Of the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins it might be said that he’s difficult only if you try to understand him. A reader might reasonably choose not to. Certainly there are moments—as when you hit a phrase like “Or a jaunting vaunting vaulting assaulting trumpet telling”—whose passionate clamor makes any cool search for meaning look finicky and small-minded.
The main corpus of Hopkins’s poetry is slender—probably fewer than a hundred pages once juvenilia, translations, and fragments are removed. There is the sizable masterstroke of “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” which runs ten or so pages, some thirty sonnets, and a scattering of short lyrics, most of them meditations from that numinous zone where the natural world grades into theology. The poems are, in a double sense, concentrated work: contemplative and dense. They are concentrated, too, in the degree to which this small body of work ramified outward: Hopkins’s influence on the poetry of the twentieth century was both vast and varied. You feel his presence in the poems of W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Amy Clampitt, Seamus Heaney—the list goes on and on.
Hopkins devoted his entire adult life to the Catholic Church, converting from his family’s High Anglicanism in 1866, when he was twenty-two, and eventually becoming a Jesuit priest who, finding parish work overly stressful, spent many years teaching classics. It’s hardly unexpected that theories of art for art’s sake held no appeal for him, given that all art, all everything, derived from God. Nor, under these circumstances, is the notorious obscurity of some of his poems so surprising, since all mysteries are unriddled in God’s eye.
Yet the more you read Hopkins, the clearer it grows how fervently he longed for understanding readers. Although his entire literary lifetime unfolded during Victoria’s reign (his earliest schoolboy verses were composed in the 1860s; his final poem, a sonnet addressed to his friend and literary executor, Robert Bridges, was composed just before his death, of typhus, in 1889), critics frequently group him with his knotty modernist successors like Pound and Eliot. They do so partly because of his experimental prosody, with its protracted lines and syncopated stresses, and partly because of his delayed publishing history. The first collection of Hopkins’s poetry, under Bridges’s editorship, did not appear until 1918.
To view Hopkins as in spirit a twentieth-century poet often makes a good deal of sense (just as it makes sense to treat Blake’s actual birth-date—1757—as a historical accident and to fold him into the nineteenth century). Surely a phrase of Hopkins’s like “hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold/What while we, while we slumbered,” from “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,” bears a closer resemblance to e.e. cummings than to anything in the nineteenth century; the creatures in a line like “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame,” from one of his most famous sonnets, feel more like members of …