He was born in Victorian England, the oldest of nine children. His family was well-educated and religious. His father sold naval insurance but was also a diplomat and a poet. His siblings were talented in the arts and active in their Anglican faith. He was described as a shy and sensitive child, writing poetry himself by the age of 16. During his college years he became interested in the Catholic Church, something that appalled his family and friends. Despite their feelings, he became a Catholic in 1866, at the age of 22. Called to the priesthood, he began his studies to become a Jesuit in 1868. He sketched, wrote religious verse and sermons while teaching in various Jesuit schools.
Gerard Manley Hopkins is best known for his poetry, but his Catholic faith is the underpinning of every word he wrote. His 19th century poems sound remarkably modern. As a poet, he tried new rhythms and rhyming patterns. He invented new words as well as using archaic words that were long out of fashion. His poems are images are full of surprises, both in sound and in content. He’s one of those writers that beg to be read aloud. The sounds of the words and the feel of them on the tongue are part of the poem. As a priest, he praises God. As a Catholic, he praises the connectedness of the Creator with His creation. His poems reveal the grace that infuses every molecule of the universe. As he said, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” For Hopkins, faith is revealed through the things of the world. His is a sacramental world view. By this I mean that he saw the world through Catholic eyes. Creation reveals the Creator. That’s why the Sacraments aren’t merely symbolic, but are the intrinsic joining of a sign (the outward appearance of things like water or oil or bread) and the real grace of God. A symbol points to a reality outside itself. Some Christians understand baptism or holy communion in this way. Catholics do not. If you don’t “get” that, you won’t really understand his poems.
I’m not writing this as literary criticism, by any means. I was introduced to Hopkins’ work during my college years, but I’m just beginning to “get” him myself. I hope readers will use this brief introduction to read Gerard Manley Hopkins and to allow his words to open them to his world-view and how he saw The Lord revealed in the world. An example of this is from one of his sermons: “One day when the bluebells were in bloom I wrote the following…I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebells I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it.” In another sermon he wrote,”The heavens declare the glory of God. They glorify God but they don’t know it. The birds sing to Him, the thunder speaks of His terror, the lion is like His strength, the sea is like His greatness; they are something like Him, they make Him known, they tell of Him, they give Him glory, but they don’t know they do, they don’t know Him, they never can…”
But we can. We can know Him. And when we do, we give Him glory and honor through our work, our love for others, and our obedience to His commandments and to His Church. For Hopkins, a life infused with God’s grace reveals Jesus anew. He says: “Let Him Easter in us.” Christ rises each day in us. Each day is grace. Each day is Incarnation and Epiphany and Transfiguration. Each moment is
Easter. Hopkins has a way of closing the distance between heaven and earth, of making our redemption come alive in the flight of a bird, the bloom of a flower, the color of a trout. And yet he fought depression for most of his life. In 1884, after moving to Ireland to teach, his feelings of loneliness and isolation increased. His health deteriorated and his eyesight failed under a very heavy workload. He contracted typhoid fever and died in 1889 at the age of 45. Despite lifelong depression, his last words were: “I am so happy, I am so happy, I loved my life.” I invite you to discover his work and the faith revealed in his poems.
“To give God glory and to mean to give it: to praise God freely, gladly to serve Him, honour God, I was made for this, each one of us was made for this.”
—-Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him.