I did say yes
O at lightning and lashed rod;
Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
Thy terror, O Christ, O God;
Thou knowst the walls, altar and hour and night:
The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
Hard down with a horror of height:
And the midriff astrain with leaning of,
laced with fire of stress…
With a mercy that outrides
The all of water, an ark
For the listener; for the lingerer with a love glides
Lower than death and the dark;
A vein for the visiting of the past-prayer, pent in prison,
The-last-breath penitent spirits – the uttermost mark
Our passion-plunged giant risen,
The Christ of the Father compassionate,
Fetched in the storm of his strides…
(Excerpt from Hopkins, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’)
Few poets have captured the tension between the terror and the beauty of God in the way that Gerard Manley Hopkins did, and yet he himself seems to have been deeply uncomfortable with his talent, which is a shame as he writes like no other poet I’ve encountered.
Born in Stratford, England, in 1844, Hopkins converted to Catholicism while a student at Oxford University, subsequently becoming a teacher and a Jesuit priest. For some seven years after joining the Order he appears to have endeavoured to stifle his gift (though this was not a requirement of the Order), even going so far as to destroy many of his early manuscripts.
However, in 1875 the SS Deutschland foundered at the mouth of the Thames while en route from Germany to New York. Among the many dead were five Franciscan nuns who had been exiled from Germany. A Father Jones mentioned in passing that a poetic tribute would be fitting, prompting Hopkins to take up his pen and compose The Wreck of the Deutschland. Filled with terror, wonder, fear and hope, the Catholic publisher to which he submitted it didn’t know what to make of it and declined to publish it. Indeed, almost all of Hopkins’ work was published posthumously following his death in 1889, becoming popular only after it was printed in a collected volume by his friend Robert Bridges in 1918.
Hopkins wrote in a mixture of ‘Running Verse’ and ‘Sprung Verse’. Technicalities aside, what this means is that whereas most poetic forms use a fairly narrow set of repeated stress patterns, Hopkins endeavoured to capture the natural musicality and varied stresses of speech. For this reason his poems can be torturous when read silently but come to vivid life when read aloud as Hopkins intended them to be. He also makes frequent use of alliteration, which adds to the rhythmic effect but can make some of his poems sound almost like tongue-twisters if read at the swift, breathless pace that their energy draws you into.
A man of devout faith with a deep love for the beauty of the natural world, Hopkins deftly captured the immanence of God (His presence within and throughout the universe, as contrasted with His transcendence above and outside the created order). It is this combination of delight in God and delight in the natural world, expressed with a unique and idiosyncratic use of the English language, which makes Hopkins a personal favourite of mine.
Some of his most popular poems include The Windhover (‘I caught this morning morning’s minion kingdom…’), Pied Beauty (‘Glory be to God for dappled things…’), God’s Grandeur (‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God…’), and “As kingfishers catch fire…” (below).
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;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
(Hopkins, ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire…’)
Have you encountered Hopkins before? What do you think of his work?