation of God’s spirit on earth, serves as a model for human behavior. In Carrion comfort therefore, Hopkins is battling with an enemy who compels him to face his own inadequacy; and Christ, perfect in His selflessness, is trying to overpower the poet by force of divine example.

      The note of agony is keener in another terrible sonnet, I wake and Feel the
Fell of Dark. The poet thinks that perhaps he will continue in the state of separation from God for years. His cries to God for help are unheard. But still, the poet feels no indignation towards God, and calls Him as his ‘dearest’. The poet generalizes his affliction in terms of his human sinfulness. He compares his plight with that of the damned souls in hell. There is no reconciliation, no resolution of the conflict.

      In October 1866 Hopkins was converted, as Newman had earlier been, to Roman Catholicism. This conversion is important as throwing some more light on the conflict we are discussing. Hopkins felt intellectually convinced of the logical validity of Catholic arguments. At the same time, there was in him a deep-seated hunger for absolute obedience to strong authority, and his hunger could be satisfied only in the Roman Church of the time. This hunger was the other side of the streak of stubbornness which lay half-hidden in him; it was also his defense against the uncertainty and waywardness of his emotional nature which he described in The Wreck of the Deutschland as “soft sift in an hourglass”. At about the same time (1866) as his conversion, he wrote a poem The Habit of Perfection which indicated his desire to become a priest but which is most remarkable in the context of the conflict in his nature. In this poem, Hopkins rejects the pleasures of the senses in favor of an ascetic way of life, and yet the poem itself is richly sensuous. In other words, this poem shows in a most striking manner the schism in his personality, the conflict between his poetic sensibility and his religious commitment. What, then, is the cause of this conflict? The cause evidently is his dual nature; indeed, he reminds us of Stevenson’s creation of the famous character who had two sides to him: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In The Habit of Perfection, the poet is intellectually in favor of the ascetic life but emotionally in favor of the sensuous or artistic life: the conflict between the two sides of the poet here is poignant as well as tense. In 1868 becoming as Jesuit priest, Hopkins thought he had found his true vocation, the one for which in his opinion he was destined. He wrote no more poetry till 1875, when The Wreck of the Deutschland was written at the suggestion of his superior. Although after 1875 he continued to write poems, he did not publish them. He showed an exaggerated hero of fame, as Father Devlin tells us: “Hopkins’s poetic genius was his very essence. Yet, Hopkins, the Jesuit behaved to Hopkins the poet as a Victorian husband might to a wife of whom he had cause to be ashamed. His muse was a high-born lady, a chaste matron, dedicated to God; but he treated her in public as a slut, and her children as an unwanted and vaguely sinful burden”. Hopkins rejection of poetic fame, proceeded not from the rigor of the Jesuit Order as such but from his own peculiar conception of the Jesuit order.


      The poems, on another level, (indicate a remarkable intensity of self-knowledge and sei Rencounter. These “terrible sonnets” are outcries of a man to his tortured
consciousness. By degrees, Hopkins learns that a finite being must become infinitesimal before it can partake of the infinite. Therefore, it is not surprising that Hopkins gave expression to his feeling of terrible nothingness. Inspired as it is by dogmatic beliefs that have entered into the very texture of his mind and give their ‘self-being’ to his feeling, there is something in ‘Hopkins’ poetry which is outside the compass of many a reader’s apprehension and sensibility. Much criticism of Hopkins today appears to be colored by one or other answer to the ‘problem’ of Hopkins the poet and Hopkins the devoted Jesuit Priest.

Previous Post Next Post