G. M. Hopkins: The Artist and The Ascetic

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      Hopkins was a deeply religious man. According to Humphry House Hopkins was not a mystic and that there is nothing in the poems of Hopkins to show that he felt the immediate presence of God. But Hopkins’s poetry does not bear this out. Hopkins was an ardent believer in God, and his faith in the divinity of Christ was firm. Temperamentally he was a saint and led an austere and morally elevated life. He saw God everywhere; he found God’s presence in every object of nature. For Hopkins life was a continuous substantial progress toward perfection. He believed this and this is what he wrote.

      Poetry often seemed to him a luxury for which he could not always afford time separately from what he thought of as religious duties. Poetry was never disconnected from his religious ideas. “I cannot in conscience spend time on poetry”; he wrote in a letter, “neither have I the inducements and inspirations that make others compose”. In a case like this the commitment to religion would naturally tend to swamp the artistic sensibility.

      As a poet Hopkins strove for an unattainable perfection of language. As a man he desired what was for him an unattainable perfection of sanctity. This struggle for the attainment of the two kinds of perfection accentuated the conflict between religion and poetry. According to St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, perfection in the service of God means total self-abnegation. Hopkins strove with fearful rigor to practice this ideal. This straining rigor cannot but damage and lacerate the personality. Much of Hopkins's exhaustion and depression was due to the unbending tyranny of his religious ideas. The Jesuit order is severe but not inhuman. Hopkins himself was a fanatic for duty from early days and consequently suffered deeply.

      In Hopkins’s poetry, we find a by no means unfortunate tension between the creative personality of the artist, and the character of the Jesuit priest. Hopkins was strongly influenced by the ascetic doctrines of St. Paul. But if there was a conflict in him between aesthetic and ascetic ideals, there was also a remarkable reconciliation and fusion, which gave depth and spiritual power to such poems as The Wreck of the Deutschland and The Windhover.

      The poem The Windhover consists of but two figures: a falcon in the expanse of morning and a plowshare in the furrow. The two are related, however, to a third and more essential theme. Without changing their identity they mediate this theme, become transparent for it, and make us feel its existence through theirs. The dedication “To Christ Our Lord” orients us further toward it.

      In 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 bred;” 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 Calvary. In the poem he celebrates Roman Catholic Christianity. Furthermore, in the sonnets written during 1877, the poet sees God’s Grandeur through the beauty and splendor of nature. He sees the presence of God manifested in the object of nature: “Glory be to God for dappled things.” In Hurrah-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, and almsgiving together with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. There were two powerful strains in the temperament of Hopkins and being opposed to each other they came into an inevitable conflict which persisted throughout his life. Both in agonizing prayer to his God and in wry apology to his friend he comes face to face with the fragmentary nature of his work, his unachieved aims and blighted prospects as priest, scholar and poet. No doubt these highly-finished sonnets written a year before his death, repressed his final judgment on the work of his life, strife-torn as it was. Hopkins’s poetry was the outcome of a by no means unfortunate tension between the creative personality of the artist, and the character of the Jesuit Priest. Hopkins was strongly influenced by the ascetic doctrines of St. Paul. But if there was a conflict in him between aesthetic and ascetic ideals, there was also a remarkable reconciliation and fusion, which gave depth and spiritual power to such poems as The Wreck of the Deutschland and The Windhover.


      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 rooted 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 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 pleasure of the senses in favor of an ascetic way of life, and yet the poem itself is richly sensuous. In other words, this poems show 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.

      The cause of this conflict between his poetic instinct and his religious commitment is clear; he thought that his priestly profession demanded all his time and all his energies and that poetic activity would obstruct the performance of his duties. He was not merely willing to sacrifice his poetic gift for the sake of his religion but any desire for fame which he might have felt. 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 horror 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’s rejection of poetic fame, as also of poetry itself proceeded not from the rigor of the Jesuit Order as such but from his own peculiar conception of the Jesuit Order.


      The readers who knew or were in touch with Bridges, like Edward Dowen, were made to understand that the dead Jesuit had been a poet of great originality and distinction. Under Bridge’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 by H.C. Beeching, who was related by marriage to Bridges. Some of Hopkins’s letters were published in 1900 in the Mem or is and Correspondence of Coventry Patmore and he was mentioned in the introductions to Bridge’s editions of poems by Richard Watson Dixon (1909) and Digby 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 Quiller-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’s poems appeared and aroused interest.

      It is useful to remember that Hopkins not only, as his writings and sketches prove, was struck constantly by the power of natural forms, but that he also spent a considerable part of his time in religious meditation. This coated a wellspring of vital representations directed toward the reality of his faith and which permeated all his thoughts and daily activities.

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