Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins; drawing by David Levine

“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 from the few friends, like Bridges, Dixon, and Coventry Patmore, who saw some poems in manuscript) read him alongside Yeats, Eliot, and Pound. If these poets seemed to constitute “Modernism” by their forms, structures, allusions, and themes, Hopkins’s bizarre language put him in the same company. Readers of Leavis’s New Bearings do not find it curious that chapters on Eliot and Pound should lead to a chapter on Hopkins, a poet who died while they were infants: he belongs to the New, just as they do. Even yet, it is hard to accept the idea that Hopkins is a Victorian and that his true fellowship is with Ruskin, Tennyson, Arnold, Newman, Meredith, Browning, Pater, and Swinburne. Or with Whitman, for reasons which Hopkins felt and acknowledged: “I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any other man’s living.” Hopkins’s modernity has been exaggerated because the common understanding of Victorian poetry has not made itself flexible enough to accommodate Whitman, Clough, Hopkins, or Emily Dickinson.

Much of the modern interpretation of Hopkins has concerned itself with the question of priest and poet: did his priesthood limit his experience, to the damage of the poems? It is hard to deal with this question crisply. Some poets, like Wallace Stevens, thrive on limitation, a little experience goes a long way with them, they could do nothing with freedom except lose themselves in it. Besides, experience is not circumstance but what we make of circumstance. If you read through Hopkins’s poems and the five volumes of prose, you find it hard to believe that his sensibility was starved: even the chore of grading examination papers may not have been a dead loss.

True, he was often dispirited, he complained a lot and gave an impression of sickliness even when he was not sick, but he was also extraordinarily resilient, humorous, witty, and strong where it mattered. His letters to Bridges, Dixon, Patmore, Alexander Baillie, and other friends are wonderfully quirky, full of curious notions and hypotheses. None of these men understood him, Bridges least of all, but they provoked him to understand himself. In every way that counted he was remarkably self-possessed and on intimate terms with his genius. Like other people whose sensitivity is the kind we remark, he was naïve in his admiration of sturdy folk who live at ease with their bodies: soldiers and ploughmen, mostly. But the crucial thing is that, whatever happened to him, he made the most of it; starting with himself, his presence to himself in the world.


This sense of self was, if anything, dangerously sharp. Here are some notes he made for his retreat on August 20, 1880 (they are published in Christopher Devlin’s edition of The Sermons and Devotional Writings):

When I consider my selfbeing, my consciousness and feeling of myself, that taste of myself, of I and me above and in all things, which is more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, more distinctive than the smell of walnutleaf or camphor, and is incommunicable by any means to another man (as when I was a child I used to ask myself: What must it be to be someone else?) Nothing else in nature comes near this unspeakable stress of pitch, distinctiveness, and selving, this selfbeing of my own. Nothing explains it or resembles it, except so far as this, that other men to themselves have the same feeling. But this only multiplies the phenomena to be explained so far as the cases are like and do resemble. But to me there is no resemblance: searching nature I taste self but at one tankard, that of my own being.

If you feel yourself with such intensity, and if you become a priest, you need some principle by which the feeling is either curbed or transformed. Hopkins’s early readers were on the lookout for evidence of tension between poet and priest. Empson in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) read Hopkins’s “The Windhover” as a case of the seventh type, which occurs “when the two meanings of the word, the two values of the ambiguity, are the two opposite meanings defined by the context, so that the total effect is to show a fundamental division in the writer’s mind.” According to this reading, when Hopkins sees the bird he conceives it as the opposite of his own spiritual renunciation: he insists that renunciation is better than its opposite, but he can’t really judge between them, and holds both with agony in his mind:

My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

The idea would be that in the poem Hopkins is trying to persuade himself that a life of devout renunciation is best, most beautiful, despite the opposite zest for mastery. The sestet of the sonnet—

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more danger- ous, O my chevalier!

—would then be, in Empson’s reading.

a clear case of the Freudian use of opposites, where two things thought of as incompatible, but desired intensely by different systems of judgments, are spoken of simultaneously by words applying to both: both desires are thus given a transient and exhausting satisfaction, and the two systems of judgment are forced into open conflict before the reader.

A lot depends on the meaning and grammar of “Buckle,” a famous point of dispute unlikely to be settled. I would think that the conflict might be resolved by coming to feel that renunciation, far from being abject, has the dangerous beauty and power ascribed to the bird. But a more fundamental recourse in Hopkins was to set up, in the poems as well as the priestly meditations, a continuous circuit of feeling, linking self, the world, and God. All the better if the circuit could be represented as speech, utterance, communication. Hopkins gave the principle of it in a note on August 7, 1882:

God’s utterance of himself in himself is God the Word, outside himself is this world. This world then is word, expression, news of God. Therefore its end, its purpose, its purport, its meaning, is God and its life or work to name and praise him.

The whispering which enables Hopkins to get from end to purpose to purport, and from word to expression to news, and from word to name to praise is the type of his poetry in general. If all goes well, a poet working in those terms could construe his entire experience in sounding terms, translating energy into communication. Kenneth Burke has pointed out that Hopkins as poet could devote himself to the world, filling his notebooks with minute observations of natural objects, because if he saw in them, or thought he saw in them, an essence derivable from God, “the more accurate his study in the empirical sense, the more devotional he could be in his conviction that these objects were signatures of the divine presence.”


Hopkins could even devote himself to “that taste of myself,” with impunity, since self could be regarded as a constituent of the circuit of devotion. When all goes well in praise and exaltation, the circuit holds; but when it breaks down, there is desolation. When this happens, it is like a believer’s loss of faith, the self is alienated from itself because cut adrift from the circuit in which it has been transformed. Instead of the smell of walnutleaf or camphor, it becomes, in Hopkins’s phrase, “Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.” Or it feels itself a eunuch:

   birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.

The symptom of this state, in the poems, is fixation upon one word, battering it: in the last sonnets, the “terrible” sonnets, the words “patience,” “comfortless,” “tormented”:

   not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind torment- ing yet.

Lacking “the fine delight that fathers thought,” Hopkins mostly lacked, in the last years, the metaphorical range of potency, productiveness, fatherhood. I recall Yeats’s phrase, “honey of generation,” to emphasize that the radical desire in Hopkins is generative, child-producing. Or work-producing, because in Hopkins you only need a flick of terminology to make one word become another; as self becomes soul in one context and imagination in another. Hopkins’s need, as priest and poet, was to translate “different systems of judgments” into compatible terminologies.

This explains why Duns Scotus meant more than Aquinas to Hopkins. In the poem “Duns Scotus’s Oxford” he writes:

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace.

Hopkins valued Scotus for two main reasons. The first was that Scotus made a universal out of the recognition of particularity. Scotus’s concept of “thisness,” haecceitas, became even more engaging when expressed as Hopkins’s “beholdness,” ecceitas. He was touched by Scotus’s account of intuition, cognitio confusa, the first act of knowledge; it was the secular version of faith. Later stages of knowledge could be pursued on the analogy of writing a poem, nudging one word into another, producing one’s self under the guise of one’s poem. Wasn’t it Lionel Johnson who said that all God demands of us is attention? The English form of attention, from Scotus to Ruskin, encouraged Hopkins to do what he wanted to do in any case, look long and hard at objects. What you look hard at seems to look hard at you, Hopkins rightly noted, and the experience seemed to verify the zeal for communications. Scotus encouraged Hopkins to believe that in the act of attention, eye, mind, and soul were equally and spiritually engaged, it was a form of prayer.

The second reason for Scotus’s presence to Hopkins was his voluntarism, he was one of the few philosophers in Christendom to speak for the Will in its relation to Knowledge. Hannah Arendt has represented his work in this way in the second volume of The Life of the Mind. She also points to Scotus’s emphasis upon contingency, quoting his remark that “those who deny that some being is contingent should be exposed to torment until they concede that it is possible for them not to be tormented.” In Hopkins, the relation between will and knowledge is extremely complex: to know something was not to be lucidly detached from it or superior to it but to be provoked by its contingency into experiencing a mutual “stress of selving.” Here is a case in point, the first lines of “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” in which evening is represented as moving to become night:

Earnest, earthless, equal, attune- able, vaulty, voluminous,…stu- pendous
Evening strains to be time’s vast, womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse- of-all night.

To most eyes, the movement of evening into night is calm, so gradual that you hardly notice that night is upon you. To Hopkins, evening strains because everything strains, feels the stress of its selving, wills itself to become its ultimate possibility. Hopkins coined the words “inscape” and “instress” partly to justify his way of seeing things: he explains the words differently in different contexts, but I take inscape to be the individual quality of form or shape in an object, and instress the recognition of energy in the object. To inscape something is to register it as form, to instress it is to feel it as energy or force. In “The Wreck of the Deutschland” Hopkins writes of Christ:

Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder, His mystery must be instressed, stressed.

The theme of Hopkins as poet and priest figures largely and justly in Paddy Kitchen’s book. She is apparently not a religious believer, but she doesn’t repeat the old assertion, common in the first generation of Hopkins’s Cambridge critics, that his becoming a priest killed him as a poet. If he hadn’t joined the Jesuit Order he would have written more poems, but not necessarily better poems. Empson says in Milton’s God that the basic complaint of Hopkins’s last sonnets is “that the severe Jesuit training doesn’t seem to have made him any better.” But if Hopkins had claimed that he felt improved by the regimen, it would have shown that he wasn’t. The point of the training is not to make you feel better but to turn your will toward God. It’s not like jogging.

Another theme which Ms. Kitchen touches with due delicacy is Hopkins’s sexuality, for which the evidence is slight and hard to assess. I gather that some unpublished manuscripts at Campion Hall, Oxford, point in a homosexual direction, but no one has suggested that they go beyond desire and latency. The question has been raised before now. In April 1934 Auden, reviewing E.E. Phare’s Gerard Manley Hopkins for The Criterion, said that reading Hopkins’s poem “The Bugler’s First Communion” “suggests a conflict in Hopkins between homosexual feelings and a moral sense of guilt,” and he speculated that the poem fails “because the guilt is unacknowledged.” Another poem, “On the Portrait of Two Beautiful People,” is deemed to succeed because, Auden says, the guilt “is transformed into the unspecified moral danger which Hopkins fears for the subjects of the poem.”

Ms. Kitchen hasn’t added much to our knowledge here, but she has provided a very interesting account of Hopkins’s friendship with Digby Dolben, a distant cousin of Bridges’s whom Hopkins met in Oxford, and she agrees with Humphry House that the poem “The Beginning of the End” makes better sense in relation to Dolben than to some unknown woman, the object of a brief obsession on Hopkins’s part. Dolben was drowned at the age of nineteen: a dreamy, charming youth, poetic and devout, he seems to have fascinated Hopkins for a time, though it is impossible to measure the fascination. Of Hopkins’s sexuality, Ms. Kitchen says that “since he was to become a celibate, and since his life as an undergraduate was apparently very chaste, it may fairly be claimed that his sexual orientation was never conclusively evolved.” It’s a modest claim, but the question is difficult. Hopkins was highly susceptible to beauty in any form, and he convinced himself that God was just as truly present in beauty as in truth, so it was not too difficult to be fascinated by a handsome youth and call the state of feeling by a spiritual name.

The last theme I want to mention is hardly touched at all in Paddy Kitchen’s biography: Hopkins’s language. Her book does not run to literary criticism, but the question of language has implications for a biographer. There is clearly a relation between Hopkins’s language and the “stress of pitch, distinctiveness, and selving” which preoccupied him in the examination of conscience and soul. But, to be specific, I think there is also a relation between Hopkins’s conversion to Catholicism and his determination to become a particular kind of poet. Isn’t it curious that his special way of being English was to go back beyond the Reformation for his thought, and back beyond the Norman Conquest for his language?

Austin Warren emphasized, in his Rage for Order, Hopkins’s preference for the Anglo-Saxon element rather than the Latin and Romance elements in English. In 1873 Hopkins took notes from G.P. Marsh’s Lectures on the English Language (1859), which advocates the recovery of forgotten native words. Victorian philology includes a fairly strong opposition to the Latin factor in English. Warren mentions E.A. Freeman, F.J. Furnivall, R.C. Trench, and the poet William Barnes, who urged writers to replace Latin words by compound synonyms from Anglo-Saxon. On November 26, 1882, Hopkins referred to Barnes’s An Outline of English Speech-Craft in a letter to Bridges:

It makes one weep to think what English might have been; for in spite of all that Shakespeare and Milton have done with the compound I cannot doubt that no beauty in a language can make up for want of purity. In fact I am learning Anglosaxon and it is a vastly superior thing to what we have now. But the madness of an almost unknown man trying to do what the three estates of the realm together could never accomplish! He calls degrees of comparison pitches of suchness: we ought to call them so, but alas!

Hopkins’s earliest notebooks are full of etymologies, dialect-words, lost sounds. Until he died he kept up correspondence with Baillie and others on linguistic problems. He pestered W.W. Skeat until Skeat told him his life wasn’t long enough to answer such questions. The basic question was English: how to keep up the language, restore its lost values, restore its Anglo-Saxon power. Critics have emphasized Hopkins’s praise of Dryden for maintaining “the naked thew and sinew of the language,” but they have not gone far enough to consider a kind of poetry which deliberately turns degrees of comparison into pitches of suchness. Such words as sake, pied, dapple, fell, and wuthering gave Hopkins an alternative language which, in some poems, amounted to an adversary language, an escape from the standard feelings enclosed in Standard English. So whenever he felt the need to “call off thoughts awhile elsewhere,” he had a language in which it might be done:

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts while
Elsewhere; leave comfort root- room; let joy size

At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

The English language that Hopkins needed had to be a sinewy vernacular, gathering up its history with particular care for experiences otherwise lost; having root-room instead of mere space; stirring forgotten meaning in the verb “to size”; and allowing a poet to use “betweenpie” as a verb. Bright sky seen between two mountains makes each dappled or pied; another sign of God’s grandeur.

This Issue

September 27, 1979