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Who was Gerard Manley Hopkins?


“The world is charged with the grandeur of God./ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;/ It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil/ Crushed.”  –“God’s Grandeur”

The 19th century Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins found himself in a world charged with the grandeur of God; in response, he offered what he could – a charge of meter and verse to the glory of His name.

Hopkins was born in 1844 in Stratford, Essex. He was the oldest of nine children in an Anglican family marked by a love of theology, poetry, and art.  Hopkins later converted to Roman Catholicism and at just thirty-three, was ordained into the Jesuit priesthood.  He spent the rest of his life serving in his parish duties and teaching Latin and Greek in various universities. yet his first and life-long love was always poetry.

 “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king/dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding/Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding.” – “The Windhover”

In his verse, Hopkins breathed life back into the antiquated Anglo-Saxon tradition of sprung rhythm.  Sprung rhythm forms a bridge between strict meter and free verse, offering a fierce paradox of constraint and freedom.

Into his sprung rhythm, Hopkins inscribed meaning and metaphor, alliteration and assonance, sonnetic structure and onomatopoeia, internal and external rhyme.

The result was verse as fluid and finely-faceted as a symphony.

His poetry was the written manifestation of his worship, as he offered a charge of words that reflected the grandeur-charged glory of his world.

“Christ plays in ten thousand places,/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” – “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Manuscript at Bodleian Oxford

Yet Gerard Manley Hopkins’s worship, as holy and honest as it was, did not come easily; to ignore this would be to ignore the true depth of his faith.  Hopkins struggled with weariness and depression for most of his days, then sank into a deep darkness for the last five years of his life – a darkness out of which he never fully rose in this world.  He fought chronic fatigue, found himself estranged from his family, and felt himself failing in his church duties; as much as he loved poetry, he saw not one of his own works published in his lifetime.

He was the Psalmist, whose feet were almost stumbling, whose steps were slipping.  He was Jacob, who wrestled with his Lord on the banks of the Jabbok.

Still, he wrote poetry.

“Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise/You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile/Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size/At God knows when to God knows what…” – “My Own Heart Let Me More Have Pity On”

In the last five years of his life, Hopkins wrote what critics call the “terrible sonnets.”  Yet Hopkins never saw them as terrible; he referred to them as his “thin gleanings of a long, weary while.”  These poems are dark yet not despairing.  The words are confused and conflicted yet always find their way back to Christ.

Like David, Hopkins wrote songs of worship from the valley of the shadow.  Like Jacob, he wrestled with God yet would not let him go.

“Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee; not untwist – slack they may be – these last strands of man/In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;/Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.” – “Carrion Comfort”

Hopkins died of typhoid fever on June 8, 1889, at the age of forty-four.  Thus ended his long, weary while – but certainly not his poetic work, nor the eternal life that carried it.  Although he died in the midst of his depression, his last words on his deathbed were, “I am so happy.  I am so happy.  I loved my life.”  For all his world-weariness, Hopkins lived a life charged with the grandeur of God, leaving behind a legacy of words that draw us – these many years later – still nearer unto worship.