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 one of Marianne Moore’s bestiaries than of Wordsworth’s. In this passage from one of his most despairing sonnets (“No worst, there is none”), he seems to anticipate the fractured syntax and jolted inversions of Berryman’s Dream Songs:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.
And yet Hopkins showed little tolerance for what would be, in the next century, the modernists’ common acceptance of obscurity—especially the idea that certain emotional states are necessarily, rightly ineffable. (It’s hard to picture Eliot or Pound or Moore doing what Hopkins regularly did when Bridges complained that a passage was opaque—he would obligingly supply an abundant prose paraphrase—or to picture them meticulously annotating, as Hopkins did, with accents, double accents, and half a dozen other diacritical marks to demonstrate how he wished a poem to be read aloud.) Even when Hopkins’s words hurtle like a river in spate, he can be counted on to have in mind something quite specific he longs to impart.
This sense of arcane but discoverable meanings lends an air of sharp decisiveness to minute matters of Hopkins criticism. The notes to the most recent Oxford University Press edition of the complete poems (1990) offer learned ornithological debate over what is going on, aerodynamically, with the kestrel glimpsed in the first stanza of “The Windhover”:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dáwn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rólling level úndernéath him steady áir, and stríding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy!
What exactly does it mean for a bird to have “rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing”? Such discussions have point and meaning only if Hopkins’s words are more than words—if, behind all his verbal arabesques, you behold a real bird doing real things.
Predictably, Hopkins’s penchant for irreducible, literal subject matter had religious underpinnings. He wasn’t merely uninterested in but censorious of any poetry divorced from the world, as his scattered grumblings about Swinburne reveal. He once wrote of him to Bridges, “It is all now a ‘self-drawing web’; a perpetual functioning of genius without truth, feeling, or any adequate matter to be at function on.” Swinburne was insufficiently earnest—a word that, despite its stuffy overtones for modern readers, denoted for Hopkins that combination of gravity, sincerity, and penetration from which most art springs. If our primary human duty is, as he once wrote, to “give God glory and to mean to give it,” any strain of poetry that strays too far from the world of His creation risks flightiness if not ingratitude.
Hopkins saw the very notion of “religious poetry” as something of a pleonasm—a favorite term of his when dismissing somebody’s laxity of thought. While art for art’s sake was predictably far from his interest, the degree to which Hopkins chose to make a spiritual virtue of sharp-sightedness was not necessarily expected. But in a private world like his, where a tiny and easily overlooked bluebell could ring out a message of divine reassurance—he knew “the beauty of our Lord by it”—alert observation became not merely a gratification but a joyfully embraced responsibility.
In one of his sermons Hopkins spoke of the world as “word, expression, news from God.” Surely, given their source, no such bulletins should ever be overlooked and we are all bound to constant vigilance. (Or as he tersely put it, chronicling the day’s weather in one of his journals: “There were both solar and lunar halos, faint: it deserves notice.”) He was pleased to discover “nothing at random” in even the most out-of-the-way places, as another journal entry makes clear:
Looking down into the thick ice of our pond I found the imprisoned air-bubbles nothing at random but starting from centres and in particular one most beautifully regular white brush of them, each spur of it a curving string of beaded and diminishing bubbles.
This notion of an imposed watchfulness may help to explain Hopkins’s passion for ephemera, which he noted in an assortment of diaries and notebooks eventually published as The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was a great one for studying, with a scientist’s calibrating eye, phenomena like melting crystals, rainbows, lightning, rising steam clouds, the iridescence of a pigeon’s neck. The vocabulary of his observations often bore a scientific tinge: “the law of the oak leaves,” “horizontally prolate gadroons,” “very plump round clouds something like the eggs in an opened ant-hill.” Indeed, in much of The Journals and Papers he sounds far closer in spirit to his troubling Victorian contemporary Charles Darwin than to anything we’d expect from a poet-priest. Of all passing natural phenomena, drifting clouds drew him most profoundly, their never-to-be-duplicated patterns serving as one-time-only jottings on the chalkboard of the sky.
Hopkins modestly spoke of his “weather journal,” though its range of entries extended far beyond the sky’s doings. No series of excerpts could do justice to the weather journals’ quiet observations, whose effect depends on an impression of dailiness, of steady aggregation. It certainly sounds surpassingly tedious—a diary of weather conditions compiled by a mostly unpublished priest with literary leanings.
The Journals and Papers offers little in the way of religious comment—little abstract musing of any sort. (It should be noted that Hopkins kept other, presumably more intimate, journals, which were deliberately destroyed, either by Hopkins or by those seeking to protect his memory; the portrait we’re left with is fragmentary.) On most of the pages in his journal there is simply an eye, roving over a largely tame English rural landscape. Admittedly, it’s sometimes difficult to tell precisely what phenomenon Hopkins is describing. Just as ornithologists may argue over the windhover’s flight, meteorologists could have a field day sorting out some of his more eccentric annotations:
Standing on the glacier saw the prismatic colours in the clouds, and worth saying what sort of clouds: it was fine shapeless skins of fretted make, full of eyebrows or like linings of curled leaves which one finds in shelved corners of a wood.
But if readers can’t always picture the cloudscapes Hopkins so painstakingly sets before them, the journal delivers something rarer and more inspiring: all the minute observations eventually add up to a vision of the world, and a portrait of the retiring man himself, in all his susceptibilities and vulnerabilities, his rapturous excitements and imposing self-discipline. (It’s no wonder that another keen-eyed inspector of minutiae, Elizabeth Bishop, was obsessed with The Journals and Papers.) His first glimpse of the Northern Lights is particularly memorable:
This busy working of nature wholly independent of the earth and seeming to go on in a strain of time not reckoned by our reckoning of days and years but simpler and as if correcting the preoccupation of the world by being preoccupied with and appealing to and dated to the day of judgment was like a new witness to God and filled me with delightful fear.
Little in Hopkins’s background, beyond his family’s general interest in culture, would suggest the makings of a revolutionary writer. Born in 1844, at Stratford in Essex, he was the eldest of nine children. Hopkins’s father, a specialist in marine insurance, occasionally composed highly conventional verses. Two brothers became commercial artists.
Hopkins’s first significant act of rebellion was not artistic but religious: he was still a student at Oxford when he converted to Catholicism—a life-transforming decision from which he never wavered. Hopkins’s college days were suffused by religion. He had arrived in Oxford in the wake of those various attempts both to renew the Church of England and to clarify its lingering connections to the Catholic faith, which collectively came to be called the Oxford Movement, and of John Henry Newman’s celebrated—or scandalous—“going over” to the Catholic Church, in 1845. Various letters reflect just how animatedly Hopkins and his friends—a number of whom converted or flirted with conversion—debated theological issues. It was Newman, England’s most famous convert, who guided Hopkins into the Church and toward his decision, formalized a few years later, to become a Jesuit priest.