Appeared in Vol. 5 No. 4 Download PDF here

Gerard Manley Hopkins [1844-89] has been one of the most influential poets of the modern era. An experimenter in rhythm and imagery, and a painstaking craftsman whose efforts went largely unappreciated until a generation after his death, he was also a man of deep faith and remarkable religious vision. The combination of sensitivity to the beauties of nature with Hopkins’ desire to return all beauty to God, beauty’s author, led the poet to an integration of the natural and supernatural in his work which has been a major contribution to Catholic literature. This same sensitivity and desire, however, led Hopkins to renounce indulgence in beauty, and even in poetry, for fear it would lead him away from his ultimate end. It is this renunciation, which bears a paradoxical relation to the quality of Hopkins’ poetry, which Peter Hunt explores in the article below.

Chesterton maintained that those who hold to a vague religion of humanity would not appreciate Thompson’s great poem, “The Hound of Heaven”, because they lack a sense of the kind of religion Christianity is; they do not appreciate the personal Christ who pursues the soul.(1) So too, in a way which is related to fundamental ideas on the nature of reality, Hopkins’ poetry is often not properly understood or appreciated. Those who do not share his vision of nature as reflecting, in its variegated beauty and recurrent vitality, not merely a world beyond and above it, and somehow in it, but also a personal God, have difficulties with his poems. Even more do they have trouble with his Christocentric view of life, and the sacramental devotion which goes with it.

It is true, of course, that, given adequate sensibility, capacity for wonder and sympathetic imagination, even subjectivists in art can appreciate a poet’s vision through the sound, imagery, the rhythmic patterns and the precise correspondence between words and apprehensions of the things and feelings signified, even if that vision is one which, like that of Hopkins and of Cardinal Newman, (and, in a more limited, but similar way, like that of Greek paganism, with its spirits inhabiting every tree and grove) sees that “nature is a parable”(2) and tries to pierce through to the supernatural. But those who make separations between Hopkins’ sensuous precision and passionate love of natural beauty on the one hand and his invariable sense of mystery and awe and of the need for praise, on the other, also fail to share Francis Thompson’s awareness of the unexpected, his apprehension of the “many-splendoured thing” as expressed in “The Kingdom of God”. And it is that poem, more than any other, which capsulizes the tradition of a religious sense of awe, of nature as revelatory, from earliest times down to the period when, as the Romantics (whatever their pantheism), the Pre-Raphaelites, and Hopkins himself so strongly felt, a narrowed science and a commercial utilitarianism were dessicating the poetic instinct and pushing artistic vision to the fringes of life. The poem is a significant statement about the whose revival of Christian vision in the late Victorian age, casting illuminations upon the ecstacies and fervours, not merely of the Oxford Movement, and all that it drew upon and influenced, but on the world of art and literature in which Hopkins developed.*

For Thompson, as for Hopkins, the fleeting loveliness of nature revealed the “world intangible” and sharpened man’s hunger for the Eternal. The lines, “The angels keep their ancient places;-/ Turn but a stone, and start a wing I” may not be as good poetry as that of Hopkins but do signify the long tradition with which Thompson (and Newman and Hopkins) associated the orthodox Christian view of creation. This tradition is also recognized in the synthesis, the glowing, nostalgic description (as though trying to recapture a pristine blend of nature, art and religion) of the Mass given in Pater’s symptomatic book, Marius the Epicurean. It is as though Newman, Hopkins and Thompson (and, in his own spontaneous way, Chesterton) were intent on restoring a sense of integration that had been lost, a recovery of “the romance of orthodoxy”. Hopkins’ well-known comments on the bluebell, “I know the beauty of Our Lord by it”, is of the essence of that spirit. Hopkins does not say that he knows the beauty of God in it, but the beauty of Our Lord by it, that is, he knows or has a glimpse of Christ by analogy of being.

o world invisible. we view thee,
o world unknowable, we know thee. o world intangible, we touch thee, inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Does the fish war to find the ocean. The eagle plume to find the air- that we ask of the stars in motion if they have rumour of thee there?

Not where the wheeling systems darken, and our benumbed cvnceiving soars! the drift of pinions, would we hearken, Beats at our own clay-shuttered.doors.

the angels keep their ancient places; ‘tis ye,’ tis your estranged faces,
that miss the many- splendoured thing. turn but a stone, and start a wing!

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder) Cry,-and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder Pitched betwixt heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my soul, my daughter, -Cry,–clinging heaven by the hems; and lo, Christ walking on the water Not of gennesareth, but Thames!

For subjectivists, the conflict in Hopkins’ poetry is seen as one between “aesthetic” goals on the one hand, and the duties of a priest whose faith renders him unfree to fulfill himself on the other. Hopkins’ answer to all this is in his poetry, especially in that classic expression of Romantic anguish assuaged and healed by the “golden” response of giving beauty “back to God”, “Beauty’s self, and beauty’s giver”, and in the poem whose title sums up the crowning truth for Hopkins, that “Nature is a Heraclitian Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.” Hopkins was, as the Jesuit writer McNamee shows, a poet of nature and of the supernatural, and there was no conflict between the two elements in his poetry.(3) There was, however, a conflict between the natural man and his struggle towards the supernatural, an ascetic and “aesthetic” conflict which was not between poetry and religion, but between the ascetical Jesuit and the naturally “aesthetic” man, a man who responded to nature and to the life of the senses (illuminated by intellect) to a degree comparable only with that of Keats, with whom he had much in common.


The whole Romantic movement to which Hopkins was heir as a poet growing to maturity in the period of the Pre-Raphaelites was imbued with the desire to find the immortal and mysterious either through transcendence or through pantheism. Keats sought the immortal, the lasting forms of beauty amid a world of anguished transience through a transcendent poetic vision, though he always tended to fall back upon the “life of sensations” rather than Platonic forms. Wordsworth, though pantheistic, glimpsed a reality in but beyond the visible world of nature, a “spirit that rolls through all things” and is “in the mind of man”. Shelley sought the spiritual in the wild and elemental and in Greek myth, as though he wanted to be a pure spirit, somehow at one with an immortal, singing cosmos known only to the poetic vision. But whatever their differences, all the Romantics had in common a sense of awe and wonder, of the magical and mysterious in and behind the world of nature in all its variety and charm. Unlike Hopkins, however, they tended to fall, in varying degrees, into that notion of poetry which James McAuley calls “The Magian Heresy”, making it, as Hopkins never did, “a surrogate for religion”.(4)

Hopkins was an Oxford man of Anglican parents who found in the religious fervour and reborn traditionalism of men such as Pusey, Liddon, and Newman, a challenge and a resolution of the dilemmas of the age. Behind the Oxford Movement, too, was the Catholic revival and the interest in the middle ages, the latter including, especially at Cambridge, a coalescence of interests, going back through Scott’s novels, in the renaissance of Gothic architecture.(5) All around Hopkins were the many-sided influences and intense concerns of a period when earnestness, disillusionment but rediscovery of purpose, a hunger for the beautiful in an ugly age, a desire to rediscover the basis for a code of duty and honour, and, above all, a religious revival which brought all these things into a focus that would reveal “the dearest freshness deep down things”, brought to a head the deepest workings of the age. And if Yeats was, as he said, “in all things a Pre-Raphaelite”, Hopkins was (especially in his resemblance to Ruskin) at least greatly indebted to this group which, perhaps more than any other in art and poetry, exemplified the yearning for a revolution which would also be a restoration.

In one sense it is accurate to speak of Hopkins as a child of the Oxford Movement. It is right to emphasize the influence of Newman, to see his movement from Anglicanism (and the whole experience of life at Oxford with such fervent Anglicans as Pusey and Liddon) as analogous to that of Newman whom he looked to as a mentor (a father in Christ) and to whom he confided his desire for conversion and his vocation to the Catholic priesthood. His concern with the Marks of the Church (and not merely with an historical study of the possibility of Apostolic Succession for validation of the Anglo-Catholic position) and with the Sacraments, also closely parallel the motivations of Newman.(6) But we must not forget the resurgence of Catholicism that had begun well before Newman came on the scene, and which continued to exercise its influence throughout England in the religious devotion, the awakening of memories of a Catholic past and of the persecutions which followed the sixteenth-century upheavals, and the revival of interest in martyrdom and saintliness which these memories prompted. Classics of Catholic spirituality such as Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises were more widely read, and came to have an effect, together with the riches of their own devotional and religious literature, on those Anglicans who, like Liddon and Hopkins, were taught by the Tractarians to be more “catholic” in their religious interests. To sum up, Hopkins was a child, not merely of the Oxford movement, but of a welling-up of a whole movement in nineteenth century England which had a good deal to do with the vast literary, social and intellectual dilemmas of the times. Hence, we cannot think of the background to Hopkins’ conversion as simply an Oxford one, nor can we afford to ignore the ways in which such interacting influences as industrialism, the Romantic movement (with its obviously religious intensity) and the persistence of the Victorian sense of duty and honour in face of disillusionment and decay, played their part in shaping both the priest and the poet who was to be the most important religious verse author for decades. It is when we look closely at Hopkins’ choice of the Jesuits for his priestly vocation that these influences come into sharper focus.


None of this analysis is an attempt to “pluck out the heart” of Hopkins’ mystery; a religious conversion is mysterious and we see only the surface, and so is the choice of vocation. But it is, I think, rewarding to consider five main influences which seem to have been at work in Hopkin’s decision to join Loyola’s Order. For brevity and also fully in the spirit of old tales of chivalry and of the beloved “Liege-lord”. And Hopkins’ well-known sermon of 1879 on the theme of “Christ Our Hero” in which he tells the people “Christ is our hero, a hero all the world wants” and is at pains to help them see Christ as a man, of great beauty of body and mind and soul, before going on to emphasize his Godhead, is indebted to both books and to the whole heroic tradition, a reminder, perhaps as well, of the still potent message of Carlyle.

Kempis and Loyola are alike in other ways as well. For example, Kempis returns again and again to the theme that all else is vanity except love of God and love of neighbor for the love of God, and to the Christian life as a constant wrenching away from attachment to earthly things. This is the central transformation which Ignatius accented in his Spiritual Exercises. And this second common element leads on to the third. In becoming transformed in Christ, the Cross is essential; imitation of Christ as hero means suffering, and part of that suffering will be desolation of spirit even in those who enjoy God’s friendship. Thus, Ignatius, echoing The Imitation, devoted detailed attention to “Spiritual Consolation” and “Spiritual Desolation” advising on “the discernment of Spirits”(15) It seems true that, as Downes maintains, Kempis emphasizes desolation more than Ignatius does, the latter seeing consolation as the normal state, desolation a recurrent trial.(16)

The most obvious point in all this for the student of Hopkins’ poetry is the impress of the spirit of renunciation and imitation on his life and work; and the corresponding struggle which Hopkins engaged in is often not well-understood (though it is in my view a struggle more profound and violent than seems typical of the Jesuits) or even not recognized by some well-intentioned commentators. It is crucial to come to grips with this humble self-denial, which may be illustrated by Hopkins’ attitude toward fame.

The destruction of his own poems by a man of genius who loved writing and w ho was so keenly interested in the poetic vocation (even being partly attracted to the Jesuits initially by their growing literary reputation in England)(17) was an act of heroism, but Hopkins’ refusal to publish later on is even more impressive (and significant for the interpretation of the “terrible sonnets”). This refusal occurred on two occasions: when Dixon wanted to have some of Hopkins’ poems printed,(18) and when Dixon offered to mention Hopkins in a literary history.(19) On both occasions it is clear that Hopkins felt that fame of any kind would be harmful to his devotion, a sort of vanity, especially when the Will of God seemed to him to have been manifested in his experience with The Month, which failed to publish the two poems prompted by the request of his superior seven years after his entry into the Order. That The Month failed to print “The Wreck of the Deutschland” should not, perhaps, surprise us if we realize how different the epic was from anything anybody had ever written before, or was writing at that time. Still, such a rejection must have pained Hopkins, a creative artist who had disciplined his art to the service of God and to the perfection of self which this service required. Here is no case of a secular poet having masterly work rejected, but a priest-poet writing on request of his Superior a work charged with the spirit of renunciation, an epic clearly associating his own struggle, his own acceptance of “lightning and lashed rod”, bound with deaths of the German nuns whose end he celebrates as intimately bound up with the Passion of Christ. It may be that the very reason for rejecting the poem was its spiritual nature, a desire to guard the secret of an intense, inner life, but the incident seems crucial in Hopkins’ whole career. In any case, Hopkins himself expressed very clearly his general attitude toward fame in his letter to Bridges in 1886:


…I say it deliberately and before God, I would have you and Canon Dixon and all true poets remember that fame, the being known, though in itself one of the most dangerous things to man, is nevertheless the true and appointed air, element and setting of genius and its works. What are works of art for? to educate, to be standards. Education is meant for the many, standards are for public use. To produce them is of little use unless what we produce is known, if known widely known, the wider known the better, for it is by being known it works, it influences, it does its duty, it does good. We must try then to be known, aim at it, take means to it. And this without puffing in the process or pride in the success.(20)

The Arnoldian ring in the reference to “standards” reveals Hopkins the Victorian educator, concerned, like Arnold, and with a more “democratic” spirit than Newman, with the multitude and its experience of poetry and works of genius generally. That Hopkins was an educator in his desire to share whatever “sweetness and light” he could muster or glimpse is a measure of the complete self-giving he engaged in. He turned his back, not on poetry, not merely on fame as such, but on what seemed to him a public good: the diffusion of art, a communication of thought and feeling for which his whole literary and artistic background admirably prepared him. It is in this light that we must see the ascetic-aesthetic conflicts in Hopkins’ career.


Hopkins’ asceticism of the senses appears all the more meritorious and productive of spiritual intensity in the light of how richly sensuous his imaginative life was, as revealed in his diaries and letters, and throughout his poems. Indeed, Hopkins was entranced by nature and charm and grace in all creatures, almost obsessed by the individual loveliness of all things, and recreates a sensory experience in the reader, as typified by the eighth stanza of “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, in which he goes beyond Keats’s “beaded bubbles winking at the brim” or “To burst joy’s grape against his palate fine” (which sum up, as it were, sensuous experience through metaphors) to an actuality that is richer than ordinary sensuous delight or novelty of sensation. He takes us through each stage of the sensory action, but, much more importantly, he does not leave us there. Downes rightly describes the achievement as a “spiritualization of the senses”.(21) It must be borne in mind that there are two distinct but inseparable elements in this achievement. First, there is a rare sense of fresh experience, a non-jaded, unspoilt capacity for imagining sights, sounds, tastes and textures which springs, not merely from an inborn and cultivated appreciation of the particular colour, shape, feeling and magic of all things created, but from the self-denial that accompanied it. Second, the sensory experience is assimilated to the highest goals of the Christian life, with Christ the hero as both exemplar and bridegroom of the soul.

Is out with it! Oh,
We lash with the best or worst
Word last! How a lush-kept, plush-capped sloe
Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,
Gush!-flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,

rim, in a flash, full!-Hither then, last or first,
To hero of Calvary, Christ’s feet-

Never ask if meaning it, wanting it, warned of it-men go.(22)

An equally fine use of sense-impressions charged with significance for the soul is to be found in every part of the poem, as in lines such as “And the midriff strained with leaning of, laced with fire of stress” or “Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow”. The point here is not so much the superb imagery of Hopkins, as the disciplined utilization for the sake of the imitation of Christ of a sense-life and love of the beautiful which is rare among poets for its delicacy and freshness. Perhaps the best demonstration of the spiritual and poetic achievement suggested here is the poem which, because of its theme, necessarily deals with every kind of beauty, showing that Hopkins had the ripest appreciation of what he was denying himself for the sake of the higher good. I refer to “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo”, which must stand as the greatest single response to Romantic despair ever penned. This spiritualization of Hopkins’ intense thirst for beauty in nature and art is the second half of his life of renunciation, for not only did he face a greater challenge than ordinary men, having so much to subdue and chasten, but he went on to deny even the poetic faculty by which the struggle was expressed and the glimpses of immortal beauty revealed in words. There can be no doubt that Hopkins suffered in proportion to his gift, for he offered it to God and denied it for His Kingdom. His poetry needs to be read alongside Lionel Johnson’s “The Dark Angel” which dramatizes the truth that, without God, without the Ruskinian praise and the recognition of an Eternal Source of Truth, Beauty and Goodness (which Plato tried to separate from nature and poetry in a world of Forms), the “aesthetic” love of beauty can lead to misery and endless egoism, the trap of all immanentists and “art for art’s sake” poets: “And all the things of beauty burn/With flames of evil ecstasy.” The Paterian “Hard, gem-like flame” burns itself out, or takes on a sulphurous hue when sensation alone is sought, or the finite is mistaken for the Infinite. Thus did Hopkins reason and act, and thus does he see reality in his poem “To What Serves Mortal Beauty”, as in the line “To what serves mortal beauty-dangerous; does set dancing blood-” Hopkins’ poetry witnesses to the great Christian humanist tradition at the end of the Victorian age, but it is in itself a religious act, and needs to be understood as standing in the tradition of the Psalms of the Old Testament, the hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Newman’s “Lead Kindly Light” or “Dream of Gerontius.”

Even some Jesuit commentators have not realized the kind of integration which Hopkins’ submission made possible. Of the essays in the pre-eminent Hopkins volume of appreciation, Immortal Diamond, McNamee’s on “Hopkins, Poet of Nature and of the Supernatural” is the most helpful.(23) For the present, however, we may note the insufficiency of Carroll’s biographical essay, which, in dealing mainly with Hopkins’ Jesuit experience, nonetheless draws two important conclusions. These are that there was a negation of the importance of poetry in Hopkins’ life, and that corresponding to this negation was an affirmation of the supremacy of the supernatural. These conclusions are inescapable. But Carroll’s essay, although extremely valuable as a reply to those who neglected Hopkins’ own well-known views on the need for submission to Loyola’s way and renunciation of anything, especially literary fame, which distracted from his sense of duty and desire to progress in serving His Master, has a touch of the “apologia” for the Jesuit Order about it: “One migh expect that such a man would take prudent care of himself, would use every legitimate opportunity for necessary change and rest. Hopkins did not do this; he was forever applying the spur to his weary body and mind, and only utter exhaustion would make him succumb. “(24)

The reason for Hopkins’ acting in this way may be closely bound up with his poetic talent, the stifling of which may have rendered him over-anxious to work without rest. Moreover, Carroll makes no mention of his letter to Bridges on fame (quoted earlier in this essay) and so fails to give due weight to the possibility of a vocation in which priest and poet could have been more happily blended, though, of course, not without necessary self-denial and suffering, and with safeguards against fame and vanity, safeguards which are not so common as Hopkins seems to have thought ideal. The tone of Carroll’s essay is exemplified, too, by the passage which attributes, I think, too much to the Jesuits’ care of him: “It could not make Hopkins a poet in spite of himself, but in wisely guiding and tenderly caring for Hopkins, the Jesuit and the priest, the Society of Jesus more than can ever be known, formed Hopkins the poet.”(25) The truth in this statement cannot be denied. Hopkins’ submission to Loyola made him renounce the writing and publication of poetry; he wrote sparingly and usually either on request or under tremendous pressure, and we may well ask, would Hopkins have written such great poems had he not felt the stress of such self-denial? Would the “terrible sonnets” have been possible without denying poetry? But here is the crux. If we answer no to these questions, then we are thrown back upon the point that the poems “written in blood” had to be written; they show that the poet in Hopkins was really at one with the priest, for without a poetic genius to deny he could not have been such a priest. Integration is essential. In not giving enough attention to the extent of Hopkins’ renunciation, and to the opportunities missed by the Jesuit Order, Carroll seems to contradict himself. If Hopkins was imprudent, why did not the Society which tenderly cared for him not correct the imprudence? None of this is criticism of the principles and purpose of the Order, but the members were, and are, after all, men, like Hopkins, and equally capable of imprudence.

However, Carroll’s essay at least does not misconceive the nature of poetry as that of Chester Burns does. In his piece, “Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poet of Ascetic and Aesthetic Conflict”, Father Burns fails to understand the vocation of the poet and artist in singing the praises of God or exploring the beauty and truth and goodness he has experienced.(26) He refers to poetry patronizingly, using such phrases as “dainty worship of aesthetic sanctities”, “dreaming gently in the meadow of aesthetic indulgence” and “aesthetic wiles of inspiration”, confusing lower with higher forms of poetic vision and effort. He speaks of poetry as “unquestionably good before God”, saying “it…gives him honour as do the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.”(27) In referring to Hopkins’ conflicts, Burns writes: “Hence a Jesuit who turns up poet when his days of intellectual and ascetic formation are accomplished, has more than the gay forms of phosphorescent poetic experiences flowing in his wake. “(28)


It is not that Burns disparages poetry; he underestimates it. He says of it: “Poetry-no question of it-has its due place in life, rendering those who read it a unique enjoyment and the poet who writes it the thrilling gladness that comes with poetic creation. Such are its proper functions. But poetry is not life: it is one of life’s adjuncts.”(29) Now this kind of comment occurs throughout his essay, and space forbids quoting more. Clearly, Burns has a much more limited idea of poetry than Hopkins had, and sees it as “evanescent”, as something nice but peripheral. He misses entirely the point that poetry, at its highest levels, is a kind of prayer, and the living word which brings life: the Bible itself is inspired, sacred poetry. Here we see a variation of the “subjectivist” view of art. Burns has not fully appreciated the parabolic nature of creation and the symbolic and revelatory nature of poetry. Finally, Burns shows little sense of~wonder in his comparing the Redemptive mercy of God towards Hopkins to physical creation when he says of Jesuit certainty about the Will of God: “These are as fixed and certain as the ground under our feet and the vault of heaven over our heads.”(30) Doubtless, Father Burns had never read Chesterton’s “The Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy, if he finds the physical universe as prosaic and “fixed” as is suggested here, when, in fact, every moment of time the world is held in existence as if by a miracle, or a mystery stranger than the non-poetic vision can ever feel.(31)

To sum up, Carroll and Burns seem more anxious to defend the Jesuit Order than to appreciate Hopkins the priest-poet. Yet, paradoxically, the first task is better-achieved by attending to the second. Hopkins, it can be shown, went beyond The Spiritual Exercises in his renunciation, and his case is no ordinary one; he willingly gave up what he thought better to deny himself, but his renunciation was not inherent in the Jesuit vision and code. After all, there are unimaginative men among the Jesuits, as elsewhere. And the scourge that makes the saint may not always be wielded by wise men. Hopkins was not “too good” for the Jesuit ideal. No man could be. But he may, as a man of genius (and, as I think Robert Lowell declares correctly, a man of sanctity), be too good for the members of the Order around him.(32) The book Immortal Diamond is a healthy corrective of misinterpretations of Hopkins and the Jesuits, rightly emphasizing priorities which atheists, agnostics, secularists and ‘`aesthetes” and subjectivists so commonly miss. But it is still inadequate.


It is necessary to bring these themes into specific focus on a number of poems. In this task, there are three divisions I have found convenient: (a)poems which celebrate nature and God’s grandeur, and Christ as hero; (b)poems of “resolution”, that is, of resolving conflicts and yearnings; (c)poems of spiritual crisis and trial. Of course, all of these overlap, because all three thematic elements are present in Hopkins’ poetry as a whole. However, the discussion will be directed mainly toward the sonnets of the last category, the so-called, “terrible sonnets”.

One of Hopkins’ very latest poems, “That Nature is a Heraclitian Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection” expresses poignantly where his own priorities lay: in union with Christ and immortality, not as a poet, but in Heaven. The theme of Resurrection is omnipresent in all of Hopkins’ poetry, and what we read in this poem is confirmed by the resignation and hope evident in his letters and in his last words: “I am happy ! I am so happy.” It is important to appreciate in this late poem the persistence of two main concerns: 1) the intense love of nature, but realization of its constant changing and its relentless bringing of everything to disintegration and death, for both the physical universe and man himself are doomed to enter oblivion: “Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gonel/Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark/Drowned”; and 2) the underlying, but omnipresent truth of the Incarnation, of nature and man redeemed by Christ. In this poem, the sadness and dryness and sheer Faith which made Hopkins resigned to God and trusting in the dark, are painfully present. But the poem is close to “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” in its knowledge of the causes of despair in the face of mortality and its awareness of the “comfort of the Resurrection” in which Christ, having become man, can make men, poor as they seem to themselves, immortal, and bright as a diamond: “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and/This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond/Is immortal diamond.” An echo of the “Wreck of the Deutschland”, Hopkins’ first Jesuit poem, is seen in the “foundering deck” of this poem, showing the persistence of the shipwreck theme; but the two poems have more in common than this. Both acknowledge nothingness before Christ, in the spirit of The Spiritual Exercises, and both emphasize suffering, though, significantly, the later poem reflects a lifetime of effort, and “the dark night” rather than a purgative beginning. In “The Wreck of the Deutschland” the theme of chivalry and a glorious leader is uppermost at the end; but the freshness of a Resurrection parallels that in the other poem:

Let him Easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson -cresseted east,

More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls,

Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,

Our heart’s charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.

Christ is hero in both poems and his grandeur is celebrated. But the extent of Hopkins’ suffering is indicated by the contrast in the treatment of nature. Whereas in the 1888 poem, nature, though admired for its vitality and brightness, is seen mainly as bringing doom without Christ, in the “Wreck of The Deutschland”, as in “God’s Grandeur”, nature constantly reveals Christ to the poet, being, in fact, a form of consolation which he does not deny himself, though he has felt the stress and fire of being conformed to Christ. The poet who said “…yes/0 at lightning and lashed rod” and brings home to us the terror of purgation and the Eucharistic consolation is also able to write:

I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder

Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;

Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson West:
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,

His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

The theme of nature as a parable, of God’s mystery shadowed forth or “wafted” from every lovely sight is freshly present in this epic which provides the Christian vision of nature and suffering perhaps more adequately than any other poem.

“God’s Grandeur” is Hopkins’ theme-song, his incarnational view that, despite all the monotony and ugliness of industrialism, “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” It shares with “Pied Beauty” an unambiguous praise of nature as inspiring praise of God. It is this note that one misses in the later Hopkins, not because he did not still hold this view of nature, but because he could not bring himself to write about it, as the renunciation in his life advanced, and opportunities for poetry or praise declined.

“The Windhover” is, I think, best interpreted by Father Schoder.(33) This interpretation brings out the chivalry of the poem, with the poet addressing his heart in the “chevalier” of the eleventh line, relating it to the words of St. Ignatius about Christ as knight, king and captain. In this masterpiece, full of the Ignatian spirit, one can see a beautiful blend of the admiration of nature, in this case, a bird which stands, in Scotian fashion, for Christ Himself (or, if the Thomistic view is taken, by analogy of being, revealing some attributes of Christ), and an ardent desire to be as gay and free in service to the Lord as the bird is in its daring and graceful flight, as powerful in its “rebuffing the big wind” in knighthood for Christ. A fusion of a natural thing, of the poet’s self and of Christ as king in this ` sonnet brings together the best in the Jesuit code; and so we can see that Hopkins’ poems of what we may call his “middle period” are truly religious and integrated-not mere “aesthetic indulgence” – and a resolution of romantic dilemmas, showing the need for and the educative value of a Jesuit poetry. “Hurrahing in Harvest”, “The Starlight Night” and “Spring” all share in this integral vision of nature and Christ, never descending to pantheism, as Wordsworth’s poetry did, but harmonizing with the Gospel and with a Franciscan spirit.

It is plain that Hopkins, having destroyed his earlier poems, deprived himself of enjoyment of natural beauty (with all the meticulous observation which gave his appreciation of nature a scientific precision as well as an “inscape” dimension) for a period during his novitiate, and having foregone the writing of poetry for seven years, was more than prepared by renunciation to produce a truly religious poem when the Rector asked him to write on the tragedy of the Deutschland. Here was an opportunity to use his poetic gift for God’s greater glory among men, to offer the fruits of years of meditation and growth. Not that Hopkins himself had much confidence in his powers: he simply wanted to say what he had to say, and to hope that the words which he shaped in so original a way would be efficacious, educative. “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, already discussed as a poem expressing both love of God through nature and devotion to Redemptive suffering in Christ the hero, is also a poem of “resolution”. It explores the meaning of suffering in the world, seeing the shipwreck, permitted by God, as a salvific moment for the nuns who are like martyrs in their conformity to the will of God, and the “first of a five” group of nuns as instrumental in God’s plan to “Startle the poor sheep backl is the shipwreck then a harvest,/does tempest carry the grain for thee?” And Hopkins humbly finds in the spirit of these nuns and in the “feathery delicacy” of God’s finger in their destiny an inspiration for himself, “Away in the loveable West/On a pastoral forehead of Wales.” The poem is a meditation which applies the Ignatian method to a well-known event. It is charged with the pain and the comfort of Calvary, a reconciliation of nature and self with God’s will, deeply aware of Love in a superficially hostile universe. When this poem was rejected by The Month, Hopkins thought it better not to waste more time on a pursuit which, apparently, was not in accordance with God’s will. Had the Jesuits encouraged him, he would undoubtedly have written much more. He was not able to reconcile its poor reception with poetry as part of his vocation. Not that he grieved overmuch, for all he wanted was Christ. But it needs to be recalled that, at the time this religious epic was written, the Jesuits were publishing such pious pieces as the following:

Oh, that our souls were gardens

Of flowers most sweet and rare,

All watered with tears of penance,

And nourished with faithful prayer!

The Jesuits, apparently, did not have the discernment to see the significance of what was being offered them. One wonders whether they had a literary training or a Christian humanist education commensurate with the task of bearing witness to an England that had known the great Victorians and the Pre-Raphaelites, not to mention Hopkins’ own mentor, Cardinal Newman. But then the prophets are rarely at once appreciated when they are men of the front rank and of the kind of originality that makes old truths new.

Just as “The Wreck of the Deutschland” illuminates the meaning of suffering, “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” offers the highest consolation to those who mourn the passing of beauty. And it is, as mentioned earlier, a reply to the Romantics. Hopkins knew all their pain and anguish. He demonstrates this in both parts of the poem, and is able to explore rather than merely indicate or sum up figuratively, the care and weariness that a sensitive mortal might sometimes feel:

O then, weary then why should we tread?
O why are we so haggard at the heart, so care-coiled, care-killed,

sofagged, so fashed, so cogged, so cumbered,

When the thing we freely forfeit is kept with fonder a care.

This is all the melancholy and weariness that Keats knew, but with a resolution of Keats’s dilemmas, a discovery of immortality beyond this earth, but yet revealed through it. This poem looks forward to the deeper sense of spiritual dryness and struggle of the later sonnets.

The sonnet “Carrion Comfort” occupies a position between the poems of “resolution” and those of real crisis and spiritual trial. It rejects false or “carrion comfort” of despair which is a deep form of self-love and pride, akin to the despair of the decadents. The emphasis is not on positive joy and praise of God as in the earlier poems I have commented upon, but on the will clinging, by Faith and Hope, to God’s will. Thus, Hopkins sees the alternative to despair: “Can something hope, wish day come, not choose not to be”. What desperate holding on is indicated herel Then Hopkins sees God as a kind of threat, an apparent giant laying His foot upon him, bruising his bones, devouring him with His eyes, when the poet only wants, as in The Hound of Heaven, to flee from God. This is no explicit rejection or false idea of God that Hopkins is presenting. It is a dramatization of how his soul sometimes feels in the face of a terrific struggle to rid himself of the last vestige of that self which stands in place of God. He wrestles with God, a fact that he expresses as a discovery at the end of the poem: “That night, that year/Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.” At the center of the poem is the question which reveals the nature of this struggle. In anxiety and anguish, Hopkins asks which one he has found joy in, and cheered-himself or God. And God, or Chirst, is still the hero who appears to handle him roughly because the crisis of the emptying of self was approaching. The very nature of the question, in both form and content, reveals a deep humility, for Hopkins does not purport to have an answer, asking, “Is it each one?”. This sonnet cannot be regarded as one of despair, but as a remarkable record of an ascetical struggle to accept God’s will, a struggle undoubtedly bound up with the stifling of poetry. I think Downes is right in doubting its Ignatian spirit.

In “No worst, there is none” we have a more “terrible” poem. At the moment he finds no comfort in Christ and no relief from Mary. And the old anvil of the Deutschland poem is there, too, but this time, it is an age-old anvil on which a “world-sorrow winces and sings”. The chases of dryness and suffering, of descent into darkness, are indicated by one of the most powerful passages in Hopkins: “0 the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed.” The poem ends, not in explicit Christian comfort and joy, but in a desire for rest, for sleep, something approaching a death-wish, a mood honestly expressed by a man who might have been writing poems of spiritual illumination more frequently had he not-I will not say “sugared”, for suffering was his choice for Christ’s sake-been deprived of the opportunity for integration he needed, whether because of his own idea of renunciation or the lack of encouragement around him. However, there is a real dilemma here, and, as mentioned earlier, we do not know whether more good or harm was done in his plight; we would not even know what we do if he had not written a poem such as “No worst…”, akin as it is to “dark night of the soul” poems.

Something of Hopkins’ tenderness and deep sense of love for Christ as a person, hero and friend is seen in “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.” How profoundly he utters his sense of deprivation, in the lines: “…And my lament/Is cries desolate, cries like dead letters sent/To dearest Him that lives, alas, away.” This poem is completely consonant with the spirit and tone of The Imitation of Christ, for the Christ who withdraws his consolation and sense of nearness, is the “dearest friend”, the comforter to whom Kempis constantly refers the soul. If the poet did not feel Christ’s absence, where would the desolation be in his spiritual growth? Love and abandonment (or a sense of abandonment) go together in Christian experience; for loss of one implies the other. As in the sonnet “Carrion Comfort” Hopkins feels the self as an obstacle to God’s grace, but, in this case, the experience is taken a stage further. The “self-yeast of spirit” is like a curse, a rising of pride, of self, and a Hell upon earth as it were, for, instead of tasting God, he tastes himself without God. But in the last line, the lost are “worse”. Now although the poem manifests spiritual trial, God is still loved, though the torment seems excessive, and the tone of the allusion to Hell seems hardly healthy in a poet who, years before, had felt the “hurtle of Hell before” in the purgative way of his spiritual life. This sonnet may be, in fact, a “dark night of the soul” poem, but we know from Hopkins’ letters that a blend of influences worked upon him, including ill-health, a recurrent weakness, and a depression in his duties in Ireland where he seems never to have been really happy. Again, one cannot help wondering whether a freer attitude to poetry would have made his poetry more hopeful, not superficially so, but at least not of this depressed kind. Whatever the case, all of Hopkins’ reasons for being depressed or weak or frustrated worked in him as part of his cross, a cross which he accepted, and so subsumed into his ultimate resignation to God’s will. That is the kind of subordination which he strove for, and which the Jesuits who have written on Hopkins, emphasize.


This matter can now be put before the reader as a problem: Was it necessary that his cross take the form it did, and how much did repression of a religious poetry contribute to unnecessary lack of fulfillment? And this problem brings us to the poem which, in my view, is the most “terrible” of all, unless we see it differently fromm the way it has so far been seen by most, if not all critics-that strange poem, “Thou art indeed, just, Lord, if I contend with thee.”*

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just. Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must Disappointment all I endeavour end?

Wert thou my enemy, 0 thou my friend,

How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend, Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes Now, leaved how thickl laced they are again With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes Them; birds build-but not I build; no, but strain, Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes. Mine, 0 thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

Two Catholic writers, Robert Lowell and Marshall McLuhan, have expressed, each in his own way, the view that in Hopkins we have a poet whose work was co-extensive with his life. Lowell emphasizes his high sanctity: “What I want to emphasize is that, for Hopkins, life was a continuous progress towards perfection. He believed this, he lived this, this is what he wrote.”(35) This puts briefly what I have been at pains to stress; and what I think has been observed even by Jesuits who think in terms of a necessary conflict between devotion to poetry and devotion to religious life. On the other hand, I agree with McLuhan that Hopkins is not a “mystic” poet in any strict Catholic sense of the word. McLuhan says what a Catholic reader feels: “Nowhere in his work does he draw on an experience which is beyond the range of any thoughtful and sensitive Catholic who meditates on his Faith.”(36) There is, of course, no conflict between the two statements. Lowell thinks Hopkins was a saint. McLuhan thinks his poetry expresses extremely well, with “analogical” vision, the doctrines of the Catholic Faith. But here a distinction must be made. The “experience” of Hopkins’ poems may not be beyond the range of any thoughtful and sensitive Catholic, but the relationship between Hopkins’ poems and his actual struggles towards perfection is primary. Surely the ordinary Catholic, however he might have Hopkins’ thoughts and however able to respond to his poems, has not had Hopkins’ experience of heroic renunciation. The strength of Hopkins’ poems as religious work is the way in which, as in Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven, they speak for the many, not because the many do make his kind of sacrifice, but because they would like to; they know the ideal he achieves. This brings us back again to the earlier comments on integration and to a theme which, I hope, is clear throughout this essay. Hopkins should have felt freer to write religious poetry.

All of this throws light on the real dilemma in “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I Contend With Thee”. The dilemma is highlighted in Sulloway’s study.(37) In her fine analysis of Hopkins and the Victorian “gentleman” code, Sulloway draws a false conclusion from some quite perceptive reading. She sees that this sonnet is the fruit, not only of Hopkins’ anguish, but also of the attitudes and language of the Victorian public school milieu. Hopkins addresses God as a schoolboy might address Dr. Arnold.(38) She rightly faces up to the apparent anger (which she calls a “Muffled sense of outrage”) in the sonnet, an element which Gardner and even Downes, glide over in their comments. The sonnet does use Arnoldian schoolboy language, and it does differ radically from the other poems in its “sense of betrayal”. But we must examine carefully all the assumptions and implications of this truth. First, there is a section in this sonnet which, if taken literally, makes the poem an exception in Hopkins’ work. It is exceptionally unorthodox, unusually contrary to the Ignatian spirit, and alien to the Gospel. Sulloway sees it as a complaint based on a “very ancient question”. The question is “Why do the petty men so often succeed and enjoy apparent favor; and why do they appear to be crowned with success at the moment of their most flagrant disobedience to Divine command?”(39) The lines in question are: “…Oh, the sots and thralls of lust/Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,/Sir, life upon thy cause.” If taken at their face value, these lines show Hopkins looking down upon sinners and complaining that he, so deserving, is badly treated. There can be no doubt that such a sentiment, though perfectly understandable, and one from which few of us can be free under stress such as Hopkins experienced, is opposed to the Ignatian spirit; it is directly contrary to the counsels of the Imitation of Christ which advise the reader to think himself inferior to others. Plainly, it resembles closely the diction of the pharisee, not of the publican, in the famous parable. But, strictly speaking, it is not pharisaical, but only self-righteous, according to the fine exposition of the distinctions made in Von Hildebrand’s seminal work, Morality and Situation Ethics.(40) Nevertheless, there is a real problem. Does this sonnet mean, not merely as Sulloway claims, that Hopkins utters a sense of outrage against God, but that he moved so far from the Ignatian and Gospel spirit as to sit down and deliberately write a poem expressing what he might be tempted to feel, but what he would know should not be written? Self-righteousness is a common weakness, but did Hopkins really fall away this far? Now there is evidence that Hopkins had some elements of the “prig” in his nature: he shared something of Newman’s temperament, he accused himself of pride, he compared himself with Lang as uncomplaining,(41) and he was, indeed, an Arnoldian-type schoolboy who, in fact, had much trouble with a school master, partly over his priggish statement that the sailors who went without water for a few weeks did not exhibit any extraordinary endurance.(42) But this kind of evidence only strengthens a different interpretation of the poem.

Hopkins may have been somewhat priggish, but surely as well a gracious, generous, brave and selfless man. The first objection to a more radical version of Sulloway’s interpretation, that Hopkins is too self-righteous here, and, therefore, less Christian, indeed anti-Ignatian, in his words about the Lord and about sinners (“sots and thralls of lust”) is that his whole life reveals struggle against such faults. As well, the evidence from his life at this time shows a deep

spirituality, a genuinely heroic resignation to God’s will, in the face of great suffering, known only perhaps to a poet and a saint. He seems far too good for such a lapse. Sulloway does not follow all the implications of her argument: that Hopkins had failed, had fallen away from his resignation in the other sonnets. If she misses these, and if Hopkins wrote self-righteously, what is the solution? How can we defend Hopkins and vindicate his vision?

Our attempt is not strengthened by remembering that he sometimes, as Gardner points out, wrote harshly of the vices of working men.(43) He was disillusioned in Dublin slums and had, indeed, typical Victorian attitudes, or remnants of them, as Sulloway shows.(44) But the next point that can be made in defense of Hopkins is this: how could the poet who was subtle enough to write “Carrion Comfort” in which he searches his motives and deepest well-springs of affection to ask whether he cheers himself or God, not be aware of the blatant betrayal implied by a literal reading of the sonnet we are discussing? And it must be borne in mind that Hopkins was a student of poetic diction who chose words precisely, very sensitive to their tone and connotations. Therefore, we can conclude that Hopkins deliberately used the Arnoldian diction to fit his intention of “exploring” (but not approving) a certain kind of attitude or tendency he found in himself. In other words, this sonnet is a very subtle one in which he engages in an ironic look at himself. He speaks out of his ego, as it were, but he does not, therefore, accept his ego’s temptation to be self-righteous. As someone has said, he was being very honest in this sonnet, searching frankly the imperfections he found in his nature. The ending of the sonnet is written from an agony of frustration. It is “written in blood” because it was the pain of being “time’s eunuch”, a poet who laid too great a burden on himself, who was good enough to do what seemed impossible to do, crush the poet in him, for the Kingdom of Christ’s sake. But, paradoxically, he did not succeed entirely in this task, as these poems testify. The sonnet is a masterpiece which goes to the heart of a Victorian gentleman’s dilemma and that of a Jesuit Victorian who, despite his heritage, rich but partly circumscribed by the “gentleman” code (admirable as it was in so many ways), did give his all to duty. The irony, the images of nature, and the prayer (at the end) of this poem are triumphs of the poetic art and of a lifetime spent in chivalrous devotion to Christ and fervent effort toward humility. It underlines all of Hopkins’ work.

It has been said of the Pre-Raphaelites that, in their work, poetry moves towards religion. Christina Rossetti was a sincere and gifted lyricist of religious Faith, D.G. Rossetti tried to make an ideal love between a man and a woman take on a religious intensity (as in “The Blessed Damozel”) and Morris made a religion out of social revolution for the sake of beauty on the natural level. Hopkins, influenced by them all, and unimpressed by Swinburne’s desire to return to a mythical pagan past of sensuous delight before oblivion, went on to become a poet of great and integrated religious vision, reconciling admiration of nature with the supernatural through praise, subordinating the hubris always present in romantic heroism through the path of Christian suffering and loving submission to the humble way of the cross. This is why Hopkins is the greatest religious poet of the Victorian age, and a teacher of the present one. His artistic gifts, his high originality (with its striking beauty and freshness of language) and his integrated vision are part of the legacy of the Victorian age, an age to which we find ourselves returning again and again for exemplars of “high seriousness” and great literature.



1 G.K. Chesterton, Introduction to The Hound of Heaven and Other Poems, (Boston: International Pocket Library, 1936).

2 This phrase is from J.H. Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, (London: J.M. Dent, 1949), p. 49.

3 Maurice B. McNamee, “Hopkins, Poet of Nature and the Supernatural” Immortal Diamond, ed., N. Weyand and R.V. Schoder, (London: Sheed and Ward, 1949), pp. 221-251.

4 See David Downes, Gerard Manley Hopklns, (London: Vision, MCMLX)

5 Newman, for example, emphasizes the influence of Scott on his own development in Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

6 See, John Pick, A Hopkins Reader, (New York: Image Books, 1966), pp. 351-357.

7 Francis Parkman, The Jesuits in North America, (London: Macmillan, 1892), p. 207.

8 A.G. Dickens, The Counter Reformation, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1968), pp. 19-27
9 See, Alfred Thomas, Hopkins the Jesuit, (London: O.U.P., 1969), p. 13.

10 Alison G. Sulloway, Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Victorian Temper, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), p. 60.

11 See Pick, op. cit., pp. 347-348, and Martin C. Carroll, “Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Society of Jesus”, N. Weyand and R.V. Schoder, Immortal Diamond, p. 14.

12 Downes, op. cit., p. 101.

13 Ibid., p. 102.

14 Thomas Carlyle, Heroes and Hero Worship

15 St. Ignatius Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, ed., and trans. Louis J. Puhl, (Westminster: Newman Press, 1951), pp. 142-3. The key passages deal with “Spiritual Isolation and Spiritual Consolation”.

16 Downes, op. cit., p. 135.

17 Thomas, op. cit., p. 18.

18 Weyand and Schoder, Immortal Diamond, pp. 41-42.

19 Ibid., p. 42.

20 Pick, op. cit., pp. 334-5.

21 Downes, op. cit., p. 32.

22 All quotations from the poems are from Pick, op. cit.

23 Immortal Diamond, pp. 222-251.

24 Ibid., p. 45.

25 Ibid., p. 49.

26 Chester A. Burns, “Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poet of Ascetic and Aesthetic Conflict” pp. 175-191, in Immortal Diamond, op. Cit.

27 Ibid., p. 179.

28 Ibid., p. 181.

29 Ibid., p. 184.

30 Ibid., p. 190.

31 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (London: The Bodley Head, 1949), pp. 74-81.

32 See Robert Lowell, “Hopkins’ Sanctity”, The Kenyon Critics, (Norfolk: New Direction Books, 1945), pp. 89-93.

33 Schoder, op. cit.

34 Downes, op. cit., p. 138-140. Downes sees the “terrible sonnets” generally as Ignatian but leaning more to the more austere code of Kempis.

35 Lowell, op. cit., p. 91.

36 Marshall McLuhan, “The Analogical Mirrors”, The Kenyon Critics, p. 18.

37 Sulloway, op. cit., pp. 151-4.

38 Ibid., p. 153.

39 Ibid., p. 152.

40 Dietrich Von Hildebrand, Morality and Situation Ethics, (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1966), pp. 13-49.

41 Quoted in Immortal Diamond, p. 47.

42 Immortal Diamond, p. 6.

43 See Gardner, op. cit., p. 159. And Hopkins, after all, wrote compassionately, indeed, radically of social injustice, and poems like “Felix Randal”.

44 Sulloway, op. cit., passim.