Loathing and Hopelessness, Juice and Joy: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Secret Sorrow

“Outwardly I think I am employed to what is of no or little use,” Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his journal just months before his death.

“I was continuing this train of thought this evening when I began to enter on that course of loathing and hopelessness which I have so often felt before…”

I ponder these lines of hidden heartbreak in juxtaposition with the joy the writer has infused in countless hearts since his death in 1889.

Hopkins’ language lingers: it rises to the lips when on cumulous afternoons contemplative eyes look on “skies of couple color as a brinded cow” or “rose moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.”

Hopkins helps our screen-dimmed eyes awaken to the fact that “kingfishers catch fire” and “dragonflies draw flame.”

The celebrator of “dappled things” had no consolation, as an unrecognized poet polishing lines of “sprung rhythm” (a term he coined) that his work would one day know wide appreciation and would influence leading poets of the next century: W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney among them.

In chronic poor health thought to stem from Crohn’s disease, the self-loathing, “hopeless” poet seems to have become an answer for others to the prayer he asks for himself. In the cry of his heart God sends our roots rain.

Hopkins opens our eyes to the extraordinary all around us; he dazzles us with splendors in spare syllables. His exuberant lines remove the veil from world-weary eyes and teach us how to offer right praise:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –    
   When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;          
   Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush          
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring          
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing…     

And then, the exultant question:

What is all this juice and all this joy?

For those familiar with Hopkins’ poetry, the mere mention of his name evokes delight, wonder, gratitude. Gift.

“Invisible in his own lifetime,” writes California Poet laureate Dana Goia in his forward to The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selections from his Poems, Letters, Journals and Spiritual Writings, “he now stands as a major poetic innovator who, like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, prefigured the Modernist revolution.”

Hopkins was raised in a devout Anglican family in Victorian England. He had a pious bent and was intellectually gifted. He seemed, writes Margaret R. Ellsberg in the book’s biographical essay, “destined for sucess as a wealthy Anglican.”

The life of this now-beloved poet is one of the strangest in English liturature.

As a young man Hopkins entered Oxford’s Balliol college to read classics. He wrote poetry but theology was his passion. Hopkins loved the beauty of Anglo-Catholic ritual and was drawn into the Tractarian Movement’s search for an authentic and undivided Christianity.

Many Oxford Tractarians had already made the socially crucifying decision to enter the Roman Catholic Church in the time when formal suppression of the religion had only recently ceased. The movement’s most famous convert had been John Henry Newman, who by the time Hopkins arrived at Oxford had been made a cardinal in the Roman Church. Newman would receive Hopkins into the Church just before the poet, at age 22, finished his Balliol exams.

Hopkins scored the highest of any student in the most rigorous university college, but his conversion, writes Ellsburg, “notoriously and quite entirely derailed any hope of secular success.”

Newman gave Hopkins a teaching post at the Birmingham Oratory, but within a year he had decided to take religious vows with the Jesuit order. Hopkins gave up writing and immersed himself in studies for the priesthood.

Ignatian spirituality, developed by the Jesuits’ founder St. Ignatius of Loyola, stresses using the imagination when contemplating the gospels and leads one to seek God in all things including the beauty of the created world. The prayer Hopkins made as a Jesuit would eventually explode in poetic expression.

Margaret Ellsburg’s masterfully edited anthology layers excerpts from Hopkins’ letters, sermons and journals in chronological sections matching her selections of his poetry.

The result is a privileged view of a soul intensely devoted to God, struggling to come to terms with myriad sufferings, longing for publication yet concerned about the pride it might bring should his work be recognized.

Hopkins decided to resume writing seven years into his Jesuit formation.

At St. Bueno’s College in Wales, the happiest period in his life as a Jesuit, Hopkins found God in every detail about him and produced what Ellsburg calls “a miraculous bundle of nature sonnets.” In Hopkins’ mature verse, she writes, “nature and theology blend like combustible chemicals producing a sparkling solution under the influence of high heat.”

“God’s Grandeur,” for instance, declares in its opening:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God. 
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil

Though earth now “wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell,” the poet’s resilient spirit asserts that “nature is not spent. There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins includes selections from Hopkins’ letters to the poet Robert Bridges, his friend since their Oxford days and one of the few who remained in touch after Hopkins’ conversion to Catholicism. The two discuss his poetry and the letters give us a glimpse of how little Hopkins was understood by even by peers who admired him.

Hopkins corresponds as well with poet and critic Coventry Patmore, himself a fellow convert, who advises, “System and learned theory are manifest in all these experiments, but…I often find it hard to follow you.”

Meanwhile, his priesthood was also marked by a sense of failure.

Hopkins’ health was weak; he was susceptible to infection, he was contantly fatigued and at times suffered mental exhaustion and “madness.” His preaching elicited laughter in the slums he was sent to serve. As a schoolmaster he was a poor disciplinarian whose students made life miserable.

His final years as Professor of Greek at University College in Dublin were no better. The university was in financial straits; its buildings were run down and the contents of its library had been sent to a seminary.

Hopkins spent hours correcting examinations, a task he loathed but tried to perform with attention. His health continued to deteriorate and he struggled with depression.

Once more he poured himself into poetry, producing from his pain dark sonnets that speak of his isolation and feelings of failure both as a poet and as a priest.

Hopkins wrestled with his Lord.

The novice who once asked, “what is all this juice and all this joy” now inquires in “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief”:

Comforter, where is your comforting?

and in “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend”:

and why must Disappointment all I endeavor end?

Writing to R.W. Dixon, the poet admits, “To live by faith…is very hard; nevertheless, of God’s help, I shall always do so,” adding hopefully “…it may be that the time will come for my verses.”

Hopkins served the University of Dublin for five years. In 1889, ill with typhoid fever and peritonitis, he was given last rites. His superiors asked his parents to come from England and though they had disinherited him when he was ordained, they stayed in touch and were at his bedside when he died.

Robert Bridges, Hopkins’ lifelong friend who published Hopkins’ poetry in 1918 when he was Britain’s poet laureate.

Hopkins was 44 years old. His last words were, “I am so happy. I am so happy.”

An Anglican priest commented in a letter to Hopkins’ brother that joining the Jesuits had been a grievous mistake, but acknowledged that in this case holiness had been the “undoubted result”: “Any wood will do for the cross, when God’s perfection is thereby reached.”

Robert Bridges asked for and was given Hopkins’ papers. In 1918, when as Britain’s poet laureate, Bridges felt he had enough authority to take the risk, he brought a volume of Hopkins’ idiosyncratic poetry to the public. He was somewhat apologetic about his friend’s odd style.

Then Hopkins’ influence began to rise.

“A new century was ready for Hopkins’ oddity,” Dana Goia notes. “His posthumous legacy soon changed the course of modern poetry.”

Not only did Hopkins’ work influence the next generation’s poets, it became, despite its difficulties, beloved among modern readers.

In 1992, just over 100 years after Hopkins’ death, William Harmon published The Top 500 Poems, a survey of anthologies and textbooks revealing the most enduring poetry in English. Hopkins (though he produced only 49 mature poems, unpublished in his lifetime) ranked seventh among all poets. Only Shakespeare, Donne, Blake, Dickinison, Yeats and Wordsworth were ranked above him.

Today Hopkins holds the unique distinction in English literature of having created the smallest body of work with the greatest impact.

Hopkins has always been difficult to categorize, writes Goia:

As he pressed forward into the future, he also reached back in time–to find the roots of Christianity and English poetry….Any assessment of Hopkins that fails to engage in the authenticity of that interior odyssey will miss why his poetry matters so deeply to his readers.

Rest in peace, poet-priest.

May the Lord wipe every tear from your pierced and penetrating eyes.

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Several years ago, a conversation between Ken Myers and Dana Gioia on Issue 135 of The Mars Hill Audio Journal prompted me to renew my acquaintance with Hopkins, whom I’ve loved since college. Gioia’s introduction to this small collection not only summarizes Hopkins’ life, but increases the reader’s understanding of his unique poetic technique.

See The Mars Hill Audio Journal: Where All Things Considered Meets God for more on why I love everything about this wonderland of cultural contemplation. Download the app for free and get a taste of its rich offerings on the Friday Feature. My lastest must-read discovered while listening: The Joyful Mystery: Field Notes Toward a Green Thomism by Christopher J. Thompson. With a title like that (and a kingfisher on the cover) I wasn’t surprised that Dr. Thomposon quotes Hopkins more than once in his two-part conversation with Ken Myers. For now it’s still available on the app.

Photos by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash, Pitsch on Pixabay and Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash. Hopkins and Bridges photos courtesy of Wikipedia.