Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Biography
by Paddy Kitchen
Atheneum, 243 pp., $11.95
“This is not,” Paddy Kitchen says, “an official or definitive biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins.” It is a book for the general reader, an affectionate, spontaneous account of an extraordinary man, Hopkins is Ms. Kitchen’s favorite poet, and the book is written in that spirit.
G.M.H. was born on July 28, 1844, to comfortably middle-class parents, professional people with a High Anglican tone. He went to a decent boarding school, did well, won a prize for poetry, and took the predictable road to Oxford, arriving in 1863. On October 21, 1866, he became a Roman Catholic. On May 11, 1868, he decided to become a Jesuit priest, and on the same day he burned his poems, as if to subdue one flame by another. For the next seven years he wrote no poems. On December 7, 1875, a ship, the Deutschland, was wrecked in the Thames, and five Franciscan nuns, exiled from Germany, were drowned. “I was affected by the account,”. Hopkins told his friend Canon Dixon, “and happening to say so to my Rector he said that he wished someone would write a poem on the subject.” Hopkins set to work, and wrote “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” the first of the major poems on which his reputation is based. He was ordained on September 23, 1877, and thereafter spent most of his time teaching. In 1884 he went to Dublin as professor of classics at University College. He died on June 8, 1889.
No collection of Hopkins’s poems was published in his lifetime. A few early poems were published in anthologies, but nothing of any account appeared until 1916 when his friend Robert Bridges included some pages of Hopkins in an anthology, The Spirit of Man. In 1918 Bridges issued the first selection of Hopkins’s poems in an edition of 750 copies which took ten years to sell. Gradually, the poems began to attract the few readers who could cope with them. I.A. Richards wrote about them in The Dial in 1926. In December 1927 Yvor Winters read some of them to Hart Crane, who was astonished by their brilliance. Middleton Murry was an early reader. So was William Empson, guided to the poems by Richards.
In 1930 the second edition of the poems appeared, edited by Charles Williams, who added several poems to Bridges’s selection. F.R. Leavis devoted a chapter to Hopkins in New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) and provided the context in which he is still discussed. In 1934 W.H. Auden referred to Hopkins as a major poet, a description which has remained, on the whole, intact. There have been a few dissenters. T.S. Eliot was never fully convinced of the scale of Hopkins’s achievement. Winters gave up his first enthusiasm and wrote a detailed attack upon Hopkins’s procedures. But his reputation is too strongly based to be undermined.
Still, Hopkins’s presence in modern literature has odd features. His first readers (apart …